World-Building Errors, as Illustrated by Divergent

Even if you haven’t read it or seen the movie, chances are you are aware of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. In the first book of this Young Adult trilogy of novels, a teen girl named Tris switches from one of her dystopian society’s factions to another, in the process revealing, and rebelling against, the ugly nature of her community.

Divergent is as delightfully nail-biting as any lover of sci-fi, girl-power adventure could hope for. But as I tore through the pages of the first book, in a rush to find out what would next befall Tris, I kept tripping over details that had me turning back to confirm what I had read: in too many places the story contradicts its own invented world.

Great read. Shaky world.
Great read. Lots of errors.

For those of you who create worlds for your fiction, I present to you a sampling of avoidable world-building errors, as illustrated by Divergent. Even the most successful writers make mistakes, and from them, you can learn how to improve your own world-building skills.

 You May Prefer to Avoid Math, But Some of Your Readers Won’t

Wait--how many people in the Divergent society? Really?
Wait–how many people in the Divergent society? Really?

Whether or not you mention specific numbers in your fiction, it behooves you to think in numbers. For example: “Not everyone in each faction comes to the Choosing Ceremony, but enough of them come that the crowd looks huge.” This sentence innocently suggests that a large part of Divergent’s society fits into one room. Chicago, the city where Divergent’s future world exists, currently holds 2.7 million people. If Divergent’s society numbers even in the tens of thousands, the Chicago area would still be empty enough to grow crops in unused lots and streets. And yet Divergent’s population does its farming outside of a fence a half-hour’s train ride away, across fallow fields.

We later learn that the Dauntless warrior faction is accepting only ten new initiates this year. Do they accept only ten every year? Over the course of fifty years, that’s 500 warriors—assuming nobody dies. The Dauntless are tasked with guarding the aforementioned fence. Let’s say that the fence follows Chicago’s Route 294 from one end on the coast of Lake Michigan to the other, in a 50-mile arc. A slow or indirect train could get from mid-Chicago to such a barrier in thirty minutes. Assuming eight-hour shifts, and assuming everyone chips in, that’s three and a third guards per mile. That’s not enough guards to defend the fence.

Never mention specific numbers without first exploring the ramifications of those numbers.

 Research Everything

Martial arts training does not include knock-outs.
Real martial arts training does not encourage knock-outs.

Tris and her fellow faction-switching initiates are “trained” in unarmed combat by beating each other unconscious. We are given to believe that this is somewhat more rough treatment than the Dauntless-born initiates are receiving—but not all that much more. Dauntless culture welcomes such abuse as a chance to test bravery. Invented culture is perhaps the most central part of building a fictional world. But what is going on here? Hitting someone hard enough to “knock them out” is a potentially brain-damaging affair. Hasn’t this been a staple of sports news for years now? And here it is, the “knock-out” being served up in yet another action book, not just as a cheap end-of-scene device, but as an acceptable custom in a supposedly functioning culture.

No real-life martial art is taught through having its members cause each other permanent harm. To do so would defeat the purpose: classmates in any fighting art need to trust one another not to do harm, in order for learning to happen. That issue aside, even with proper training, it takes more than a few weeks to acquire even the most rudimentary competence in a martial art. A modicum of research could have told the author as much.

The moral of the story: don’t rely on other works of fiction to teach you about a real-world subject. Do your homework.

 Account for Real Human Behavior

Zoe-Kravitz-and-Shailene-Woodley-Divergent
Parents: Would you let your children do this?

We are told explicitly that the Dauntless are warriors, men and women alike, and that most of them are permanently employed guarding the fence. We are shown that the leadership is dictatorial, but given no evidence that the general population chafes under such leadership. We are told that Dauntless children are encouraged to take physical risks routinely, such as leaping from moving trains to get to school. And we are told that it is rare and shameful for anyone to leave.

Most of what we are told about Dauntless is negative. As for the positives? Hamburgers. And tattoos.

What we are told about Dauntless society implies that they are content to raise children in this culture. Never mind that the closest analogs to Dauntless in our world are childless and violent: the military and prison. A real-life parent under such circumstances would either flee, work to change the culture, or live in deathly fear for their children.

When Dauntless society is considered in the light of real human behavior, it crumbles. The more exotic the invented culture, the more actual human behavior must be factored in.

Some would argue that a book such as Divergent is for teens, and therefore shouldn’t be subject to this level of scrutiny. Why rob it of fun over details that a young reader won’t notice? By the same logic, children should only be offered hot dogs and ice cream. Such a dismissal is disrespectful of young readers. No matter what age they are, we need to trust that our audience is intelligent. We need to think our worlds through more thoroughly than our keenest reader. We need to do the research, we need to consider the ramifications of what we invent, and we need to scribble some of math on the back of an envelope.

What do you think? Are there particular examples of world-building in books or movies that have stuck with you for the wrong reason? Do you have your own checklist for making your worlds believable? Please join in the discussion below.

Related post:
The Divergent Series–a review of Veronica Roth’s dynamic dystopian YA by Marti Johnson

24 comments

  1. I really enjoyed this article. Same as you, I was captured by the adventure for sure, but some things in the book left me scratching my head too. Namely two things I would really like to get off my chest.

    1) Regarding the Dauntless brutality you speak of, testing someone’s ability to jump a train 10 seconds after they join Dauntless is a great way to kill off potentially good soldiers. Not everyone is immediately adept, but lots and lots of people can become that. With training, someone who was first scared to jump, could be a better soldier than someone who jumped right away. This is an ineffective way to weed out the weak. A university would not have many graduates if they gave everyone final exams on the first day. You have to teach the skills first, then test them.

    2) Why do the factions know NOTHING about each other? Not even how to do a typical greeting in other cultures. (In book 2, someone from Amity reaches out to shake someone from Dauntless’s hand, and Tris thinks “I’m impressed by her knowledge of the customs of different factions.” In the real world, it’s hard to learn every custom because there are thousands across the whole planet (who speak differently languages). In Divergent world, it is literally only 5, in the same city. And they all go to school together. They all speak English. You’re telling me that you’ve never seen Dauntless shake hands or Abnegation bow to each other? You’ve spent your whole life here. It wouldn’t just be common knowledge…it would be common sense! And the problem is, this comes up a lot. Tris is always learning new things about the different factions (and teaching others about hers) things they should know when they’re little kids. They have a “faction history” classes, for crying out loud! So it’s not like they actively keep the factions from learning about each other.

    Thanks for listening!

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  2. Almitra, thank you for your thoughts I agree that an author needs to consider the numbers, and do research, but I think Roth’s presentation of the same is valid. I have to agree with Shannon, each of your arguments is frankly easily rebutted. For example, I believe Roth purposely suggested a large sector of the population could fit in one room. One room on the 20th floor of one of the largest/tallest buildings remaining in the city. This is not today’s Chicago with 2.7 million people. I won’t belabor the point further as you obviously don’t appreciate the novel. And, it is good to hear your thoughts. It makes us all stronger writers and stronger readers.

    Another comment came from Joyce, who was unable to identify with Tris, the main character. Well, if you can’t, then by all means don’t read the novel. It is critical to relate to the MC if you have any hope of enjoying the story. In a private conversation with Joyce abut my earlier Divergent blog, Joyce was uncomfortable with Tris’ solution of taking up arms. My rebuttal, good for Tris. To me she represents a girl raised as a mouse who is internally strong enough to do what may not ‘seem’ right in today’s society but is necessary for survival. I don’t support violence. In today’s world there are alternatives. In Roth’s world, there was not. That is the beauty (or the ugly) of fiction.

    Peace to you both. Differences of opinion make the world go ’round.

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    1. I think perhaps you misunderstand: it’s not that I fail to appreciate Divergent. Overall, I found it to be a fun read. It just so happens that I don’t find any book to be sacred. I’m just as happy to analyze what doesn’t work in my favorite books as in the ones I don’t care for. It just so happens that Divergent had a lovely spectrum of worldbuilding errors to examine. As a popular and financially successful series, it is an especially good sample to study, because so many people have read it, and because anything critical I have to say about it will in no way diminish its success. If I have failed to convince you with the examples I picked, ah well, to each her own!

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  3. I’d like to ask Almitra a question: Did you actually read the entire series or just the first book?
    I ask that because you’ve accused Roth of not doing her homework and it seems like you haven’t done yours either. I read all three books and I’d like to counter your observations with some of my own.

    A) The holes you’ve pointed out are explored and developed in the later 2/3 of the series as follows. (Please be patient as I attempt to justify that without the use of spoilers.)

    3: Dauntless Faction – You claim that no “normal” human would be willing to thrive and grow up such conditions. You make a case that the author has not accounted for realist human behavior as based off of current human nature. Yet this is a dystopian human, who exists in a future society. We cannot adequately judge the nature of ancestors based on modern society’s rules of engagement, so why is it fair to judge future society that way? One might argue that humans cannot change so drastically in a measurable span of time. However, the author reveals a staggering development in the third book that establishes the fact that the members of the entire society are not “normal” humans as we currently understand ourselves. This is not a hole but a forced perspective; challenging the reader to develop a question that is answered later.
    You could argue that no parent in the Hunger Games series would ever stay in a society that would force their child to fight to the death for entertainment because we don’t let that happen today. Yet no one runs away in the first installment of that series. I think it’s part of the beauty and the difficulty of writing a dystopian novel. The author is creating something that is completely foreign, and at times challenges the reader’s current perception of the world. I think the author has to bend aspects of the novel to be uncomfortable, otherwise it wouldn’t be dystopian.
    2: Dauntless Training – Again, the argument you’ve stated is that it doesn’t follow the normal rules but I’d argue the structure is entirely on purpose. You’re viewing the training as if it would be acceptable under our current rules for martial arts, but the author never said the initiates were learning Judo or Tai-kwon-do. Characters throughout the entire series, including the first book, allude to the fact that the training was not always like this. That Eric and Max have instituted changes that Four does not agree with. We come to find out in the remaining books the each faction is no longer living up to the core of their Manifesto. Each faction has taken the original good intent and taken it to the extreme, which illustrates that the society is no longer “functioning.” Hence the war at the end of book one and hence why the initiates have to fight until the knockout. (As an aside, I’d be about the described size of Tris in the series and it wouldn’t take weeks for someone to learn how to knock me out.) The point is, the reading is supposed to get the feeling that something is off in this world. It builds the conflict that carries through the whole series.
    1: Numbers – I’m going to take a slightly more superficial stance here. I’ve already mentioned that Dauntless training has changed. It’s revealed later that when Four joined Dauntless, all the initiates were accepted. Since there is only a few years difference between Four and Tris, it can safely be assumed that enough Dauntless born and transfers made it through in the previous years to sustain the faction. I’m sorry, but you are just plain wrong in this example.
    Next, let’s play devil’s advocate here and say that given the fact that this book takes place in future Chicago, but has the weather of current Chicago (windy, subjected to snow and cold). I think it’s safe to assume that buildings would have needed to be reconstructed to be habitable. What’s to say they did not reconstruct the buildings to fit the size they need? The Abnegation live in what sound like gray modular units. Does current Chicago have them? Also, have you tried to grow vegetables in a city garden? I only had one stinking tomato come in this year. ONE! Or maybe something happened to the city that prevents plant growth, like toxic soil or polluted water, hmmm? Okay, I’ll stop being sassy, but the point here is that you’ve made it seem like the author tried to make 1+1=3. In my opinion, she did an acceptable job of providing details yet remaining vague enough to have it still make sense. (PS: The fields are beyond the fence for a reason too.)

    Ms. Roth is young; younger than myself in fact. I will agree that there are some inconsistencies in the series,Tris has an unbelievable martyr complex given her age, and Four is just one giant hypocrite. In my biased and unprofessional opinion, I believe the biggest reason the series has not garnered mass appeal is that the author ended it unhappily. Readers, especially the YA crowd, want that happy ending. Harry Potter had it. Hunger Games had it (if you were Team Bread). Divergent did not. I believe that it was realistic though, given the character could not have gotten out of the situation alive without some sort of magic. Besides, Twilight garnered mass appeal (also has a happy ending) and now it’s the butt of most YA jokes one hears.

    B) Don’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover.

    Or in this case, don’t judge a series based on one book. Hear me out. There are authors who write series and chose to tie each book up in a pretty little packages; all conflict resolved. And then there are authors that create epics, where the conflict is dragged across all the books. Series in which a middle book is incapable of standing on its own. There are pros/cons to each method but I think a writer could create a viable world using both. Would one judge the intent of a landscape painting when the artist was only 1/3 of the way through? Would you spend one week in Ottawa and then write a essay on the topography of Canada as a whole? Than how could one write the failings of a series plot line, without finishing the series? It’s bad debating and it’s misleading.

    Overall, I think the lessons you’ve bolded are really important for every author to keep in mind. However, I think you have some sort of distaste for the series and the piece seems more like an attack against it (and the author) as opposed to critical review and/or tutorial for YA authors. It’s one thing to have a distaste for a series but it’s hypocritical to critique a subject without being informed. This post is rife with misinformation and I hope I’ve helped to correct it.

    PS: This statement may discredit everything I just said, but I know many members of the military that are neither violent or childless. That remark was just in poor taste.

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    1. Roth is lucky that she has had a chance to remedy the mistakes of her novel in subsequent ones. Most writers would not have that chance. All it takes is one error that irritates the slush-pile reader, and a manuscript will find itself rejected.

      I do not believe that success of a work should exempt it from critical scrutiny, or that critical scrutiny constitutes attack of character. Nor do I believe that any reader should be locked into reading an entire series, or even an entire book, if she is not enjoying that book.

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  4. Carol is right – because you are a good and helpful crit buddy! Maybe it would be handy if you could read my other YA novel, too! In it I’m trying to depict the real world of another culture in 1000 A.D. Talk about opportunities for mistakes!
    When I read Divergent, I too recognized the setting. One of my sculptures was exhibited on Navy Pier in Chicago, which is where the ferris wheel stands in the story. I also had dinner at Signature 95 near the top of the Hancock building, overlooking the pier. Funny, I never once thought about leaping off the roof. It does have a great view of Navy Pier, though and is a great setting for a pack of daredevils.
    The biggest flaw for me is that since the Divergent “training” was so gang-culture-like with no big-picture threatening obstacle for Tris to overcome, other than the abuse she withstood at the hands of so-called friends, that I’m not sure how readers can identify with her. She is certainly not an example of heroic behavior. More like an anti-hero, but without the reader’s sympathy or identification. Her dystopian world is not only no better for her being in it, she actually adds to the mayhem. When she chose to murder Peter, which she had already shown she could avoid, she lost my vote. Yes, I read on to the end about the warring factions and all that, but it is a mistake for an author to forget that the reader needs someone to believe in.

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    1. Hah! Thank you Joyce! And I know I can count on you guys to find the weak spots in my novel!

      Someday I would like to try for a YA novel with an unsympathetic protagonist, but I know it will be a tough one to pull off.

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  5. Almitra I read the series and picked up on the training too, it did not feel right or necessary. You never hear much about the fence either. I enjoyed reading them but something felt wrong about them too. Great post, even a number one best seller can have holes. Sometimes I wonder how they get to that position and actually shy away from the most popular books these days, because I get disappointed.

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    1. I am curious to what extent Roth has tried to fix these errors in the subsequent books in the Divergent series. Alas, I don’t have the stamina to read any more of them.

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      1. I think she found her voice a little better in the last one but I would never read them again. Why must we always have three books? Im just wondering if the movies might make a better go of it all.

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  6. Oh and as far as worlds that have stuck with me for the wrong reason: The Matrix. I know there are millions of people who find it completely plausible, or who at least can forgive its flaws.But I couldn’t get past the idea that a human, which is so energy-intensive that it has to eat several times a day, could be harnessed as a source of energy. And that’s just one example.

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  7. This was one of the reasons my daughter started to get into this series and then ultimately, gave up on it. She definitely had to do a lot of “suspension of disbelief” and eventually became tired of that stretch.

    Good blog.

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  8. I agree, successful YA fictional societies have been rather light on logic and realism. I also agree that the bar should be raised.

    Younger readers shouldn’t be assumed to lack insight. Writing with that assumption reinforces ignorance for those who don’t spot the mistakes, and insults those who do spot them. That being said, even if a writer does spend a bunch of time making sure things make sense, there’s still a good chance something might slip through.

    When in doubt, keep it vague. Smart fans can fill in the rest. Meheheh.

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    1. “. . .Reinforces ignorance for those who don’t spot the mistakes, and insults those who do spot them.” I love the way you put that!

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  9. Hi Almitra, Thanks for a refreshingly irreverent take on a popular book and movie. Rumpians, Almitra is part of the online critique group I’m part of, in addition to the live group. Also, I’m not sure why but comments were disabled when the post first went live. I’ve corrected that, so comment away!

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