Weirdness 101

Ooh baby, baby it’s a weird world,
I’ll always remember you with tentacles, girl
– not remotely Cat Stevens

So I wanted to talk about the Weirdness Budget, which my friend Sarah Todd introduced me to in about 2002, and which I’ve found to be a useful worldbuilding tool. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that the Weirdness Budget seems simple at first but quickly becomes complicated as we delve into what weirdness really is and what budgeting (in art) can possibly mean.

It is entirely possible, also, that when I say this concept has been useful to me, what I really mean is, “I’ve enjoyed finding all the ways this rule doesn’t work.” I tend to do that with rules. I bend them and fold them into hats, which I then wear at a jaunty angle. I’m not sure that should count as following a rule.

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “I love rules! I love the sound they make as I smash them with a hammer!”

You see why I’ve put off writing a series like this. I’m only going to teach you how to break things.

Anyway, here’s the Weirdness Budget idea that Sarah taught me, possibly somewhat altered by time and by my jumping up and down on it: There is only so much weirdness a reader can take before they give up and stop reading. When you make up new things for a SFF world, make sure you’re spending your weirdness wisely, on things that really matter.

That seems straightforward enough. I think at heart it is straightforward, that the essence of this rule is: Be deliberate and thoughtful in your worldbuilding choices. This is excellent, if obvious, advice. We should strive to be purposeful and thoughtful in our art, certainly (when we’re not being wild and deliciously undisciplined).

Beyond the essence, however, lots of unruly questions spring up; I feel like Cadmus sowing dragon’s teeth, raising a whole mystical army of questions. I could list them all, but that would quickly get confusing, so I’m going to start with just one: What is weirdness?

And then, because I am an incorrigible contrarian, I will tell you what weirdness is NOT.

Here’s the thing: many of us have been called weird. While it’s possible to wear the label as a badge of pride, it can also cut deeply and make us doubt our own worthiness. My biggest worry about the Weirdness Budget is that one could take weirdness to heart and feel hurt by it. I have, therefore, come up with two corollaries:

Weirdness Corollary #1: You are not weird.

Well, you almost certainly are (particularly if we’re friends in real life), but not in the sense I mean. Anything found in the real world, any identity real people have – be it race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation, class – does not count as weirdness for worldbuilding purposes. I don’t want anybody reading this post to be thinking, “Well, I’ve got sentient flying toasters battling squirrelzilla, so making the main character ____ like me is going to be too weird for readers.” No, no, and no. You exist in this world, and you get to exist in yours.

Some readers do find real-world identities off-putting and balk at their inclusion. Those readers need to take a long hard look around this world and come back later.

Weirdness Corollary #2: Other people’s identities don’t count toward weirdness either.

We’ve all seen it done: “the other” used as flavoring, to spice things up. Want a quick way to signal seediness? Exoticism? Danger? Despair? I don’t even have to name the identities; you know which ones stereotypically populate which parts of made-up worlds. People are not pepper. This does not add depth to your world; this is lazy shorthand.

Firefly is my favourite example because it’s a series I like, for the most part. I can’t deny, however, that in a world where everybody swears in Chinese and Chinese writing abounds, the dearth of actual Chinese people is pretty egregious. Clearly, somebody thought a dash of Chinese added history and character to the world, and maybe it could have, if they’d followed through, included folks of that ethnicity, and delved into the many interesting implications. They seem to have wanted the savour and not the substance, and that was an opportunity missed.

You will seldom hear me tell you no, but in this case I make an exception: don’t do this. Don’t use identities as a garnish. Go deep – in understanding, compassion, and humanity – or go home.

All right then, glad I got that off my chest! Tune in next time when we talk about actual weirdness, for real this ti-

What’s that? You can’t possibly wait that long? You’re tired of me teasing you?

Fine. Weirdness, for the purposes of worldbuilding, is the stuff you make up. The speculative part of speculative fiction. The imagined and counterfactual. It’s that simple.

And it’s not that simple at all.

Edited to add: Y’know, ideas don’t occur in a vacuum. I think about this stuff a lot, but I also read a lot. It is an unfortunate feature of the internet (at least, for someone as scatterbrained as me) that it’s very easy to lose track of where I was first exposed to various ideas. (When I hear an idea, I’m much more likely to remember — which is why I was able to cite Sarah Todd above) (I think she, in turn, heard about the Weirdness Budget at a writing workshop — I want to say Odyssey? — so there’s certainly someone further up the chain who I’m not citing, and if anyone knows who it is, please tell me)

I can profess my strong convictions about identity and weirdness, but these convictions have accreted over years of exposure to the writings of various individuals. Here are a few, for your further reading and edification:

N. K. Jemisin
Daniel José Older
Justina Ireland
Mikki Kendall
Kayla Whaley

Sing a song of worldbuilding

Let me sing you songs from the worlds,
To make you feel much better than you could know…
–not quite Jethro Tull

When I was in Singapore last fall, I gave a 3-hour workshop on worldbuilding. I was super nervous beforehand; I had hardly any teaching experience, and as far as worlds go, I’ve really only built the one, which I started at twelve years old.

It’s not viable writing advice to say, Go back in time, and when you’re twelve years old, dream up a world… I would blame my physicist husband for neglecting to build us a time machine, but he has his reasons, and that’s probably enough about that.

My point is: I wasn’t sure I knew how to build a world, even though I’d supposedly done it. That supposedly weighed on me. A comic book series, two published novels, a third drafted, all of them set in the same world, and yet I hesitated to call my world built. Goredd had been with me for more than thirty years and there were still things I didn’t know, still elements evolving, still facets that seemed to spring up out of nowhere and take me by surprise.

In fact, that’s one of the things I love most about my world: I’m always learning new things about it. There’s still room for it to grow.

You don’t have to start when you’re twelve. Worldbuilding can take thirty years if you want, but even after such a ridiculously long time, I still don’t know everything. Heck, I don’t even know everything about the real world, and it’s much more objectively knowable.

An invented world is always going to be incomplete.

This is wonderful news, friends! I want to make sure you understand how encouraging this is. It has many intriguing implications, of which these are only a few:

  1. You don’t have to know everything about your world before you start writing.
  2. A world can be deepened and elaborated in any direction that strikes your fancy.
  3. People in your world can be wrong about your world (because they can’t know everything either).
  4. YOU can be wrong about your world and still recover (I will talk about this in more detail later, I promise).
  5. You really can do this any way you want. You are completely free.

So I’m going to make this a series, of sorts, because once I embraced the incompleteness, I realized I have a lot to say. Like, a lot a lot. Thirty years’ worth. My goal is to give you tools, not rules. Anything I say that looks like a rule (even “An invented world is always going to be incomplete”), please feel free to break it and show me what. I will be extremely pleased. The rules are really only there to give us something to smash.

Tune in next time, true believers, for a merry chat about weirdness.