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There are two areas of practice where I say, “if something doesn’t shock you, you’re not doing it right.” One is spiritual practice, and the other is worldbuilding. Today, I’ll focus on the latter, if only to save you from me discussing psychology and minutae of Taoist breathing exercises.
Every author brings themselves to their worldbuilding because there’s no one else to bring. Even if authors think they’re expanding on ideas created by someone else (such as the way Richard Florida influenced me), that’s not true. Writing about someone else’s ideas means you’re writing about your idea of their idea. The author (you) is inseparable from worldbuilding.
The problem with bringing ourselves into worldbuilding is we may quash our imaginations. We come with our preconceptions about people, politics, history, and our inspirations. When our creativity takes us “off script,” it’s too easy to force our way back onto the expected path.
I think we do this because when you worldbuild, you ask questions – I should know, I write worldbuilding books that are just questions. The problem with asking questions is you’re going to get answers, and you won’t always like them. Worldbuilding means thinking about big issues that can lead to uncomfortable conclusions about ourselves, our creations, and the real world.
I’d say when that happens, good because worldbuilding should shock you. When thinking about politics, gods, science, or whatever your mind will go places. You should be surprised by some of your conclusions because you’re thinking very big picture – in a way the biggest picture. That shock is a sign you’ve challenged yourself, which might be good.
I’m not saying every disturbing thing that comes to mind is a good idea in your worldbuilding. Not everything shocking is true, despite what many Internet Reply People think. But those ideas came from inside of you while you work on a very intimate process – something is going on there you want to explore. The fact it surprised you may well mean there was real inspiration there.
For myself, I can point right at my Avenoth novels, which are very political in their own way. This post-post-apocalyptic fantasy series contains some of my politics and feelings about society. It would take a lot to detail here, but suffice to say the core idea is “any survivable society is scaled, interconnected, and has people consciously keeping it running.”
But there was an unpleasant dark side that shocked me – and that I kept. This society survived a massive world war that killed three-quarters of the population. It is a society that also had “warrior lodges” and “monster hunters” that were designed to parody fantasy tropes. Finally, the great devastating war ended with a massive, murderous military action committed by a loose alliance that was tired of fifty years of death.
This peaceful society came out of bloody history and built peace. But it had to cope with violence.
Thus violence was recognized and ritualized. Warrior Lodges became mixtures of mercenaries and sports teams (it’s easy to arrest someone when you’re on a trading card). Some professions were trained and allowed to use violence and weapons if needed, such as the relic-hunting pair of Marigold and Scintilla. Government agencies subsumed monster hunting orders, embodied by the warhorse character Briar. It was a society that didn’t avoid violence so much as channel it.
I found this disturbing at first because my creation normalized violence. Watching people beat each other up with fancy weapons to place bets? Weird orders that recruited traumatized people into their ranks is considered normal? Disturbing, yet these elements rang true, and I kept them – and probably learned more about myself and societies.
These elements were not just good worldbuilding, they added to the story. Marigold and Scintilla were disgusted with the old orders because someone had tried to recruit them. Students of the pair sported badges on their robes denoting their favorite Warrior Lodges. Complex regulations about weapon use came to the fore so Scintilla and Briar could ignore them.
I was shocked. My worldbuilding was better for it.
So next time you’re busy creating a new world, watch for those moments you surprise yourself unpleasantly. A bolt from the blue may have struck you, and once you stop reeling, odds are you’ve found something worth keeping.