On Worldbuilding and Originality — This Is Not A Tour

I love speculative fiction. I love everything about other worlds, other series’ of events, other realities. Simply put, reading speculative fiction — especially multi-million word epics — enables you to live beyond materiality. With various cultures and landscapes and laws and anything, speculative fiction spans the gamut of imagination.

But I don’t want to talk about how to write your own language, how to structure your own religion, how to give your world the details it needs to seem real. I’m sure there is a plethora of guides and books out there for that very subject, although the best advice I can think of for that is just to keep aware of reality, and understand why reality is reality. When you understand how a building stands, you’ll know how to redesign it so it will still stand in your own way.

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What I want to discuss instead is the way your world is introduced to the reader, which I’ve come to realize is something a lot of aspiring writers seem to neglect. I have so many friends who want to be writers who have spent months and years working on the trivial details of their worlds of their peoples of their cultures of their religions (I say they’re just using it as an excuse to put off the act of writing, but whatever).

And while that is imperative, those things are nothing more than the fancy paints and brushes you’ve laid out before your canvass. Because ultimately, what will be judged is the overall experience, and if all you can offer your audience is an expansive imagination but no talent of which to express such imagination, then you’re left with what I like to call, modern art.

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My current project — which I hope to be my project for the next few years — is an epic fantasy/science-fiction series, Spes, of which the first book is entitled Buried Hope. The first chunk of the first book is a 25,000 word novella, which is less than a tenth the size of what the finished first book will be. To sum it up in a sentence that is relevant to this post, the story takes place in an underground city where the citizens have hidden for over a millenia, as any contact with the dead surface world and its toxic winds leads to death.

Now I mention this because the most common “negative feedback” I get regarding that first novella is that I didn’t mention why the people are living underground and what it was that caused the surface world to “die”. I understand why you would ask that question, and I feel no ill-will towards anyone who has wondered that, because it’s only natural; after all, if I wrote a book where the human race had reverted to apes, then you would assume that a big plot point would be how and why that transition took place.

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But I don’t want to write like that, and I hate reading books that are written that way. Why? Because it’s obvious.

My favorite aspect of epic fantasy books — books such as Malazan, Wheel of Time, A Song Of Ice And Fire — is that having such prolific word counts gives the writer the opportunity to really make the world into a world. Instead of readers living through one character and having your book be a parable or a clever metaphor for a certain topic that you as a writer are passionate about, the readers are introduced to an entire cast of characters with an entire cast of issues, just like the real world.

And that’s what I believe is so immersive with thick fiction — you are not stepping into a fictional world just to be preached by the author’s vague standpoint on a single issue, whether that is intended or not. Instead, you’re stepping into a fictional world and realizing that everything and everyone is an issue, just like the real world. You forget that this is a work of fiction because it doesn’t seem like the author wants to tell you any one point specifically; the author is just telling you everything that’s going on. And that’s why it’s so great.

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So to get back to Buried Hope. I don’t want to discuss why the world is dead. Not yet, at least. Why? Because there’s no reason to. The world in my book is revealed through the eyes of each point-of-view character. And frankly, none of them have a reason to extensively wonder why the world is the way it is. That’s just how things are in their reality.

Let’s play with our imagination — pretend that a long time ago, ancient humans came down from spaceships and landed on Earth, escaping their ravaged planet far far away. To reduce the risk of their world-destroying mistakes being repeated on this new planet, they destroy all of their technology and wipe all of their records. All they have are their memories.

Generation after generation, these memories become rumors, these rumors become legends, and these legends become forgotten.

Now it’s the year 2013. Sure, we may have the oddball or two who likes to discuss the meaning of life and the universe while smoking pot who comes across a thought such as this, but no serious discussion can stem from such an idea. Because it seems silly. Outside observers of our planet would know the truth of our history, but we wouldn’t have any way of understanding that, and questioning it is something that’s left to the bored scientists who are trying to justify their continued salaries.

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In Buried Hope, they’ve been living underground for about fifteen hundred years in ignorance. There is no reason for the explanation of the inhabitability of the world to suddenly spring up; of course, I could start the series right when all of the cogs have been set in place which would make it understandable as to why that explanation of the dead world is suddenly understood. Of course I could do that.

But that’s lazy.

It would be extremely unimaginative of me as a writer to create a fifteen-hundred-year-old underground civilization and focus on the most obvious trope that comes to mind when dealing with this post-apocalyptic-esque scenario. To focus on the obvious is to create an inauthenticity to your work, because you’re crafting it around the prejudices and the presumptions of a person from our reality, instead of a person from their reality. It’s what we would expect, and it panders to our proclivities, and it makes it too cliche.

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And while I’m not saying that I won’t ever explain the reasoning behind the death of the world, I am saying that that is not the focal point of the story, at least not now. That issue sits on a grander scale, while other issues that have been conceived from this underground reality are what concerns the characters in the story. When convergences occur that make it logical for those characters to step away from their trivialities and return to their deistic and terrestrial concerns that we would assume to be the most important parts of this story, then that is when those realizations will concede. This is what adds layers to your fiction.

To put it simply — do not treat your reader as a tourist. Treat your reader as a refugee, someone who might get in the way of your living and breathing world. Do not explain just to explain. Be your characters, write their thoughts, not what you as a writer assume your reader should know.

Write fiction not to reveal, but to be revealed.

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That’s how speculative fiction should be written, which adds layers upon layers unto your fiction. Because you do not affirm to the expectations of the reader. It’s the reason why the last question I usually ask my beta readers is what they expect will happen next. While I don’t want to make Shyamalan plot twists or deus ex machinas (Dark Tower), I also don’t want to fall to my own social constructs, and remember that I am writing the story from the eyes of people who live in a world very much unlike my own.

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To end this post and to make this entire idea more tangible, I’ll tell you about a post I read the other day on a forum. In a thread complaining about the rudeness of Parisians and the French in general, a French poster came in and said something along the lines of:

“We are not rude people. What aggravates us are Americans who come to Paris and treat it like Parisland. They ask for directions and good restaurants and expect all of us to know English and expect everyone to be cheery and happy and grateful for their mere presence. What they do not understand is that Paris is a living and breathing city. We work here. We study here. We live here. This is not your European Disneyland where everyone is staff waiting to serve you. When Parisians neglect to help these Americans, they return to their country and complain of our vulgarity.”

I don’t know many French people, so I don’t know if the stereotype is true or not — but that’s not the point. The point is that your world should not be Parisland, because Parisland does not exist. Do not reveal only because you assume it should be revealed; reveal when it is relevant to your character. Your world should be Paris — the story should not revolve around the Eiffel Tower, but the French psychopath who kills women just to steal their scent.

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So no. Don’t expect any explanations for the dead world any time soon, not in the first novella nor the 89,000 word second installment. You’re free to look for clues, though.

(Whenever I sit down and start writing my posts here, I always have an overwhelming desire to clarify that yes, I am a nobody, and everything I say can be completely wrong. Now getting that out of the way, I can freely express myself without worry that I may sound pretentious or pompous or omniscient — all the advice I offer on this blog is advice that I follow myself. My elucidations of these concepts do not necessitate that I consider myself an expert, but just someone who’s currently plodding these paths, in hope and belief that these are the right ones.)

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2 thoughts on “On Worldbuilding and Originality — This Is Not A Tour

  1. I’m glad you wrote this.

    This is a question I’ve been having recently. I wrote a distopian based novel, except the world wasn’t Earth, more along the lines of a crap heap that came from another historical timeline. I don’t explain much about the history or the world because the records aren’t well kept, the characters don’t really know (or care), and the place is really just a setting; the story of its destruction doesn’t affect the story told. Only the present aftermath, essentially the set up for the rules of the world and the atmosphere is important.

    Really, I didn’t end up talking about it because it just didn’t come up. Mostly none of the people/descendents involved with the “death of a world” are in the story, nor contributed to the events of the story. It’d be like talking about the construction of the church the groom ditched a bride in. Might be interesting, might add details, and if people wanted to hear that sort of thing, then I could add it. But it doesn’t affect the conflict or the solution therein, and it be hard to do it without being boring or jammed in there. Hard enough to make it not worthwhile if I’m wrong, but not hard enough to make it an absolute waste-of-time if my readers cared.

    So I’ve been questioning if I should make it Earth, because first having the alternative history and then having the alternative future might seem weird, or if I would need to explain what happened for people to feel satisfied. I have a limited interest in “real world” settings, but it’s not as though it would be completely unappealing. I am suspicious that current the setting might feel hallow; this would be an excellent solution if that was the case. But I prefer it to remain a setting and not a plot point, so I’m torn. If it was an issue of knowing how I felt, then I would have my answer, but, as it is, I could make the tweaks necessary without destroying the work, yet it could alter the atmosphere just enough to bother me.

    No one has criticized the lack of explanation, but I’m not sure if it’s because no one feels it’s important, or they just haven’t mentioned it yet.

    This article gave me a bit of stress relief, even though It made me feel that, whatever the answer is, it’s even more important than I thought it was.

    • Hmm. It’s an interesting situation you’ve described.

      I think you should consider this.

      If you decide to keep your planet not Earth but another world, then you need to make sure that it has a life of its own. I know you say that the death of the world is not a plot point, and the world is simply a setting, but the setting still needs to be painted even if you don’t ever plan on doing anything with it — the Mona Lisa is famous for being the Mona Lisa and the curious smile, but there is still an entire world painted around her. So again, if you decide that you don’t want the dead world to be dead Earth, but dead craphole world instead, then you need to make sure that you paint the remnants of what that world used to be. Which, in my opinion, might be difficult.

      For example, in Buried Hope, the world is dead Earth. The further I progress into the story, the more I add little things that the reader is going to recognize, little things that exist in our real world. This in turn will connect with the reader, because the reader will understand connections that the characters don’t understand. Like if I add a destroyed Coke billboard (I’m not saying I’m going to), the characters won’t know what that is, but the readers do, and the readers will feel that connection and that makes it easy to draw the reader into the setting. You give your world life by adding details that don’t matter, because you don’t want the world to seem like stuff only exists because you’re writing about it; stuff needs to exist, period.

      So again, it might be hard. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, I’m just saying you need to remember: if you don’t want the world to be Earth, then you need to fill out what that world was before it died. Even if it’s not a plot point. You need to add in those few brush strokes of detail to make it seem real.

      It’ll be more of a challenge, I would think, since you’re now creating two worlds: the past “alive” world and the current dead world. But it would be interesting.

      Good luck! 🙂

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