Weekend Writing Ramble: Universe as Character

This one isn’t going to make me any friends, for reasons which will become clear in two paragraphs.

Self-inspection has taught me a great many lessons about myself. One of them concerns the set of key qualities I look for in fictional settings. A setting is, in its own subdued way, a sort of character. I’d say it’s at least as important to the story as the narrator: both the narrator and the setting incontrovertibly influence the milieu. Harry Dresden’s Chicago is a dangerous, mystical place, filled with prey we don’t often see and predators we know all too well. Phineas and Ferb’s Danville is a whimsical place where you can get pretty much any engineering impossibility you can devise delivered same-day to your door.

Now here’s where I’m going to diverge from popular opinion: Doctor Who is an example of fiction without a particularly coherent universe behind it, and that’s why I’ve never been able to get into it beyond hunting down an arc when I’ve seen a part of it. Can you really blame me? Part of the show’s shtick is that the very nature of a time-traveling immortal permits the writers to move (admittedly fantastic) characters from (practically unrelated, but admittedly very good in isolation) story to story. As my parentheticals hint, I do find myself enamored with Doctor Who when I do watch it, but I’ve never found myself inexorably sucked into trawling through the archives1, precisely because the universe is not a constant: it serves as a backdrop to the polished character drama that drives the show. Unfortunately, if you look at the setting as a character, it comes off as a bit schizophrenic2.

Now, I admit that’s a personal preference. Fortunately for me, although I’m sure there are other people who don’t care for a flexible universe, I don’t think the opposite is as true. People who will dismiss a piece of fiction because its universe is well-defined probably do exist, but I posit (with no support beyond a gut feel) that they’re less common. This aligns neatly with my preference and my desire for Many Words: I can write a fairly well-defined universe (you should see the amount of research and defined canon3 behind Nathaniel Cannon or the Confederacy of Allied Worlds), and I won’t drive many people away because they don’t like the structure of my universe4.

I can’t really end this one with advice, because that would involve saying, “Don’t do what one of the most successful media franchises of all time does.” That’s not prima facie bad advice, but it does require a level of talent I’m pretty sure I don’t have. A rigid universe is easier. If you’re good enough to write the next Doctor Who, then go for it—but ask yourself first whether you can pull off characters so good that only weirdos like me will complain that the surroundings shift.

1. I should note that, if I should ever find myself so sucked, I will count ‘the whole archive’ as the new series. Sorry, fans of the old show; there’s only so much science fiction camp I can take.
2. I’m certainly open to a good convincing in the comments. Miffed Whovians, fire away.
3. My collaborator remarked that in cases like the Matrix series, he preferred a truncated canon, to which I replied, “Caronade?
4. I might drive people away by my stylistic choices, or by simple bad writing, but those are more directly my fault.

This entry was posted in Blather. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply