Posted by: kshayes513 | November 14, 2014

Good Worldbuilding vs Great Worldbuilding from io9’s Charlie Jane Anders

Giant cat or tiny person? Only the worldbuilder knows - for now.

Giant cat or tiny person? Only the worldbuilder knows – for now.

This week, io9’s Charlie Jane Anders has an excellent essay on the worldbuilding elements she considers raise worldbuilding from good and serviceable, to great and memorable.

Here’s a little taste from the beginning of the essay:

“…I’ve been obsessing about worldbuilding a lot lately, and trying to figure out what the difference is between good, decent, craftspersonlike worldbuilding — and great worldbuilding. And here’s what I decided:

Good worldbuilding shows you the stuff your characters see every day, and the things that they notice about their environment.

Great worldbuilding shows you the stuff your characters don’t see, either because they take it for granted, or because they’ve trained themselves not to notice something unpleasant.”

She goes on to explore this with a discussion of the “unreliable narrator” and some of the character and cultural qualities that can make characters oblivious to important aspects of their world. These include privilege (if your characters are wealthy, noble or powerful, they don’t have to deal with much of life’s grunge, nor do they understand the lives of the not wealthy); and ideology (the stronger your character’s religious, cultural or political prejudices, the more readily they discount or dismiss anything that challenges those prejudices.) Read the full article here on io9.

I’d add two other “unreliable narrator” tools that she doesn’t mention. The child narrator is a literary standard in any genre; children observing and describing events they don’t understand, while the adult reader can scoop up all the complex subtexts of the child’s superficial observations.

Ursula K. Le Guin‘s novel Voices has one of my favorite recent examples of this, when the teenage heroine is caught in the beginnings of a violent confrontation between the youth of her conquered city, and the soldiers of her conquerors. The heroine sees the moment with a teen’s excitement, eager to see her people seize their freedom. But through her eyes, we also see the fears of the older and wiser adults on both sides, that any small act of violence will lead to a new war

Even more useful for worldbuilders is the stranger in a strange land. Yes, this can be a deadly trope in the hands of the inexperienced (e.g. the “strange world” is revealed to be the reader’s normal world, or the stranger is a human who becomes the savior of the strange world) But a good writer can use it as an opportunity to blow the socks off an audience, when they finally catch on to the real meaning of what the characters are experiencing. You can find a great example of this in Le Guin’s First Contact short story “Dancing to Ganam” in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.

What’s your favorite example of great worldbuilding that shows the reader more than the characters know about their world?

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