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Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s hard enough to create a single fictional world, one that’s internally consistent, gives your readers enough details to feel they’re actually there, and gives a dramatic background for your story.  This is why, when you’re creating a world different from the one we all share – in historical novels, fantasies, science fiction – you tend to only create the one world.

Thing is, what your world is like depends on who’s looking at it.  All of us filter what we see through our own experiences and prejudices.  We assume some things are true and tend to see them whether they’re there or not.  The world of someone who’s survived childhood abuse is a much scarier place than most of us know.  So the way to create a fictional world is to get so deeply into your main character’s head that you make your readers see the world as they see it.  As I say, it’s hard enough to do once.

What if you could do it several times?

Many years ago – long enough that I’ve forgotten the author’s name — I edited a manuscript about a land dispute on a Navajo reservation – a sacred site was going to be developed, and people were upset about it.  The story started out with a scene from inside the head of an old Navajo woman whose grandfather had settled the land.  She was up against Bureau of Indian Affairs lawyer and the Hopi Sheriff who was helping him.  Through her eyes, readers saw the Sheriff as a sellout and the BIA lawyer as a burned-out bureaucrat who didn’t care about the people he was supposed to be helping.

The next scene was from the point of view of the Hopi Sheriff, whose grandfather had lived on the land until the Navajo woman’s grandfather had taken it away from him.  He saw her as a self-righteous troublemaker who didn’t know the history of her own people.  He also saw the BIA lawyer as a cynical bureaucrat.

Then you got into the BIA lawyer’s head and found out that he joined the Bureau because he wanted to do some good in the world.  But he didn’t have the budget or the resources he needed, and found that both sides of the dispute he was trying to negotiate hated him.  And so it went.  Every new character whose head you entered had a distinct take on the same situation.

So why would you want to put in the effort of changing your readers’ perceptions with every new point of view?

It can make for better drama, for one thing.  You can draw readers into your story with a conflict where one person’s right and the other is wrong.  But where both sides have a point, the drama moves to a deeper level.  Readers aren’t simply worried about who will win.  They’re worried about who they want to win.

You can also work conflict into your story by putting two worlds on collision course.

Elizabeth Cadell’s The Fledgling tells the story of Tory, a young girl, raised by aged maiden aunts in Portugal, who is going to a boarding school in England.  Her father has arranged for a chaperone, Mr. Darlan, for the train trip.  And Mr. Darlan and Tory see at least one aspect of the world very differently — her.  Here is Tory as Mr. Darlan sees her.  (Note, the book was written more than 40 years ago, so the narrative voice is a bit more distant than I’d encourage a client to use today.)

Mr. Darlan, having no powers of divination, filed her as a mousey, well-mannered little thing, not pretty and certainly no conversationalist; one of those tongue-tied children out of whom monosyllables had to be dragged.

And here is how Tory sees herself.

Tory . . . sat motionless but relaxed, her expression serious and attentive, her mind elsewhere, lending as always a dutiful eye and a deaf ear.  She never fidgeted, never interrupted; she had never been heard to contradict.  She agreed with everything that was planed for her and made her own arrangements later, for she had discovered that the easiest way through life was to set out obediently upon the appointed path and then slip away down a side turning.

At this point, readers know it is only a matter of time before Mr. Darlan and Tory’s worlds collide.

If you want to have all of your characters see the world differently, you’ve got to be able to hold two different values in your head at once – to see that the same character could be a mindless bureaucrat or a frustrated idealist, or that a young girl could be both reserved and mousy and precociously independent.  This means letting your characters be who they are without judging them, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.  But developing this kind of non-judgmental observation is one of the way that writing can make you a better person.

And it can often make for better stories.

What are your favorite examples of colliding worlds in fiction?


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

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