N.K. Jemisin wants to help you build better worlds for your stories
The celebrated fantasy author tells EW about her new MasterClass course and gives an update on The City We Became sequel.
Modern world-building doesn't get much better than N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series. Set on a version of Earth constantly buffeted by disastrous earthquakes and populated by tremor-controlling "orogenes," this post-apocalyptic trilogy (each book of which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, an unprecedented achievement) is stuffed with lots of heady concepts and non-chronological storytelling. The joy of reading these books — The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky — is in gradually coming to understand each term and concept, which paint a fascinating fictional history for this alternate world, which in turn provides an incredible setting for the very human conflicts at the center of the story.
So, really, who better to teach a new MasterClass course on sci-fi world-building than the writer who created stone eaters and taught readers to imagine a sky full of giant floating obelisks?
"There's an assumption out there that ideas are the hard part. They are not," Jemisin tells EW. "So my hope is that if you've already got an idea that you're kind of noodling, then the workshop will help you make a better world for that story to take place in, make better characters to inhabit that story, and avoid some of the pitfalls that we typically see in the development of world-building and characters. That's really what I was intending."
Jemisin's course, available now via MasterClass, goes through many central concepts of sci-fi worldbuilding. She discusses "Element X," the key concept that will distinguish a sci-fi story from others (such as the orogenes of Broken Earth), how to avoid cultural appropriation in conceiving your world, and how to make character behavior believable. The latter of those draws on Jemisin's own real-life experience as a psychologist, career counselor, and academic advisor.
"For 20 years I worked with late adolescents and young adults who were going through one of life's major transitions," Jemisin says. "In a lot of cases, they were struggling to get through things like engineering school, which is really challenging even if you're not already a young person trying to develop your life. And so I dealt with a lot of people who were struggling with trauma, with separating from their families if their families had belief systems that were different from their own or something...the usual process of establishing independence. That informs my writing because I know what trauma looks like, I know what identity development looks like, and that is part of the character development that I came up with."
Here's the kind of terminology you might learn about in Jemisin's class: "First world" vs. "secondary world." The Stillness of Broken Earth is an example of a secondary world, pretty far removed from the planet we recognize. But in her most recent writings, Jemisin has finally been dipping her toes in the first world, which hews much closer to reality with some changes.
Back in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning in earnest, Jemisin published The City We Became, the first novel in her new Great Cities series. Though it portrays a world where cities like New York or Sao Paolo are protected by and embodied in human avatars with special powers, the book's depiction of those cities still has to feel authentic.
"This is the first time that I've ever written a book set in the first world. It's actually harder. I was not expecting it to be harder," Jemisin says. "I have to get things exactly right, because I have people who live in New York who will come and find me if I get things too wrong. So what it means is that when I wrote that scene in The City We Became that was set in Inwood Hill Park, I hadn't been to Inwood in five years. So I had to go to Inwood Hill Park, which is like an hour-long ride on the subway. I had to go and map things out, take photos. I had to find the rock and walk a number of steps to figure out, how far is it from here to there? I was like, 'it's so much easier when I can just make up a map in my head.'"
Because this real-life understanding is necessary, readers should prepare to wait a little while for the second volume in the Great Cities series. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has given writers like Jemisin lots of time inside, the general miasma has made writing difficult — especially since this series, in particular, requires Jemisin to go outside.
"It's not just that it was a difficult time to write, but also this book is set in New York City and everything is closed down," Jemisin says. "I needed to get into Gracie Mansion, but Gracie Mansion is shut down right now. You can only do a virtual tour, but I need to see it and smell it and touch it. So, that's a huge problem. It's also because this is set in the modern-day, so do I acknowledge the pandemic? I've chosen not to because I don't want to date the book by writing speculatively about something that may still change at the time that it actually comes out."
Plus, worlds can change as you write them and build them out. By the end of The City We Became, Jemisin acknowledges, "the story is effectively in a secondary world at this point. The Williamsburg Bridge no longer exists in that story. This is already not the New York that we know, so I can play with it."
Jemisin's course on fantasy and sci-fi writing is available now from MasterClass.