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The Deadly Sins of World Building (reflections on Sins 5 & 6)

Welcome back to my post-series where I reflect on Charlie Jane Anders‘s stellar article (found here) and compare my recent novel Eventide to her main points. This one’s for the writers who walk among us. By “deadly sins”, CJA means errors authors make in building the universe their novels sit in.

Let’s dive back in …

Sin 5) Inventing a history that is totally logical

CJA says:

In an imaginary world, the strongest side always wins and the people who are in charge are always the descendants of the people who were in charge 100 years ago. But real life isn’t like that — history is full of odd quirks and happenstances…

Just think about Ireland being divided in half. Or Korea. Or Germany, for nearly five decades. Why is Washington DC the capital of the United States instead of Philadelphia? Why did the Portuguese have their own colony in India until 1961? History is weird … So a totally logical history will never pass the “smell” test.

For me, I think there’s limits to this. Anything a writer imagines must have some logic to it: history is chains of cause and effect, the issue for us is we can’t often see them all. So, in EVENTIDE we have a universe where space has been settled by two rival powers (a corporate alliance and the People’s Republic of China) — I think there is logic in this, it’s a credible extrapolation of trends and conditions today.

However, there has to be a place for randomness. If an asteroid struck Earth, it would unravel any logical progression of history. It would be an intervention. COVID-19 is currently wreaking havoc upon many trends and trajectories human history was traveling along — accelerating and empowering the growth of right wing extremism while subduing islamist terrorism (for the time being), for example. We writers should allow for events and interventions like these.

Sin 6) Not really giving a strong sense of place.

CJA says:

You can spend hours and hours thinking about the history and culture and mores of your imaginary land, and how people interact and the ways that different religious and ethnic groups collide. But if you don’t make me feel the dirt under my fingernails, then you still haven’t created a real place.

When I first picked up HUNGER GAMES, I found myself immediately immersed in the “place” of the novel. The same with Feist’s MAGICIAN … and a thousand other novels I’ve read. It’s what readers want with any novel: to be transported from their bed or lounge chair or train seat to another place.

If you’re a writer, think about the five senses and how you engage them on the page …

Does your POV character smell something as they exit the car?

Does something brush across their skin or prickle it?

Do they taste soot on the air?

What sounds play in the background of the scene (in the immediate area, the middle distance, the far distance?) A nearby character keeps clearing their throat. On the road hidden behind a line of houses someone slams a car door and revs an engine. The whine of a jet is notiecable from a mile overhead.

This kind of thinking pushed me harder as a writer when constructing EVENTIDE. Consider these opening paragraphs from chapter two …

CORPORAL FISHER ADJUSTED her web belt and inhaled deeply as she waited. It didn’t smell like rain today, which was just as well. The humidity was bad enough as it was. Sweat pooled in all the places where her uniform pressed against her skin – her armpits, between belt and belly, her shoes. The blackcaps had specially produced boots, perforated for aeration. Me? she thought grimly. I gotta wear the standard type. I guess that’s what I get for joining the MPs, instead of the recons.

She tracked the whine of the approaching ferry engines from where she could see Mount Methuselah’s summit above the tree tops to the north-east. The noise resolved itself as a small blocky craft and she turned to face it as it came in low over the rain forest.

Behind her, Private Lim sniffed wetly. Another cold. CO wouldn’t like that. She thought about offering Lim a handkerchief but knew he’d be offended. The Twenty-second Century and these guys still live by this macho garbage.

The ferry was closer now, well into its landing cycle, extending legs, firing retro jets in short bursts. Fisher rearranged her web belt one more time, hoping more sweat would dry before she met the newcomer.

Here I’m trying to engage the senses, but also hint at the camp’s hypervigilance around health and hygiene … since there is a potential pandemic on the horizon and this is a driving reason for the camp’s existence and mission.

As a writer yourself, see where you can apply these ideas. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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