Something I’ve been exploring a lot lately in my Deseran worldbuilding is worldview. What cultures believe what? How do those beliefs differ from group to group and person to person? How do those beliefs clash with the beliefs of other cultures? I’ve found that I really enjoy exploring these different perspectives, and exploring how they do or don’t capture the real-world truth. So I wanted to write about some ways we can explore worldview effectively when writing fantasy, in hopes that some of you will also find it interesting or informative. This is something I’m still learning, so I don’t have it all figured out yet, but here are some of the things I’ve been able to identify from my own thought processes.
Why to Explore Worldview when Writing Fantasy
I think there are three main reasons to explore worldview and real-world issues through writing fantasy. First, in a casual context, it allows us to explore differing opinions in a non-threatening way. In the real world, important issues can be difficult to discuss because of the emotional charge inherent in them. In fiction, you can explore an issue, turn it at different angles, and explore it through the lenses of opposing characters without fear of hurting people (unless/until it’s published) or being hurt. Of course, this does have a drawback in that you’re then building from your own mind and your own biases, so this should be done with care to hear other people’s views and understand them first, particularly with more personal issues.
Secondly, fantasy is often a less threatening way of presenting worldview. While the previous point mostly applies to situations where you’re worldbuilding and exploring perspectives primarily for yourself, this one applies more to situations in which the goal is publication. Worldview is an important part of our lives–it’s the lens through which we see everything around us–and it will leak through in our writing whether we’re intentional about it or not, so why not be intentional with it? Since fantasy presents worldview in the context of fictional situations and groups rather than real-world situations, it generally makes those issues more approachable, making fantasy an excellent opportunity to thoughtfully present the worldview issues that are important to you. (Key word there being “thoughtfully,” but we’ll get to that.)
Thirdly, worldview is a core part of how we all think and operate, and even how our cultures as a whole teach and operate. The same should be true of your fantasy world. Every culture in your world is going to have values, every group in your world is going to have values, and every individual in your world is going to have beliefs and values. And those shouldn’t always match. Exploring complex worldview issues (when done well) makes your world feel more real.
So, if you’ve decided to explore worldview, how do you do it?
1. Decide an Issue to Focus On
Flesh out your culture’s worldview one piece at a time. Often these issues will lead to others (if you’re exploring a culture that values physical strength as the only strength, for instance, abortion and infanticide might spring out of that due to the culture’s disregard for children who aren’t guaranteed to be physically strong when they’re older), but you generally want to pick one to start with. Do you want to explore pacifism? Organic education as the norm? Racism? Abortion? Obviously some issues will be easier to write about than others, but you can explore any number of real-world issues within a fictional setting. I always recommend choosing something you’re passionate about, something that’s important to you, or something that interests you, not just something you think you should write about.
Once you’ve decided the issue, explore it. Explore what other details and issues might realistically arise from it, in your fictional context. Figure out how it’s likely to color the culture around it. Though you’ll want to flesh out its impacts as much as possible, you might want to choose just a couple of facets that you care about the most to really focus on in your writing.
2. Explore Both Sides of the Issue
There are two pieces to this: The sides of the real-world issue and the different perspectives within the story. First, explore the different sides of the real-world issue and make sure you’re not writing solely from an echo-chamber. Try to understand both the benefits (or perceived benefits) and the negatives of each issue. It’s extremely rare that an issue is handled in the best possible way, so don’t be afraid to make your culture’s views imperfect. And when focusing on a view that you disagree with, be careful to show the belief itself as flawed (or completely wrong, in what cases it’s called for) without demonizing everyone who believes it; there are people with good intentions and people with bad intentions on both sides in almost every case. That doesn’t make their actions right, and those actions shouldn’t be excused, but the people aren’t always evil or ill-intentioned.
Within the story, remember that not everyone in your world will believe the same thing, or even fall on one end of the spectrum. Worldview isn’t always as polarized and black-and-white as we think it is. Show people believing one end, show people believing the other, and show others falling at various points in the middle. And, where appropriate, show them all getting things right and getting things wrong.
3. Provide Contrast
Sort of in line with the previous point, a certain worldview is more clearly shown when there’s something to contrast it with. Now, some cases are better served without strong contrast (for instance, if you’ve chosen a worldview issue to include intentionally but it’s not the focal point of the story), but if showing worldview is a primary goal then you’ll likely want something to contrast it with. This doesn’t always have to be something opposite, either. Sometimes you can show contrast through two cultures that appear very different on the surface and don’t realize that their root motivations are very similar. Other times, you do want an opposite viewpoint to use as contrast. Whatever will best serve the story. This contrast can appear from a neighboring culture or from within the culture you’re focusing on. Sometimes the difference will even appear from within your main character’s close circle.
4. Remember Your Character’s Perspective
Your story should reflect your main character’s perspective (unless you’re writing in omniscient POV). This means that they will treat whatever worldview they’re used to as normal; they won’t make a big deal about it unless a situation calls for it (and few situations do) or they’re in the minority of those around them and they’re aware of that and want to stand up for their beliefs. Their perspective on differing beliefs can range anywhere from treating those views as also normal (for instance, if they have a long-time friend who believes differently) to being completely broadsided by them (if they’re introduced to a culture they’ve never experienced before, for example). Exploring worldview through the eyes of a character is generally the most effective method, when done well, since the reader will then feel as if they’re alongside the learning (and potentially struggling) protagonist and not being preached at. The worldview issue should be organically shown through the main character’s interactions with the world around them.
5. You’re Writing Fantasy – Don’t Preach
This is sort of repeating the previous point, but it bears repeating. Don’t. preach. The beauty of writing fantasy is that it allows us to explore other worlds and their issues, whether those issues run parallel to the real-world or not. We don’t read fantasy (or pretty much any fiction, for that matter) to hear a sermon on why pacifism does or doesn’t work, why slavery is bad, or how we could make the world more accommodating to disabled people. Show those things, absolutely! But do it through exploration and your characters learning about the world around them, not through an explanation of why your view is right or a scene of your main character “winning someone over” to their side (unless that scene has been well-earned and makes sense). And it’s okay if you don’t give a clear “answer” sometimes. Give your reader something to think about and let them come to a conclusion themselves. They’re smart enough to do that.
Another way to avoid preaching is to remember that you’re writing fantasy! Don’t copy-and-paste a real-world issue into a fantasy world and give it exactly the same trappings as it has here. Let’s take racism, for example. Something that’s focused on a lot in conjunction with racism these days is police brutality. Would that be a significant issue in your fantasy world? Or would racism show up more when it comes to who is or isn’t allowed to use magic? Maybe you want to tackle both racism and police brutality, but don’t want it to feel like a thinly-veiled allegory. What if racism shows through in magic permissions and police brutality is an issue targeted toward healers because they’re considered weak? There might be some overlap between the two, or there might not. If you’re writing fantasy, don’t be afraid to write fantasy. Again, remember that your reader is smart enough to make connections on their own and you have room to be creative.
For similar content, check out this guest post by Kate Flournoy on writing imperfect (but hopeful) worlds
Let’s chat! Do you think about worldview when writing fantasy? Is it a focal point or just a background element? What books have you seen do worldview well?