The Dark Mirror

Detail:  Narcissus,  Caravaggio, 1597-1599

Detail: Narcissus, Caravaggio, 1597-1599

As I stated my previous posts, world building is more than just fun maps and fantastic creatures. Your new world will have a tendency to budge up against our own in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Echoes of real conflicts and real oppression will find their way into your newly born countries. The problems of our own lives will be reflected in those of your characters. This is a natural side effect of creating a world while also living in a world. No work of art exists in a vacuum: everything you create has been influenced by your personal beliefs, biases, and cultural background.

Knowing this, there are many ways to build worlds. One method is to use fantasy as a mirror; reflecting some of society’s direst problems, and critiquing them in a new way. N.K. Jemisin uses a combination of both methods in her novel The Shadowed Sun, where she considers rape culture in an otherworldly setting. Similarly, Saladin Ahmed deftly creates a new allegory for the treatment of Muslims in Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy, his re-envisioning of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen.

Yet another method is to build a world contrary to everything we know: for example, dissolving accepted binaries of gender and sexual orientation to make a society where everyone is agender and asexual—as in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hugo-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness. You might wish to create a world where same-sex marriage is taken for granted, and homophobia is simply unheard of, as in the exceptional American small town of David Leviathan’s Boy Meets Boy.

The third method is one I don’t personally recommend. Well-meaning writers are fond of envisioning worlds where the victim casts their master into the role of slave, thinking that this will encourage their reader to see things from the “other” perspective. This convention is demeaning to individuals who face prejudices daily, and shifts the focus away from their lived experiences and onto the hurt feelings of those who are relatively privileged. In short, these stories often backfire in an explosion of Unfortunate Implications.

A story can always reflect something you didn’t intend. Read carefully, look deeply, and write consciously.


Eleanor Fogolin is a student of writing. She holds a master’s degree in literature from Memorial University. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Cactus Heart Press, and Drunken Muse Press. She currently resides in Ottawa. Her pastimes include mythmaking, over thinking, and coffee-drinking.

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