Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the seventeenth chapter, “Good Worldbuilding Shows How Things Could Be Different.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What We Write About When We Write About Spaceships
Good Worldbuilding Shows How Things Could Be Different
As a kid, I was a classic nerdy outcast. Bullies noticed my mercurial flair and identified me as a proper target for every rust-speckled item in the bully toolkit—but mostly, I was just left to my own devices. A lot of my vividest childhood memories are of wandering alone around the overgrown crabgrass at the edge of the schoolyard at recess, inventing more and more elaborate worlds. Long before I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, I was sketching maps in my head, full of palaces, starships, monster forests, and superhero headquarters. I was a world-builder before I knew anything about storytelling.
I still cope with stress and oh-shit-we’re-all-gonna-die feelings by retreating into imaginary worlds of my own creation. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. There’s immense comfort in endlessly proliferating details. Every time the so-called real world gets worse, you can just add more complexity to your fantasy realm or galactic civilization, the same way the
Winchester Mystery House kept adding more rooms. You can build a protective cocoon around yourself, made of unreal real estate.
Speculative fiction authors love to talk about worldbuilding. It always sounds super tough, like you should wear a hard hat and a safety harness, and use a protractor the size of a football field. But worldbuilding is really just the process of inventing places and things that fictional people can interact with. You can’t tell a story, in any genre, without worldbuilding—like even a “realist” story set in a small town has to establish the small town and its history—but worldbuilding can be a pleasure in itself, rather than a means to an end.
But how things work is often not as interesting as how they don’t work. And the ways that they should work, if things were better. And the way things used to work, until something went wrong (or right). The best worldbuilding contains the seeds of change, and allows us to see how things could be different. And conversely, a lot of mediocre worldbuilding contains the unspoken message that “This is the way things are, just because. And there’s no point questioning any of it.”
In other words, you can use worldbuilding to keep yourself together during a never-ending catastrophe. But that same process can also help you (and others) imagine a path to liberation.
Worldbuilding is “how things work,” but also kind of “the rules of the game.” It’s the stuff your characters can’t ignore—the same way you can’t stroll onto a busy highway in the real world—but also the stuff they barely notice. Worldbuilding grounds the story, shapes your characters, and makes their lives more complicated. And it’s arguably the most political part of writing, because it’s about systems.
And the part about the stuff your characters barely notice is important—because we all ignore stuff that’s right in front of our faces. We step over homeless people on the street and tune out graffiti on bus shelters. The best worldbuilding helps us to see the whole picture, including the people who’ve been left out and fucked over. And the most basic everyday actions depend on complicated systems: you can’t eat lunch without farms and some food-distribution apparatus, and the food you eat reveals something about your ecosystem. And you can’t go to the bathroom without sewers.
Speaking of food, it’s always startling to realize how many European staples came from settler colonialism in the Americas. Italian cooking didn’t have tomatoes, the British didn’t have potatoes. Because everything that feels set in stone is actually a work in progress.
Worldbuilding is dynamic rather than static
We tend to think of worldbuilding and story as in opposition—like, the story happens to the world, or against the backdrop of the world. But worldbuilding is made out of stories.
In a decent world, every item has its own origin story, involving lots of historical accidents. If you throw a rock, you’ll hit a choice that somebody made in the past—and there’s always the possibility that they could have made a different choice. Never trust a world where nothing has changed for thousands of years, or where things just “make sense,” or where every aspect of the world was dictated by purely utilitarian considerations.
That weird staircase in front of City Hall? It’s made of granite because there was a mayor fifty years ago who hated marble, and it’s worn down on one side because these merchants decided to shlep a bunch of fake psychic orbs up those stairs, every day for years. Also, there’s a half-finished war memorial out front, because we ran out of money and decided that war had been a mistake.
It drives me nuts when everything in the present of a story is happening for reasons—but the past just “is.”
Also, worldbuilding reveals itself in crisis. I often think of the tip I heard from Arctic Rising author Tobias Buckell: instead of describing a room in a static way, like “there are three chairs and one of them has scalloped arms,” you can use a fight scene to establish the physical space. Like, you can let people know there’s a chair with scalloped arms by having someone knock it over in the middle of a brawl.
And the same is true for worldbuilding, on a larger scale. You can explore the world, in part, by showing it breaking. You don’t need to tear up the floorboards of your house and expose all of its guts, unless something has gone wrong with the foundations.
Take The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that’s like a masterclass in worldbuilding. There’s so much brilliant stuff, from folklore to mysticism to gichy-michy to cultural clashes to landscapes that feel downright immanent. But a big part of why it all works so well is that the world is already changing before Genly Ai shows up. Gethen is in the middle of a crisis of modernity, in which Orgoreyn is becoming a nation-state and developing a theory of war, and Genly blunders into the middle of this ongoing situation.
We often think of traditions as ancient when they really go back about seventy years. Most of the “immutable” features of the Western world were invented in the Victorian era, or right after World War II. Plus, the harder people try to insist that something is “the way it’s always been done,” the more they’re covering up the fact that they decided to do it this way after suffering some immense trauma. Because traumatized people crave permanence.
Even if you’re just creating fake places to keep yourself distracted while everything is a toxic disaster, you can have more fun and fulfillment by including a whole backstory. Think of it as a way of just building in more layers of complexity—instead of just tacking on another kingdom off to the west, include past versions of the kingdoms you already have. By doing this, you’ll be helping to chip away at the inherent conservatism of a lot of worldbuilding.
And once your world has a past, you can start to give it a future.
A good world is worth fighting for—or fighting to change
Anyone who writes is bound to end up obsessing about how to create a place where people want to spend a lot of time. Because if readers don’t want to hang out in your imaginary city-state, they won’t be nearly as interested in the people who live there and the things they’re going through. We obsess about creating a “sense of place.” And we try to turn places into a type of character, so that you can imagine yourself having a relationship with these locales, and we try to give them that lived-in feeling that lets people imagine that they could hang out there.
That’s why people spend so much time cosplaying and doing fan-art and trying to place themselves in Narnia, or Middle-earth, or the Federation, or the world of The Expanse. There’s a host of details in these worlds that ground you and let you imagine eating lembas bread, or riding on a tauntaun, or hanging out in a grungy space station full of Belters. Fictional languages, rules of behavior, carefully described spaces and other stuff are all ways to suck people into believing in the world, and wanting to spend time there. Really good worldbuilding can be aspirational.
Years of watching television conditioned me to think of this in terms of building a few standing sets. Take the show Frasier: most of the action takes place in Frasier’s apartment, his favorite coffee shop, or his radio-station booth. This is a cost-saving measure, but it also makes those three locations feel cozy and familiar, and full of intimate details. So when I start a new story, I often try to identify a handful of locations that I’m going to give extra attention to.
And once you’ve fallen in love with someplace that doesn’t exist, you can start building up a fierce yearning to make it better. If a place really feels special, you (and your readers) will naturally want to protect it from dangers, but also to improve it. All of the structural injustices and random garbage you included in your worldbuilding might seem fixable, if your characters just get off their butts.
Community is everything
Which brings me to another aspect of worldbuilding that people often seem to overlook: community. A good world contains a sense of the communities that people belong to, rather than just sticking a unique and fascinating individual up against a painted backdrop. And this is doubly important, because nobody changes the world on their own.
I talked before about how writers need to belong to a community—but so do characters. Sure, your characters can reject the communities they come from, or have a thorny relationship with them. But when you think about the worlds we all wish we could go live in, they usually have one thing in common: strong groups, clubs, nations, cultures, affiliations, etc. That’s true of Twilight’s vampires, the crew of the USS Enterprise, and countless others.
A truly rich world contains a lot of intersecting and conflicting groups, each with their own languages and habits and interests. I’m a sucker for stories about relationships between groups, as well as within groups. The popularity of “sorting hat” stories like Divergent and “secret society” tales like Shadowhunters proves that the notion of belonging someplace is a hell of a drug. Whenever I write about people searching for their own identity (which is pretty much all the time), I’m mostly talking about finding your people.
How do you write about community? Pretty much, by writing about people. A strong supportive cast should include multiple members of any affinity group that is meaningful to your protagonist, so we can learn the rules of that group from those folks. If different members of the same subculture disagree about fundamental aspects of their shared rules or mores, so much the better. Minor characters can be colorful, or pissed off, or otherwise memorable in a “Dickensian tapestry” kind of way.
But also, none of those items you’re including in your worldbuilding—the food, the buildings, the items of clothing—are culture-neutral. They all come from a group of people, or are claimed by a particular set of people, or they’re just props.
I personally hate writing crowd scenes. If I have to write a moment involving more than two or three characters, I break out in hives. So the more I can do to establish a community through more intimate conversations, and individual relationships within the whole, the happier I tend to be. (Which is why, for example, Patricia spends a lot of time crossing swords one-on-one with Taylor, or Kawashima, or Ernesto, in All the Birds in the Sky.) A community, in the sense of a crowd, can be mostly off-screen, or even physically absent the entire time, as long as two people belong to it.
And of course, dialogue helps to sell worldbuilding in general—but especially the smaller groups within the world. Not only should you should work hard to avoid having all your characters talk the same, but characters who are members of different groups can use sayings, or turns of phrase, or jargon, that denote in-group membership.
Communities don’t just make worldbuilding richer. They also provide allies, and motivation, in the struggle to make things fairer. They’re what we fight for, and how we fight for it.
And this brings me to the final way that worldbuilding is about change: you never really finish building a world.
I often find worldbuilding needs to be done in several phases: some at the start, some as you go, and then a ton more as you revise. And while you’re adding layers and layers of history and everyday details, you also need to be subtracting everything that makes no sense or breaks everything else. Oftentimes, I’ll get to a part of the story and realize, “Oh shoot I need to figure out how this works before I can go any further.” During revision, I’ll often realize there are holes in the story, or something just doesn’t make sense, or I never explained how this thing works, or I don’t know how something works.
I might be happy with every single word on the printed page, after a book—god, I wish—but I’ll never stop adding details to the world in my head.
And that’s the magic of worldbuilding. It’s endless, and transformative, and full of layers, in both time and space. That complexity can be a means of escape, but also a tool of revolution.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.