Recently I was giving feedback to another author on a book and I wound up talking about a concept that I’ve found myself drawing heavily from in my own writing career but I find used very little in most fantasy and scifi fiction I read, namely being incorrect. I presume this to be an outgrowth of wiki culture, where we can get huge amounts of information on any subject with a quick Internet search. Rarely questioned is whether that information is correct, which ironically is what underpins one of my favorite kinds of world building. Consider.
You have two characters come from different (probably but not necessarily fictional) cultures living right next to each other. The reader needs exposition on how these cultures function to understand the story going forward. So you have each character ignorant of the other culture. By asking each other questions they can give each other the necessary exposition and help the reader understand what is going on. This kind of thing is surprisingly common, especially in urban fantasy stories, but the degrees to which it comes off as believable… varies. Ignorance is a fine way to justify exposition as a way to push exposition. But it’s not the only one and it’s not the most interesting or informative way to do it. Sometimes its better to have characters be incorrect in what they “know” about others.
Wikipedia isn’t always right, after all.
Take for example Raiders from the Rings, an old and not exactly outstanding scifi novel that introduced this idea to me when I was very young. We join a Spacer who is part of a great raiding party landing on Earth. He fulfills his goal, to kidnap a woman and abscond into space with her, but finds he’s also accidentally gotten a stow away, her brother who tried to rescue her and got taken along for the ride. The three reach a truce after some shenanigans and spend some time getting to know each other.
The Spacer is surprised to learn from the Earthmen that they expect to be used in evil Spacer genetic experiments that will produce more mutants for the Spacer hordes waiting to reconquer Earth. He laughs and tells them there is a mutant horde, of course – cosmic radiation will do that to a people. All Spacers are mutants, the radiation has damaged the X chromosomes of the men so that they function as Y chromosomes in the reproductive process, ensuring that all Spacer children are male and forcing them to constantly kidnap women from Earth to sustain their population. But they’re not monsters, just normal people. This reinforces his opinion that Earthmen are too stupid to survive in space, they just won’t be able to handle it. That impression is demolished the next day when he gets home to Mars and finds every building there destroyed by a vengeful fleet from Earth, launched at the exact moment the Spacer raiding fleet passed the point in Earth’s gravity well that made it impossible to turn back.
This sequence in the book establishes a lot of things about the world – why our hero was abducting girls at the beginning, what the big hurdle he has to overcome is and – most importantly – what the status quo of the two factions is. It also tells think of each other and in doing that also tells us something important about the weaknesses of each culture. Earth culture is founded on fear – they’ve spent centuries watching the skies wondering when the next raid will come and now they’re fighting back, not in a controlled, planned way like a military would but with the panicked flailing of a terrified child. Spacer culture is suffused with arrogance – they’ve always held technical and tactical advantages over Earth so large they can no longer conceive of effective resistance.
And the best part about this exposition is that the second half of it is shown, rather than told. We see it in the way they think of each other, what actions those thoughts provoke and the way those assumptions are proven false.
There’s room for, “What is this thing about your culture?” questions in a story, of course, but it’s passive world building. You’re handing your audience facts about the world. Ignorance creates more active world building, where characters actively grapple with cultures and facts as they confront them and the characters find their faulty understandings of the world disproven. This allows for not only exposition but character exploration and growth. Not every bit of exposition calls for this level of depth but there are definitely times when it gives a more thorough and rich understanding of the world, as in Raiders from the Rings.
Another perk of handling exposition this way is that it leaves some uncertainty in the reader’s mind. After all, if one character was wrong about the truth of a situation how do we know the next person to exposit on the subject isn’t just as wrong? Of course you don’t want to keep yanking your readers around that much but if you can create that sliver of uncertainty you’re much more likely to hold your audience’s attention than you are without it. Certainty kills tension, which is at the heart of good narratives. Too many world builders are intent on telling their readers the way the world is. However good exposition is like exploring – much of the fun is in the gradual discovery of things and seeing how pieces fit together as the story progresses. Characters with incorrect understandings of the world add a spice to that which keeps your exposition interesting. Exposition tends to be bland to begin with, don’t take out any more of the flavor than you have to.
In all there’s no one size fits all approach to world building, but that’s what makes the steady increase of straightforward ignorance as the key to exposition such a negative part of modern storytelling. Whenever possible, check to see of changing things up might add a needed dimension to your exposition. Start by letting your characters be misinformed, rather than just uniformed.