I’m not here today – I’m over at Alex Davis’s place, looking after the cat and feeding the flowers. Meanwhile, Alex is over here, feeding the cat and looking after the flowers…
Creating a science-fiction world, by Alex Davis
Ah, worldbuilding. One of the immortal questions of genre fiction. How much do I need to do? How should I go about it? How do I know when I’m finished? It was something that took a while when I was writing The Last War – even though some things were laid down by the publisher who initially took the book on – and something that was a really enjoyable part of the process. I was trying to come up with a new piece on this, but I don’t think I ever summed it up better than this article I wrote for Writers News back in August of 2013. You’ll need to find your own science-fiction landscape for this exercise, but there’s no shorage of images out there you can use as inspiration. I was also lucky enough to chat with the awesome Tony Ballantyne for this one, which is always a pleasure!
A whole new world…
Science-fiction is a genre that is filled with any number of fascinating new worlds. These may be parallel versions of the world we live in, projection of what the future will look like on Earth or indeed stories set entirely in other places – other planets, other galaxies, other universes. And naturally these fantastic settings do not happen by accident – they are usually carefully considered and crafted by authors. There are a number of key reasons for this, of course. The world itself informs the story, offering key developments for the plot and characters. The world enriches the story, providing a vivid setting and evoking mood and atmosphere throughout. Science-fiction author Tony Ballantyne echoes this point in discussing his favourite setting: “One of my favourites is Gethen, from The Left Hand of Darkness [By Ursula K Le Guin]. The setting plays a big part in the mood of the book: it would have been a very different novel if it took place on another world.”
The world individualises the story, setting it apart from all of the other great science-fiction out there. True, there may be resemblances to the settings of past science-fiction stories, but your world is just that – yours and yours only. Readers will respond to an interesting, dynamic and well thought-through world, and often read multiple stories and books set there.
Worldbuilding is, naturally, a complex business, and can feel overwhelming if you are relatively new to the genre. First of all, I’d always say develop it in a way that you are comfortable writing – there doesn’t need to be a lot of complicated technology and science if you don’t consider this your forte. There is a distinction between hard science-fiction – which applies strict technological and scientific rigour throughout, and often focuses on these elements – and soft science-fiction, which looks more at the societal aspect of alternative settings. You don’t need to be a scientist to write science-fiction!
The exercises below are designed to help you create a world which could be a background for your stories, but of course if you have the story in mind already then it’s important that the world fits that. Tony Ballantyne says of his writing process: “Most of my first drafts take place against a half sketched world. It’s only on the later drafts that I really begin to fill in the details. By this time I’m really enjoying myself and I take a lot of pleasure in shaping my world and allowing it to shape the story.”
Let’s Get Physical
It may well be that much of what your story zooms in on are the cultural aspects of your world, and how the hierarchy and society is built. But without a physical sense of location, it is impossible to envisage what this society might look like. The physical element will also impact on the society itself – a world heavily filled with rivers, for example, may never develop cars in favour of boats, or have people living in houseboats rather than fixed abodes. This then has an impact on where and how people work, what people’s relationships are like, what leisure activities they may pursue and much more. As such, to begin with trying to develop your culture could well prove counterproductive.
Let’s take on an exercise using the image opposite, in which we try to give the physical landscape some real depth. First off, I’d like you to name and describe one of each of the following:
An animal that lives on the surface of the land
An animal that lives beneath the ground
A plant that grows in the location
Then I’d like you to consider the weather in the location. Just how hot – or cold – is it going to be? Is there much rain, or snow, or hail, or any other form of precipitation? Are there storms, gales, strong winds?
Last of all, I’d like you to write a short scene in which you spend a night in this setting. What forms of life do you encounter? What weather do you have to endure? What sounds inhabit the landscape? What do you eat or drink? Really try and orient yourself within this setting in order to truly bring it to life.
The Big Society
The reason for beginning with the landscape and weather elements of your world is that this will give you an immediate insight into what kind of culture would develop there. So let’s pick up from our previous exercise and looking at building a society from scratch.
The first question – and one I consider vital in the worldbuilding process – is about how people live. Are they in robustly built houses, or cramped flats, or something far simpler? Do they live alone, or with family or acquaintances? Do people live in large cities, or small villages? These kind of details will again feed into much of how the society operates.
Once you have a sense of where people live, from there you can consider things such as what sort of relationships people have with each other, what kind of family units might exist, and also what kind of jobs people might do. If people are based in cities, then their working life will differ substantially from those who live in the country. What would the prime industries be?
It is often worth at this stage drawing up a spider diagram, which will allow you to think freely about these important matters for your world. You may also want to consider:
Laws – are these restrictive or quite free? How are they enforced, and what punishments to people face for crimes?
Government – is the structure dictatorial, democratic, communist or anarchist?
Wealth – are there distinctions between rich and poor? Does this feed into a class system?
Technology – what technology exists in your setting? This may be very advanced, or simply resemble today, or indeed be less forward than what we have now.
Leisure – what do people do for leisure, and how much time do they have to pursue interests and hobbies? Do people tend to enjoy their pursuits alone, or play games/sports in groups?
Social interaction – are people likely to have parties or social gatherings? Do people tend to meet at their work, or in some other way? Or are people very isolated and lonely?
Food and drink – what do people eat, and where do they get it from? Is food and drink simple, or are there a range of options and choices to be enjoyed?
Locating the Conflict
One of the major benefits of this approach to worldbuilding is that it often makes developing characters and plots significantly easier. Now we have a sense of the landscape and the culture of your setting, the next step is to consider just what the story might be. The set-up phase of the story provides the ideal opportunity to introduce readers to your world, establishing not only the characters you are going to be following but the setting they inhabit. It is when we come to the conflict phase that the story really picks up, and this is where the value of your worldbuilding will be seen.
If you consider the culture of the present day, there are all manner of conflicts that surround us. These may of course be literal conflicts – we’ve seen many wars and battles fought over the last 100 years – but they may well be something far more subtle. It might be a conflict that a character fights against a corrupt system, a conflict that someone fights on behalf of a wronged relative or loved one, a conflict fought against a criminal underworld. Take some time to look at your world and spot where these kind of trouble spots may be. On the surface, you might have a location that appears peaceful and settled, but as an author your task is to dig beneath that surface and find those ‘flashpoints’ within your setting that are just waiting to explode. Rest assured, they are there! Take a look at your spider diagram, and the physical elements you’ve created, and see what kind of problems and struggles could emerge.
The key phrase you are looking for is ‘what if?’ – the two words that define so many stories, in any field.
Expanding Your World
The other benefit of creating a persuasive, in-depth and vivid world is that it will stand you in good stead for many years to come. Most science-fiction series are set entirely within one world, and may well follow the same characters over the course of time. You might even decide to move on from those characters and explore other aspects, other characters and other locations. A powerful setting can give you plenty of material going forward as an author, so it is time well-spent for any writer looking to work in the genre.
There is, however, a final note of caution – worldbuilding is important to SF stories, but it should not be all there is! You still need dynamic plot and character, and you still need to write the book once the setting is established! Tony Ballantyne says: “I find that too many writers, especially beginners, are so in love with their worlds that they forget about their plot and characters. Worldbuilding can easily become something people do rather than getting on with writing a story. It’s fun, but you’re fooling yourself if you think that you’re writing!”
To get into Alex Davis’s world of the Noukari, check out The Last War at http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00YQICMHQ or buy the paperback at http://shop.ticketyboopress.co.uk/index.php?id_product=68&controller=product