This started out as a blog post after yet another rant from me, and has now made it to a page. Additional suggestions are welcome – add a comment if you want to add a suggestion!
When you’re worldbuilding, what do you need to consider?
None of these points are a complete no-no: if you have a reason behind it then that’s great! But the idea is to make you think about all of these clichés. Everyone has ‘default’ settings – especially me – and we don’t often realise that we have them until someone points them out. And when that ‘someone’ is an editor with a red pen and a good line in snark, well, I’m just sayin’ that you might want to check this list out before your manuscript gets sent to them…
The Real World
- The Narrow Bechdel Test: Two women have a conversation…
- The Wider Bechdel Test: …about something that isn’t a man.
- 50/50 world gender split: do you at least have something approaching this, or a good reason why you don’t have it?
- Are there children mentioned?
- Are you using ‘mother’ (or ‘father’) as a job description?
- List all your characters; are certain job types only ascribed to one gender? This applies as much to ‘soldier’ or ‘shopkeeper’ as it does to ‘servant’ and ‘whore’.
The Physical Stuff
- A woman’s body doesn’t know she’s pregnant until a week after fertilisation. Please don’t put some mystical thing in about ‘feeling’ or ‘just knowing’ the morning after – even with some magical ability you’d be hard-pressed to tell one bunch of cells from another for several days afterwards.
- Periods happen, for a week, every month. If you’re doing a journey that involves women, they will be concerned about it – and wanting to take a bath fairly urgently when you reach civilisation again. It’s a pretty messy business no matter how carefully you manage it.
- Period pain. I refuse to believe that everyone up until the modern world had a pain-free time, so there is likely to be a need for painkillers along with your food and supplies.
- If you’re considering having “one night of fantastic sex that leaves the woman with a child to remember her love by”…yes, it could happen, but it’s pretty statistically unlikely. Please carefully consider if you want that sort of annoying cliché in your book.
- If you do use rape against any character, please think carefully about why and how you are portraying it.
The Disability Checklist
- If you’ve previously had wars or fighting, or you have major industry (for example, ship-building or coal-mining) in your world, you’re going to have disabled veterans and workers. How does society treat them?
- Have you considered the likelihood of invisible illnesses such as PTSD or depression, particularly for characters that have been through a traumatic event?
- How does your society deal with physical illnesses? This applies as much to infections (for example, leprosy or influenza) and things like cancers as it does to physical disability.
The Evil Guys
- If you tick more than two things on the Evil Bingo Checklist, please have a think about their character. The things listed are not necessarily a deal-breaker, but if you’re using more than two you’re likely to be straying into cliché territory…
- Are the Evil Guys given a decent backstory for why they’re Evil? It is just a matter of perspective, after all.
- Do they have countless hordes of soldiers ? Is so, where did they come from? Why are they swearing loyalty (or happy to be paid by) said Evil Guys?
- Do they live in a looming fortress or underground lair? (This includes caves). Major cliché right there.
- If there’s a battle, does everyone die slowly with plenty of time to say their last words? (Nasty and brutal realism says hello!)
- Is there a valid reason why your world cannot have women fighting?
- Have you got technology creep (aka. have you mixed weapons from different eras without considering the implications)? What is the dominant weapon and fighting style?
- Is your hero unreasonably skilled with weapons without any real practise?
- Is your hero an unlikely leader who suddenly finds some charisma?
- Does your hero somehow dramatically save the day single-handedly? Bonus points if it’s single combat.
The Love Interest
- Are they the only person who is described as beautiful / interesting / charming / stunning?
- Do you pay more attention to their clothing / looks than to anyone else in the story?
- Do they immediately fall for the protagonist? Or, conversely, immediately passionately hate said protagonist?
- Is there a love triangle? This isn’t per se bad, but…just be careful how you do it, ok?
- Any chance of LGBTQA representation? Do your main character(s) have to be attracted to (only) the opposite sex?
- Where does the food come from? How do they get water? Particularly for journeys, how do they ensure the ongoing supply of either of these things?
- If you have got unreasonably large armies (good or bad), how are they being fed? What’s the administration from behind the lines like? As a student of military history, the amount of armies that survived on foraging because their supply lines got cut off / failed is ridiculous.
- What are the cities based on? Palaces on top of mountains look nice, but trading is a problem. Why was your city based at that spot originally?
- What’s the economy based on in your various societies? What do they buy/sell/trade?
- Sheep are buggers. There is a reason sheepdogs are so highly trained!
- If you’re using a profession in any depth, do your research. There are several different types of blacksmith; not all farmers do the same thing; even thieves and beggars have different styles.
- Professions will also vary by time of year. If you’ve got any outside work going on, consider what the weather’s like…
- It’s a fantasy staple to have your own language, and to make words up, but think about why you are doing it – Tolkien wrote his worlds to hang his languages on, so unless you’ve got that depth of interest you possibly don’t need to write a second Elvish language…
- Consider understanding against immersion. Using made-up words gives your world flavour, but will it be easier for the reader to know that a *garbled collection of syllables* is simply a type of sword? If you can use a word in English (or your chosen writing language) that has broadly the same class, will that convey the same thing without adding confusion?
- That said, having themes that run through your language or names is a nice Easter egg for readers. Maybe a word for “river” that’s consistent in several places sited on rives, or a particular style of name that signifies something (McCaffrey’s dragonriders spring to mind). You can absolutely play with names and language, just don’t overdo it!
- When you pick a name, say it out loud, and then consider if it could be misinterpreted. There’s an Eddings quote where his editor wanted to change it to “Alornia”, and Leah objected that it sounded like a type of cookie…so it stayed as Aloria.