World Building Philosophy: Avoiding Defaulting and Othering

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“The status quo does not need world building.”

This is the summation of a series of tweets put together by author Kate Elliott on the subject of world building and in response to the argument that fantasy authors often do too much of it. She emphasizes the fact that world building can be a useful tool for creating a diverse setting. When that world building is removed, or when authors don’t think about it, the created world often falls back into a pattern of assuming Western societal and cultural norms.

While we can’t really control an editor telling us what to do with our work (as happened with Elliott’s friend), especially if we’re early in our writing careers, we can control how we approach world building for our settings. Fantasy authors often spend a lot of time thinking about things like their magic systems, the different races who inhabit their worlds, or the geography of their maps. Basically they focus on the things that the hero will encounter or that will make the story more epic without much thought as to the details of the lives of every day people in this world. And it’s the details that can really make a world feel more diverse or make it feel all too familiar. These are things that we, as authors, can control.

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Our protagonist is wandering around on his quest and is taken in by a kind family during a spell of inclement weather, a husband and wife. The protagonist stays for dinner, during which time he sits and talks with the husband while the wife goes about cooking the meals and doing housework. Maybe there are some children she has to take care of as well. The protagonist gathers some helpful information from the husband, and then he is on his way in the morning. This couple have served their purpose and will likely not appear in the story again.

There’s nothing technically wrong with the above scene in terms of its functionality. But it does make a lot of assumptions about gender dynamics as well as what makes a marriage. What if you wrote the same scene where the woman sat and spoke with the protagonist while the man did the chores? Or what if the couple were gay? What if the marriage wasn’t monogamous but instead polygamous?

The author of the above scene has defaulted to Western standards (and old fashioned Western standards at that) of living. His magic systems could be entirely original, the map at the front of his book full of exquisite detail, but the world will feel very ho-hum at the end of the day because it assumes societal norms that we are used to. It’s not really pushing boundaries; it’s rehashing the familiar.

Worse than that, it’s also rehashing a lot of bias. When we fall back on societal norms, we give in to the inherent biases that exist within our culture. There are a lot of ideas that we take for granted that are sexist, racist, or some other -ist, and (at least it seems to me) many fantasy and sci-fi authors are more caught up thinking of all the ways their magic or tech is unique rather than confronting our cultural assumptions. Creating these kinds of secondary worlds is about exploring possibilities, but in the areas that matter we often fall back to and overly depend on what we know without challenging it in any way.

Either that or we fall back to the familiar when creating the culture (usually human) for our protagonists, and we use different cultural standards to make other races and cultures (real or imagined) more “exotic”. This perpetuates a sort of otherness regarding cultures that don’t fit within Western societal norms, as it becomes okay to associate their traits with fantastic races as a way to show off how cool and different those races are but not to have the protagonist actually normalize them by being part of that tradition.

So, if you’re really interested in making your world more diverse, or even just more interesting, I suggest putting strong consideration into the details of the world and thinking about the cultures, the infrastructure, and the history of the place. A great magic system is really cool, but if it exists in the sort of faux-Medieval fantasy world we’re all used to, then at the end of the day it isn’t going to make your story or setting all that interesting. Putting this kind of thought into world building will also help you avoid some of the pitfalls of bias inherent in “defaulting” back to your familiar cultural norms. Or, at the very least, you’ll be aware of them as you write them into the story, so you can try to challenge them or have them actually say something (positive or negative) about your society, rather than just having them in there because it was convenient.

Great fantasy and sci-fi writing is memorable because it makes us think outside the box, because the setting is new, immersive, and challenges our way of viewing the world. It isn’t great because the author introduces a new way to cast a fireball or comes up with a very original alien species (not that we shouldn’t strive to do these things as well, but they can’t be the only things we do). World building is important, but it has to be the right kind of world building. So when you sit down to construct your next setting, I recommend having that in the back of your mind.

Related Articles:

Check out the article “We…need worldbuilding?” by Seth Dickinson, which more eloquently makes similar points to mine.

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