Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.03: World of Hats

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

Margaret Dunlap joins us during season 14 to talk about worldbuilding. In this, her first episode with us, we talk about worlds in which a monolithic culture (like, say, ‘everyone wears hats’) is represented. We cover how to use the trope to your advantage, and how to avoid the trope if it’s going to cause problems.

Homework: Write some monoculture-defying fanfic, in which you add outliers to your favorite world of hats. Like, say, a Klingon belly-dancer, or the microclimate on Hoth where you can grow peaches.

Thing of the week: An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: World of Hats? See Planet of Hats in TVtropes ( Monolithic cultures! Why are these problematic? Because that’s not the way things work. People just aren’t that simple. It’s not realistic, and readers will wonder. World of Hats can be useful as a low level background. Basically, it’s easy to stereotype, and then slip into problematic characterization. Consider whether you are telling a story set in a monoculture, or are you telling a story of change (aka handsome bald men who don’t need hats). World of Hats provides quick worldbuilding and a shorthand, partly because TV and short stories need quick, efficient setting. To get to the morality play. Consider your morality play — if you are using the hats to identify evil people, whoops. It’s not the trope, it’s the way you use it. Try to include some dissent, some hint that there are other views, some bald men without hats in your world of hats. Sometimes a World of Hats (aka the Borg) can be an effective horror. Ask yourself, what do the other people do? Put a contrasting character into your story. Hang a lantern on “This is a stereotype.” 

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode Three.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, World of Hats.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] I don’t have any hats.

[Brandon] You do have a hat. Well, it’s a headband. That’s a hat.

[Howard] [garbled] hats on me. I’m wearing a headband that keeps my microphone in place. [Garbled]

[Mary Robinette] This is the world of headbands right now.

[Brandon] Well, we’ve got a few introductions to do first. So, we are on season 14. When we worked on the outline for season 14, I wanted to do kind of several upfront very crunchy episodes about worldbuilding, about… Week one, some topic that will improve your worldbuilding skills, week two taking some specific worldbuilding element, and then for week three I wanted to go little bit in a different direction and talk maybe about a trope of worldbuilding or a subgenre of worldbuilding or something that we haven’t talked about a lot on the podcast but which kind of exemplifies a worldbuilding element. So these are kind of going to be a little bit wildcard-y, but they will tie into the topic of the month. This week, we’re doing World of Hats. We’ll explain what that is in a minute, but I’d like first to have an introduction from Margaret.

[Margaret] Hi. It’s so nice to be here. My name is Margaret Dunlap. According to my twitter bio, so it must be true…


[Margaret] I am a writer for the smaller screens. This means I write for television. I’ve worked on projects like The Middleman or the new Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance series that’s coming to Netflix in 2019 at some point. Very mysterious. I’ve also worked on web series such as the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern update of Pride and Prejudice on YouTube. I also write fiction, most notably the Bookburners serial with Serial Box Publishing.

[Brandon] We are super excited to have you on.


[Howard] By way of my own excitement, Margaret represents one of my greatest regrets of the Baltic Writing Excuses cruise, because I think we met on the next to the last day.

[Margaret] Something like that.

[Howard] Sat down and started having breakfast, and I realize I want to sit down and talk to Margaret long enough that she just starts talking and I will listen forever.


[Mary Robinette] This is why I invited Margaret to be my roommate the next time I went on a cruise, because…

[Howard] Yup.

[Mary Robinette] I was like, “We just need to bring Margaret on Writing Excuses, because…”

[Howard] Fair listener, you now have our reasons.


[Mary Robinette] Also, not mentioned. She teaches screenwriting.

[Margaret] Yes, that is true.

[Brandon] You are our first like full-time guest screenwriter. So we are really, really excited about that.

[Margaret] I will do my best not to let down the side.


[Brandon] So let’s talk about World of Hats. World of Hats is a name of a trope taken from TVtropes, and probably before. Where a story will represent an entire culture by a couple of distinguishing features. This comes from an episode of Star Trek, where they landed on a planet and everyone there was 1920s gangsters and they all wore hats. So that’s kind of… It’s a simplification of the trope. You can look it up yourself, but… We’re really, on this podcast, we want to dig into this idea. Monolithic cultures in sci-fi/fantasy. My question is going to be, normally, when we have these discussions, this is seen as a pretty bad thing. Let’s talk about why, and why this trope could be damaging to your stories, starting off.

[Mary Robinette] So, the first thing is that it’s not the way things work. There’s always an outlier. People have different ideas of things. Even if you go into a single culture area. Like, if, for instance, you go into a church. Not everybody in that church in that congregation is going to approach worship in the same way. Even though they all have the same basic tenets, they all have the same basic belief structure, their approach and their individual life experience up to that point is going to lead them to different things. Anything that you talk about… Like, if you go into a science fiction convention, theoretically, it’s a monoculture. But, oh, my goodness, there are so many subcultures within science fiction.


[Mary Robinette] So that’s one problem is that it just…

[Brandon] So, just a simple realism problem, there. That if you’re striving to tell your stories in a way that are going to resonate in a realistic way, having everybody… I mean, some of my favorite fantasy books as a young man growing up were like this, but I still noticed it. Even as a 15-year-old reading, I’m like, “Wow, how come every person we meet from this culture is sneaky and thieving and…” That’s a nice shorthand, but… Do they have any banks?

[Howard] It’s everything… It’s the biggest thing that I didn’t like about the core mythos of Dungeons and Dragons, where all orcs are neutral evil or chaotic evil or something. But… They’re sapient. They can think.

[Brandon] Right. So is there [inaudible]

[Howard] Some orcs actually think other things? Now, the flipside… Go ahead.

[Margaret] Well, okay, somebody’s got to be doing the day-to-day of like orcness. Of, like, yeah, you’ve got a culture and you got a guy who’s like, “All right. Thorg, you’re going to go and take care of bookkeeping.” Like, there’s an orcish Post Office someplace.

[Brandon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Now I want the orc accountant.

[Brandon] The web cartoonist who does Sheldon has a whole series on a Klingon party thrower…

[Event planner?]

[Brandon] Event planner and a Klingon [garbled barber?]

[Howard] The cartoonist’s name is Dave Kellett. A friend of mine. Brilliant nerd. His takedown of nerdery is awesome. When we talk about World of Hats, and monoculture, it’s worth noting that it is actually useful if you pull it low enough that it becomes background noise. For instance, Earth is planet of the bipeds. All of the intelligent creatures walk on two legs. Okay, there are some outliers, obviously, where the two legged creatures can’t walk on two legs. And we are arguing… We can argue about how intelligent other creatures are. But we have this underlying subtext that human beings just wouldn’t notice, because we’re the… It’s just everybody. It’s just… That’s what we are.

[Mary Robinette] It is true that within… That there are certain things that we assume are universal. Nodding. That’s something that pretty much everyone does in North America to signify yes. But if you go to India, it’s a different motion. But what’s significant about that is that in fact that is a mannerism that everyone in India does and it is a mannerism that everyone in the United States does. So there are things that you can do that are culturally significant. There was a point in the United States where yes, in fact, everyone did wear hats. That was culturally appropriate to do. But having an entire planet like that, that’s where things get kind of like… And also people’s relationship to their hat.

[Brandon] Right. Well, it also kind of leads you… One of the big problems with World of Hats is the smaller the group you do this to, the more likely you are to stereotype in your storytelling. Then start to kind of bleed this over into when… It’s funny to say, “Oh. This is the planet where everyone wears a hat.” Then you get into this is a country where no one is trustworthy. Then you go into this is an ethnicity where everyone is stupid. Suddenly you’ve gotten, really quickly, into really dangerous problematic areas, very quickly. So that’s one of the reasons why this bothers me, is because it only takes a couple steps to extrapolate to something that is… That is just scary.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. This is not a World of Hats. Which is one of the reasons why I picked it. It’s a world of masks.


[Brandon] That’s just a joke. It has this really cool worldbuilding element to it where there’s a pseudo-Roman Empire-esh-esque sort of thing where people trained to become these ultimate soldiers. They put on these masks that will mold to their face and show their features and slowly clamp on and be this permanent mask. Which, of course, is also a metaphor for being kind of adopted into their mentality and things like this. It tells the story of two characters. One, whose family is destroyed and murdered by this empire and by one of these masks. Another person who is studying to become a mask, and who is sto… No longer buying in, and the mask is not attaching. So all of their friends are like, “Why is your mask not attaching? What’s up with you?” Meanwhile, the protagonist, she is going through the dungeons to find the resistance, but it’s not exactly what she thinks, either. So it’s… There’s lots of really interesting worldbuilding about two people who don’t quite fit their own cultures, done in a way that doesn’t feel generic. Rebel without a cause. I really enjoyed the book. It’s fast-paced, it has excellent worldbuilding, it has a really nice voice. I would recommend it to you all. So that was An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir.

[Howard] You… When you talked about the rebelling against the mask, the rebelling against anything. One of the… I think one of the reasons we lean towards a monoculture or a monoclimate… You look at Arrakis, Frank Herbert’s Dune… Is because… Because one of the questions we’re asking is what if there is a desert and you just can’t get away from it? There is no way to live anywhere else. What if there are hats and you have to wear one? And rebellion isn’t an option. Well, then your story’s about something else. Now, if it’s what if there are hats and someone takes their hat off? Then you’re not really telling a World of Hats story, you’re telling a story about the change from the hat Empire to the Empire of the handsome bald men…


[Howard] Who don’t need hats anymore.

[Choked laughter]

[Brandon] Well, then, let’s ask that question. How do you… How… The reason… One of the big reasons World of Hats is used so much is as a quick shorthand, particularly in television where we get this trope’s name from. You can see everybody’s different. They’re all wearing a hat. Suddenly, we have done quick worldbuilding. Is there a way to get that quick worldbuilding with that shorthand without running into these dangers?

[Margaret] I mean, not to be an apologist for television, because I try to avoid, but I think part of the reason why you see this on the planet of gangsters on Star Trek and… Also, this is TV being made a while ago at this point… Is that you have to be very efficient in your storytelling. If the Enterprise had been spending an entire season on the gangster planet, it probably would have become more complex. But as it is, you’re probably getting maybe 20 minutes of show time with this culture that you’re interacting with that really exists to be the metaphor. You have to do that as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’m sure Howard knows about some of this from the comics world.

[Howard] It’s a huge simplification… Huge simplification required in order to have a quick morality play. To have a quick story with a moral. We need some set pieces, and everybody’s going to have hats. That’s just one of the set pieces. And away we go.

[Margaret] I think maybe a way to steer out of danger in that is to look at what the morality play is that you’re doing. If your morality play is like, well, people who aren’t like you are un-trustworthy and evil, like, that’s where the trope becomes problematic. But frequently with tropes, it’s not the trope, it’s what you do with it.

[Mary Robinette] I think one of the things that you said when you were talking about that was that it’s episodic television, and that they’re there for one episode. For writers who are writing prose, that’s the difference between short story and novel. You’re in much more danger of running into this in a short story context then you are in a novel, because you can’t have multiple representatives of a particular culture or species. So then what you have to be very careful about is your character’s opinion standing in for a global truth about something.

[Brandon] I think that is a danger. Like one of the easiest ways to kind of use this but not… How shall we say? Not inhale it? Not go too far, is to make sure there is some dissenting opinion expressed somewhere. Or, it doesn’t even have to be dissenting. Like, one of the things about An Ember in the Ashes that it did really well is it starts off with the scene of how terrible masks are from the viewpoint of the protagonist as she watches them do this terrible thing. The very next viewpoint… [You’re presented] as masks are all these super soldiers scary… Your very next viewpoint is a mask who doesn’t really want to be a mask and is planning to run away. So immediately that contrast, and that only took two chapters, to both solidify in my mind. This is how they all are! No, it’s not. It got the evil empire thing across, but it fills the evil Empire immediately with people who are scared of their own empire. Rather than mindless drones in the Empire.

[Margaret] What came to mind as you were saying that is actually one way that a World of Hats can be really effective. An example of that is the Borg are a World of Hats. That’s what makes them terrifying.

[Brandon] Yeah!

[Margaret] Because they’re all the same and they are implacable and they’re just there. I think it’s telling that when you get to Voyager and you introduce Seven of Nine, that’s where you have to start making the Borg more complicated.

[Howard] It’s important to recognize that the Borg were not frightening to us because they were cyborgs. They were not frightening to us because of the Hats. They were frightening to us because World of.

[Margaret] There are so many of them.

[Howard] There is nothing but this change.

[Margaret] And they are trying to make us a galaxy of hats.

[Howard] One of the things that I find useful as a writer is when I’m going down the World of Hats trope, I will ask myself… Oh, let’s just say it’s City of Hats. I can believe in City of Hats. What do the other cities look like? Oh, let’s say it’s Gender of Hats. Well, what do the other genders look like? It’s Religion of Hats. What do the other religions look like? So that I’m immediately asking the question that makes the society more robust. Even if I’m just doing a binary hat on, hat off, thing.

[Brandon] My rule is if I’m going to have a character, and I write big fantasies, so I can get away with this. But if I’m going to have a character that I worry is going to represent an entire culture, I need to work in another character somewhere who is different from that character to clue the reader in that maybe this culture, a lot of people are like this person, but you’re going to find other people in the culture. It just makes a world more real to me when I do that.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things… A trick that I did in a short story was I had a character, and they were like, “Yeah, I know I’m basically a walking stereotype.” But they said that out loud about their World of Hats thing. So that allowed me to then have other characters recognize that, “Oh, yeah. Because of this stereotype, that means that’s not a real true thing.” I didn’t have to have multiple representations… Multiple…

[Brandon] You hung a lantern on it and worked with it.

[Brandon] We are out of time. This was a great discussion. Mary, you’ve got our homework.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So what I want you to do is I actually want you to write some fanfic. I want you to pick a popular piece of media that you enjoy, and I want you to write fanfic. Something like, write about the Klingon who’s a belly dancer. Write about the outlier. Write about the microclimate on Hoth where you can grow peaches. Pick something so that… Break the World of Hats and let us see another aspect.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.