One of the biggest questions in fiction writing is that of how much to make up and how much to draw from the real and existing. While the answer to this question will vary according to the demands of the story and taste of the storyteller or audience, when it comes to setting—especially in science fiction and fantasy (SFF)—the question becomes trickier. For SFF whose events take place in some semblance of our primary world—i.e. earth—in any way and to any degree, and not in a completely secondary world or planet, then a lot of stuff will have to remain real and recognizable for the reader.
Enter the world (pun intended) of nesting.
By nesting, I mean, building a fictional world within a real one. This could either mean building a whole new world to coexist side-by-side with the real, or building new elements into the real so that both the real and the fictional become one. If done well enough, it is not always clear which parts are real or fictional, and that makes for a more wholesome reading experience.
Aside from having done something of the sort in my own novel, David Mogo, Godhunter, I’ve also read a number of authors who have done this well and made for very enjoyable reading: P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series (starting with Trail of Lightning), The Deep by Rivers Solomon et al, Rosewater by Tade Thompson, etc. Many of these authors have employed differing approaches to arrive where they did, but it turns out we can pinpoint three key things to consider for your own story.
1. Locate the point of divergence.
Deciding where this “different world” diverges from the current one is key to all #worldbuilding. It can be anything from a point in history where something “new/different” happens (e.g. the Harry Potter series has a secondary, magical world hidden from non-magical humans in the primary, recognisable world) or a whole new invention that exists within the current world from time immemorial (e.g. Tade Thompson creates the whole new city of Rosewater and its alien presence, but a lot of Nigeria—especially Lagos—remains recognisable).
Having a clear point of divergence, I’ve found, makes it easier for you to tell how much the story world has changed by the time the tale being told begins.
2. What is impacted? What isn’t?
Sometimes, there isn’t a point per se of this divergence from the real world. More like the story world is only an existing one by another name and with specific new elements introduced, whether magic or technology or both. Fonda Lee does this to great effect in Jade City, where Kekon reads like a mashup of different locales in East Asia. The most important thing to note here is that Kekon differs from these places first by the introduction of jade, the magical element that drives literally everything. Magical jade, in this case, becomes the story world’s point of divergence from the real, before everything else is built in.
It’s this everything else, however, that makes the story world.
The story world has to make sense within the tenets of both the real world and the story’s rules, especially if the real and fictional worlds coexist.
A good thing to figure out early on is what in the story world is affected by this divergence. Many magical academy narratives, for instance, borrow from real-world private secondary schools, but the subjects and modes of instruction differ greatly from the real world as a result of magic being taught rather than real-world physics and biology (and in fact, sometimes, alongside them). Other differences/changes will occur in various aspects too: power, government, religion, arts, relationships, economics, social life, technology, etc. The conflicts present in your story will directly reflect these changes.
3. What’s relevant to the story? What isn’t?
Then comes the hard part: deciding what to mention in the story, and what to leave out or let the reader insinuate. The oft-given advice of limiting description to avoid infodumps runs the risk of leaving the reader grappling for information. Only providing information that the key characters know could also lose the reader. A balance of both is therefore needed.
One particularly good piece of advice I tend to follow is to provide worldbuilding information within context: if it’s needed to understand something crucial to the narrative, provide it in the least direct way possible (through dialogue is a popular choice).
It’s obvious that nesting worlds lends itself pretty well to contemporary fantasy and near-future narratives, but any speculative work with historical elements could benefit from it too. It’s a matter of employing the same approach, but with somewhere further back in time. Really, what most readers want is to be immersed in a world so much that they forget it’s fictional, and that, I believe, is the ultimate goal of every piece of worldbuilding.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a Nigerian author of fantasy, science fiction and other speculative works inspired by his West-African origins. His new novel, Son of the Storm, first in the epic fantasy trilogy, The Nameless Republic, releases from Orbit in May 2021. His highly-anticipated debut, the godpunk fantasy novel David Mogo, Godhunter (Abaddon, 2019), won the 2020 Nommo Ilube Award for Best Speculative Novel by an African. His shorter fiction and essays have appeared internationally in periodicals like Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, Fireside, and anthologies like Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda, Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, and People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction. He has taught writing at the University of Arizona (where he also earned his MFA in Creative Writing) and spoken at various venues in the US and beyond, including schools, conferences, conventions and other institutions. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies and is @suyidavies on Instagram. Learn more at suyidavies.com.
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