Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.33: Writing Imperfect Worlds

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

How do you write a setting in which the status quo is one with which you deeply disagree? How do you create a conflict of this sort without being overtly pedantic or preachy? In this episode we talk about creating engaging worlds while worldbuilding around—and yes, over—landmines.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take a wish-fulfillment character, and place them on the lowest rung of the power structure.

Thing of the week: The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Writing a setting where underlying ideas aren’t what you believe? Imperfect, flawed worlds, with cultural ideas or norms that you don’t agree with? We write these to help understand the imperfections of our world and how to solve them. Popular genre, with a flawed, imperfect society that is clearly unfair as the big bad guy. Take an imperfection in our world and push it. If you are writing historicals, beware of telling the reader that “this is okay.” You might try to lampshade it, to have the protagonist stand against the prevailing attitudes. But they need to have spots where they are ignorant or unaware, which they confront. Fiction about imperfect worlds can give us a script, a lens, that we can use in the real world. When writing stories in a historical period or fantasy world, don’t just pretend that problems weren’t there, don’t rewrite history by ignoring the issues. Instead, be aware of the unjust imbalances, the ramifications, the external costs. To write a character who is a realistic product of a society with biases we would consider reprehensible, make sure to include someone who can call them on their bullshit. Give the reprehensible traits real consequences. Think through why they have these beliefs or opinions. Don’t give the protagonist a pass on their imperfect views just because they are the protagonist.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 33.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Imperfect Worlds.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] I’m going to ask you, how do you write a setting in which the pervasive ideas, cultural ideas or cultural norms, are not ones that you think should be?

[Mary Robinette] That’s basically my entire existence with every piece of fiction I write because I am a woman in modern-day America.


[Howard] You said imperfect. Any piece of nonfiction is inherently going to be the writing of an imperfect world. I would say that the question you’re asking is more along the lines of writing deeply flawed worlds.

[Brandon] Yes.

[Howard] In order to help us… And I guess this isn’t part of your question, it’d be part of my answer… You write these in order to help us better understand the imperfections of our own world and how we might go about solving them.

[Margaret] Well, I think we’ve seen a lot of popularity of this genre in recent world… In recent years. I mean, what else is something like The Hunger Games? They’ve created this deeply flawed, imperfect society that is clearly unfair. It exists to give Katniss something that’s worth fighting against. It’s… There’s that… You’re setting up a big bad guy and there’s no bigger bad guy than society.

[Mary Robinette] Handmaid’s Tale is another good example. A lot of times what you’re looking at here is taking an imperfection in our world and pushing it, when you’re creating a science fictional society. I write a lot of historical stuff, which is going into areas where… Like the 1950s, Jim Crow is still very much a thing. The Glamorous Histories. Regency England, which we all love, is built on a base of slavery. So these are things that… One of the challenges is writing it in such a way that it doesn’t tell the reader this is okay and valorizes it.

[Brandon] Right.

[Margaret] I know one time when Madman was coming out, I think it was like season one or season two, and I watched a couple of episodes. I’m like, “Hey, mom, have you ever watched Madman?” Her response was, “No, thank you. I lived it.” I had… It’s not necessarily the imperfect world. Eh, it is not relevant. I need not cite this example.

[Brandon] Right. Okay. So, I would say the first thing that I have tried when I did this is kind of lampshade it. It can be difficult because I think your first instinct is to have your protagonist be the person who is not as sexist or racist or ist as the culture around them. Which, to be perfectly honest, I’m okay with picking up a story and then reading it and being like, “Oh.” Because there were people, even back in Regency times, who were like, “This is not okay.”

[Mary Robinette] The anti-… The whole abolitionist movement there.

[Brandon] That is certainly one approach to it, and I actually kind of appreciate, like, Mary, that you walk that line. I would say a lot of times your protagonists are several steps further along than the average person, but they are… They still have blind spots that they end up usually getting confronted by in the story. So it’s not this perfect character who has no problems, but at the same time, it makes me sympathetic towards the character because at least they have the blinders a little bit further open. It kind of makes me think, “You know, I probably still have my blinders on to an extent.”

[Mary Robinette] In fact, you’re doing that right now, with blinder and blind as a pejorative term.

[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Which is one of those things that I have worked very hard to train out of my own vocabulary, and talk about spots where I’m ignorant. Spots where I have lack of knowledge or lack of awareness. But it is… It’s very easy when you’re writing these to trip up on stuff that society has imprinted you with. So one of the fun things about doing this, one of the reasons to do that, is to interrogate these things and to look at them and sort of hold them up to the lens and use science fiction and fantasy to tip them to the side.

[Margaret] For me, where I hit the line is where I’m reading a book… Because sometimes it’s fun to read books that take place in worlds that are not like ours. That’s why we read fantasy and science fiction. Sometimes it’s even fun to read stories in a pseudo-medieval setting where gender equity is stepped back from where it is today, shall we say? For me, where I reach the line is where I start to feel as if I’ve started to read a Prussian porn. It’s like this was just written to talk about oh, how terrible it was to be X in X time, or in this scenario. I love Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion books. It’s like there is a lot of sexism and allusion to sexual violence in those. It’s not explicit, but there is this kind of threat of your main character being a woman, there’s stuff that she is worried about. For me, that doesn’t cross the line. Everyone places their lines in different places where there comfortable reading, but it’s not a story that’s about like, “Oh, no, I’m going out into the world. What’s going to happen to me now?”

[Howard] In the… Around 2015, the Schlock Mercenary installments, our cast finds a giant, abandoned station if you will, world-sized, that makes them incredibly wealthy. In the 2018-2019 installments, the original inhabitants turn out to never have left and they want their stuff back. Yes, you can take a step back and look at this and say, “Oh, my gosh, this is exactly like what would happen if the indigenous peoples of the Americas or Australia or wherever rose up and demanded all of their land back. What would we do?” Well, it’s not exactly like that. But having the protagonist deal with it in a way that says, “You know what, they’re right. This isn’t my stuff. It’s their stuff. Not a whole lot I can do about that.” We now have an enormous debt, which is part of our plot problem. The story is not about returning things to indigenous peoples. The story is about we made an enormous budgeting mistake and now we have problems to solve. It’s fun to write and having a protagonist who recognizes, “Oh. Somebody lives here. Actually still does live here.” And immediately said, “Well, okay. That’s…”

[Mary Robinette] A lot of times what I think fiction is doing, and especially when we’re dealing with imperfect worlds, is it’s giving us a script that we can use and take into the real world. One of the things that I do that is actually the opposite of writing imperfect world is that I tend to write happily committed married couples. I do that because I so rarely see it in fiction. I see a lot of people who have taken their social cues from these narratives about men who are stalkers and men who are abusive. It’s like that’s not the relationship that you should be aiming for. So when you deal with an imperfect world and you have a character who is coming to grips with their own imperfections, it gives the reader a script and a lens with which to interrogate their own stuff. I know that I… That’s certainly one of the things, the side effects, that happens when I read. It is one of the things that I think fiction and science fiction and fantasy particularly do very well.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is actually Mary’s book.

[Mary Robinette] Right.


[Mary Robinette] I’ve been talking a lot, but I’ll talk some more. So, The Fated Sky is the second book in my Lady Astronaut series. The reason I suggested this book for the book of the week is because it is set in the 1950s. It is set in the heart of the civil rights era. It is dealing with a lot of the problems that are inherent in the world at that time. My main character, Elma, is not actually a completely reliable narrator. It’s first person narration. There’s another character who has been her antagonist for the entire book. As this book unfolds, we find that as she is interrogating her assumptions, that… And he is interrogating his, that there is… There’s actually more common ground than either of them thought. But the big thing for me with this is the idea of the narratives that we bring into relationships. That when we are describing our relationships to someone else, it’s like, “Oh. I hate him, he hates me.” That’s the narrative. That’s part of what happens with an imperfect world is that it’s built by people who come with their own narratives that they’re applying to just stuff that happens.

[Brandon] I haven’t read the second one yet, but I’ve read the first one. The first one deals with the same sort of thing, and I loved it.

[Mary Robinette] Thank you.

[Brandon] It is one of those… It was just really, really interesting and fun to read, and eye-opening at the same time.

[Mary Robinette] I suppose I should mention that this is a book about going to Mars in the 1950s when women are the computers because we don’t… Haven’t miniaturized computers yet.

[Margaret] But with punchcards.

[Mary Robinette] With punchcards.

[Brandon] It’s an alternate history.

[Mary Robinette] An alternate history. And imperfect… There is an entire chapter that is nothing but clean… Zero G toilet repair.

[Brandon] Awesome.


[Mary Robinette] Selling point.

[Howard] Do you use the word milk dud?

[Mary Robinette] No, but we do talk about satellites in orbit.

[Howard] Okay.


[Brandon] So. Veering back…


[Margaret] I’m just remembering all of the rocketry euphemisms in the first book. I’m like, what euphemism?

[Brandon] What do you guys… Do you have an opinion on stories that are set in a historical period or in a fantasy world that just tries to pretend the problem was never there? Meaning people who want to write a steampunk story and just say, “You know what, we’re going to write an alternate history version where this isn’t an issue.” Or people who write a fantasy novel, where they say, “You know what, in my world, racism just isn’t an issue. We’re not going to deal with it.”

[Mary Robinette] The thing is… There are parts of me that love these optimistic visions of the world. I think when you’re doing steampunk and doing that, you actually have to move it to a different world. You can’t just erase history. That is deeply problematic. It’s taking a lot of people’s pain and going, “Ah, I just don’t want to deal with your pain, so I’m not going to. I’m not going to acknowledge that you’ve been hurt. I’m just going to… Goggles, dresses, and overalls! Whee!”

[Brandon] Right. Can I… I don’t want to… But this is… This is something that is very natural to start doing, and is a place where you might end up having to confront some of your biases because natural human instinct is, “Oh, I’ll make it better. Isn’t it just better…”

[Margaret] If that never happened?

[Brandon] If that never happened?

[Mary Robinette] While, yes, that would be… It did happen. The other thing that I would say has just slipped out of my head, so, Margaret, you talk, since you had a thing you wanted to say.

[Margaret] I was saying that I don’t want to say that you can… It’s like, “Oh.” I think a trap that one can fall into in, say, steampunk or historical period, and you know that racism was a problem or sexism was a problem, but you don’t want to deal with that. The way to not deal with not dealing with that is to not have, say, any characters of color in your book, so that lets you ignore racism.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Margaret] That’s a bad way of dealing with that.

[Mary Robinette] Don’t do that.

[Margaret] I mean, clearly, if you’re doing steampunk, you’re creating an alternate history. There were not giant rail lines of flying zeppelins. I don’t even know why you’d have a rail line if you were flying, but… 

[Mary Robinette] But still… 

[Margaret] Whatever, it wasn’t there. But if that’s the only thing you’ve changed, and everybody is also still white and upper-class and… Who is shoveling coal and how are we thinking about this?

[Mary Robinette] That, for me, is the thing that… Unfortunately, as a species, we tend to just always other people. If we’re not going to do it along race lines or gender lines, we’re going to find something else. There is always, unfortunately, going to be oppression. I wish that that were not the case, but I find it difficult to believe that there wouldn’t be some form of oppression. So when you decide that it’s like, “You know what, I’m not going to have racism.” But there will still be some other… It’s like there’s something, unfortunately, is going to fill that gap. There’s going to be…

[Howard] There needs to be an unjust imbalance somewhere.

[Mary Robinette] There’s going to be ramifications of that choice.

[Margaret] It’s ignoring the fact that this lifestyle was made possible because of an oppressed underclass.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. Honestly, folks, and this is uncomfortable truth to hear, it’s still the case.

[Margaret] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Like, the majority of the wealth in the world is in the United States, and even if you are poor, there are people in the world who are supporting your lifestyle who have it worse than you.

[Howard] There’s a concept that super useful for trying to understand the unjust imbalances. Marginalizations. That is the concept of an external cost. If you want to write a flawed society, think about what the external cost is. A good example of external cost is secondhand smoke. I want to smoke. Yes, it cost me something, and it also makes everyone around me uncomfortable, and it changes the smell of the room, and that one’s kind of obvious. What if the cigarette smoker couldn’t get cancer, and there is no primary cost for them? Suddenly, we have an unjust imbalance that’s really unjust. So look at external costs, and as you are creating your society, your secondary world fantasy, your far-flung future, ask yourself who benefits from the external cost and who is paying the external cost unjustly.

[Brandon] So, last question along this topic. You want to write a protagonist who is a product of their society, and therefore has certain biases that we would consider reprehensible. You don’t want to… Say you’re writing a historical novel. You want to be realistic, although sometimes realism is used as an excuse for things, as we’ve talked about before. But you want to… You want to be realistic. You don’t want this character to be villainous, but you also want them to be a product of their society. Any tips?

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I do is to always have someone that can comment or call them on their bullshit.

[Brandon] Okay.

[Mary Robinette] Because that’s one of the ways that you can let the reader know that this character is reprehensible, but that you are not giving approval to that. Because there’s a difference between the character being reprehensible and the text saying that that reprehensible trait is a good and positive thing. So having someone who can call them on it, having there be consequences for the reprehensible traits, these are things that I think can help when you’re doing that. The other aspect of that is trying to understand why the character has those opinions. Sometimes it’s just the way they were raised and imprinted and they have no idea that those things are false or bad or problematic. Sometimes it’s… More frequently, when you’re dealing with forms of oppression, there is a sense of safety that has been challenged in some way, and that they think, by maintaining this particular status quo, that they will maintain their own security. Or that they will lose something if the status quo shifts. So if you think about the why’s of their choices and their opinions, that’s going to help you have a character that isn’t just “I have this terr… I’m evil.” Yeah, evilness is evil.

[Margaret] I’m thinking also if you have a protagonist who is a product of an imperfect society, and being a product, you want to be able to say, “Well, yes, they probably hold some of these imperfect views.” What I would be careful of is making sure, since I’ll probably have other characters of the society who probably have similar views who are villains, making sure I’m not giving my protagonist a pass on their imperfect views just because they happen to be the protagonist.

[Brandon] That’s a very good point. Yeah.

[Margaret] It’s like, “He’s a great guy, so it’s okay that…” That’s where I think it can get really sticky.

[Brandon] Yeah. I’m going to give us our homework today. Your homework’s actually to take a character who is either in some media form or someone you have written who is a wish fulfillment character. This is a character for whom things have gone really well. Things might be easy. They’re at the top of their power structure. Even though they might be facing very hard external problems in the form of slaying a dragon or rising to the head of their company or something like this, there are certainly obstacles to them, they are in a position where they’re able to command a lot of weight of authority and privilege. Take that character, and move them to the bottom of a different power structure or put them in a place where suddenly those things no longer exist for them. See where that story goes. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.