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

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

The Fated Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal

25 thoughts on “14.33: Writing Imperfect Worlds”

  1. Yes, I write steampunk, fantasy and SF where I *want* all the racism, sexism, religious bigotry etc etc – because why would I remove conflict from a story?

    My protagonists are always people who run straight into this stuff.

  2. Just wanted to say I really appreciated this episode and the one before that. They were a very nuanced approach to these topics and I also laughed a lot, which made them go down easier.

    One thing caught my attention though: I thought blinders were a kind of harness for horses. As such, I don’t think the word is discriminating against anyone but rather a figure of speech. Also, people have eyes, and there is no reason to limit the words for whether they work or not. As humans we are very visual creatures, so it makes sense there is lots of phrasing referring to all aspects of that (even the abstract).

    1. Isa, I had a similar thought. I thought that figures of speech relating to “having blinders on” were referencing the blinders that horses wear to keep them from being distracted by things behind and beside them.

    2. The physicality of being human is the center of so much metaphor. Blindness, deafness, numbness, all thumbs, two left feet, all the visceral responses to human feelings, the economy limps along, do you have no heart?, I got a fever for more cowbell, he cut off his nose to spite his face.

      My own mental disabilities are a treasure trove offunny, disturbing, and unpleasant Cemetery. Sometime, it cuts to close. But it’s still freaking awesome on balance.

    3. Blinders are those leather things that allow the horse to look forward only, hence its metaphorical use for something that limits your vision or knowledge.

    4. “Blinders” are horse gear, not a reference to human visual impairment. To refer to someone having blinders on or taking the blinders off is not “abelist” language or a form of discrimination or “microaggression”.

    1. No idea. I’ve been trying to figure it out and the best guess I have is that she somehow thought it was “ableist”…? Like the word blind is somehow derogatory now? Either way, I wish she would have let Brandon finish his thought instead of jumping on that. Kind of cringe.

      1. Agreed. It seems like it enfeebles writing and discussion to remove useful metaphors, reasonably understood not to be used in malice, from the language. “Blind spot” or “blinders” (I can’t remember which phrase was used) immediately and effectively conveys a particular meaning; what other word(s) equally effectively express the same idea? I don’t understand the sentiment — least of all from creative people whose very bread and butter derives from the variety of language and the joy of using it well.

        1. Not only that, but “blinders” has absolutely nothing to do with a person’s ability to see. It comes from a piece of horse tack which was literally used to keep a horse focused on what was in front of it by preventing it from seeing to the side. “Blind spot” on the other hand is used to describe an area someone cannot immediately see (i.e. your “blind spot” when driving is the pocket behind and to the side that is out of immediate view and NOT covered by your mirrors), and again is not a reference to literal blind people.

  3. Howard’s comment about external cost was great.
    However listening to the last two episodes makes me feel like writing fiction is a minefield. If you include racism you’re racist, if you don’t include racism you’re racist because you’re denying historical pain.
    The few solutions proposed (having a secondary character call your protagonist out on their racism, having your character become socially woke by the end of the story) weren’t comprehensive enough to cover a wide range of stories. The way this episode sounded, you’ll only survive by including some sort of social revolution in your story.
    But there’s plenty of stuff on the market which is realistic to their historical milleu. The helps to have characters who aren’t happy about it, but there doesn’t have to be a revolution. Game of Thrones has powerful female characters who get a lot done despite their biased world. It has people critical of the status quo. I’m sure some people complain that it’s sexist but most people find it fine.
    Long story short: These podcasts keep telling us what not to do, and that’s just scaring us out of writing. We need more positive examples and different solutions -because they’re out there. After all this podcast is about encouraging people to write.

    1. As a POC/female/mentally unstable writer, I often see a lot of inclusive pandering, and at times find it glaringly disingenuous. Like, kind of eyerolling.

      I think you can sense it when it’s forced into a story, usually, the author tries to bring a great deal of attention to it when it has little to do with the plot. Obviously, it’s something to be considered and looked at in your own writing, but I feel like tokenizing characters is a huge disservice to inclusiveness if it’s just shoehorned in.

      But maybe that’s the point, like, shoehorn this until it’s not a thing? I don’t know…they are treading so carefully it’s hard to understand, I might be getting this all wrong.

      I think the best thing to do is make an effort to read more books by POC, especially if you aren’t identified with that group. Those perspectives will bleed over into your own

  4. I may have the wrong episode, but…Mary mentioned the phenomenon of colors and language. You can not conceive of a color until it is in your language. Samuel Delaney used this concept in his novel Babel 17. He created a language without the word “I” and looked at how that affected the individual.

    1. Feel-good stories are important exactly because life isn’t usually like that… some readers don’t want to read about dreary reality. Keep writing what you love!

      And yeah, the blinders correction was silly. At some point we have to realize language is imperfect and know that the majority of people understand “blinders” isn’t meant to be taken as a derogatory remark directed at the blind. Context matters.

      1. Especially since the term “blinders” has literally nothing to do with blind people.

  5. Once again, our intrepid foursome, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard, venture into the imperfect world, talking about flawed, imperfect societies, cultural ideas or norms that are reprehensible, and just plain unfair or unjust. How can you write about such a setting? Why would you write such a setting? What do you do when the historical setting has bad points? What kind of a character does such a flawed society produce, and how can you write about them? Lots of thought-provoking discussion, that you can read about in the transcript available now in the archives.

    The transcript is also available over here.

    https://wetranscripts.dreamwidth.org/160918.html

  6. Once again, our intrepid foursome, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard, venture into the imperfect world, talking about flawed, imperfect societies, cultural ideas or norms that are reprehensible, and just plain unfair or unjust. How can you write about such a setting? Why would you write such a setting? What do you do when the historical setting has bad points? What kind of a character does such a flawed society produce, and how can you write about them? Lots of thought-provoking discussion, that you can read about in the transcript available now in the archives.

  7. One thing I’ve been interested in concerning imperfect world’s is the fact that good ideals can lead to be bad places if you’re not careful. Compaired to your examples, I’m not sure if what I’m writing has a “deeply flawed society” or not, but this thought has still made me give some of my characters a sidways glance. Perhaps the fact that the society runs along my own thoughts is just a sign that I’m subject to my own observation.

    Any how, just an imperfect thought for those interested in writing more imperfect worlds.

  8. Oh my goodness, thank you so much for your perspective & conversation about this topic!

    I found it helped even more to hear your discussion focused on “an imperfect world,” because it can be easier to talk about deliberate or unintended flaws in a ‘thing’ than in a ‘person’ (in other words, a character). Yet the truths you discussed can help writers working to create a world or characters with imperfections.

    Thank you, Brandon, for providing such wonderful questions.

    Mary Robinette’s remark, about writing healthy married couples in part due to the difficulty of finding those in fiction, meant the world to me.

    Howard’s examples around external costs are a useful way to look at this in a writer’s own created society, & the way his examples looked at real-life facts resonated with me.

    Both Margaret & Mary Robinette’s concluding points likewise impacted me in positive ways. Their comments about “good” & “bad” characters, & working carefully on how or why they’re in such places, provide great advice for writers like me.

    Mostly, it was such a reassurance & relief to hear things that I’ve noticed in fiction but never found the words to describe so articulately. Thank you for this!!! Tackling the topic as you did further gave me ideas & structure to help me, in my otherwise kind of messy writing efforts to improve these things.

    Your episodes are pretty much always fantastic & useful. But, I strongly felt I’d be doing a great disservice if I didn’t thank you for this particular episode—as best I could, where I could.

    Sincerely, & Much Appreciated,
    Jet

  9. The Schlock Mercenary subarc involving the Toughs and associates realizing that the Oafans were still around hidden in the “servers” on the station felt a bit forced, honestly. All of the characters just reacted as if they were saying “yeah we did a terrible thing and owe a huge debt”… I don’t recall anyone questioning this conclusion, or pointing out that both they and huge teams of experts had all thought that the station had been utterly vacant for longer than most extant intelligent species had been recognizably in existence. They didn’t take the station from its former owners, they didn’t know it belonged to someone else still, they didn’t run off with it in the night.

    In effect, they found an empty house, were told by everyone they asked that it had been abandoned for several lifetimes, moved in and started making repairs… and then discovered the owners hiding in a secret room in the basement. It’s an awkward situation that requires negotiations and an “oops, what do we do now?”…. and instead, the released Oafans went super-aggressive and everyone else seemed to say “How can we ever make this up to you?”

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