#79: Ethical Worldbuilding from Real Places

Dear Story Nurse,

I have an idea for a novel I’m really excited about, but I’ve got overwhelmed by some of the world/character building.

The basic idea is a take-off on a Swords and Sorcery fantasy where, because of the availability of magic, technological development has stalled, and society has become a magocracy. The story then follows a group of inventors who create and spread non-magical technology. The things they actually invent are based on real history of science, but I’ve selected things by a combination of what makes sense with my world building and things I think are cool. It’s going to end up a very anachronistic mix, but it’s also a fairly self-indulgent fantasy story, not historical fiction, so I’m not worried about that. Just in case it’s relevant, currently the plan is that most of the story would take place in a big diverse port city where people are coming and going from around the world, but it’s early days and that may change.

Even though it’s strictly secondary world fantasy the bits of real history of science come from specific places which I would like to carry over into my characters and world building and I’m stuck on how to do that.

So that I have a concrete example, one of the things I know I want to include is the invention of the printing press, which is originally Chinese in real life. The bit I’m having trouble with is coding my printing press inventor from China-inspired-fantasy-land as Chinese in a way that gets the point across without being appropriative. I’m really struggling to figure out what sort of details are good for world-building, vs what is not, how much I can trust my readers to pick up, and generally (especially given there’s a lot of anachronism in my world already) identifying the boundary between diverse world-building and smearing bits of other people’s cultures around willy-nilly.

My printer is one of my better developed characters (I’m still fairly early in the planning stages of this), but I’m seeking general advice for all my non-European characters. Please help me escape the ‘everyone’s from Britain but with the names changed’ fantasy trap.

—Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

That sounds like a very cool project. I understand your concerns about appropriation, especially when you’re working with multiple cultures and doing what amounts to a cultural mash-up. Fortunately, people of color and others with relevant experience have created some great resources on cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity in writing, and I’m glad to bring some of them together for you.

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#70: Excavating Internalized Biases, Part Two: Catching Bigotry Mid-Draft

Content note: This letter and the response discuss the fictional depiction of violent deaths of black women.

Hello Story Nurse!

You actually answered one of my questions in late 2016, and it helped me hugely, so now that I’m stuck again, I thought I would come back and solicit more advice. I started writing a small science fiction novella set in the future, and the main plotline is a dysfunctional duo trying to solve a murder. My book is #ownvoices for its mentally ill queer lady characters, and I feel really happy with the representation in it. But as I was writing today, I realised that both my murder victims were black women (they are a mother and her daughter), and suddenly I got really freaked out that I was engaging in some damaging tropes. How should I proceed? Should I finish what I have, and then do a close reading, probably with some sensitivity readers? Or should I stop what I’m doing and reevaluate? I know how hurt I get every time I read a story with a dead or dying queer lady, and I’m really worried I’m perpetrating an equally damaging trope for a community to which I have no personal access.

Thank you for all your good work!

—Space Lesbian (she/her)

Dear Space Lesbian,

It’s lovely to hear from you again! I’m so glad the earlier piece was useful to you. Thanks for writing in with an issue that a lot of writers run into. Our cultural consciousness is being raised very rapidly, and that can collide hard with internalized bigotry. Most of us have spent our lives consuming media that was partly or entirely created to perpetuate a skewed status quo. It’s challenging to have the desire to create works that cause minimal harm, paired with the certain knowledge that our writing incorporates our ignorance and erroneous beliefs.

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