You’ve seen them before:
The pseudo-medieval world complete with rustic taverns and sword-wielding thugs; the desolate post-apocalyptic world where rugged survivors fight among the ruins of fallen civilizations; the white and sterile world of the generation spaceship, sailing through blackest space.
You’ve seen them; I’ve seen them; and gate-keeping editors and agents have seen A LOT of them.
As writers, it’s not always the case that we write what we KNOW but that we write what we’ve READ. And seen on television and in movies.
Most lovers of fantasy have spent happy hours in the kind of world originated by Tolkien and others of his ilk: a world of ox-carts and flagons of mead, of battle-axes, horses, and torches to light the hero or heroine’s way. Name the genre, and any of us could rattle off its common world-building tropes. And many of us don’t push ourselves to stray past those familiar—and comfortable—conventions.
My question: why not? Instead of a typical medieval, dystopian, or even a typical contemporary world, why can’t your novel’s physical landscape be something else entirely?
Often, I’ll challenge people to play with the most ridiculous ideas they can imagine: a world made of toast, an upside down world, a world made of ice or one that exists in the spot on a butterfly’s wing. A world where people live underwater or up in trees?
How about a world that exists as a flat disc, balanced on the backs of four elephants, which stand atop a giant turtle? Or a world that exists within the threads of an heirloom rug?
Crazy, right? But two authors--Terry Pratchett (Discworld) and Clive Barker (Weaveworld)--might argue otherwise. They pushed themselves to dream deeper, to create something singular and idiosyncratic and then to create plausible worlds and social orders within these fantastic realms.
The best writers challenge their assumptions—about genre, about setting, about “typical” human behavior or stereotypes. They challenge themselves to create rich and powerful language that is at least a little different from the language employed by other writers. They unleash their specific and powerful perspectives upon the page. So why not do this for the world of your stories?
It’s easier, of course, to do what’s been done. A pseudo-medieval fantasy world works for so many reasons. It makes it more plausible that journeys can take a very long time, that people need to wield knives and swords rather than just blasting each other with guns. A spaceship is probably going to look a certain way to maximize its efficiency. A contemporary high school in California is probably going to reflect what we know of contemporary high schools.
Creating something truly different on the page requires a much deeper plan for the novel as a whole. The physics of an ice world are different from the physics of a typical medieval earth. Traveling, eating, social relationships—all will be very different in a world that takes place in the trees than in a slightly futuristic version of our own. The conflicts that will emerge from these settings are different from the conflicts that will emerge from worlds more like our own.
Of course, to quote Tom Hanks in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, “It’s the hard that makes it great!” Pushing yourself to dig in deeper, to let your imagination really soar, to examine the expectations of a world—fantasy or realistic—and find ways to subvert those expectations, is difficult and time-consuming, but it can also pay off by setting your story and your world apart from the thousands of submissions plopping into an agent’s inbox on a daily basis.
And more importantly, it can give readers something absolutely new and fresh, if only an unexpected twist on the overly familiar. It can light them up inside, give them a fresh way of looking at their own lives and their own hearts, and isn’t that what the best novels do?
So, I’ll leave you with these questions (and would love to see your answers in comments if you’d like to chime in!):
What authors’ worlds really live in your imagination, and why?
What’s different about the world YOU’RE creating?
How does your world impact your protagonist’s journey in the story?
How does it contribute to your story’s conflicts?
What three things can you do to take your world from the expected to the unexpected, to surprise or delight the reader in some small—or large way?
Are you willing to do it?