Thursday, August 18, 2011

Verisimilitude: Monocultures - Just say No

Reading thuRsday

One of the nice things about fantasy is that you can define away moral grey areas by making enemies a different species who are congenitally at war with the good guys. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, none of the fellowship give a second thought to the morality of killing orcs.

That advantage, however, can quickly become a liability if you fall into the trap of creating monocultures.

The term originally described the industrial agricultural practice of growing vast fields of genetically identical plants. It's much easier to run a mechanized farm around such a uniform crop, but you'll lose everything if a disease develops to which the plants are susceptible. Planting with a variety of seed may not yield as much under optimal conditions but the chance that some of your crop will survive in a bad year is much better. Indeed, agricultural scientists have begun to recognize the value of wild varieties because they serve as a genetic reservoir against ever more vigorous diseases.

As in agriculture, so too in fiction.

Monocultures are the world-building equivalent of stereotyping, and they're a problem for the same kinds of reasons. In the worst cases, entire races have a single personality and you can't tell one individual from another.

Pick a group in the world around you. Do all adherents of a particular political party or faith act and think the same way? Their opponents likely make that claim, but if you've ever met a few of "those" people you know it's not true.

Outside of special organizations, like the military, which go to great lengths to enforce uniformity, any time you have a group of people you'll have variety of appearances, attitudes, and approaches. In fact, it is the tension between conformity and conflict this is one of the primary drivers of all societies.

The same is true of settings, as we discussed in our look at evolution and world building last week.

The best way to improve the verisimilitude of the world and its people in your story is to show diversity.

So, stop with the single biome planets and homogenous races already.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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