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Anomic Worldbuilding

Research is comfortable.

After finishing a first draft of my novel just before Christmas, I decided to spend the winter break filling some world-building gaps in my setting, to let the draft cool a bit before I returned to it. I honestly didn’t think I had much work to do: a few days on my narrator’s home town, a few days on the religion that plays a fairly central role in the series, a few days sketching out the major races and how they’re different. I thought I’d do some reading, draft some ideas, and then, on the weekend of Imbolc (February 2), I would read through my novel draft and roll up my sleeves to start revising.

Well, as you can tell if you know how to read a calendar, February 2 was more than 3 months ago now, and I’m still world-building. My new tentative deadline is that I’ll return to my draft on June 1st: of course, as soon as I set it, my mind reduced the next 3 1/2 weeks to approximately the length of a coffee date, as m7y panicky author’s impulse shouts that there’s no WAY I can finish everything I want to finish before then. I’m prepared to be somewhat lenient with myself — as Husband points out on a regular basis, one up side of being my own boss is that I can change my deadlines when necessary — but not overly so, because I’ve experienced this particular type of panic before. This is the panic of the anomic creator.

In Emile Durkheim’s super-cheerful study Suicide, he argues that there are 4 main reasons people decide to permanently check out of their social communities. My dissertation chair always explained the four ways to her students using a two-by-two table: too much and not enough, connections and limits. A suicide bomber commits “altruistic suicide” because she’s merged completely with the goals of her community (too much connection); a desperately lonely person commits “egoistic suicide” because he’s lost all ties to his community (too little connection). A prisoner might commit “fatalistic suicide” because they feel there’s no way out of their situation (too many limits)… and someone who wins the lottery might commit “anomic suicide,” because they no longer know what to strive for.

Anomie is a difficult term for undergraduates to grasp at first, but when it’s put in the context of their own lives, they get it easily. For a young person who’s spent the last 4 years worrying about where they’re going to go to college, getting into UC Berkeley might seem like the ultimate goal achieved, and leave them unsure of what they’re supposed to do next. New BA graduates are also frequent victims of anomie: they’re not students anymore, and there are no grades in the work world, so empirical markers of success are harder to come by. And for PhD students, my admittedly-limited experience suggests, anomie is a near-constant companion. As a PhD-in-progress, you’re making the transition from the probably-very-familiar role of student to the new role of scholar. You’re expected to not only read books and articles about a topic, but go out into the world and collect your own data, and then develop original theories from it. And there’s no one in the world who can speak with authority on what grade you should receive for this work.

My teaching semester wrapped up on Tuesday, and I spent our last class period answering students’ questions about graduate school. When one woman asked, with the weary eyes of someone mired in honors thesis prep work, how you were supposed to know when you’d done enough research, the only answer I could give her is the honest one: “You can’t, because you won’t have.” It’s one of the purest examples of the dilemma of anomie that I’ve encountered. There’s always one more book to read, one more article to squeeze into a lit review. And for someone who’s been a student for most of their life, that’s the easy part. Reading, taking notes, synthesizing information… we can all do that. The scary part is stepping away from it — because so long as you’re researching, you can feel like you’re doing work. Staring at a blank page or a blinking cursor makes that a lot harder to do.

I’ve learned a huge amount over the last four months, both about my setting and about real-world elements that I want to incorporate. I’ve drawn up a fairly detailed account of the colossal war that shaped my narrator’s world, named all the players and scribbled down some details of their various motivations to make sure no one was just a mustache-twirling dastardly villain (because much as we all love dastardly villains, I’d rather my world be populated by real people). I’ve worked out rules for the magic system, and how magic is passed down from parents to children (or not). I’ve got a sense of where all the various sentient races fit into things, and a vague notion of elements that would be different in their respective cultures. In the process of doing this, some of the more esoteric books I’ve read include an account of life in Soviet Russia (fascinating), a book on prayer practices around the world (not as helpful as I’d hoped, FWIW), a trio of texts by “armchair historians” Joseph & Frances Gies called Life in a Medieval City, Life in a Medieval Castle and Life in a Medieval Village (super-helpful, even though I’m determined that by hook or by crook, my setting’s core cultures will NOT draw exclusively on medieval Europe) and more Wikipedia articles than I’d care to admit. I could talk to you (at least in brief) about how weather works, about how long an invaded culture typically persists before being overrun by the invaders’ culture, about US Army Basic Training and the war practices of the Zulu king Shaka.

I’ve had fun doing all of this, but I’m starting to feel the itch that means it’s turning into procrastination. Because that’s the other answer to my student’s question, the one you’ll see in books on how to do social science research. The time to stop collecting data is when you start to get flashes of the big picture your data’s going to make when you piece it together, and I think I’m just about there. When I drafted outlines for Books 2 and 3 in my series last week, I found myself using new data from my worldbuilding efforts without really thinking about it.

I know I’m going to miss something. I know that in three or four months, I’m going to reach a point where I need to stop and take a few days working on language, or religion, or other cultural paraphernalia. But I’m starting to feel the bones of my setting fitting into place. So I’ll take the next 3 1/2 weeks to finish up. I’ll draw up a checklist of things that must be done before I can start again (off the top of my head: reviewing the basics of my partially-constructed languages, working out a few more details on the religion, and drawing up profiles of the major secondary characters), and then I’ll go back to my draft, and I’ll start that scary revision process. And it won’t be comfortable. But I think that’s kind of the point.

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1 Comment

  1. Pat Rothfuss Says: Worldbuilders, Embrace Your Geekiness | Sociologist Novelist

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