Last week, thanks to YouTube’s algorithms noticing my husband and I watch a lot of critique on movies, television, and literature, we discovered Lindsay Ellis’ channel. We’re not even remotely through watching all of it, because there’s a fair bit and we’re also watching a lot of anime this season, but so far we’ve knocked out videos on the death of the Hollywood Musical, critiques on the adaptations of Rent and The Phantom of the Opera, and her video-letter of apology to Stephenie Meyer about the way she was treated surrounding Twilight and its movie adaptations. All fantastic stuff.
But I probably wouldn’t have brought her up here on the blog if the last video we watched hadn’t hit so close to home — Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding.
It’s an excellent critique of the many problems with the movie, which she quickly summarizes so you don’t have to have watched it first. (And from the sound of it, I’m glad I didn’t, and don’t intend to now.)
I recommend you watch her video, of course, but if you don’t have the 45 minutes to spare right now before you finish reading this post, the TL;DR of it is that Bright slaps the fantasy elements it wants onto an obvious copy of our world without doing enough (or much of anything, really) to integrate those elements in any natural or believable way.
Why did this hit me so hard when her other videos mostly made me nod along with her points and laugh at her wit? Because she could have been talking about my current WIP.
#spookyromancenovel, which you’ve all been hearing tidbits about for almost a year now, is a combo of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, very much in the vein of the outstanding Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. (Which faithful readers will be aware I’ve completed over the last two years.) My alternate contemporary setting isn’t the same, and wears a lot of different influences on its sleeves, but that’s definitely a big one.
Something the Kate Daniels series does to ground its alternate history solidly is have a recent divergence point from “real” history. Which is something that Ellis points out Bright doesn’t do–it constantly references events that happened two thousand years ago, but expects us to believe that despite all these other races cohabiting the world with humans, nothing else major is different–we still get the Alamo, and Shrek, and possibly the #BlackLivesMatter movement…which doesn’t really make sense. (She points out how rare successful alternate-history media is, with Watchmen and, oddly enough, Who Framed Roger Rabbit being the prime examples.)
Seeing this all dissected so neatly made me realize my own worldbuilding is lazy, because I never explain at all when or how my society diverged from our history.
It’s a flaw I’ve been accused of before. I never explain the source of the plague or anything about it in the What We Need trilogy, and my beta readers had me defending that. Ultimately, and I know I’m biased because it’s my own work, but ultimately, it’s justified because a) the story of the plague itself wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, hence starting six months later; and b) it’s okay that the reader isn’t given the explanation because none of the characters can provide it. They’re all just as much in the dark about the origins and specific pathology of the plague.
#spookyromancenovel can’t use that justification. I have werewolves peacefully coexisting in the same city as humans, without any history to explain why. I have a vampire coalition campaigning for political power so that vampires can be recognized as citizens under human government, affording them rights and protections they don’t have because, legally speaking, they’re dead, not undead. But when did that start? How did humans react to the knowledge that werewolves and vampires are real? Not to mention my twist on gargoyles, also real, flocking around the city like overgrown and particularly nasty pigeons. And magic being an actual thing–when did witches come out of the closet, so to speak? How did that go?
My characters, they would know these things. If you asked, they should be able to tell you at least a vague outline of why the vampire political movement started, or when gargoyles started showing up perched on tall buildings, or when werewolves started immigrating to the city and creating their own neighborhoods.
But they can’t, because I don’t know. I wrote a cool world by slapping some fantasy elements onto the world I know, and called it a day.
…Of course, that’s not the end of it, because I haven’t finished. The second draft is finishing up its beta round now. I can still fix all of this, though it’s obviously going to take a lot of work. Creating alternate history is hard, and creating good, successful alternate history is even harder.
So I sat through 45 minutes of critique that was never intended to be directed at me, feeling uncomfortable and vaguely ashamed by how well it did apply to me, and came out of it determined to do better. Thank you, Lindsay Ellis.