By Almitra Clay
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Almitra Clay records her brain-spewings in words and whiteboard scribblings at http://almitraclay.tumblr.com/ , tweets as @AlmitraClay, and is writing a fantasy novel for young adults.
The Divergent Series–a review of Veronica Roth’s dynamic dystopian YA by Marti Johnson
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!