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New Worlds Theory Post: Slipping Through the Cracks

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Having spent the last two theory essays talking about the importance of thinking through your worldbuilding decisions, making sure the ramifications make sense and are what you want to be saying . . . now I’m going to turn around and say, honestly, the real world is often a mess.

These aren’t actually contradictory positions, mind you. It’s up to you to decide how messy you want your setting to be. If what interests you is a heavily schematic system in which absolutely all people and jobs and governments and martial arts styles all fall neatly under the purview of one of seven color-coded gods, you can do that! Not everything is aiming for anthropological verisimilitude, nor is that the only kind of good worldbuilding out there. Ultimately, “good worldbuilding” is worldbuilding that supports a good story; what I’ve been advocating before is simply making sure you don’t accidentally boot the reader out by making them trip over an obvious illogicality or offensive implication you didn’t intend to put there.

But you know, sometimes illogicalities happen in the real world. The United States was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, then proceeded to hold quite a lot of men in chattel slavery and subject others to genocidal policies, all on the principle that they weren’t really equal with the whites running the show. Many religions extol the virtues of peace, then turn around and kill people en masse.

It doesn’t even have to be at that blatant level, though. One of the things baby anthropologists learn in their classes is, you can’t just ask people how their culture handles XYZ, then take those answers at face value. Dentists know this, too: the reported rates of flossing and actual dental health do not match up. Sometimes (as in the case of flossing) people will give an optimistic answer because they’re embarrassed to admit the truth. Other times, they genuinely believe what they say . . . because we’re very good at deluding ourselves, remembering a rosier version of what we’ve done than the historical record would show.

When it comes to culture, we often answer according to what we’ve been taught and what we believe to be true, rather than stopping to consider the reality on the ground. Our brains rely on shortcuts to cope with all the information hurtling at us every waking second; this is one of them. But when it comes to worldbuilding, there’s merit in looking for the gaps, the slippages, the exceptions to the rule. Because not only can those bring narrative complexity, they make what you’re presenting to the reader feel more real.

The way to do this is to start by laying out what the rules are — whatever field those rules may apply to. Could be religion, could be government, could be gender, whatever. Next, ask yourself questions: what do these rules fail to cover? Where are the edge cases, and what additional rules (if any) have been grafted on to patch those gaps? How might a determined person circumvent the rules? Are these rules old, and society has shifted to a point where it pays lip service to the official method of doing things, while actually going another way? (Think for example of titular monarchs who wield little to no power in their own governments, the real business being handled by a prime minister or a shogun or an elected body of representatives.)

Let’s take an example from the video game Dragon Age: Origins. Part of the narrative there introduces you to dwarven society, which is divided into hereditary castes: there’s your starting rule. But soon after, you learn there’s a slippage, which is that children inherit the caste status of their same-sex parent — so if two parents of different castes have kids, it’s possible to effect a generational crossing of that boundary. And since people are reluctant to abandon their parents, the lower-caste one will often get to enjoy many of the pleasures of a higher-caste life, even if their legal status hasn’t changed. Furthermore, it’s possible for an individual with great achievements to be officially elevated to a higher caste, via a vote of the governing Assembly, which may also improve the caste status of their immediate family.

That’s the framework, which already complicates the simple picture of castes as rigid, inescapable categories. You can easily imagine more: if a child inherits the status of their same-sex parent, what happens when transgenderism comes into the picture? (Especially if living as their identified gender, rather than the assigned one, would mean a drop in status.) What kinds of lies and shenanigans might come into play around claiming a certain person as your parent, when it has these kinds of legal implications? What measures do higher-caste families engage in to ensure their sons and daughters don’t canoodle with the Wrong Sort of People? Has it been a suspiciously long time since the Assembly voted to elevate a worthy individual, despite the laws on the books? What kinds of worthiness earn that recognition, and what kinds are ignored? Are there places or times where caste boundaries are temporarily laid aside, a la the Western tradition of Carnival?

You may wind up with a situation where yeah, there’s a rule for how to handle this, and the rule applies . . . fifty-five percent of the time? Maybe sixty? Probably not for something as official and pervasive as a caste system, since if it gets that weak, the laws upholding it are likely to be abolished. But it is actually just fine to present the reader with a world where the party line for how things work and the reality on the ground don’t match up. In fact, it’s more realistic.

Mind you, I do recommend saving this kind of messiness for elements that are going to be highly pertinent to the story, because it requires you to devote some attention to first establishing the official version, then showing the places where that breaks down. (Either that, or you dismiss it in a quick throwaway line.) Even then, you may get readers who read this as inconsistency on your part — as if your story is a game of Calvinball, with the rules changing on a whim. It helps if you, the author, have a clear sense of why those exceptions and edge-case rules exist, what greater underlying whole or historical shift in circumstances they reflect.

Which is annoying — because in the real world, the answers to such questions are usually something only anthropologists have to think about!

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds Theory Post: Slipping Through the Cracks”

  1. “When it comes to culture, we often answer according to what we’ve been taught and what we believe to be true, rather than stopping to consider the reality on the ground. ”

    This is so true! teaching English as another language in London has made that very clear to me; part of what I do is cultural education, and the questions the students ask me (and stopping to think about them and realising the answer I was about to give, or have given before, isn’t right) have me realise a lot about my own culture, esp when it comes to class markers.

  2. Yeah, in fairness, it’s not just anthropologists who have to think about this! I’ll tweak that wording for the annual collection.

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