So I had an interesting mini-conversation on Twitter this morning with regard to world-building in science-fiction and fantasy, and I thought it worth expanding beyond 140 characters. After all, creating entire new universes is pretty exciting. But it’s also a lot of work.
I have two universes in my book: a 22nd century future extrapolated from our present day, and an alternate late-18th century universe in which sailing ships travel between the planets of our solar system. So what does the 22nd century look like? And how exactly do sailing ships in the 18th century travel between planets? I’m a writer, so the short answer is pretty much, “Because I said so.” Unfortunately, like parenting, it’s rarely that easy.
Both of these worlds, and any world you might encounter in sf/f, require a great deal of forethought, plotting and logic. You’re asking the reader to suspend disbelief in a lot of ways, and you can’t have something jarring in there if it doesn’t make sense within the framework of the world. If an elf showed up on the U.S.S. Enterprise, for example, the little feller would kind of stick out, right? Not to say you can’t have him there, but it has to make sense…somehow.
So both my worlds have a lot of backstory. And because they’re both extrapolated from our real world history, I put in a good amount of research as well. I wanted the 22nd century to be a realistic one, not one in which we’re zipping about at Warp 3. And I wanted an interesting mechanism for sailing ships in space, which forced me to basically rewrite the laws of physics in that universe by using the Great Work of alchemy in the place of hard science.
There’s a lot more to these universes than what’s currently in my book. But by creating my framework, I know what works, and what doesn’t. And that makes these strange new worlds more accessible and believable, ideally.
Plus, I have a ton of material for the sequels, if I’m lucky enough to get a chance to write them.
2 responses to “How to build a world”
One of my favorite tricks of worldbuilding is to state “I never really explore that in detail in my books.” Some details are too much. For example, I never ever say whether the colonists on my planet terraformed a dead rock, or if the planet already had flora & fauna. I also never mention alien races, because I want my stories to be about the humans and how they have changed, not about how humans & aliens interact.
I have a lot of backstory for my books, and my biggest struggle is how to get just enough information across so that it makes sense to my readers while still being entertaining. But I am OCD about making sure that I never contradict myself, and that everything is plausible, but I don’t want to bore people with a lengthy exposition.
I have spreadsheets of data, and I’m currently working on literally building a model globe of my planet so I have a map I can go back and reference at any time. Fortunately, both spreadsheets and model building are loads of fun to me!
It sounds like you had a lot of fun researching for your novel. I agree that it’s important to know more than you use — and I think readers appreciate getting a realistic-seeming glimpse into a broader universe, rather than hearing every detail of a world. When you use information sparingly, to enrich and move the story forward, everything seems to fit better. And like you say, all the information you’ve gathered could prove useful in potential sequels. 🙂