This is one of those things that fermented in the back of my head for a while, and now demands a rant.
It’s really, really boring to me when one gimmick defines the whole of a world. For example, if the world has unicorns in it and everything is centered on the unicorns—why is that? Surely there are political, religious, emotional, and social aspects that, though unicorns may influence them and they may need to take account of unicorns, are not entirely unicorn-defined. The same thing happens, often, with systems of magic. Just one aspect of the magic is what matters, and everyone involved worships/hates mages, magic defines government, religions are mainly detailed in how they take account of magic (or don’t, or persecute the people involved, who are often Special Magic Witches), the only metaphysics explained relate to magic, and so on and so forth.
A gimmick like this may be necessary to kickstart a story for yourself, or to serve as a description to distinguish the story in the market. I refuse to accept that a gimmick can be the whole of the world and still create a deep story. One cool idea is not enough to support a novel. It might be more frequent with short stories, but I can remember reading short stories centered on ideas but with generic and forgettable characters and worldbuilding otherwise, and thinking, “So what?”
So here are some ideas for shaking up your world so that, even if the first idea that occurs to you is solely about magic or gender or race or a certain type of society, the whole world does not remain there.
1) Keep size and difficulty of travel in mind.
If you have a freaking enormous world that’s difficult to travel because of unreliable transport, rough seas, impassable mountain ranges, and so on, I find it extremely difficult to believe that it has the same culture from continent to continent. Yes, cultures could have come into contact with each other in the past, but could they have maintained that contact enough to produce replicas rather than influence? For example, I’ve read theories that there was contact between Asia and a few of the pre-Columbian Mexican cultures due to similarities in art, but there doesn’t seem to have been a steady stream of travelers both ways. Thus, traces remain, but we don’t have one culture transplanted whole-hog into the other. (See also point 2).
Think about this when you want to insist that mages rule the world. Um, they do? Why? Is their magic strong enough to surpass those physical barriers? What about the language ones? What about the different attitudes to magic that might have developed while still in isolation? (Point 2 again). What about the religious ones? What about the attitudes of the people involved towards foreigners? Do the mages really matter to everyone in those other places, or only to a small elite who have the money/power to communicate and contest with them? I’m sorry, but our own world is still a very long way from united in any of those senses, and we have technology and communication beyond the levels most fantasy worlds achieve.
On the other hand, if the author is working with a single nation or, perhaps, a single continent, this isn’t really a problem. It’s one whole world that makes me break out in hives.
2) Your neat new idea is not entering an empty world.
Often, fantasies center on something just emerging—the return of magic, for example (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), or an heir to the throne suddenly appearing, or a new idea about gods or magic set to topple current theories. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
The problem comes when the author portrays everyone else as reacting like chickens with their heads cut off, or as powerless before the new idea.
Oh, come on. No, these people may never have encountered anything exactly like this before, but I bet they’ve encountered things that are at least a bit like it. They’ll be searching for categories to slot the idea into, for methods of suppression or assimilation that have served them well in the past, and for the consequences of the new thing and how much they’ll cost. None of these may be the right answer, but they’ll help in the search for the right answer. This world existed before the magic or the heir or the idea did. It’s going to become part of their ecology, not the other way around. In the case of something old returning, like the magic in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the people in that England did once use and believe in magic, so they have a mental place the magic can fit into. It will take them time to catch up, to understand what’s different about this generation of magicians and what isn’t, and to counter some of the unfortunate consequences, but the world isn’t empty save for the protagonists and a crowd of witless admirers, which is one reason I really ended up enjoying that novel.
Remember: there are webs waiting to catch your buzzing new gadfly of a thing or idea or person, and some of those spiders are big suckers.
3) The extra-gimmick factors will also work among themselves.
This is a point I’ve made before, but it’s particularly appropriate to this rant, so I feel no compunctions against making it again. I’ll keep the first example real simple. Say you have unicorns, and you have a church, and you have a government. Yes, the church may interact with the unicorns, and the government may interact with the unicorns. But there’s also the church and the government interacting with each other, which is something that a lot of authors dependent on one factor alone to define their world seem to forget.
This is also the point where I’d like to stage a demonstration against omni-competent organizations. One group of people cannot possibly spot every threat, fix every problem, and be essential to everything people do. No, I’m sorry, they can’t. Errors will happen. Prejudices that individual members of the group hold will blind them to certain truths or prevent them from working effectively—as will the fact that individuals are simply limited in what they can perceive. An enemy will, at least occasionally, be more clever and prevent the group from discovering a spy or a traitor. Competition and jockeying for power will occur, which means the organization will be paying attention to its internal affairs at least part of the time and not the outer world. And, guess what, people can lead lives without the members of this group to hold their hands every step of the way. If they can’t, how in the world did they survive before the organization developed?
If nothing else, consider this. One gimmick is essential to the whole of your world—one species, one form of magic, one group? That’s not a strength, it’s a big fucking weakness. There’s a reason that species that depend on one food or one kind of habitat alone, like pandas, are so easily endangered. They may be exquisitely adapted, but let a new disease that attacks their food come along, or another species they can’t face, or weather that destroys their habitat, and they often can’t adapt the other way fast enough. The same thing can happen with a gimmick and the fantasy world. If a world’s warfare depends too heavily on dragons, find a way around the dragons and the nations are sitting ducks. And I bet there are people working on that, too.
For why, see point 4.
4) Gimmicks place sharp limits on your characters’ intelligence and creativity.
You mean to say that no one has ever thought of a way around this supposedly invincible magic? Even when the heroine manages to discover it in five minutes flat? Even when your beta-reader points it out in five seconds flat? Even when the raw materials to make a way exist in the world?
(Digression: This is where the majority of fading-elf stories drive me absolutely bugshit. So, okay, they’re a species as sentient—or more so—than humans, capable of creating complicated customs and social systems and works of art, and yet they can’t figure out a way to stop themselves from dying without human intervention? When the threat isn’t sudden, but has lasted for centuries? Why the fuck not?)
Likewise, a culture that doesn’t change because “this idea/invention/society is good enough” makes me roll my eyes. Believe me, as long as you have a hierarchy, I bet you that idea/invention/society is a raw deal for someone, most likely towards the bottom of the ladder. Fantasy’s preference for high-class and aristocratic and magically powerful characters may blind some authors to this little fact, but take a different point-of-view and it’s pretty visible. Some people in those positions will search for a way to improve their own quality of life, power, or comfort, or, in extreme situations, search for a way just to survive. Even if they don’t have the time or energy to find it for themselves, they can be willing accomplices to those who do, like revolutionary aristocrats or their country’s enemies. Sooner or later, complacency always costs.
So alter the gimmick and show how it survives. No, you don’t have to have a society with the Western world’s obsession with progress. Wanting change is different from wanting progress. If change is stalled in your world just to preserve the gimmick, I hope you have a reason for everyone to be as dumb and completely uncreative as all that.
And, lookie, here’s point 5.
5) Some gimmicks just aren’t worth preserving.
So you want a world where a certain small group of people ride unicorns who can play music from their horns and see into people’s hearts, and everyone else is deferential towards the unicorn-riders, and because most unicorn-riders are female women dominate in the societies around them too, and no one else even tries to play music because unicorn horn-music is so superior, and people depend on unicorn-riders to solve every kind of social wrangle from complicated legal cases to disputes over dinner, and all the gods are unicorns.
By all means, you can use a gimmick to figure out certain things about the structure of your world. And then you complicate them. And you figure out multiple legs for the gimmick on which to stand, so that it’s entrenched more deeply into the society than just depending on some unrealistic, fluffy version of endless love and respect for unicorn-riders. And you take account of those mavericks who don’t fit into the system, both among “ordinary” people and among unicorn-riders. And you figure out how people solve problems when a unicorn-rider can’t get there in time. And you figure out the complicating factors inside the unicorn-rider organization itself, especially in cases where two people want to do the same thing and only one can, or when one person is substantially better at speaking nicely to people in a heart-reading case than others and is being worked off her feet. And you give the unicorns minds of their own, instead of making them canned-personality telcoms (= telepathic companions). And you develop different attitudes towards the unicorn-riders among the vast majority of people who will never belong to that group. And you figure out what other justifications are used for female power, and what consequences it has, and how those justifications and consequences interact with the justifications and consequences of unicorn-rider power itself.
By this point, the original gimmick is hopefully transformed beyond recognition, and what you’ve got is a story centering on the unicorn-riders, not a world centering on them. And the stupid one-step thinking that produced the first vision of the world is worn away. And the unicorn-riders and what they can do can change, instead of lasting through centuries or millennia exactly the same.
Isn’t that better?
6) The magic word is schism.
I’ve also complained about this before: organizations that stay immobile over generations, churches without schisms or heretics, political systems without a change in the makeup of power, languages that are the same no matter the distance and years between them, magical systems that inspire the exact same beliefs and have the exact same practices no matter where the heroes are.
Humans are more creative than that. (See point 4 again). And I bet most nonhuman sentient species are, too. If cultures become isolated from each other for long periods of time and then meet again, even if they sprang from the same root, I bet the branches are different.
Have schisms. Have separations and differences. Have the protagonists encounter something new. Have them enter a new place and be dazzled by the variety of beliefs and factions there, instead of only having one, or two to choose between, one obviously right and one obviously wrong. (This is one thing I’m enjoying about Perdido Street Station; I’ve counted mention of at least five political parties so far, which makes a lot more sense for a city as big and chaotic as that than the Light Party and the Dark Party. There are even multiple illegal newspapers). Have small clubs for different hobbies exist, instead of insisting that everyone in the society loves boxing and only boxing.
Once again, the story may be centered in one group rather than involving all of them. But at least they’re part of a mosaic instead of a dead weight bending the world towards them.
7) Try introducing two or three other factors at least as powerful as the gimmick.
I love doing this. I have a tendency to create gimmick worlds myself at first if I don’t watch out, usually centered on the magical system.
But let’s say there’s not only a system of magic that involves the ability to change your identity, completely—changing your body, down to gender and race, and erasing your memories—but also a cyclical system of time, and a religion where the goal is to have as many children as possible, so the children already produced often grow up more with each other than their parents, and a character who has to classify everyone side-by-side with a character whose mindset isn’t like one he’s ever encountered before. Now, mix ’em.
That’s a lot more fun, and a lot more amenable to a novel’s structure, than a gimmick by itself.
Don’t know what I’ll do next, as that one came out of nowhere.