I have nothing against giant lumps of stone. I do, however, have something against monolithic worldbuilding: settings where every X precisely conforms to type Y, without any variation or change over time.
In its worst form this becomes the “Planet of Hats” trope, where every single person in a society shares some particular characteristic: they all wear a certain kind of hat, or are all hedonistic polyamorists, or they all obsessively watch the same sport. You saw this kind of thing most frequently on shows like Star Trek, where the story needed to visit a new planet every episode, and there wasn’t a lot of time available for exploring the nuances of the setting. But it’s still lazy worldbuilding, picking out one colorful characteristic and letting that suffice.
Of course, most prose fiction doesn’t go that far, especially once you’re past short story length and into more substantial works. But novels and even long series can still be prone to monolithic worldbuilding, not in the sense that they define an entire society by one quirk, but in the sense that a given aspect of the society is the same for everybody.
Since the previous essays this month were about religion, let’s use that as our example. Take the religion of Christianity, and describe what it’s like.
Odds are good that you began describing a particular type of Christianity — probably the one you’re the most familiar with — or else you immediately ran aground on the question of, “which type?” Are we talking Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodox? If Protestantism, Lutheran, Methodist, Quakers . . . ? Even within a denomination, there are variants. This skit by the comedian Emo Philips drives the point home (starting a little past the two minute mark): not just Christian, but northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes region Council of 1912.
The differences can be anything from tiny and obscure to big enough to start wars over. The point is that the differences are there. Even if every person on this planet were Christian, we would be different types of Christian. Irish Catholicism has notable differences from Mexican Catholicism from Filipino Catholicism, because of the way the religion has interacted with local history and culture, often absorbing things like specific festivals and practices or even pagan gods.
That historical element is important not just because it explains variation across space, but because it creates depth in time as well. Very few things about human culture are static; how things are done now is not necessarily how they were done in times past, even without major sea-changes like Vatican II to introduce alteration. And when those come in, some people will embrace them, while others will decry them as newfangled innovations or the corruption of modern times.
Even on an individual level, you can see differences. Some Irish Catholics are intensely devout, and some wouldn’t even be able to tell you the last time they went to confession. Some Catholics are deeply educated in theology and scripture, while others just know what to do when they attend Mass. Paying attention to this kind of thing isn’t merely good for avoiding stereotyping of characters; it’s also good worldbuilding.
This applies to a lot more than religion, of course. People here in the U.S. don’t all wear the same clothing — and even once you drill down all the way to the large subset of us who wear jeans and t-shirts, one look in a store will show you there’s a lot of subtle variation in the cut and material and color of the jeans, the decoration of the shirts. Fashion is all about those differences, and I more or less don’t believe in a society that doesn’t have fashion of some kind, unless it’s blatantly meant to be some kind of allegorical dystopia. (But these essays are generally written on the assumption that you’re trying to create a realistic-seeming setting, with speculative elements.)
Having said that, let’s acknowledge the counter-argument: what’s the point of introducing variation? A fantasy or science fiction novel is already throwing all kinds of new things at the reader; adding variation on top of that just increases the burden even more. Keeping things simple and singular is easier, and lets you save your effort and the reader’s attention and memory for the things that matter.
I freely grant that this argument has merit. Even the most sincere fictional effort will fall short of real-world complexity anyway, and diving off into variations can look like failure of continuity if you aren’t careful. But there are times and places where you can leverage that variation for narrative benefit.
For example, in A Natural History of Dragons, I was able to use the differences between Magisterial Segulism and Bayitist Segulism to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that both of them are based on Judaism (rabbinical and Temple, respectively), because my Magisterial narrator traveled to a Bayitist country and had some culture shock as a result. Furthermore, by pointing out that Segulism as practiced in the mountainous hinterlands of Vystrana was not exactly the orthodox theology one might find in more central regions, I was able to get away with having the local priest enact a ritual that maybe didn’t quite ring true to either my characters or my Jewish readers: rural traditions are often a bit idiosyncratic, not to say borderline heretical.
It all depends on looking at any given bit of worldbuilding and asking: how could some difference here add to the rest of the story? Does it give me an opening for some necessary exposition? Can I create tension by having two characters disagree over the proper rules of a game? Can I use regional food traditions as grounds for one person to admire another, or mock them? How can my heroine betray her lower-class origins by misstepping in what she thought was a familiar dance?
The more you look for these opportunities, the easier they are to spot. And then you wind up creating plot twists or moments of confrontation that aren’t quite as predictable, because they haven’t appeared a thousand times already in other novels, and couldn’t be subbed into a thousand more without a ripple. They’re specific to your story, your setting — and all the more interesting for that.