Whenever we create a world, we want something about that world to say to the reader or participant: This isn’t your dad’s wiki entry.
We want to be responsible for something so itself that it has no choice but to be welcomed into the cultural collective consciousness via a single word: The Matrix. Middle-earth. Narnia. Hogwarts.
To explain why most of how we go about doing this is problematic, I’m going to talk for a moment about TVTropes.
For the most part, I try not to read TVTropes. Not because I dislike it, but because the way it’s set up is so close to my own way of thinking at times that I run the risk of getting stuck in it and never coming back up for air. I’m the kind of guy that organizes his record collection by artistic influence rather than alphabetically, something that either garners me diagonally-mounted stares or a slow nod of recognition.
That said, I give TVTropes credit for putting names to things that have long needed it. Case in point: Our Tropes Are Different, an umbrella trope that brings back to mind all the times I have heard a game designer, comic creator or other honcho of his universe-in-progress insist he has not, in fact, just recapitulated something from the Old and Busted heap of shopworn ideas. It’s yet another of the ways people do their damndest to “be different” at all costs, even when one of the costs involved is making yourself look faintly foolish.
I admit, the underlying theory behind such attempts at differentiation isn’t a bad one. If you make your elves not-elves, but instead “hybrid parallel-evolved humans”, people will jump up and down and give you tons of credit for having come up with a whole new way to look at a tired old thing. In practice, though, this almost never happens. The number of people who do think like that tend to be—you guessed it—other creators. Unless you’re creating something highly specialized, like a game supplement, most of your audience will not consist of such people. Or maybe better to say, they won’t consist of creators of that sort of thing.
Go back up to the top of the article and read that list of settings again. The most striking things about those settings are not the settings themselves, but the way they are populated with people who make that setting alive and credible. The Matrix is not much of anything without Neo (and Morpheus, and Trinity, and the Oracle, and Agent Smith). Ditto Middle-earth: no Frodo and Bilbo, no Gandalf and Smaug, no setting. Ditto Narnia and all those annoying kids (okay, there I tipped my hand). Ditto Hogwarts and Harry and all the rest of his gang, and the mere fact that I’m leaving it at “Harry” is itself a sign of how the population of that environment is really what makes it tick.
Every world you create is an environment, a hothouse in which will flourish characters and situations of one kind or another. You do not set the stage unless you want people to walk out onto it and begin the play. The only sort of person who goes to a play to primarily admire the costume design or set construction is a costume or set designer. The rest of us are there for the action, meaning the characters. That doesn’t mean the world they live in is mere backdrop; I took some time earlier to take that one apart. It means what sets your world apart will be most clearly communicated to the audience through the people you populate it with.
It’s not about elves that have a cleverer origin story than the last fantasy novel you read. It’s not about the rationale you come up with for why we have 19th-century steam technology in a world where everything else is 17th-century or earlier. It’s about how all of that stuff—whether well- or ill-conceived—is delivered to us by way of the people in it. Forget for a little bit about what we are going to get from such a world; what do they want out of all of this?
After all, they’re the one’s stuck living in it. We’re just visiting.