WAY WITH WORLDS:
GOD, DARWIN, HISTORY
By Steven Savage
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During the latest American election, I bitterly noted that too much politics was based on three excuses; blame God, blame Darwin, blame history. I think it was a nicely lucid moment of utter bile.
It struck me later that I'd also hit on something in writing - that people often used excuses for elements of their worlds. In fact, as I looked at it, the same three excuses popped up in writing and worldbuilding as well. There were moments when we as writers and worldsmiths would lapse, and we'd resort to excuses.
Now when you have an insight like that (and you're sober), it's one worth exploring. So, in this column, I look at those three excuses and how they may pop up in your writing and your worlds.
God (and in general the supernatural/theological) can too easily become a plot device in stories, and too easily used to justify actions, or wrap things up nice and tidy and all too simply. You've probably seen the so-called "Hail Mary" story endings, and can appreciate at times the term is all too appropriate.
Of course, at the same time, writing about the spiritual elements of your world may be vital, even absolutely key to what you're doing. Certainly in any world you design they can't be ignored.
In my experience "supernatural abuse" tends to occur in stories where the supernatural/spiritual elements are NOT thought out and planned out carefully. In a world where the supernatural elements are thought out by the worldbuilder, the author is unlikely to violate his or her continuity. When such elements are not, it's all to easy to invoke them to suddenly fix things, turn around the plot, or use some simple pop-culture concepts.
Deus Ex Machina - the God out of the Machine - was a description of the method of using mechanical contrivance in plays to materialize a god (and possibly wrap up inconvenient elements). The somewhat derogatory use of the term obviously came about because some playwrights overdid it - don't follow in their footsteps.
It seems to me that in real life if people aren't explaining things by God, they're doing it by Darwin. However you cut it though, an excuse is an excuse.
A common element I see used in a variety of stories and worlds is to explain things by "it's evolution" - usually used to excuse odd alien races or used to excuse particularly brutal occurrences ("survival of the fittest, that's why no one commented on the centuries-long genocide of the Margan Cluster, right?"). It's a nice way to get around dealing with the actual complexities of biology or sociology.
Of course, dealing with the actual complexities of things is what writings all about - if you ignore complexities, you'll loose readers who fall into your plot holes. Simply saying "The Klagotarian race is violent because they needed to be to survive" says very little about things, and reduces a race to a stereotype. Deciding "survival of the fittest" boils down to a gladiatorial match really has nothing to do with Darwin (and the various co-theories, later theories, and concurrent theories of evolution).
I find that the Darwin excuse often occurs the same ways the God excuse does - when there's less thinking out about the important elements of the world, it's an easy excuse to invoke. However, the Darwin excuse is a bit more insidious as saying "it's evolution" or "survival of the fittest" is a way to add at least an air of scientific respectability about what you're doing - even if its unearned.
How I love history. Then again, I love a good drink, but I don't approve of drunk driving.
Basing your world on actual historical events is obviously a good idea - you've sort of got "pre-tested" ideas sitting out there in history books, videotapes, and more. Whether it's an alternate timeline, parallel culture, or "classic" historical events, real history is a great source of ideas.
However, like the other excuses, it's too easy to toss something into your world and into your writing and say "it's validated by history." One of my oddest experiences as a reader of fanfic was, upon criticizing the social model of a person's post-apocalyptic story, was to have them explain it was somehow consistent with human history. So even though the person never managed to explain various inconsistencies, it was "historically accurate," because he'd "seen things like this before."
Most cases of the "history excuse" involve modeling world and story elements on historical events without understanding the context and causes of the events themselves. Copying an event and throwing it into your world (or worse, looking up a historical event like ones in your world to justify their existence) ignores the whys and hows of history - and history is whys and hows mixed with whens.
History is great for research, but it's a lousy excuse. Use history to understand, but make sure you understand first.
God, Darwin, and History are potential excuses for bad writing. Use theology, science, and history to build better worlds - not excuse mistakes.