Worldbuilding Q&A

Question:

Cultural or social worldbuilding consists largely of describing the details of the character’s everyday practices; the minutiae of culture’s systems of meaning.

How can I build my world while not making it ‘Other’ or ‘exotic’ but also making it a bit ‘Other’ so that it’s not just our culture rephrased?

Answer:

It can be easy to get caught up in representation issues when writing. The same goes for cultural anthropology where the sense of responsibility is often even stronger as you are writing about real, living people.

One danger is that this leads to writing paralysis: if you are constantly thinking about how to adequately represent other worlds and culture, this can cut against letting your imagination run free.

This is why I’d suggest separating off time thinking about these issues from time for creative writing. Let your thoughts run free and later, when you come to edit and revise your work, think carefully about cultural tropes you may have drawn on from the real (Primary) world. This could be the difference between internal self-criticism (which can stifle creativity) and thoughtful critique (which helps develop your ideas). If you want to learn more about what kinds of tropes to avoid, there are lots of editors who focus on sensitivity issues (here’s a useful link on racist metaphors), and these have come into focus more strongly over the past year since the Black Lives Matter protests.

A second tip is to be sparse in features of your worldbuilding that don’t advance your plot, characters, or the fundamental understanding of the world.

Maybe you want to explore:

  • the social implications of flying cars
  • the biological implications of living on a world with three moons
  • how a new kind of magic creates a hierarchy between those who possess it and those who don’t

By focusing almost exclusively on your most important issue (what M.D. Presley calls a fantasy conceit) you can get into an incredible amount of detail while leaving other cultural content up to the reader’s imagination.

This is something I’ve noticed among cultural anthropologists too: once upon a time, some attempted to give a complete holistic description of a culture (which was often based on a kind of island thinking). Nowadays, many anthropologists focus on one specific detail, process, or element (e.g. the social importance of a bureaucratic ritual; how people pursue social relationships) and trace its implications.

Finally, I’d suggest that all worldbuilding will contain aspects of our culture, rephrased. They are not freestanding worlds, but worlds that exist in an imaginative relation to the real, primary world. The question is rather how closely features map on to existing cultural features. Try mixing and matching different features by creating analogue cultures (which I will discuss in a forthcoming blog post).