An Analogy is Not Worldbuilding

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Photo by William Navarro on Unsplash

Last week I talked about how a message is not a plot. This week I’m going to talk about how analogies don’t add up to worldbuilding.

There’s nothing wrong with analogies per se. A well-used analogy can help lead your reader to your point, or just plain make them laugh. However, I’ve seen some examples of fiction where the author(s) have substituted an analogy for putting in the effort on worldbuilding.

I’m going to talk about two specific examples, one literary and the other from media, where I feel the writers copped out.

In Other Lands

My first victim is an award nominated YA novel titled In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan.

It’s a fairly classic YA portal fantasy, where the kid falls through the wardrobe/gate/whatever. The protagonist is really cool, and she resolves the classic YA love triangle in a way that actually makes it interesting. It has good reviews for a reason.

Where the book fell down to the point where it annoyed me was elven culture.

Elven culture in In Other Lands is basically exactly the same as Victorian culture, except that the women are in charge. And the women act like men and the men act like women. It reminds me of an awful, misogynistic British comedy that I hope nobody else remembers entitled The Worm Who Turned. Don’t look it up. Trust me.

Instead of creating a vibrant culture, she used an analogy to remind us that Sexism Bad Feminism Good.

It’s a shame, because it’s otherwise a pretty good book.

Simply reversing human gender roles is lazy. How about the women are in charge…but are still traditionally feminine because that’s what’s valued in their society? I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m working on a book set on a planet of matriarchal aliens where the males do the cooking and baby tending, and I don’t want to fall into this trap.

If you put an analogy in your culture, then make sure your culture doesn’t consist entirely of that analogy.

(My apologies to Brennan. It’s really not that bad a book, just the elves drove me crazy).


My second victim is the SyFy DC show Krypton, which is set on Superman’s homeworld in the time of his grandfather, Sig-El.

This show is really quite flawed. I honestly suspect they got a good original series idea then wrapped it up in Superman’s cape to get ratings. It has just an intriguing enough plot to be worth watching, but I’m also kinda hate watching it at this point (and intentionally waiting so my watching doesn’t count).

While In Other Lands is lazy, Krypton crosses the line even further.

They are attempting to deal with race, and issues of police brutality. Unfortunately, the way they choose to do so is by making the police part of a military caste, for which you’re supposedly selected by genetic aptitude. The military caste is seen beating down poor people.

They’re all black.

The people they’re beating on are all white.

I can see what they are trying to do here, but anyone who is black or has actual black friends can see the problem!

They managed to support the idea that black people are inherently more violent than white people and show white people themselves being victimized by black people.

This is a case of an analogy that became actively harmful.

If you’re going to deal with issues of race in your fantasy or science fiction, and use anything as an analogy for black people or whatever, for the love of typewriter keys please at least run it past some people of color first to make sure you aren’t doing, well, that.

The thing about analogies is that they are short cuts. Instead, create a detailed society and then look for the analogies you’ve put in there by accident. Don’t decide what you want to analogize and then worldbuild off it. Or you might end up looking like you didn’t put in the effort.

Or, worse, you might end up looking racist.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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