Worldbuilding: Dark Settings and their Purpose

Today my first professionally published story, “The Broken Karwaneer,” came out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I thought I would write a blog post about my thoughts on an important element of that story. If you haven’t read the story yet, please do so before going on. This post will make more sense context.

In the story, the protagonist Orha struggles against an antagonist, but equally if not more so against her environment. Orha’s world is a bleak one. It is coming apart at the seams, literally. More and more of the soil  is being rendered infertile by a strange black glass that sprouts, weed-like, from the ground. Terrible abominations come crawling out of holes in the world, intent on nothing but causing death and devastation.

It’s not a very nice place to live, and Orha is understandably depressed.

I wrote the story in December of last year, and the darkness of the setting mirrors my own feelings about the world at that time. I was struggling with questions about the future, my writing had hit a bit of a roadblock, and the brutal winter had dampened everyone’s spirits (which is all to say nothing of what the political situation in America was making me feel at the time). One could read the story as something of an allegory for my own intermittent struggle with non-clinical depression, with Orha’s eventual overcoming of her situation mirroring some of the mental tools I use to get through those tough times.

I don’t read the story that way, but I recognize that my own experience informs Orha’s, because that’s just how writing works. Nothing in her world is going right, and sometimes I have felt that way about mine.

But rather than an allegory, I see Orha’s story as a distillation of some elements of my own journey through intermittent periods of sadness, frustration, and depression. “The Broken Karwaneer” presents a character journeying through a world that feels inhospitable, much as the real world has at times felt to me. Orha’s overcoming of that feeling is key to her story, just as the ability to overcome that feeling in real life is key to mine. That, I think, is the appeal of a dark setting in speculative fiction. It gives us examples of people surviving, or even thriving, even when it seems like the world itself wants them to fail.

By a “dark setting” I mean just this; a setting in which the world itself (be that in the form of human culture or the natural world) seems set against our hero. Examples include things like “The Broken Earth Trilogy” by N.K. Jemisen, “The Prince of Nothing” series by R. Scott Bakker, the “Worldbreaker Saga” by Kameron Hurley, and some parts of “The Malazan Book of the Fallen” by Steven Erikson or “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin.

There are many more examples, but these are some of the most notable, in my opinion. They all present hostile worlds and characters that have to struggle, endure, and survive. And those characters do just that. Some come out better for their struggle, others are deeply scarred, but they survive, and we as readers want them to survive, because sometimes we need to be reminded that resilience, even when it is all we can manage, is worthy and can be beautiful.

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