We…need worldbuilding?

In today’s post, I admit to altering my opinions in response to someone else’s argument, costing me my bid for Minister of Authority Heuristics. Speaking of which – I’m blown away by the reception to ‘A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)’, including fantastic reviews on Tangent Online and BestScienceFictionStories.com.

After the cut: why I sneered at worldbuilding, how Kate Elliot made me change my mind, and fiction by a very capable friend.

Here we begin, a couple weeks ago, with my refrain:

Worldbuilding sucks. Don’t do too much.

That’s where  we start!

When we write about a place not Earth, a new world – a secondary world, in the vernacular – we imagine a place with its own ecology, geology, history. Perhaps it even has its own mythic, nuministic ideas of reality and causality, if you’re a Cat Valente type rather than a Tolkien. Speak of the devil: Tolkien, the prototypical worldbuilder of the past century, invested effort in a future history, a family of languages, and a lot of maps, a whole armamentarium of background for Middle-Earth. In a sense, worldbuilding was his primary goal, and his stories emerged as derivatives from the process, suggested by the sweep of his fantastical history.

There’s a certain appeal to this, right? The escapist impulse wants to go somewhere else, somewhere real. It’s intriguing to think of the stories we read as products of another place, a process just as separate from the narrative delivered to us as our universe is from the stories we tell about it.

Worldbuilding in the Tolkien mode became part of the fantasy brand. Open a secondary world fantasy novel today, and you’ll probably find a map. This mode of worldbuilding – prioritizing the setting itself – became an art of its own. The writers of shared worlds, roleplaying sourcebooks, and video games often worldbuild without an immediate story in mind.

And that’s why worldbuilding sucks – because it’s often done to excess, without thought to how it serves the story and narrative. Of course, any piece of literature, even the most realistic, requires a little worldbuilding. But a good piece of genre fiction imparts its world cleverly, functionally, dropping details in the right places, hinting at vast liminal spaces that tease the imagination, rather than mapping them exhaustively and thereby draining them. Sure, sometimes you need to know how everything fits together, how all the systems interlock – but if that’s the case, you’re probably doing a story about those systems.

I’ve seen a lot of young writers invested in the movement of peoples and tectonic plates, the positioning of rain shadows, the systematization of magic. But they’re not yet sure who their protagonist is, or what central conflict they’ll experience. I think this is generally a backwards way to write a story. I do feel that same tug – the desire to create something vast and awe-inspiring, something textured and historied. I think it can even work: almost everything valuable about Steven Erikson’s challenging Malazan Book of the Fallen emerges from his archaeologist’s gift for layering. But most of the time, I think the drive to worldbuild a lot is counterproductive to good storytelling. I don’t want to learn about your magic system from an index at the back of the book. I want to discover it with the characters. Implication, in a broader sense, is a powerful tool. (Saladin Ahmed suggests that some readers do want ‘scrupulous mimesis of an otherworld’; I’d advance that they don’t, actually, that they want a feeling produced by this mimesis, a feeling we can evoke through other pathways.)

Consider – oh, unfairest of comparisons – One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book saturated by magic, as matter-of-fact about its presence and uses as any D&D novelization, and as concerned with the forces of  revolution and economics as any formal history. But it requires no systematization, no maps, no specific breeds of bananas. It evokes a powerful world without becoming at all Tolkienesque, and by making its magic matter-of-fact, it somehow makes it stranger.

So: I was happy to sneer at ‘worldbuilding’ in general, because I thought sneering at worldbuilding (playing the provocateur, then offering a few caveats about when and where it’s useful) was a useful way to push writers in the right direction. And then I ran into this series of tweets by Kate Elliot.

She sums up her own argument: the status quo does not need worldbuilding. And she points out my problem. I’d thought of worldbuilding as an inherently high-level, macro process, a dry chronology and cartography, rather in the mode of old-fashioned history. But she wants worldbuilding to work on the micro level, to tackle sociology and anthropology.

In the past fifty years, fantasy’s greatest sin might be its creation of a bland, invariant, faux-Medieval European backdrop. The problem isn’t that every fantasy novel is set in the same place: pick a given book, and it probably deviates somehow. The problem is that the texture of this place gets everywhere.

What’s texture, specifically? Exactly what Elliot says: material culture. Social space. The textiles people use, the jobs they perform, the crops they harvest, the seasons they expect, even the way they construct their names. Fantasy writing doesn’t usually care much about these details, because it doesn’t usually care much about the little people – laborers, full-time mothers, sharecroppers, so on. (The last two books of Earthsea represent LeGuin’s remarkable attack on this tendency in her own writing.) So the fantasy writer defaults – fills in the tough details with the easiest available solution, and moves back to the world-saving, vengeance-seeking, intrigue-knotting narrative. Availability heuristics kick in, and we get another world of feudal serfs hunting deer and eating grains, of Western name constructions and Western social assumptions. (Husband and wife is not the universal historical norm for family structure, for instance.)

Defaulting is the root of a great many evils. Defaulting happens when we don’t think too much about something we write – a character description, a gender dynamic, a textile on display, the weave of the rug. Absent much thought, automaticity, the brain’s subsconscious autopilot, invokes the easiest available prototype – in the case of a gender dynamic, dad will read the paper, and mom will cut the protagonist’s hair. Or, in the case of worldbuilding, we default to the bland fantasy backdrop we know, and thereby reinforce it. It’s not done out of malice, but it’s still done.

The only way to fight this is by thinking about the little stuff. So: I was quite wrong. You do need to worldbuild pretty hard. Worldbuild against the grain, and worldbuild to challenge. Think about the little stuff. You don’t need to position every rain shadow and align every tectonic plate before you start your short story. But you do need to build a base of historical information that disrupts and overturns your implicit assumptions about how societies ‘ordinarily’ work, what they ‘ordinarily’ eat, who they ‘ordinarily’ sleep with. Remember that your slice of life experience is deeply atypical and selective, filtered through a particular culture with particular norms. If you stick to your easy automatic tendencies, you’ll produce sexist, racist writing – because our culture still has sexist, racist tendencies, tendencies we internalize, tendencies we can now even measure and quantify in a laboratory. And you’ll produce narrow writing, writing that generalizes a particular historical moment, its flavors and tongues, to a fantasy world that should be much broader and more varied. Don’t assume that the world you see around you, its structures and systems, is inevitable.

For God’s sake, just don’t get lazy. I get lazy all the time – I use a common proverb or a tired simile, I fill in a detail with an easy placeholder, I give a character a basic feudal job. And it lessens the work. Use every detail and sentence to say something, whether narrative or textural.

Be intentional in all your writing decisions. Be purposeful. Make the reader know you thought about this, and that you made a choice: a different staple crop, and a different rural economy. A different conception of power and social authority. A different set of gender norms.

I was wrong, and Kate Elliot’s right. We do need worldbuilding.

I learned a lot of my craft from a pair of Rachels. Both of them taught me to be more intentional. One of them taught me to challenge my tendencies in writing blocking and dialogue, as well as a lot of my gender and race defaulting. The other taught me to think about the context my writing would be read in, and to confront my own laziness in selecting topics of interest and worth. One of these Rachels has a story up on Daily Science Fiction, a fairy tale about the intrinsic link between awareness and pain: safety as the cruelest anesthetic, immortality as a second sort of death.

3 thoughts on “We…need worldbuilding?

  1. Stuporstar

    Damn, dude, this is the best post I’ve ever read on the subject. I’m gonna link this in the SA writing thread.

  2. Setsu

    I had long thought that readers who relate to heroism and the human element of stories learn to be in touch with their own humanity and heroic possibility; while those who latch onto a magical/mechanical/cartographic system… argue about it.

    When you first mentioned texture, it made me think that texture is important to word-choice and sentences, too. The tricks and techniques of formal poetry get ignored when crafting prose. Expressions — as you said — are a great example. You’re so right about portraying day-to-day citizens correctly. Juliette Wade said that there are no universal ideas because everything we think is influenced by culture.

    As far as textiles and food… that’s what I always loved about Robin Hobb’s stories — being able to smell the cakes and judge the furniture. I suppose the mark of good craft is being able to find the balance between the texture of words and the texture of worlds.

    Thought-provoking. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Pingback: A New Year’s Resolution of Sorts | SFF punk

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