Writing Advice

The Not-So-Subtle Art of Sci-Fi World-Building

Writing fiction is easy, they say. You can just make things up. How hard is that? What on Earth is world-building and why does it matter? Sound familiar? Yeah, I thought so. We’ve all heard these and it might be tempting to buy into them, focusing on characters and plot instead. Don’t get sucked into that trap. I think some of the best stories start with excellent world-building, even in writing fiction.

Let’s start with a brief review of why world-building matters. I like to compare world-building to building a house. To have a structurally sound house, a solid foundation is critical, right? World-building is your story’s foundation, no different from that house. After all, where would the characters and plot be if they had no world to function in? It’d be like a house with no foundation—weak, constantly problematic, and no one would want it.

Image by Borko Manigoda from Pixabay

World-building becomes a character of its own in science fiction stories. Endor or the Death Star? What about the Enterprise? Or the hyperspace express route? These places and things are not characters. Without them, though, the stories wouldn’t work. The threat the Death Star held, the key significance of a tiny out-of-the-way moon, all the amazing things a single spaceship did, even the unseen threat of something that didn’t exist yet. They all became so much more than some random location or object that exists to give the story a science fiction window dressing.

Now that we’ve established that world-building is a critical step in writing, particularly when writing science fiction, let’s talk a bit about how to do it. I know this may amuse some of you, knowing I am a total pantser. I plan little of anything when I write. My first draft is where I write what comes to mind because I know somewhere in the dusty recesses of my brain everything is there. I need to clear out the story itself before I can find the details. But I do still build my worlds in that first draft, then refine them more when I revise and edit. Trust me, I needed to work out lots after the dactylsauri appeared in Nightmares (which comes out later this year).

I’ll use peeks into the universe of the Black Ops to help illustrate the various points as we go. So, one step is to establish the species that live in your world. Being a space opera, there are many worlds for my Black Ops specialists. One planet hosts a colony of empathic people, able to read and even manipulate emotions. Another world is arid and deadly species abound, with none deadlier than the sentient dactylsauri (think pterosaurs the size of a Cessna or larger and communicate via telepathy). Most of my principal characters so far are more or less humanoid. I did this to help create a sense that this could be us in some distant future. Even the name of the government, United Earth Government, is a deliberate move to convey that sense.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Another step is to consider the physical environment. Are there deserts? Forests? Cities? And how does technology interact with your locations? After all, science fiction needs that technology element, even in space operas where the focus is more on characters, plot, and dramatic conflicts than on technology. Hard sci-fi sticks much closer to the feasibility and “reality” of the technology. No, the technology isn’t required to exist currently, but hard sci-fi needs that technical possibility of existing based on current technology. Space operas get more room here, which is good and bad. I got to create many interesting and fun worlds. I even created a Seymour like plant species on one world. That also meant I had to create multiple worlds where each had to fit its own sense of normality and reality.

The technology itself is another step. Yes, I mentioned that earlier, but it plays such a huge role in science fiction that it merits its own step here. Are you going to stick to hard sci-fi? Then this will be where you spend a significant amount of time getting the technology right. For me, in writing my space opera, I didn’t need to focus as much here. I still needed to create things that made sense and were not some magic bullet way out of situations, though. Those magic bullet technology solutions just don’t go well. So, yes, I have faster than light travel between planets in ships. I have space armor that is some pretty wicked stuff. But that space armor has its flaws. And those ships are a lot like cars—in need of fuel and maintenance and places to land. These flaws and limitations are the things that help make them believable pieces of technology.

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

One step I think you cannot miss in the world-building process is making it believable. This is where it can get tricky. What I’ve found that helps are to have pieces of your world or universe that feel a lot like our world today. Tablets that resemble advanced versions of iPads, medical procedures that resemble things we do today but in new and innovative ways, weapons that work on similar principles to what we have now. These are just some examples. In the Black Ops universe, their pulse rifles are basically a cross between the blasters of Star Wars and sniper rifles of today. One of my characters, Major Devin Wade, specializes in hand-to-hand combat with knives. My doctors still have to set broken bones, even though they have technology that allows those bones to heal quickly.

Or maybe it’s not in the technology that the reader finds something that feels believable. Maybe it’s in the way the worlds are. Perhaps you incorporate the Goldilocks principle astronomers have of planets needing to be in exactly the right place to have the right balance for life to exist, thus making alien species in your universe much rarer. Maybe, despite how alien the forest is, hints of forests here on Earth are mixed in.

In the end, for any science fiction story to work, world-building must be an integral piece. Whether you plot it all out in meticulous notes ahead of time or you take my approach and get the story out of the way first before sorting out the details, remember those worlds are their own characters. Just like the Death Star, the Enterprise, and the hyperspace express route.

Now that you’ve made it to the end of this article, check out this one on sci fi world building by Randall Hayes.

Come join us for more awesome bookish fun all weekend at LitCon!

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