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Worldbuilding Week Day Three: Politics and Culture

Worldbuilding Week

Welcome to the second annual Worldbuilding Week at QSF. We’ll talk about all aspects of building a world for your story, including languages; alien/magical races; history and timelines; culture and politics; sex, marriage and reproduction; and tools and techniques. It should be a lot of fun.

Today we’re talking about culture and politics, and Lloyd A. Meeker will be our moderator. Here’s my take:

There are really only two over-arching questions for you to answer in your world-building task: 1) How is it different from the familiar world? 2) How is it similar to the familiar world?

Very often a writer will create a different world in order to address a very familiar human issue in a fresh way. Ursula LeGuin and Ray Bradbury are masters in this. Their stories often address core issues of human nature through exploration of culture or politics of a different world, but manage to expose the issue in a way recognizable to the reader.

So you have a story that can only occur in an alternate world. Why? Those are your differences. But you want readers to fall into your story word and stay there until you’re done. How? By making the world similar enough to their own that they grok the significance of what’s happening. (Thank you, Robert Heinlein!)

Okay. You have fabulous differences, with magic or solar systems or space ships or species. How is your world similar to ours? Cultural and political elements hold powerful keys for you.

I’m going to leave the difference part of the equation to you. Let your imagination run amok! Instead, I’m going to concentrate on the similarity side of the equation, because I think it’s the most important. And yes, that’s just my opinion. I believe the differences exist to illuminate the similarities.

The way I see it, the difference aspect appeals first to the imagination and intellect, and the similarity aspect appeals first to the humanity of our emotions. That’s not necessarily true in any absolute either/or sense, but think about the suggestion as a possible way to give depth to your world-building.

I think you have to have a balance of both difference and similarity for your world to be effective. If what you’ve created is too familiar, a reader is going to wonder why you bothered creating a different world, and if it’s too different you may end up with a world that readers don’t relate to enough to engage them emotionally.

After all, who cares if your six-legged kstaltic grul’bok has a three-day mating season every ten years (and while usually docile herbivores they become insatiable carnivores when they mate) unless it means something to the characters in your story? So maybe that three-day mating season marks the peak of the most important religious festival of your culture, featuring the ritual execution of heretics who are fed to it? And your protagonist is a religious renegade?

Our politics and our culture are defined by three basic vectors: power, status, and desire for change. Figure out how these primal elements coalesce or collide in your story world, and your readers will follow you anywhere.

So here are some anthropological questions that might help you unpack the cultural and political dimensions of your created world.

  • Is your basic power structure hierarchical or collaborative?
  • What is valued by that power structure?
  • Who has the power? What is the class structure? What are their functions?
  • Does the culture have occasional fads of madness? (Think of The Beatles, or the Dutch tulip bulb craze, or when swan feathers were more than worth their weight in gold.)
  • What confers status? Birth? Military rank? Heroic exploits? Wealth? Beauty? Creativity? Athletic prowess? Age? Kindness?
  • Are there religions? What role do they play in the power structure?
  • Upon what does the status quo depend?
  • Who is oppressed? What hope do they have of relief?
  • Where is the spirit of community strongest? Weakest? Is it valued?
  • What is the power structure’s relationship with the natural world – extractive domination as in ours, or collaborative and respectful stewardship?
  • What, besides money, is a valuable currency? In our culture youth and physical beauty are valuable currencies. What if a culture valued other qualities with the same devotion that ours values youth and beauty?
  • What are the pastimes/delicacies/indulgences of the rich? Of the working class? Of the oppressed?
  • What is the lifespan of the working class? Of the poor or outcasts?
  • What is the education like for the classes?
  • What holds the greatest potential for changing status? Athletic scholarship? Discovery on a popular game show? Lottery? Meritocracy? Financial skullduggery? Artistic creativity? Self-sacrifice? Mana (spiritual power)?

Have fun with your world-building, and remember—the best science fiction and fantasy, no matter how unusual the world it’s set in, shows us something uncomfortably true about our own. And perhaps, even—hopefully—it will light a candle for social change here and now.

Here’s the schedule for the week – each day will have a moderator to help keep moving things along and to supply their own tips and point of view.

Tues 7/26: Languages, Moderator: Loren Rhoads

Wed 7/27: Alien/Magical Races, Moderator: J. Scott Coatsworth

Thurs 7/28: Culture/Politics, Moderator: Lloyd Meeker

Fri 7/29: Sex, Marriage, Reproduction, Moderator: Roger Lovelace

Sat 7/30: Tools and Techniques, Moderator, Moderator: A. Catherine Noon

Sun 7/31: Religion, Moderator: Jenna Hale

It’s a freeform discussion – pop in and ask your questions or share your wisdom – or both!

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