World Building: Gods and Humans – Through a Glass, Darkly


In the late 90s I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I did some contract writing for the guys at Iron Crown Enterprises, the creators of the wonderful Role Master fantasy role-playing system.

At the time they were designing a game world for a new series of modules, and the game designer, John Curtis III, mentioned something that struck me as odd at the time and so it sticks with me today.  After explaining to me the intricacies of the world’s cosmology–how his world and it’s peoples were created by what gods and for what purposes–he said, “but that’s just half of it. Now I have to figure out how each of those peoples think the world was created and by whom for what purpose. None of the mortals would know the real story, only nuggets of truth here and there.”

I think of that as the “Through a glass, darkly” principle in worldbuilding. Even Christianity, which claims to be the sole true religion in this world, doesn’t claim that humans are capable of full understanding of the divine in this life. Of this world and the next Saint Paul wrote, “We see now through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” Likewise the mortals of ICE’s game world were granted only a dim and muddled view of its cosmological reality.

If you go with that metaphor for your world, the people’s mythologies will  be only a shadow of what is actually going on, warped by human passions and frailties and limitations.

Playing with the Glass

Those warpings can be lots of fun.  They’ll show up in contradictory scriptural passages like “God is a jealous god”, “God is love,” and “Love is never jealous.”   (Wait, what?)  It will show up in confabulations of folklore and scripture, like some of the Jewish golem stories, and in outright imaginative superstition, like imbedding nails in the shape of a cross in the heel of your left boot to keep the devil off your trail, as Pap does in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Making up your own versions of that is plain fun.

The Curse of Chalion

One of my favorite examples of a secondary world designed upon the “through the glass darkly” principle is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion universe.  The gods in that world are very present but so inscrutable as to seem arbitrary at times, remote beyond human understanding. In books like that, I feel I’m being made to examine life and spirituality from a new angle, and I value that. But just as important is the simple verisimilitude of such crafting; it resonates with the way humans experience the divine in –through a glass, darkly–and thus brings credibility to the world.

Of course, you might well decide to create a world in which the gods live in the temples among their priests, and if there is any dispute in doctrine the priests simply ask the god, who settles it definitively.  (Such a world presents an entirely different set of challenges.)

Filtering Setting Through Character Point of View

Third Person Limited

Third person limited (TPL) is one of the most common POVs these days. TPL means we the readers are passengers in the POV character’s mind, limited to what he or she notices and thinks. If the character doesn’t see the orc creeping up behind them, the reader doesn’t get to, either.Since the character couldn’t know what the orc is thinking, the reader doesn’t get to, either.

Third Person Omniscient (or, Third Person Unlimited)

In “third person omniscient” (TPO) we would not be limited to the character’s knowledge; the narrator is omniscient, and can get inside anyone’s head. We get to find out what the stalking orc is feeling, what his victim is thinking right before the attack, and even the hidden metal armor the character is wearing under his shirt. TPO was a common POV back in the day, but these days it’s fairly rare.

Third Person Limited also Limits What a Character Would Notice

For instance, if a character has lived on a street all his or her life, she probably won’t even notice any more how it is laid out. So the reader doesn’t get to know either.


Bob paused in the shadow of the alley behind the inn, waiting for the fat man with the fatter purse to exit the bar and stumble by.  Across the river the Knarlytooth mountains rose to 8000 feet, glacially carved into spectacular spires of granite and dolomite. 

Seriously?  Why the hell would Bob pause to think about the geology of the mountains across the water?  Answer:  he wouldn’t!  So the reader doesn’t get to, either.

The only way we get to learn about the mountains is if the mountains were somehow relevant to Bob in that scene–like, say, the moon was about to rise from behind them and reveal his position–then he’s worried about them, and so we get to see them.  It might go like this:

Bob paused in the shadow of the alley behind the inn, waiting for the fat man with the fatter purse to exit the bar and stumble by.  He glanced over his shoulder at the jagged peaks of the Knarleytooth mountains, the granite spires backlit with the rising moon. Two minutes, maybe less, he judged, before the moon cleared the lowest pass and illuminated the streets. He bit off a curse and returned his attention to the inn. If his mark didn’t show soon, he’d have to give it up.


The rule here is this filter your world details through the point-of-view character. Make the world details matter to the action/concerns at hand.