Missed Opportunities: New World Same As The Old World

They’re everywhere you go. Everywhere you turn. At the other end of each turning page, nestled in the middle of a sentence. Watching you. Laughing at you. You can only read of that other world, but they slip between it and ours. They are ancient and strong beyond human reckoning. The mightiest strongman strains to budge all but the smallest of them, and even the scorching sweep of an exploding nuclear bomb may not fell them.

They’re fucking trees and given that they’re an Earth plant it’s pretty damn suspicious that so many of them suffuse worlds both fantasy and far-future.

I’m serious, think about it. Earth’s plants are just as uniquely its own as its #1 species of self-important biped. Now, yes, it’s also suspicious that humans show up in so much genre fiction set on worlds apart from our own, but there’s a legitimate literary concern that readers may not sympathize with non-human characters as easily. I’d argue it’s overblown, but it’s still legitimate. Also, the bulk of human literature can be seen as a kind of collective self-insert fanfiction and that’s just tradition.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have trees any more than I’m saying you shouldn’t have humans. For both, however, I suggest you consider that having elements from our world doesn’t require that they be lifted wholesale, unchanged and untarnished as a Bronze Age vase trapped in a glacier. You’re writing a new (and ideally different) world. You can get away with giving people weird features or exaggerated abilities.

Your trees had best be the most imposing, mystic, far-out fantastrees you can whip up without LSD. Think I’m joking? One of the things that struck me most (in a good way) about The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind when I played it as a child was something I didn’t consciously pick up on until I revisited it as an adult.

Everything in Morrowind is off somehow. The buildings are all somewhat peculiar, either cramped or laid out in ways that don’t make sense to us, often strangely spindly with platforms and balconies and doors in places we’d never put them. It does not (that I remember) contain a single animal from our world and humans themselves are comparatively scarce. I actually remember being astonished and vaguely uncomfortable when I saw Imperials, Nords or Bretons because white humans (for a white human, the most bland and generic “race” available) seemed so out of place there.

As for the trees? Some of them are as thick as a tower and twice as tall, half of them are dead, many are just bizarre. They have branches and leaves in places they shouldn’t, the colors are skewed, and so on. Also, you’ll see wagon-sized mushrooms growing next to them like it’s no big deal, or dominating entire section of the landscape with nary a leaf or blade of grass in sight. More than any other Elder Scrolls game or even any RPG I’ve played since, Morrowind reminded you that the only core difference between High Fantasy and Sci-Fi is tech level. Take away its lasers and starships, and Star Wars would start to look a lot like The Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy authors don’t have a team of artists to render their worlds or the luxury of moving pictures, but we do have the liberty of using any image we can convey with words. Odds are high there will be forests in your book. They’re not just expected, though, they’re an opportunity. Show your readers how wild these plants really are. Give them misshapen, overgrown oak-like things tangled up in their own branches, strange wobbly stands of sky-scraping trunks covered in flowers. It’s Fantasy, and moreover it’s a different world. All living things on Earth have a common ancestor if you go back far enough. A Fantasy world doesn’t have to abide by that rule.

As I’ve hinted, don’t just stop at the trees. Buildings, art, literature, make it all new and ridiculous. Within reason, of course; if you feel you’re making something bizarre just for it’s own sake and not to enhance the world or plot, you’ve become Tim Burton and should collect yourself before you pull a Wonderland. Otherwise, shape things early and shape them often.

I’ve given you eight articles so far on worldbuilding (this arguably makes nine), so check those out for some ideas. You’re going to feel a little silly at first, but you should. You’re shaping a new world. Both you and your readers have to start thinking by that world’s rules, not this one’s. By Chapter Three, if one of your characters says, “Look at that lovely lime sky!” your readers’ only objection should be that lime is a disgusting color for the sky. I’ll explore some of the ideas here more fully in an upcoming article that deals with the difficulty of imagining original lifeforms, but for now I just want to tell you to do the thing without telling you how.

Final word: don’t make a lime sky.

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