Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

A Heterogeneous World

By 
Rang Lieu
2003, Rang Lieu   

 

"Variety is the spice of life."

ant to spice up your world?  Add variety.  Let your characters -- and readers -- feel not just the sweltering heat of the tropical forest, but the freezing winds on the ice-clad mountaintop as well.  Let them experience a heterogeneous world.  Mountaintops vs. valleys, ship's deck vs. underground mines, courtrooms vs. living rooms -- the more disparate settings you include, the more depth and breadth and richness you imbue into your world.

But what if your characters aren't on a journey around the world?  Not to worry, there's plenty of variety even in a single city, if you know where to look.  There's the open street, the local courthouse, the bar, the factory, the office cubicle, the houses of various characters, the doctor's examination room, etc.  But think how boring the story would be if every scene occurred inside someone's living room. 

And if you really, really feel that you can't find any variety in your world -- manufacture it.  If your whole story takes place on a starship, you can individualize parts of the ship.  Star Trek has been doing it for years -- engineering room, command bridge, etc.  This same concept of manufacturing variety by differentiating parts of a seemingly homogeneous whole applies to any setting.  For example, mercenary army camps have generals' tents, cooking fires, latrines, sentry lines, camp followers, etc.

Variety of setting will spice up a story.  Why not avail yourself of this extra tool in your writer's toolbox?  Make each setting and each atmosphere as distinct and different from another as possible. 

More Than Geography

Creating a heterogeneous world doesn't only mean creating heterogeneous physical settings.  Heterogeneity springs from social differences as well.  A homeless shelter and a CEO's office are very different places and that difference adds complexity to your story world. To inject that extra complexity, choose your scene settings with an eye to social variety -- police stations vs. junkie's hideouts, royal dining halls vs. food lines filled with the poor.  Including such sharply contrasting settings in your novel allows you to add social range. 

Take your reader on a tour of the highs and lows of your story world.  The principle of highs and lows in a heterogeneous world goes beyond mountaintops and valleys. 

Geography and Plot Associations

Ideas are nebulous, but settings are not.  Tying ideas to settings makes them more tangible.  Tying separate ideas to different settings solidifies the boundaries between them.  If you've got several plotlines in your work, you can tie them to different settings.

For instance, every time the main character goes home, the reader knows that you're about to expand on the tumultuous relationship he has with his wife.  Every time he goes to the office, the reader knows that you're back to the storyline about the corporate rival trying to frame him. 

Establishing these setting-plot associations doesn't mean that the wife can't show up at work, or a co-worker can't visit at home.  As a matter of fact, such upsets can complicate matters and make the story interesting, especially when subplots and different plotlines start tangling with each other. 

These setting-plot associations are general guidelines that help the reader compartmentalize and keep track of the different subplots.  A heterogeneous world offers the advantage of natural differentiators for plot associations.  Take advantage of those possibilities. 

Geographical Progress

A heterogeneous world can also be used to mark progress.  A story can begin in one location and then move to another, signaling a shift in phase.   Each change in setting can indication a plot twist and plotline progress.

Fantasy quest novels in particular make extensive use of heterogeneous geography as a marker of progress, charting the path of the hero as he journeys from region to region.

What if you're not writing a fantasy quest novel?  Scene selection can still help you mark plot progression.  Perhaps the first portion of your book is aboard a colony ship, and then the story moves onto the new colony world.  That shift in setting immediately translates into a shift in plot phase progression.

The key is that whenever you shift settings, the reader understands that the new environment -- a different environment -- represents change.  Change means progress and development in the storyline. 

Straw and Sticks and Bricks

So, when you build your world, take a lesson from the three little piggies.  Make a house out of straw, one out of sticks, and one out of bricks.  Think how boring that fairy tale would be if all the piggies had made their houses the same way.  Think different, think variety, think heterogeneity.