This week sees the release of my YA fantasy debut Otherbound. For this book, I designed my first secondary world ever—and for all its challenges, it also opened up possibilities.
A different world means different cultures. Different norms.
I could play with disability and class: several significant characters, including my main character Amara, are mute servants who communicate solely via sign language. These servant signs—which are separate from sign languages used by this world’s deaf people—thus became a class marker and are intricately tied into Amara’s and other servants’ sense of identity and culture.
I could play with appearances and assumptions: Amara is bony and lean, with thick eyebrows. She’s attracted to a freckled boy with curly hair to his elbows and to a fat girl with deep black skin. None of these characters are conventionally beautiful in our society—and our society would make damn sure they knew it, too.
But why should a secondary world be just as hung up on beauty norms as we are? The people in the world I created are more concerned with politics of class, race, and magic. Physical attractiveness is rarely commented on.
I could play with race and identity: Amara is not only from a different country than the one the book takes place in, she’s from an ethnic minority within that country—and not only that, she was separated from her family at a young age after being selected as a servant. What does her identity mean to her, in light of all that? And in light of this world’s complex political history?
I could play with gender and sexuality: Amara never thinks twice about her attraction to both men and women. In this world, non-hetero sexual and romantic orientations are normal and integrated to the point where different words for them don’t even exist, akin to various actual cultures throughout history.
In a further attempt to battle heteronormative assumptions, I made it a point to refer to a female character’s late husband as her partner, rather than her husband, implying a less gendered approach to marriage. When someone tries to bribe another character with sex, they offer options beyond men and women. A male character enjoys watching long-legged dancers—gender unspecified.
To establish gender equality, I slipped in casual mentions of female marshals, female captains, female fishers. When an adult character protects a teenage girl, I had them say “She’s just a child” rather than “She’s just a girl” to avoid the implication that girls are seen as less or as vulnerable. One male character is adorned with jewelry, which is entirely unremarkable.
I had a lot of fun putting this world together, and many of these elements emerged naturally. Still, as I edited the book to keep all these social norms consistent, I realized just how many corrections I ended up making. We’re so brainwashed by our society’s attitudes that they feel normal to us, and it takes conscious thought to root them out.
That’s what it comes down to, for me—being aware. I didn’t write this post to imply that this type of worldbuilding is the best one—it depends entirely on the story you’re writing. Besides, I can list all kinds of things I wish I’d included or been more explicit about. I simply wanted to offer some examples to illustrate that, when we build a new world, everything is under our control. We’re the ones who determine the social norms, the histories, the oppressions. It’s important to wonder: Is this element necessary to the plot or characters? Am I purposefully including this to make a statement, to explore a particular situation? Or am I unthinkingly replicating elements from our world?
If everything is under our control, then everything we write in the book is a choice. Often, that choice is a subconscious one.
It’s up to us to be conscious about it.
A lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, will release from Amulet Books/ABRAMS on June 17, 2014. It has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and BCCB. Kirkus called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while BCCB praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”