The Invisible People








A couple weeks back I made a post on what I think of as the bricolage theory of worldbuilding. In part that was in response to a post by Kate Elliott that comes as worldbuilding from a different angle.

The questions she asks—like “Who is invisible?”—I think are interesting for readers as well as writers. Down in the comments, you can see my response: I point out that her questions are excellent for the writer who does worldbuilding from the top down. In other words, create the world, and then people it, and find a story to tell. But for those of us who tend to see the story first, then have to discover the world through revising a zillion times, it might be more useful to approach the question from the angle of, Who in this scene is invisible, and why?

When I talked about this with a couple of writers, one pointed out that long lists of worldbuilding questions are great for Writer A, but for Writer B, the eyes simply glaze—or anxiety takes over. “Oh noes,” Writer B howls, tearing her hair. “I have to do all this in order to spin a tale? That’s worse than a homework assignment in high school, because I have to make it all up!” All the fun of writing has just zipped right out the window.

For that writer, my suggestion is to boil it down to one question: Who is doing the work?

This runs parallel to historical bricolage. For every king leading a battle, there are those invisible people who trained that hero and those warriors, who made their battle gear and clothing, who furnished the beautiful castle the hero lived in, who raised their animals. Who tended the crops they are trampling through, who trail behind trying to cook the food they will eat.

By asking oneself Who? interesting layers of story might be uncovered. For example, the “who trained the hero” in a story set in Roman times might be Greek slaves. How much of Greek culture shaped that hero? The “who made the furniture” might be prized Renaissance artisans. Were they lured by promises of wealth, or captured and made to work?

Cultures are also shaped by their understanding of other cultures, either elsewhere or previous. I was startled into a new way of thinking as a college student by a professor who declared that Western culture of the twentieth century, in future, would be regarded as the people who could only make war and trash. We’d developed maximum efficiency in killing our fellow human, and planned obsolescence and assembly-line manufacturing was the direct cause of crummy furnishing, clothing, houses, and fast food, which in turn proliferated the rapidly growing waste dump. The 20th C’s footprint was not exactly artistic from that perspective.

That’s culture. Back to people, specifically the invisible people—the servants, and the old, and the women, most often.

This doesn’t mean the writer must stop the story to recount the biography of the kitchen crew. But a glimpse of the action from the perspective of the cook who has to provide provender for all those warriors, or the little kitchen slavey who has never held a weapon but is still sent to the front to keep the hero’s dishes clean in his tent, could make the difference between Yet Another Battle Tale and a story about a world that feels lived in.

Then, of course, the perspective of those who are usually silent can change everything. For example, what would the Iliad read like if retold purely from the point-of-view of Helen of Troy?

Sherwood Smith’s BVC ebooks (one of which has a shopkeeper’s daughter as a hero)



The Invisible People — 29 Comments

  1. We talked a bit about this at 4th Street Fantasy this year (and your stuff was mentioned multiple times, even). Point of view is important, especially points of view from people like, well, “the invisible people”.

    As far as the Helen of Troy example, there have been a couple of stabs at writing the story from her point of view, but nothing spectacularly done.

  2. One thing that turns me off a fantasy is poor worldbuilding, and mostly I mean by that that some writers think they can tell this kind of story with no social structure or economy. Such settings reminds me of Bored of the Rings and references to beings “in the forest with no visible means of support.” And you know, as much as I love LOTR, JRRT dropped the ball on that one. I guess some Elves live on starlight.
    Another thing that irritates me is lotsa folks living in luxury in pre industrial societies and never having to cook or clean, and there are no servants and no magical means explained as to why not.

    • I guess it can depend on what kind of tale the writer wants to tell. An allegory is usually set in a very stylized world, for example.

      And sometimes readers don’t really care if the world seems like a Hollywood backdrop. Their eye is on the characters, the world is mere window dressing. (That doesn’t work for us who want to look in the windows, rifle the drawers, and open the cupboards!)

      • Oh, yes, this! I am not always a reader who doesn’t care about the world, but I often am. I will follow characters that charm me through utterly nonsensical worlds. And if characters irk me I will abandon them no matter how beautiful and complex their world.

  3. Of course, there’s always the question of how much would be visible to the POV characters. “The butler did it” sorts of solution worked well because the POV characters would never think of thinking of the butler, but if the butler didn’t do it, why the POV characters would never think of him.

    • That’s part of the invisible people thing: the servants see most of the action, sometimes more, sometimes less, but the principals don’t think of them outside of their own needs.

      I think it’s this that makes TV series like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey so interesting to watch: everybody becomes potentially interesting, can carry the story.

  4. For every king leading a battle, there are those invisible people who trained that hero and those warriors, who made their battle gear and clothing, who furnished the beautiful castle the hero lived in, who raised their animals. Who tended the crops they are trampling through, who trail behind trying to cook the food they will eat.

    When you realize the importance of this, and when you realize that you have to understand, at least a little how they did these things, then you realize that fantasy novels require as much research as historical novels. None of it may end up showing (except in glimpses), but you have to know, in your own mind, where and how those people lived, if you want the world to feel real.

  5. After living on a homestead, I’ve become really committed to the idea of having characters be doing the usually invisible *work* of their world. Even in times of servants, the management of servants was something a mistress of the house could do badly or well. Fine arts like embroidery were maybe purely decorative, but decorative things put to use for the house, for dress.

    If you’ve got a post-apocalyptic world with magic, your mages are going to need to be acquiring food from someplace beside a supermarket, and preparing it will take up time.

    Of course, I totally agree with the above comments that not everyone needs to see more than a Hollywood set, and it depends on the book. I find the “invisible hands” idea, of how the servants in older novels were somewhat transparent, a fascinating thing. The story works, we know there are people there.

    Food is a preoccupation in a manuscript I’m working on, where the last set in the same world it goes almost unmentioned. It’s part POV. I know where the food comes from, but whether it gets into the text depends…

    But the work involved in daily life is largely ignored, and most people are involved in it–which can be a fascinating thing to look at.

    • Yeah–you can tell the authorial hand is a city-dweller in so many instances. It’s the little details, not only food, but how they travel, even how they think of time in relation to movement.

  6. A fascinating take on this is A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, both the novella and the film made from it. This would be the upstairs downstairs of the high Victorian era, though not the nobility or even lesser nobility, the untitled wealthy gentry, of the orders of Darwin’s family, part of the Wedgewood family fortune.

    Love, C.

  7. And then there is the question suggested in a comment above that the upper echelons may not be aware of the lower, or if they are, only very peripherally. Same goes for men in a very sexually segregated society. They really won’t know what’s happening on the other side of the door to the seraglio or the servants’ quarters, or care–unless it affects them directly.

    It can be really interesting to know something about the writer, and to see where the writer isn’t aware of being blind. One native SoCal writer I’ve worked with is pretty much a blank when it comes to weather. It’s not something they generally think about.

    And of course suburban American values get treated as universal, and it’s a rare American writer who is either aware of this fact or able to step outside of it into another world view.

  8. Or, where do people get their stuff? Modern Americans have a distorted view of acquisition, when it’s so easy to pop out to Walmart and buy a ten-pack of tube socks for $6. It is cheaper, for us, to buy new clothing than to mend it, almost cheaper to buy new than to -launder- it. It’s only when you read back, into older works, and notice that Laura Ingalls Wilder had -one- dress as a child. If she wanted kitchen cabinets, Almanzo had to design and build them for her.

  9. Worldbuilding doesn’t only involve world creation; the same applies to historical fiction. I have read stories where the medieval heroine has a bath whenever she feels like it, without a thought for how the water is to be heated and who is going to bring the cans of water in. I have come across a post Regency one where the noble hero locks his bedroom door at night; how is the housemaid to get in to light his fire in the morning? And in all too many there is an almost total lack of any kind of servant. A high-ranking Roman officer apparently polishes his own armour and empties his own chamber pot. An upper-middle-class Victorian household manages with a single indoor servant.

    It’s basically a lack of imagination. Pre 20th century, doing the laundry was a major undertaking; underclothes were white because they would be boiled and outer clothes could usually only be cleaned by sponging them. Carpets were cleaned by hanging them over a line and whacking them with a carpet beater (and somebody had to do that). I’m old enough to remember coal fires in the UK and the whole messy business of cleaning the grate and laying the fire; my mother had to do that before going out to work, but in the 19th century, in a prosperous enough household (which would include a bank clerk like Mr Pooter, whose job was, by the 20th century, done by a sheet of carbon paper and a “flimsy”), that would be a servant’s job.

    And armies… someone had to cook, and someone also had to manage the wagons carrying supplies. I’ve been trying to work out the logistics of supplying quite a small Anglo-Saxon army, and I think it’s going to have to be packhorses, given that ox carts could only manage about 5 miles per day, and that’s relying on decent roads. The more Invisible People are involved, the more convinced I am by the argument that only a minority of “Saxons” were incomers; they might have brought their families across but they wouldn’t have brought the hewers of wood and drawers of water. Judging from the finds I’ve seen, they certainly didn’t bring either carpenters or potters.

    Um, I’d better stop here or I’ll go on all day.

    • Oh yes. One of my earliest interests in this subject was coming across a book of margin scribbles by monks, who’d sketched tiny scenes from real life. While I adored the intricate art meant to focus the attention on otherworldly things, what lingered were these quick indications of everyday life as lived by ordinary people.

  10. And nobody has a grasp any more, of how DIRTY the past was. All your animals are defecating and urinating; all their food is shedding hay bits or dust or seeds; all your sources of heat are giving off ash, smuts and smoke during use and dust, sawdust, or grime before. None of your surfaces — none — were wipeable, and you had nothing but a rag to wipe with anyway. Anything you wanted to wash had to have water hauled in for washing and the used water (“slops”) hauled away again, and this is before you heat it or get into soap manufacture. And we haven’t even begun with parasites! Every item you owned, ate, used or touched, being a natural fiber or material, was a home for something — lice, bedbugs, fleas, germs.

    • And that’s not even going into the use of urine in leather and wool production. And they also miss out the ubiquitous pigs in medieval towns, wandering around eating all kinds of waste (and I do mean all kinds) and occasionally small children (on one occasion a sow and her litter were put on trial for murder. The sow was convicted and executed, but the piglets acquitted. The fact that she couldn’t speak for herself was of course irrelevant as a human wouldn’t have been allowed to anyway)

      • It makes you realize that OCD and obsessions with cleanliness are a totally modern ailment, as space-age as smartphone finger cramps. If you had that tendency in the 13th century you probably channeled it all into religious obsessions. There would be no possibility to become a Howard Hughes, shielding yourself from contamination.

  11. I highly recommend Diana Wynne Jones’s ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.’ It’s not only the funniest critique of Fantasy Tropes ever, it’s also a very wise guide on what to include in your worldbuilding, mainly by noting what far too many authors leave out. Food, for instance: all those invisible people (often serfs) who ensured that the lord could have his feasts.

    Another point: until recently, a wet year such as we’ve had in the UK would have meant famine. Survival was knife-edge, but how many fantasies appreciate that?

    love Maggie x

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