New Worlds Theory Post: World as Palimpsest

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

The last time we had a bonus essay, I railed against monolithic worldbuilding: settings where there is only one religion that everyone practices in exactly the same way, or only one kind of fashion, or only one sport, which absolutely everybody in that society is obsessed with.

One of the ways to get yourself out of that gear is to think about the world as a palimpsest.

That word comes to us from the manuscript tradition, where it constitutes an early form of recycling: rather than buying new parchment, which was expensive, you might scrape an existing page clean and write on it again. But sometimes the earlier text is still faintly visible — in fact, with modern technology we’ve got an amazing ability to read what used to be there — and so the term “palimpsest” also has the broader connotation of a material that’s been worked and reworked, with traces of previous versions lingering into later iterations.

In worldbuilding terms, then, what I mean is that any given society is going to have bits and pieces of older practices, traditions, and beliefs layered atop one another. I touched on this in the “Against Monoliths” essay, saying that “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.” Those bits it has absorbed? Those are the traces lingering beneath the current text.

If you look back through previous New Worlds essays, you’ll see this cropping up again and again in the corners. Take superstitions: in some cases you can potentially explain those ideas as being remnants of earlier conditions, e.g. breaking a mirror is bad luck because silvered glass mirrors used to be incredibly expensive and rare. Or a writing system might have originated with a different language, and so it has odd inconsistencies and infelicities that make it not quite match the language it’s now being used to write. Or ceremonial religious garb might preserve the clothing style of a thousand years ago — witness the shōzoku robes worn by Shintō priests, which are straight out of ancient China, by way of Heian-era Japan.

Thinking about your world as a palimpsest means thinking about history and change over time. Have there been wars? Changes of government? Religious movements? Technological innovations? Alterations in climate? (Renaissance fashion in Europe has been linked to the Little Ice Age; now historical re-enactors in Texas have to suffer through wearing clothing that was never meant for 100+ degree weather.) It helps you avoid the stereotypically static world of old epic fantasy, where there was often one cataclysmic event in the far-distant past, and then nothing changed from then until the present day.

It also prompts you to think about culture contact, since that can be a major driver of change and combination. A conquered city is going to be a patchwork and/or blending of the colonizers’ ways with indigenous ones. Meanwhile, the capital of the colonizers’ land will probably experience an influx of material and entertainment from their new possession. A major trade port will be a melange of languages, clothing styles, cuisines, and other elements from a broad array of places. Conversely, if you lose access to a trading partner, particular things will suddenly become rare and expensive, so that people hoard what remains.

And here’s the best part of this trick: you don’t have to work out all the details.

Take that hypothetical trade port. You don’t need to know everything about trading routes and the governments of the countries those materials come from — or even where they are on the map. In our palimpsest metaphor, those have been scraped away, leaving only traces. You can just say the man your heroine goes to meet “was wearing an absurd, broad-brimmed hat from Myrsaddra that hid his eyes from view,” and Myrsaddra never has to be anything other than a name mentioned in passing. If the other names you mention along the way are Ynyscwn, Cyfallt, and Anghorwn, those additional traces will give me the subconscious impression that there’s some other country they trade with a lot where the names are kind of Welsh. But if the hat is from Myrsaddra and then the guy is selling Yingtai peppers and your character pays with gold Sabasaamwe marks, I’m going to imagine a much broader trade network.

The same thing is true with the historical aspect of your palimpsest. If your heroine goes to visit a woman who marks herself as fashionable by serving coffee to guests instead of tea, neither you the author nor I the reader need to know what changed to bring coffee into this society. (Or was it always there, and it’s only recently become fashionable for some other reason?) If the government of your trade city is called the Council, a character can go into “a block old pre-Council building” without needing an explanation for why the architectural styles shifted.

These days, when I’m building a setting for a novel, it’s almost become a conscious habit to try and think of three or four different “layers” to the society. Maybe there are two big historical events, one in the semi-recent past (the last hundred years or so) and one more distant (five hundred years ago), plus it’s a border city that has frequent contact with the country on the other side. Or it sits on the confluence of two rivers and receives shipment from a couple of other lands, and it used to be a big military fortification but has grown well past its walls and the defenses are crumbling. Or a new religion is on the rise, plus an influx of refugees from another land has brought in new people with new craft trades and their own religious practices, and there’s the remnants of an aristocratic class that retain a lot of their privileges even though the laws backing those privileges were abolished by a revolution seventy years ago.

Such an approach isn’t much different from how I build political frameworks, where I often map out a small number of major factions, with a general sense of what they want and where their power comes from. Doing that early on means that later I can smash them together as needed to come up with events or character conflicts or whatever else I might need. Mapping out a few layers of change and contrast for the society, whether those are introduced by history or foreign contact or what have you, means that when I need some kind of descriptive detail it’s easy to spin it out of the framework already in place.

And because it is a framework, the details will feel like they assemble to form — or at least hint at — a larger picture. The reader may not be able to read the whole historical text underneath the story you’re telling, but they’ll believe it’s there.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds Theory Post: World as Palimpsest — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds Theory Post: World as Palimpsest - Swan Tower

  2. I mean, obviously I’m in complete agreement here 😛

    I think the challenge can be to make this sort of worldbuilding seem considered and deliberate, rather than a jumbled melange. Part of that comes down to balancing your showing and telling. I tend to fail on the showing side — I take an anthropological approach where I tend to drop these details in without explanation, even if I know where they’re coming from, because my characters might NOT know anything beyond ‘it’s always been that way’. I’ve had several beta-readers tell me that I could probably stand to do a bit more telling.

    On the other hand, I think the palimpsest approach can be an excellent way to break free of having your story read like a game system (the ‘dice on the page’ issue). When I read something that has very logical systems (magic, religion, politics, economics, etc) with no hiccups, gaps, or inconsistencies, I find them less believable.

    Which is really amusing, because game systems like D&D are their own kind of palimpsests of previous iterations. Can anyone say ‘bulette’?

    • I almost did this month’s theory post on How to Exposition — only held back because I think that’s going to take two posts, and if I do it now they’ll wind up split between two collections. So I’m saving those for Year Three of the Patreon. 🙂

      And yeah, “real cultures aren’t totally logical and consistent” is also on the list of theory topics to hit. If it’s perfectly machined and works the same way all the time, it feels fake.

      Can anyone say ‘bulette’?

      <lol> Fair point! I remember reading a discussion of how the meaning of the Wisdom stat has changed over various editions . . . which is part of why it’s kind of nonsensical now.