Monday, February 05, 2018

7 Tips for Creating Believable Fantasy or Science Fiction Worlds

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Half the fun of writing fantasy and science fiction is creating the world. It’s a way to stretch your creativity and design fascinating cultures and worlds that will hopefully engage readers and make them want to spend a lot of time in those worlds.

There’s a lot of elements to consider when designing a world, so here are some things to think about when creating yours:

1. How do people make a living?

At every level of society, there will be people who need to do things to keep that society going. In our world, we have day laborers and CEOs, part-timers and those who work 80-hour weeks, and a created world will have the same diversity. Not everyone will have the same job, and the jobs and means of support will vary based on social and economic classes.
  • How do people make their money? What are the economics?
  • How do they get food or goods? What’s trade like?
  • What are the most common jobs? Least common? Most wanted or least desired?

2. What’s the power and social class structure?

Some people will be at the top of the social structure and hold all the wealth and power, others will be struggling to survive. Of course, “wealth” can mean anything and doesn’t have to be just money. A society might be based on another form of currency or item of value, and those with it rule the world.
  • What’s the social structure like? The classes, castes, or cliques?
  • How do the different social and economic classes feel about each other? About themselves?
  • What are the politics like? How does the government work?

3. Who are the “factions?”

People naturally group up by believes and/or needs, and there will be various groups among the population. Picture this more like cliques in high school than political parties. The groups are for support and have some power within their smaller circles, but don’t necessarily “rule” on a large scale.
  • What groups exist and why?
  • Who has alliances? Who are adversaries?
  • Which groups are favored? Which are shunned?
  • Who has the most power? Who are they afraid of?

4. What do people believe?

People believe in morals, ethics, and proper behavior (whatever “proper” means in your society), even if there’s no set religion. They have opinions and ideas about all aspects of their lives. These beliefs are typically based on their upbringing, education, and value system. No society is all the same. There will be people who have conflicting beliefs and views.
  • What is the belief system like? How do the followers get along or interact?
  • What are the traditions or rituals?
  • What do people believe that isn’t true? Is true? Debate over being true?
  • How big a role do these beliefs play in day to day life?
  • Where does the belief system fit into the political system or power hierarchy?

5. Where are the contradictions?

As a society evolves, weird things happen—so no society makes perfect sense. Rules and behaviors are established when they seemed like a good idea, and then later become obsolete. Contradictions will appears, as well as variations in how people think and act. For example, there are actual laws in the US that make it illegal to eat chicken with your hands.
  • What weird rules, laws, or traditions evolved in your world and why?
  • Where are the contradictions? How do they get that way?
  • What are the shameful secrets that no one talks about that might have created these contradictions?

6. How did the culture get this way?

People used to wander and go where the food was. Then we learned how to farm and settled down. They we discovered grouping together provided comfort and security, and cities were born. This same level of growth occurs across all aspects of society, so consider how yours came to be.
  • What’s the history of this culture or world?
  • How did this society develop? What major event or crisis shaped it?
  • What are the core beliefs (such as “American Freedom”)? How do they uphold and reject those beliefs?

7. Who gets educated, how, and in what?

What gets taught and handed down varies from society to society. Some might value education, others might fear it. Some might use it to control others, some might use it to bring understanding and tolerance. But just like everything else, not everyone is going to get the same options or be taught the same things.
  • What's the education system like? Who gets educated?
  • How is education viewed among the various social or economic classes?
  • What types of skills are taught at which level? Is it different in rural areas versus urban areas?

These are just some of the questions you can ask while developing your worlds, but use them as a jumping off point to guide your brainstorming sessions. Think about the various aspects of your world and how the people in it would interact.

But be wary…

The Two Most Common Mistakes in Creating a Fantasy or Science Fiction World

In our efforts to create the “perfect” world for our stories, we sometimes force what we want into worlds that couldn’t possibly function. Make sure you’re not making these two common world building mistakes:

1. The technology tree doesn’t make sense

Think logically about how your technology evolved and what levels realistically work together with what’s available in that world. For example, you can’t have glass windows on a world without access to sand. Certain technological advancements require infrastructure and materials or they just won’t work. And remember, “technology” isn’t always computers and lights—it’s also the wheel.

2. The world doesn’t make sense

Some worlds look great on the surface, but once you start looking at the individual pieces, it all falls apart. This happens most often when the author has a premise or idea they want to use, but don’t think beyond “this is how it works.” Worlds such as:
  • High-tech societies in post-apocalyptic worlds when no one is educated and a tiny handful of powerful people control everything and it all works perfectly, even though no one remembers how to maintain it.
  • Large populations without any plausible means of feeding them.
  • Bottle worlds (self-contained worlds, such as underground caverns or domes) that have everything they need at hand, even though there’s no way the society could function without leaving the “bottle.”
  • A dictator who controls everything, and somehow manages to oppress a vast number of people who just accept it and never fight back—even though they’d easily overpower the government.

While careful thought could make any of these general premises work, worlds that exist because the “author wants it that way” rarely do. If something must be a certain way in your story, spend a little time to give it a plausible reason and a foundation for it.

One caveat here…

There are novels where the whole purpose of the book is to explore a topic using a fantasy or science fiction premise that requires readers to suspend disbelief. The Hunger Games is a good example here—a lot of it makes no sense, yet it’s a study of how violence as entertainment affects our society. The world was created to make a point, illustrate a particular idea, and tell a great story. If your world was created for social commentary, readers are more likely to accept that world.

Creating a world is a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. Take the time you need to create the best world for your story.

Do you enjoy world building? What do you like to do first?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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1 comment:

  1. One of my first novels, which will probably never see the light of day, was an exciting excercise in putting many of your points here to good use.

    In writing that story, I found the world building wasn't the most difficult part. It took a great deal of time constructing legends, old world language, belief systems, pros and cons of magic, and the hierarchy of the citizens. Yet it was even more work -albeit fun work- deciding what to put into the story itself.