Worldbuilding is a complex balancing act. Every piece of your world affects the others in unique ways kind of like an electrical circuit; they all have to be just right in order for the light to turn on. Because of this, it is absolutely key to treat every piece of worldbuilding with precision and purpose. You get to decide what your book’s world is like. There are no hard and fast rules you must follow or constructs you cannot bend. Every piece of worldbuilding is a choice that you make. These choices should matter.
Understanding that worldbuilding isn’t set in stone was instrumental in my own journey as a writer. It’s still something I’m working to dismantle in my mind, and I have to actively remind myself that I have the freedom to write worlds that are different from my own. Part of this is about dismantling the constructs in the world around me that feel immovable. This manifests often as patriarchy and misogyny as a default in fantastical worlds. You may have seen it argued before that these are social constructs, and in a fantasy world, there’s no reason why your worldbuilding must be built on those concepts. The same can be said for homophobia or classism. These things often feel like they are the “default” because it’s what we live with, but as the author, you have the freedom to worldbuild from the ground up.
With that in mind, I want to deconstruct the “default.” Don’t erase it, because it’s important to understand what biases you have as an author and what biases many of your readers will have coming into the story. You cannot escape these biases, and in fact these biases aren’t all inherently bad, but they are a reality we cannot ignore. Some “default” worldbuilding choices you might see are:
- A patriarchal system where only men can inherit power and property
- A capitalist society where money buys goods
- A culture in which homophobia, racism, sexism, ableism etc. exist or thrive
- Describing everyone but white people.
These are not requirements of worldbuilding; they are choices you get to make. Often, authors will allow the “default” to dictate their worldbuilding. They set up a patriarchal political system, rife with sexism, not because their book examines sexism in politics, but because it is what they know. This, as others have examined before, often reinforces sexism rather than challenging it.
Sometimes, writing these constructs into your worldbuilding is the right choice. When a book sets out to deconstruct an element of the social “default”–Girls of Paper and Fire is an example of a book that offers a “default” in its worldbuilding with regard to the patriarchy and rape culture, and then sets out to burn it to the ground in a unique way. Without using that “default,” the book would have been about something completely different. Mindful examination of worldbuilding like this can be extremely powerful.
It can also be a fine choice even when a book doesn’t examine that particular element. This links back to the idea of balance–if you set out to flip every one of the tropes and “defaults,” you run the risk of distancing your readers. That isn’t to say it can’t be done, but it requires finesse and deep understanding of social concepts. Remember, every reader will come to your book with biases, and those biases can be used as a foothold. It allows them a sense of familiarity, so when you introduce something that subverts their expectations, they have a framework for it.
Even minor details can have massive impact on your worldbuilding. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time discussing a specific aspect of your world, small moments–like a character mistaking a queer couple for siblings or magic that requires spoken words. These little things can have big implications. With the first example, it implies that the world–or at least the POV character–is biased to think siblings before they think romantic partners. With the second, it implies that mute people may not be able to use magic. Think about the greater implications of these small choices and how your story is impacted by that.
There are also some things that you might not be equipped to examine. Just like in real life where we could do more harm than good administering CPR, we can do more harm than good in worldbuilding by attempting to flip tropes. For example, an author writing a world in which all characters are bisexual certainly flips the heteronormative default, but in doing so it erases the nuance of queerness, failing to acknowledge aromantic and asexual people, and implying gay and lesbian people don’t truly exist and are all just bisexual. Without a nuanced examination, this can be harmful. There’s a difference between challenging a worldbuilding trope and erasing something integral to someone else’s culture or identity. There is a difference between writing “a world without homophobia” and “a world without queer culture,” just as there’s a difference between writing “a world without ableism” and “a world without disability.”
Others have discussed this topic more in depth, and it isn’t my lane to dissect this particular topic in every aspect. Gail Villanueava discussed this in detail a few months ago in her post about writing a marginalized identity, and much of what she had to say can be applied to your worldbuilding choices. Be mindful of your own position in the world and how that impacts your biases, and also how it interacts with the choices you’re making with regards to storytelling. Also, remember that identities are not monoliths and everyone experiences the world differently.
Finally, sometimes using “default” worldbuilding elements can be a limiting choice. I don’t want to call it a bad choice, because that’s a lot more subjective. By choosing a “default” simply because it’s familiar, you limit your options significantly. Instead, make deliberate choices and challenge your preconceptions. Just as the absence of a political statement is in and of itself a political statement, the absence of worldbuilding that challenges the “default” can be a political statement as well.
Your homework, in a nutshell, is to think critically about your worldbuilding choices, and to start considering them as exactly that: choices. I’ll concede that’s a bit abstract, so here’s a real assignment to get you started.
Make a list the social elements that are absolutely integral to your story: does the core of the book directly address homophobia? Is the book about tearing down a corrupt economic system? Make a note of it. Acknowledge which of these choices you made on purpose because they are required in order for your story to work. Think of these as your “control” elements–like in a science experiment. These will stay the same, but the rest are variable.
You created a power dynamic tree with Hannah Whitten last week, so use this to expand your worldbuilding chart. Diagram the relationships between your fixed social worldbuilding elements and the power dynamics. How do these worldbuilding choices affect who is in power and why? How do they affect what the powerful want to do? How do they affect the disenfranchised? Now, reverse engineer it. How do those in power affect these social elements?
Now look at the other elements of social worldbuilding that aren’t integral to your plot. Try changing these one at a time. See what happens to your world and your story when you make queerness a social norm rather than an othering factor. What if the world has a working economy in which everyone has the right to housing or healthcare or food? What if this world doesn’t use money as currency, and how does that change the class system? Diagram these on the worldbuilding tree to see which choices make the most sense for your story.
Over the next few weeks, others are going to discuss new worldbuilding elements. You can keep using this tree to expand your understanding of each element. Every worldbuilding choice you make has a reciprocal effect. Look at what else it impacts, and what all impacts it. When you understand these relationships and intersections, your worldbuilding will feel more dynamic.
These choices have a ripple effect. Every single one of them will impact other parts of your worldbuilding; it is inevitable. But you are the author and you get to decide which of those ripple effects work for you and your story. If you don’t like one, change its source. If the world is a stage, you–the author–get to set that stage; make sure you do it with purpose.
Rosiee Thor is the co-creator of BYOMentor and the author of the YA novel TARNISHED ARE THE STARS, forthcoming from Scholastic in 2019. You can follow her on twitter at @rosieethor or on her website, www.rosieethor.com