[Featured image: The city of Gujareeh, from the cover of The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin]
Whether you’re writing a single novel or you’re constructing an expansive science fiction or fantasy epic contained in several volumes, you’re engaging in worldbuilding of some kind. Lacking a well-developed culture doesn’t just rob your weird fiction of strong settings in which it can unfold. Storytelling doesn’t just rely on plot, but also requires multidimensional characters and settings to create a self-contained universe for your narratives. We’re happy to review some sage advice about worldbuilding from award-winning author N.K. Jemisin, whom you remember we discussed in our Black sci-fi authors roundup this past November.
Immersing Readers in Your Fictional World
In a 2015 Writer’s Digest Online Workshop presentation, Jemisin addressed the common adage that only 10% of your worldbuilding should be apparent in your writing with the remaining 90% beneath the surface like an iceberg. She challenges that assertion when it comes to creating settings in your weird fiction, suggesting that it promotes the view of the “hidden” 90% as scary.
Moreover, she reveals that this “rule” can be skillfully broken and leaves us with sound advice for immersing readers into our fictional worlds. She proposes an “immersion pyramid” with three levels of absorption into your novel’s native culture:
- High immersion, in which the world’s bizarre qualities are conveyed via context as opposed to direct explanations in the narrative
- Moderate immersion, which includes occasional breaks for the narrator to explain aspects of the culture
- Low immersion, in which the narrator frequently stops to explain details about your fictional world
She cautions weird fiction writers that deciding on an appropriate level of immersion can be tricky, since each person needs to strike a balance that keeps readers invested in their stories. Her own advice is to increase the level of immersion as the amount of difference between the “primary world” (the world most of us live in) and your distinctive fictional secondary world increases.
Don’t “Reinvent the Wheel”
Jemisin is herself a master when it comes to creating original and unique universes, but what’s notable is that she repeatedly defies the usual trope of making magical and supernatural worlds based on medieval northern Europe. Her first series of weird fiction novels, The Inheritance Trilogy, depicts a realm in which gods and mortals frequently intermingle within a collection of multicultural societies that regard race and social ranking as important. Bustle writer Charlotte Ahlin cites Gujaareh from Jemisin’s The Killing Moon as one example of a non-European fantasy world in a 2016 article, noting that it was roughly based on ancient Egypt and calling it “a complex and multi-cultural desert society.”
Jemisin also pointed to a “fear of worldbuilding” in her workshop, citing it as one possible reason why many fantasy realms tend to be based on medieval northern Europe. Writers of weird fiction set in distant-future societies may want to take a hard look at the cultures they create as well and consider building distinctive alternatives of their own, avoiding the trap of borrowing heavily from space navy-style tropes such as what’s present in Star Trek and similar works. Of course, if you’re going to borrow, you may choose to go the path of clever subversion — but that’s for another post.
Infrastructure, Environment, and Culture Support Your Story
We already know that setting is a critical component of crafting literature, but Jemisin calls attention to how your speculative fictional worlds impact your plot and characters. In her workshop, she mentions that inhabitants of your imaginary cultures will adapt to the climate, land, water, flora, and fauna present in their environments. Io9 writer Charlie Jane Anders supports Jemisin’s arguments by listing a lack of consideration about basic infrastructure and failing to account for how unusual technology or magic affects a society as just a couple of her “7 deadly sins” of worldbuilding.
Furthermore, Jemisin’s own Broken Earth novels prove these points abundantly. Stillness is wracked with daily deadly earthquakes and other destructive climate events. Without this setting, there would be no need for the series’ orogenes, the class of individuals with seemingly magical abilities who can control these forces. So the Stillness’ inhabitants fear of orogenes, thanks to their fantastic powers that can both heal and destroy, is no surprise.
AutPress Loves Weird, Wonderful Fiction
We’ve discussed some of the major points that Jemisin makes, but her full Worldbuilding 101 workshop outline is available on her own blog for your own reading. As you’re writing, don’t forget to feed your need to read. Check out the AutPress store for great suggestions like Verity Reynolds’ debut novel Nantais and Ada Hoffman’s collection, Monsters in My Mind.