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The Deadly Sins of World Building (reflections on Sins 1 & 2)

Thus begins a series of posts in which I reflect on the main points in Charlie Jane Anders’ excellent world building article (found here).

My intention is to compare my recent novel Eventide to those main points. Her ideas are an important set of ‘whetstones’ against which spec fic authors can and should measure aspects of their projects. Let’s dive in.

Sin 1) Not thinking about basic infrastructure

This is about colouring the world and making it credible. Anders asks, “Who takes away the garbage? Who deals with their bodily wastes? How do they get around?”

A 2018 workshop I attended in Utah gave us an exercise to action this very thing. We were asked to take one background object, tool or item from the world of our project. It could be a kettle, a device, an alien beverage. We then had to extrapolate where it came from, who made it, the steps in the chain of manufacture and supply. And then write a short scene about the item that bore those in mind. It was simple and mind-blowingly helpful.

In my novel Eventide our characters are 22nd Century humans transported onto an unsettled planet. Something I had to consider was whether or not the ship that got most of them there was hanging around idle in orbit. This helped me settle on the idea that these corporation star ships usually stay on the move: there’s no surplus of them but there is high demand for them across multiple star systems. So transports drop off teams then go onto their next contract. This meant our characters are “stuck” on the planet for periods of time until the next company ship is booked to arrive, adding to tension and complication. I also realised people will eat in a Mess and get supplies from a Supply hut/Quartermasters (this gave me two interesting scene settings plus generated a character I fell in love with). Characters need showers facilities, so another building was created, accounted for and used. Personnel on-planet have actual jobs and KPIs, giving the colonel realistic reasons to tell the visiting cop “No, you can’t just take Character XYZ into an office for an hour to talk! They have to go do Task EFG!”

I think books that do this well give the characters “real” and interesting actions to take also. Instead of scratching their head a million times during dialogue, they’re making a cup of coffee, going through the process of repairing a laser rifle, getting out of a streetsweeper’s path …

In this regard, I liked TB McKenzie’s use of magick-powered sleds in The Dragon and the Crow as a means of transport.

Anders makes the excellent point that this is important for credibility, and allows for some dramatic tension, for relational and class fault lines and for possible complications in the plot.

Sin 2) Not explaining why events are happening now.

In Eventide, there is a plague beginning to move across civilised/colonised space. It’s the reason for the now of the tale (NO SPOILERS).

Anders’ point is that the story should have a historical reason for its existence. For example, there were reasons for the two World Wars last century. They didn’t happen just because someone wanted them to. Pearl Harbor has a complex backstory. The rise of a President like the Orange Yeti has rich and complex driving forces, decisions and events. Tolkien worked his butt off to create a consistent and credible historical setting for LOTR (just check out the backstory of this article). When watched for the first time, Star Wars: A New Hope resonates with the feeling of history driving this plot and the quests of the main players (Luke, Leia, Ben, Vader, Tarkin) … before the prequels buggered it up.

These first two points of Anders’ look at the setting from the micro and macro, helping us craft something consistent and cohesive, like Tolkien, like Lucas (the younger Lucas, anyway).

In the next article we look at the next two sins: Creating fictional versions of real-life human ethnic groups, that never go beyond one dimension and Creating monolithic social, political, cultural and religious groups.

Published inOn Writing

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