Okay, so this is really a big subject, and really when I sat down to poke at it I really meant to just talk about world building, so I’m going to restrict myself to that this time around. I did have some thoughts about this on other subjects, such as characterization and backstory, but I think I’ll leave that on the back burner for now. Who knows? Original VS Derivative may become a running theme. Or maybe I’ll just tackle the issue whenever I get to rambling about those subjects.
Also, as you may have already guessed from the title, I intend to continue this next week, and look at Originality.
So, what do I mean by derivative world building?
The most obvious example is fantasy world building because, as many people familiar with the genre are already aware, most fantasy world building from the 1970s to the mid to late 1990s (and even some today) is heavily influence by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who’s Middle Earth is still the defining fantasy world for many people, including me.
The influence of Tolkien over fantasy is pronounced. For instance, one of the most ubiquitous antagonistic races in fantasy is the orc, creatures that first appeared as the shock troops for Sauron in The Lord of The Rings trilogy. Magic rings, dwarves that are antagonistic to elves but can learn to be friends if they spend enough time with each other and rotund little people who just want to be left alone and live the good life – all of these are staples of the fantasy genre.
But isn’t relying on that kind of thing lazy writing? Shouldn’t a world builder take a little more pride in what they do?
Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that Tropes Are Tools*. Just because a work doesn’t strike you as original doesn’t mean it isn’t good. In fact, you’d have to look far and wide to find a truly original idea, most story and/or world building elements have been done before in some way, shape or form. It’s just that some patterns of them have been used more than others. So why are they so prevalent?
For starters, they give the reader a definite grounding point in the work. If an author is planning on spending a lot of time working with ideas of political or magical theory, they might not want you to have to try and remember all the details of a half a dozen new fantasy races, temperaments and class systems as well, so they just give you something they’re relatively sure you’ll already understand. It’s true that you, personally, might be able to follow all that, but you may not be representative of the audience as a whole.
Alternatively, world building tropes give the writer a definite grounding point in the work. Perhaps they feel that some part of the trope has been consistently overlooked, and needs to be explored. Perhaps they want to subvert the trope, showing what they feel is inconsistent or ill thought out about it by writing a story built around it. Or maybe the scope of the work doesn’t justify reinventing the wheel, as noted above. Readers aren’t the only one with limited headspace for dealing with a work of fiction, after all.
A third possibility is that the broad lines of a pre-existing world already provide what your story needs. Why reinvent the wheel when there’s already perfectly good framework to draw on? Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics are the starting point of most people’s A.I.s, and why not? Most people agree that it’s a sound theoretical starting point for their development (whether it can actually be implemented or not is another question, and has more to do with how hard or soft you want your sci-fi to be.) Once again, a big part of it is where the author wants to spend his or her time, world building or somewhere else. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of other places they could spend their time.
Finally, some people are actively trying to retell old mythologies in modern contexts. The appeal of old fairy tales, or Greek or Norse myth is enduring. You can’t be totally original and pay homage to those sources effectively. You can try, but you might be better off aiming for authenticity.
In short, when you stumble across what strikes you as a derivative world, don’t just dismiss it as a failure of creativity on the author’s part. Stop and ask yourself what they’re trying to do with their story, then judge it on those merits. You may find that the story still manages to be a good one after all.
*Follow the above link at your own peril.