The first Doctor Who post was popular, so here we are for another Lessons Learned post!
There’s been a lot of buzz about Dune, by Frank Herbert, recently. With the announcement of a new film adaptation of it this year, book and sci-fi circles are filled with people singing the novel’s praises and shouting its criticisms.
Before this happened, I started reading Dune earlier this year. I had heard it was an incredible classic desert fantasy novel. Having fallen in love with desert fantasy while writing Child of the Kaites, I was eager to start this one.
I will confess right now: I decided to say a disappointed good-bye to Dune half-way through the novel.
There was something I did love about Dune: the worldbuilding.
Here are four lessons I learned about worldbuilding from Dune.
Oh, and there may be some spoilers, though I am focusing much more on the culture and geology than on characters and plot.
The Worldbuilding of Dune
Dune takes place predominantly on the desert planet of Arrakis. This planet has an arid climate with little moisture to support life. Giant sand worms tunnel through the planet and add further danger to any humans daring to dwell there—such as the Fremen, who seem to be natives to the planet.
The sand worms somehow produce an addicting, life-prolonging spice that is a hot commodity in the rest of the world. The value of the spice outweighs the difficulties of life on Arrakis, so the Fremen stay, and more people fight over control of the planet.
As the story progresses, we see how deeply the scarcity of water has shaped the beliefs and practices of the Fremen. Sure, on a surface level, they wear cool suits that repurpose their bodies’ water so that they can drink their sweat and (gags) other liquids expelled by their bodies. But the impact goes deeper than that.
The Fremen have a practice of breaking down the bodies of their dead, something they view as the dead giving their water back to their community. (Okay, this is such a fresh take on funerary practices, I just have to say that I love it despite how shocking it is to someone who can turn on the sink and get water any time I want.)
One of the most beautiful moments of worldbuilding, from my opinion, was when a Fremen leader spat at one of the off-world leaders who had come as a colonial power. While the off-worlder thought this was an insult, to a Fremen, who knew how valuable and scarce water was, such an act was a sign of extravagant respect and generosity.
What can we learn from this?
1. Follow Your Passions
A lot of people talk about how Tolkien followed his passion for linguistics in crafting Lord of the Rings. This passion spiraled out of control when he built his own languages and wrote stories to give those languages meaning and history.
Herbert also built the world of this story around one of his passions. He was fascinated by ecology, and his study of deserts led to him building the world of Arrakis. This just kept growing until he had a novel (and then a series).
The key to incredible worldbuilding seems to be extreme geekiness. What are you curious about? What’s something that lights a fire in your soul? Start there, and keep going. Dig deeper and deeper until you find threads of story.
Another example of an author who does this extremely well is Hannah Heath. Her “Vengeance Hunter” and “This Pain Inside” are particularly fantastic examples: One story built off of Aztec culture mixed with vampires, the other from her fascination with the scientific possibility of underwater living.
2. Environment Affects Culture
Remember that the land on which your characters live is more than just the stage of a play. It’s the stage of a play that also is a character and can mess with your characters’ lives.
Okay, bad analogy.
Dune‘s worldbuilding wasn’t incredible just because Herbert threw some characters into some sand dunes. It wasn’t incredible because he made up terrifying sand worms that were scarier because they tunneled and burst out, leaving little chance of escape.
It was incredible because his worldbuilding didn’t stop there. He realized that environment is a huge shaping factor for culture—at least as much as history is.
So you’ve placed your novel at the foot of an active volcano. That doesn’t just mean there’s a pretty, smoking mountain in the backdrop and some nice obsidian easily accessible. It means your culture has a history of rebuilding after destruction, a certain tenacity. Maybe your culture has superstitions that the volcano requires daily water offerings to keep it from erupting. Maybe the culture values explosive personalities that imitate the volcanic eruptions. Maybe artifacts that have survived past explosions are highly valuable and have spiritual significance.
The more you let the land shape your culture, the richer your culture will become.
3. Don’t Be a Parrot
Some worldbuilding elements have become overused tropes. That is because it’s easier to imitate the dressing of what has come before, easier to view what other authors have done as a staple of the genre rather than trying something new.
Dune came out in 1965, more than a decade before Star Wars would hit theaters. Desert-based science-fantasy was, as far as I know, not widely done. But Herbert still went with it, and his readers loved Dune for it.
One of the biggest challenges writers face is our own doubts. Call it writer’s block, impostor syndrome, or anything else, we tend to be hyper-critical of our own ideas and fear that no one will want to read our stories because we tried something different. We mimic what we loved about our favorite authors and try to write something just like them.
The truth is that no one wants to read something that rehashes what has been rehashed a hundred times.
The truth is that people want to read something new.
Don’t parrot what has come before. Exercise your creativity. Build a world only you can build, even if it’s different from most of the stories in your genre.
It will probably be a breath of fresh air.
4. Worldbuilding Won’t Save Your Story
While I loved the worldbuilding in Dune enough to write a blog post about it, I didn’t love it enough to carry me through the second half of the novel. It carried me past the first fifty pages, for sure, but was not enough.
The land, culture, and other environmental factors you craft for your story are important. They can shape your plot, change your characters’ motivations, and turn an okay story into a great one.
They are not the most important things, though. To some extent, this is personal preference, but I think that character, plot/your story’s arc, and themes are even more important.
I felt no stakes for the plot in Dune (I intend to write a blog post about this some day), so there was no tension to keep me reading.
By the midpoint, every character I remotely cared about had died off, so there was no one whose company I liked enough to keep reading.
Worldbuilding might be a first step, or it might be something you continue to flesh out throughout the writing process. Wherever it comes for you, don’t neglect the other elements of your story. Those are what will make or break a book for your readers.
What is your advice on worldbuilding? Let us know in the comments!