World building is a big thing for writers today. Readers and viewers like to escape to the familiar, fantasy or unknown worlds where our characters dwell. As we embark on designing our new world, we’re thinking landscape and orientation, key features and markers. An important part of cartography for writers is referring to what’s already known or familiar and projecting off that. Even fantasy elements are related to our experience, however faraway or far-fetched we make them.
Until the pandemic, I think we mostly (in peace-time countries) took our familiar environment for granted. I went into town for the first time in five months; it was reassuringly as I remembered it. It was market day which was happening as it always did – the same stalls of jewelry, clothes, fruit and veg, carved wood, cooked food. Sunny day. Tourists browsed, stallholders chatted as they’ve always done. No masks. Nothing’s changed, right?
Wrong. A handful of those will die or have their lives changed forever by failing to respect Pandemic Roulette. Which ones of you has the virus picked out? I did what I had to do and got the hell out, and I’m thinking this is a metaphor for the problem facing all fiction (and non-fiction) writers trying to imagine near future worlds for their current projects.
Fantasy and The Unknown
What is the post-pandemic landscape? What are we looking at? At first glance it looks like business as usual, but the virus has added hidden traps and changes to our economic and social behavior have not yet fully emerged. It’s becoming increasingly certain that life will not go back to the way it was before; the social changes are too profound and structural. Lining up my map-making tools, I’m not so much world-building, I feel like I’m planted in a shooter video game. Where are the traps? Find them or die.
We’re Gonna Need a New Map
I’m groping my way forwards, attuned to ambush, trying to see further ahead, but it’s difficult because the virus is not done with us yet. It’ll take some years before we can make sense of the new landscape in the context of hindsight. Writers or not, one thing we all have in common is we’re forced to fumble our way through it. Life’s not normal; it’s THE TRUMAN SHOW.
Cartography for Writers Take Two
We can return to the known world of the past. You can write up to 2019 in those worlds you built with such love and pain and care. These were the platforms for the acrobats of your story. We all knew those rules, markers and anchors, so your twists and turns entertained and thrilled us.
There’s fantasy and sci-fi.
But what about the real world? What is the real world? For many of us, pandemic themes are off the table for now, but sooner or later nature will force us to come to terms with it, because the landscape’s changing whether we like it or not. The trouble is, nobody knows how the new one will unfold.
How do we write about it? Social media and ratings tell us what people don’t want. They don’t want yet another ‘lockdown’ story of two people trying to kill or survive each other. They don’t want a new take on CONTAGION. One is quite enough, or is it? Contagion is high on the viewing charts.
Clues for Cartography for Writers
I imagine many writers are working on stories of pandemic loss and bereavement, front line workers and personal struggles of life made harder in this new environment. Then there’s ‘end of furlough’ crises (UK), bankruptcies, redundancies and ‘What If?’ possibilities.
But in terms of the human condition, life and identity crises, societal evolution and all the themes writers traditionally obsess with, how on earth do we apply cartography for writers to our virus-infused world?
Interesting observations arise. The pandemic is bringing out the best and worst of humanity. Politicians and big business, by and large, are showing themselves for the scumbags they are, and not caring who knows it. Money talks, as it always has, and society can go to hell in a handcart, but random acts of kindness soften the blows of the selfish, greedy brigade. So, while the post-pandemic landscape is as yet unknown and unpredictable, good old human nature reacts as you’d expect. The best prediction of future behavior is past behavior. Could be there’s my clue.
Human brains seem to be wired to be innovative and reactionary at the same time, and despite our remarkable intelligence as a species, it looks like this problem is too big for the all of us. The last comparable pandemic was the 1918 – 1920 flu. Many creative works have explored character reactions to extreme stress. Off the top of my head, ALIEN, for one, is not merely a story about hurtling into the unknown. What makes it doubly interesting is how each character reacts to it. This could be a second clue as to the way forward.
Keep Calm and…
This is the best I can do right now. I’m fumbling in the dark like the rest of you, but one thing’s for sure. In the between your (quite natural) fear and moments of panic, if you’re reading this and you’re not one of the truly alarming statistics of the dead or dying, you’re able to speculate on our post-pandemic landscape, design your characters’ world and get something down. ‘Now’ is the only certainty.
Resources for Worldbuilders to Tap Into
Clive describes how to explore different cultures and time frames for your characters and how that impacts who they are.
A range of detailed books on World Building by Randy Ellefson
Study the greats. My favourite ‘worldbuilders’ are Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, Iain M. Banks, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, John Steinbeck, early Wilbur Smith, Hannu Rajaniemi, China Miéville, Bryce Courtenay, and Lee Childs. Who are yours?