The Concept of “World” in a Novel

A novel’s “world” is the general impression readers absorb from the interwoven effects of plot, characters, authorial tone, atmosphere, and setting. Writers impart this vital yet elusive quality as their own worldview inevitably pervades the work. The process is partially inadvertent and the resulting worldview may differ somewhat from the worldview purposely expressed in the work. For example, authors who write religious thrillers may or may not be religious people themselves. An unbeliever’s attitude towards the clergy may lack the sympathy of a believer. We pick up the author’s “true” worldview by sensing their way of presenting the story. We detect subtle philosophical clues such as what an author chooses to emphasize and how they go about ordering events and tying the story together.

Yggdrasil by Oluf Olufsen Bagge 1847

Yggdrasil, the world tree, was the Nordic symbolic representation of the world. These days, worldview varies on an individual basis, but always has an underlying humanness shared by all. (Image: public domain)

How Authors Reveal Themselves

When authors take a serious approach to writing a novel, they have (however vaguely) some central idea or theme in mind. We can think of this as the “basic idea” behind the novel. The story then becomes an attempt on the part of the writer to summarize – in whole or in part – their personal take on life as it pertains to the theme.

The story will reveal whether an author is pessimistic or optimistic in their outlook. It will show whether they think we have some power over our own lives or believe we are hapless victims of circumstance. We will see whether they are compassionate or sadistic when dealing with human suffering. Most important, the story will tell us if the author describes only the surface of things – that which we all can see – or delves deeper and explains why things happen the way they do.

Scottish writer David Lindsay (A Voyage to Arcturus) was conscious of the difference and divided novels into two distinct groups: those that describe the world, and those that try to explain it. Keep in mind that even literary novels often merely describe and do not venture beyond presenting a perceptive “slice of life.” As readers, we feel rewarded when we recognize something and say to ourselves, ‘Yes! That’s just how it is.”

The Power of Serious Literature

Contrast is the most revealing way for a writer to present their vision of life. Serious literature draws its power from the contrast between the writer’s preferred world and the world they openly reject. To use the technique, a writer needs to have some idea of what they stand for and what they stand against. The starting point for a serious writer is their genuinely held beliefs. All their work will flow from that primary source. Their best work will emerge from the beliefs they hold most dear.

Affirming Responsible Humanness

American novelist John Gardner had a remarkably good grasp of what it means to be a novelist. When it comes to worldview, he believed that, “Good fiction affirms responsible humanness.” Writers achieve this through a novel’s characters. Main characters must possess, or develop, a decent workable set of values. They must manifest, or learn to manifest, socially constructive behaviour. Workable values exclude wild idealism or perfectionism because such pretentious values are not very human. Humans can be decent; they cannot be saints. Socially constructive behaviour is responsible behaviour. Gardner saw the successful novel as a work that has moral standards and presents good examples. Writers and critics have pointed out many times that the world’s most revered novels are all works with morality for a theme.

Susan Sontag beautifully captures this idea in her posthumous collection of essays, At the Same Time: “Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate – and, therefore, improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.”

Resonating with Readers

Writers who pour the better part of themselves into their work are the ones most likely to strike a chord (resonate) with readers who encounter it. This is so simply because writers are human beings and thus share some aspects of life with other members of the race. They share values. Making genuinely held values central to the story will “evoke our common humanity” and allow like-minded readers to identify with the characters living by, or at least trying to live by, standards that they recognize. The writer has found the place where worldviews overlap.

5 thoughts on “Your Worldview Will Sneak into Your Novel

  1. Shakespeare’s world view has always fascinated me; he almost always sees both sides of every question, and can put both arguments convincingly (his prejudice as an Englishman against Joan of Arc let him down in her case). He portrays great horrors, but doesn’t leave one feeling bleak or hopeless.

  2. This is an excellent post, Thomas. For me personally, one of the great joys of reading fiction has always been the chance to see the world through another person’s eyes, and indeed to enter into another person’s world entirely (or at least insofar as I can). And of course, as you say, one of the greatest joys of all is when we read something and think, ‘Yes! That’s how I feel too!’ For a moment, it’s as though the gap between ourselves and our fellow beings has been bridged.

    Curiously, one of the most striking examples of this that I can remember occurred not while I was reading fiction, nor even a work of great moral power, but the Diary of Samuel Pepys. I can’t remember exactly how the relevant passage went, but I believe Pepys was writing at the end of the day while he was sitting in his room and listening to the sounds from the street outside. It was such a commonplace thing, and yet this perhaps accounted for its power – it was a common human experience. For a moment the centuries that separated the writer and reader no longer seemed to exist, and it was as if Pepys was in the room with me, talking to me directly. A wonderful, haunting experience.

  3. Shakespeare’s ability to see both sides is a classic characteristic of the highly creative person. Only those possessing such insight can write works with the impact and staying power of the great bard’s plays.

  4. Your “Pepys moment” is lovely, Mari, and a wonderful reward for putting up this post. As an adult, I’ve read more non-fiction than fiction and what you say about Pepys’ diary connecting you with another human being is the reason why. I have many fond memories of reading Hermann Hesse’s letters and his Autobiographical Writings. As you probably already know, Virginia Woolf’s Diary is a treasure for those of us who write. D. H. Lawrence’s letters are also a worthwhile read. I could go on at length with this type of thing, but perhaps my greatest favourite would be, Letters: Summer 1926, a collection of letters exchanged between the poets Rainer Maria Rilke, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Boris Pasternak. Packed with incredible insights, the slender volume charmed the living daylight out of me.

    On the gloomier side, my struggles with being bipolar have driven me into some odd places. I have read a lot about a pair of New Zealand’s more-troubled writers, Robin Hyde and Janet Frame. Have you seen the film, “An Angel at My Table”? It’s based on Frame’s autobiographies and depicts her own battle with severe mental illness as well as her development as a writer. Well worth seeing.

    I have spent a lifetime reading these kinds of books because they provide me with sophisticated “companions” who always share my interests, sometimes share my difficulties, and often provide me with fresh insights on life.

    Blogging bids fair to do the same.

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