Worldbuilding, M/M Style

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In the worlds of fantasy and science-fiction, and all the various permutations of them, one of the single most important elements for the writer to get “right” is the worldbuilding. The readers and viewers expect to be immersed in the worlds the author creates and as much time needs to be given to the development of that world as to the characters themselves.

Now, it’s my argument that we do worldbuilding whenever we write, because the “world” of our story has its own distinct rules and cultures. But that’s a minority view, and for now, let’s concentrate on the worlds of fantasy and science fiction and all the many ways they can be combined. In addition, there are some unique challenges when writing GLBT fantasy or science fiction that aren’t necessarily present in heterosexual environments – though that’s not always true.

Let’s start with the basics. What is worldbuilding?

Let’s take a look at a couple quick videos to get an idea. The first is from Star Wars.

What do we see from this brief excerpt? A desert world surrounds our hero, alien, with strange cars that don’t need wheels. A scary figure in black with harsh breathing threatens a young, beautiful woman. We then see a spaceport, similar to any port with incoming and outgoing craft but with unusual features such as droids and alien figures.

What don’t we see? Dogs, modern fixtures of everyday life, fast food outlets, cars, and other trappings of everyday life. We don’t see tall office buildings, nor do we see billboards. We do see police that look like soldiers (a bit like the German SS, actually), bigots, a teacher, our hero, and pet-like droids that tug at our heart-strings the way good side-kicks are supposed to.

Let’s look at a second scene:

Unfortunately, the scenes I’d like to post aren’t available copyright-free so I can’t, but this gives you a good overview of the world. In quick strokes, Joss Whedon, the creator, paints a picture of a place that is like Star Wars meets the Old West. One of the things I love about this particular series and the movie Serenity is that they got the ships “right” when they’re in space – they have no sound! Sound is a factor of atmosphere and gravity, and in space, there is vacuum and nothing to vibrate to cause sound in our inner ear. However, to my dismay, I watched several trailers and they all added the sound back in!

This actually proves my point, in a way. As we worldbuild, we need to make sure the details we create are meticulous and internally consistent. Firefly was the first space show to get that particular detail “right,” at least that I’m aware of. All the other shows, even Star Trek in its various iterations, add big booming sounds for the spaceship drives.

So, in essence, worldbuilding is creating a plausible environment in which your characters interact with each other and the environment itself. This is why I argue that setting a story anywhere is worldbuilding, because if you interact with the setting then you need to be careful to get the details right – or, at least, consistent. As Mies van der Roh, the architect, said, “God is in the details.”

The unique challenges faced by writing a story with same-sex partners is that the author has the opportunity to create a culture that plausibly accepts, or does not accept, such partnerships. If you want to write a world where two men can have a committed relationship and marry, form family unions with children and a white picket fence, then you need to build a world in which that could plausibly happen. Readers are sophisticated and will be skeptical since, in our everyday reality, being gay is not accepted and is, in some places, punishable by law. (For example, in the Soviet Union, up until its collapse in 1989, being gay was an offense punishable by death.)

In Burning Bright, Rachel and I set it in the world of “now,” but added things like magic and werewolves. But the culture is present-day America, set in Chicago, with all that implies. We didn’t sugar-coat any of the relationships and explore the consequences of being gay in a culture that isn’t openly accepting of it. From the military world the characters come from to the world of present-day Chicago, they must fight for acceptance or hide who they are. This affects each of them differently, according to their personality, just like in everyday life.

Their families, too, are affected by it. Some embrace their sons anyway, others disown them, depending on their own beliefs and desires.

In Emerald Fire, however, we decided to take a completely different tack and create a world where being gay was totally normal and accepted, and necessary for the survival of the people living on Persis. The planet is a desert world, too harsh to live on the surface for one month of the year, called Daymonth, and dangerous the rest of the time. Historically, the settlers protected their women and children and many of the traditional “women’s work” jobs fell to young men. Over time, training academies sprang up to help these young men stay competitive in the workforce and to collectively bargain, provide support, etc.

The most fascinating part of doing this is that we’ve created a gender-stratified society in which women are cloistered and protected. Without intending to at first, we created a situation where women who might want to become Hunters, say, couldn’t because of social norms. This allows us, later, to explore those consequences with our characters, but it was an interesting outgrowth of the worldbuilding.

In classical fantasy, there aren’t many GLBT stories, sadly. My favorite is by Mercedes Lackey, the series of The Last Herald Mage. In the first book, Magic’s Pawn, Vanyel Ashkevron has a secret, in that he’s gay. The story, however, isn’t about a gay boy coming of age – it’s a coming of age story first, and a fantasy epic, and his being gay is merely part of the storytelling. It’s an excellent story on its own merits and shows how worldbuilding, handled by an adept, becomes another character in the story.

One of the best examples of worldbuilding is Anne McCaffrey’s the Dragonriders of Pern. I can’t post the cover paintings here, though I could post a picture of the book itself; however, it’s worth checking out the site’s archives of official and fan art, here. One of the most amazing fantasy artists is Michael Whelan, who did many of the American releases of the Pern books.

What Ms. McCaffrey did, though, is create a world grounded in science and sociology. Settlers found a world in the orbit of a G-type star, just like our own solar system. They landed and interacted with the world in ways that, as we read about them, make sense and are logical and grounded. Rather than a fictional place, these stories become fiction about a place that becomes as real for the reader as the England of Shakespeare. Truly masterful.

There are many other excellent examples in the literature of worldbuilding. What are some of your favorites?

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14 responses

  1. love both examples you gave, my favorite authors- though sadly lacking in guy smut- but that’s not their focus. M/M is ours and both worlds we created have their pros and cons. But both were fun to write !

  2. I like the approach on Russel T. Davies’ Doctor Who, where being gay/bi was pretty much totally normal. There were same-sex couples scattered in the background of all the stories.

    I think it’d be quite realistic in far-future societies with advanced reproductive technologies that there are really no such distinctions anymore. People will be able to change sex on an outpatient basis; childbearing can be done artificially.

    Some of my favorite writers fully explore those possibilities, like John Varley (as far as I know, not gay, but had kick-ass lesbian protagonists in the Gaia trilogy) and Samuel R. Delany (very gay) in Trouble on Triton.

    In fact, if there’s science fiction that spends a lot of time on future social dynamics and fails to include same-sex relationships and gender variation, it’s disturbing and ignorant. The models are out there. It’s not really about sexual content at that level, it’s about sociology. Having a totally heterosexual future is just not right.

    Changing the angle slightly—what I absolutely will not read in m/m science fiction or fantasy is female erasure. It implies massive femicide. If there are no women on a planet, where did they go? Did the men kill them all? (There’s a chilling story by James Tiptree Jr.—a woman writing under a male pen name—called The Screwfly Solution, where aliens release a mind-controlling virus that encourages all men to kill women. They believe they’re doing it for religious and spiritual reasons, to purify the Earth. Then the aliens just wait a generation for all the men to die off, and colonize the planet.) Futures where all the women are mysteriously gone disturb me in a way that all-female settings don’t, because there are so many real-life historical and contemporary examples of femicide.

    • Hi, Violetta. I agree; I love Doctor Who. It’s an intelligent show that manages to look at all sorts of cultural things.

    • You should read the Chaos Walking series, by Patrick Ness if you want to read a good sci-fi about ‘female erasure’. It’s fascinating and disturbing. And, coincidentally, the main character has two dads. Not that there’s a big, hairy deal made about it. It just is…

  3. Great post! And I love Firefly, by the way. Female M/M writer Harper Fox is a great worldbuilder I just discovered. “Life After Joe” is all I’ve read so far but am impressed.

    • Harper Fox is great! I’m glad you mentioned her. Good point. :)

  4. Worldbuilding is one of my top priorities for SF/F books, and I can’t do better than recommend Tolkien – I still don’t think he’s been bettered in terms of building a world with its own history which is so complex it is even internally inconsistent – where truths depend on who’s telling them – the way real history is.

    And of course there’s The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin, which is both alien and beautiful – “the word for world is ‘Winter'” and “If this was the royal music, no wonder the kings of Karhide were all mad.” And the idea of a whole world where everyone was sexless and genderless except on those rare occasions where they were in kemmer (and then they might be anything) was like a paradise to young gender-confused, asexual me.

    I now suspect that LeGuin thought it was an unpleasant fate, but oh, I’d love to live there. Or in Rivendell. Rivendell would be good too.

    • Hi, Alex. I agree, Tolkien did quite a lot of detail-building in his writing. I find his linguistic stuff fascinating.

      I love LeGuin. She’s amazing. Very creative.

    • You know… I still haven’t read The Left Hand of Darkness. Which is strange, because I love Ursula K. LeGuin incredibly much. I really ought to get around to that, and soon.

  5. My background, to be honest, is mainly in writing/reading historically-set novels, but much of the same rules apply, and there’s some great examples in m/m, of course – our very own Alex, Erastes (Frost Fair springs to mind, what lovely descriptions) and Charlie Cochrane. My personal feelings on worldbuilding in the current climate of m/m romance/erotica, though, is that original world building is often limited because of the pressures on authors to keep focussed on relationships/sex. For better or worse, can we really afford to spend the time we’d like on creating these worlds? The challenge is often to lay down the rules and paint the crucial images quickly as possible…

    Haha, that wasn’t supposed to come across as negative, but just my gut reaction…I certainly love taking time to build my worlds ;)

    • There are plenty of people who manage to be erotic AND build feasible worlds, some of whom have already posted. At the moment there’s no market at all for what I write – action adventure stuff with gay heroes who keep their minds on the job most of the time – but I enjoy writing it and there might be a small market for it some day. Just messing around with worlds is grand fun.

    • I think that the better the worldbuilding, the more that it can be fitted into romance novels. I also think the tide is changing, and that publishers are looking for more complex worlds because readers are looking for it. It’s exciting to me as an author, because it’s fun.

  6. Pingback: Violetta Vane and Catherine Noon blog: m/m worldbuilding and Game of Thrones « Kay Berrisford: m/m romance.