Tuesday, June 12, 2018

6 Secrets of Science Fiction and Fantasy World Building

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton  

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

How do you, as a writer, build a new world that fascinates your readers, draws them in, and makes them want to come back for more? If you write fantasy, science fiction, or horror, you need to do your world building the right way. Here’s how.

1. Research until you find the weirdness.

We've all heard that truth is stranger than fiction. You can use the weirder aspects of our own world to build a more interesting story world of your own.

Before I sat down to create the crystal magic in my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series, I researched real-life crystals. I went to lapidaries (rock shops) in the Rocky Mountains. I attended gem and mineral shows. And I visited metaphysical shops to talk to people who really believe in crystal healing.

Consider this: tourmaline is a spiky black crystal that supposedly forms a protective shield around your body, according to today's New Age beliefs. But here's a science fact: tourmaline is used to line the inside of really expensive hairdryers, and the negative ions it creates help protect your hair. Strange, but true.

If you were writing a novel where crystals were magical, how would you interpret that real-life fact?

Here's another one: as a kid, I loved to collect Herkimer diamonds, which aren’t really “diamonds” at all, but an exceptionally pure kind of quartz crystal. Some people believe they have purifying properties.

That's why Dan Aykroyd (yes, the guy from Ghostbusters) uses Herkimer diamonds to purify his vodka.

Weird? Yes. Did it go into my Dru Jasper urban fantasy series? You bet it did. And it made for some interesting world building that I wouldn't have thought of on my own.

So, start with research. The world we live in is so weird, it’s impossible not to get inspired.

2. Never create more world than you need to.

I speak from experience here. I have a stack of unfinished manuscripts in my desk drawer that suffered from a fatal case of too much world building.

As a writer, it's easy to become lost in trying to create a whole new world. If it's too intricate and planned out, you’ll end up strangling the story. To avoid that, my advice is simple:

Just create what you need in order to tell the story. The rest of the world will fill in naturally.
At the moment, I'm writing the fourth book in the Dru Jasper series, and I'm still building fresh new elements into the world.

3. Make your world real for the characters.

Even in the most outlandish story worlds, every character needs a place to work, a place to live, and a place to have fun. That’s true in the real world, and it needs to be true in your story, as well.

For each of your major characters, figure out where they work, where they eat and sleep, and where they blow off some steam. You may not necessarily feature those locations in your story. But just mentioning them will add depth to your world.

4. Compare your world to something even weirder.

Here's a nifty trick, if you need to introduce some aspect of your world that is so outlandish that you worry readers aren’t going to believe in it.

Consider this weird aspect of your world, and then spend some time thinking up something even weirder and more outlandish.

Then have one of your characters say, “What’s next, ___?” And name that weirder thing.

Immediately, have another character reply, “Don’t be ridiculous. ___ only exist in stories. This is real life!”

Except, of course, it isn’t real life. It’s a story. But now, by comparison, your world seems much more believable.

5. Force the heroes to fight the problems of your world.

Every aspect of your world needs to affect the story somehow, either by making life harder for the heroes, or by making their opposition stronger.

If you do it right, it actually becomes easier to explain your world over the course of the story. Sooner or later, someone will say, “Hey, this would be easy, except for the zombies/aliens/time warp/whatever.”

In other words, if the characters lived in our ordinary world, their problems wouldn't exist. But they’re in big trouble specifically because they live in this world of yours. That makes for a fun story.

6. Make it matter to the heroes, and it will matter to the reader.

When building new worlds, perhaps the biggest danger every author faces is losing the reader. The weird elements (magic, monsters, you name it) have to feel emotionally real in order to work in the story.

And I use the word “feel” for a reason: whatever you write, it has to work on an emotional level. To do that, the weirdness of your story world needs to relate somehow to the world we live in today.

If you create a setting where the characters interact in ways that are so peculiar that we can’t relate to them as real-life parallels, then the story starts to feed on itself. It stops feeling real, and you risk losing the reader.

Instead, look at your story world as a metaphor for specific aspects of our world. That way, you can explore issues that are maybe too heavy to address directly in real life.

Most important of all, your characters’ emotional reactions to these made-up issues will feel authentic, and that will evoke real feelings in your readers. That's the magic that makes stories work.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About A Kiss Before Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 2)

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

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  1. Thanks Dani! World building used to be such a mystery to me. Hopefully these tips can help other writers avoid making the same mistakes I used to make. Thanks for reading!

  2. I like the idea of comparing the weirdness of the story world to something even weirder. I feel like you also get the benefit of adding a little humor to your story by doing that.