We Are Not Fictional: on Default Assumptions and Worldbuilding


I’ll preface this with a “erm, not going to make a habit of posting only rants to this blog” (if you don’t want a rant, I’m over at Over the Effing Rainbow, talking about definitions of Science Fiction and French libraries. Or you can check out Sunil Patel’s review of The House of Shattered Wings, here). But still…

I’ve blogged before on the uses of history and other sources as inspiration–it’s a very handy way to learn some things that are radically different from the ones that you’re used to.


But I’m getting a bit weary of the assumption that a “cool” feature of a society in a book must necessarily be fictional– must necessarily be a feat of invention and worldbuilding by the author, rather than something that exists here, now; something that is  the daily reality of millions of people. To take just one example: pronouns that codify a complex hierarchy at the same time as gender (or are hierarchical and gender-neutral) aren’t a cool alien feature of a language I (or some other author) have made up. They exist today (in Vietnamese, in this particular case, and in some form or another in French, Spanish, etc.). Similarly, people who exist outside the gender binary aren’t aliens, or living in far away societies (generally meant to be the “weird” Third World rather than our “civilised” climes). They’re here, now. They aren’t invisible.

I… I don’t know if I have a solution to this, to be honest. It’s a thin line between genuinely not knowing and perpetuating erasure–and I can’t say that I’m not guilty of doing this, too.

It’s just… erasure is exhausting. It’s exhausting to see, again and again, assumptions that the entire world must follow Western Anglophone norms; that every language must behave like English [1], that every food stuff must be US/UK; that every single culture has the same gender demarcations and boundaries as the Western Anglophone world–that, if you don’t follow these norms, you’re weird. That you’re other, alien, forever not welcome, your society used as inspiration to showcase the odd and fictional things people get around to on other planets, in other imagined pasts (with the attendant niggling feeling that you’ll be fine as long as you remain cool and fictional, as opposed to here, close, in your face, every day).

And I know genre isn’t like that–that, at its best, it shows us wonderful and new things, the best of what could be, of what could have been. But sometimes I really wish people would look things up.

Sometimes… sometimes it gets to the point when I want to punch something, or at the very least crumple some paper really hard (I have a lot of paper right now, as I’m trying to sort out a plot chronology for The House of Binding Thorns ^-^).

Be right back. I’ll be playing Neko Atsume for a bit.

[1] Pro-tip: if you’re going to make up a language, it’s helpful if you can speak other languages. If you don’t, then research some? (and it’s helpful if you don’t limit yourself to Germanic or Romance languages, because outside of the language family you’ll find radically different features–like my hierarchical pronouns)


  1. Writers now have _zero_ excuse for laziness on the language front. David J Peterson, creator of Dothraki, Valyrian, Castithan and numerous other SFF languages has written a book called “The Art of Language Invention”, including tips for beginners on how to get started. I don’t have a copy yet (don’t want to get distracted from my current draft!) but I suspect it’s a must-have for worldbuilders.


  2. He, thanks! Yeah, I suspect it would help a lot 🙂

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