Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds
by Michael James Liljenberg.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing;
so on the seventh day he rested from all His work.
Day 7: Rest - of the Story
So the seventh day dawns and you wonder, now that I've created this amazing, whole fantasy world, can't I take a break? But, of course the beginning is only the start of the story, you've still got a story to write. But having a well-developed world can help you with the other parts of your writing. As I said waaaaay back in the introduction, Setting is the defining characteristic of Fantasy/Science Fiction literature. But what about the other basics parts of a story: Theme, Character, and Plot? I wanted to conclude this series by looking at how making the effort to create a world helps you develop the rest of your story.
Setting and Theme
In a review of the movie Vendetta the reviewer expresses surprise at the thematic depth of a science fiction movie. He even bemoaned that it took a science fiction movie to so vividly explore themes like the ease with which surrendering liberty in exchange for security can slide into a police state, or the ease with which the dissident can slide into terrorism.
To be blunt, as a science fiction fan and writer, I was a bit offended. Did this movie critic think that the only story that could possess a profound theme was a drama like 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'? What did this writer think Fantasy and Science Fiction are all about? Fantasy and Science Fiction have always been primarily about theme. Think of the very first English novel, the fantasy Pilgrim's Progress and it's very obvious theme of the journey of a Christian life. Think of the first Science Fiction novel, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and it's themes about life, death, and the dangers of scientific discovery outpacing morality. What about Bram Stoker's exploration of hedonism and sexually transmitted disease symbolized by vampirism in Dracula? Even a light and humorous story, like Jules Vern's Around the World in 80 Days is looking at the profound cultural impact of technological advances in the speed of transportation and communication.
The beauty of Fantasy and Science Fiction is that since you create the universe in which the story takes place you can make invisible and intangible ideas physical aspects of your universe. This allows you to explore human characteristics and conflicts in ways you cannot do in other forms of literature.
For example, you can explore the issue of racism by creating really separate races that have built in biological incompatibilities. What if one race literally is poisonous to the other? What if one race really is superior to the other? (What do you mean by race? What do you mean by 'superior'? These are things you get to determine.) What if one race is inherently evil while the other is good?
You can explore the conflict between good and evil by actually personifying evil. Explore moral decision making by creating a universe where you have defined morality and the consequences for you character's decisions. You can create races with three or four sexes or imagine Amazon societies with reversed gender roles or species that transform from one gender to another. You can explore fundamental questions like what it means to be human? Who or what is God? Why do we exist? What's the point of the universe? And you can explore these questions precisely because you get to create your universe from scratch.
Setting and Character
If you want characters with depth, having a well-developed world will help you build your characters' back-stories. If you create a whole world, you will know your characters' places in it. You will have a structure explaining how the characters relate to the spiritual forces of your world. They will have a cultural and ethnic identity. You will know what countries or factions your characters are from and their history and conflicts. You will know the characters' economic and social classes and how all of these traits influence the conflicts your characters will have with each other.
With this history, you will have a foundation to understand your character's moral choices and the moral complexities that give such depth to a character.
Detailing your world's technology or magic systems will also explain potential weaknesses in your characters. What are some of the detrimental side effects of FTL travel or magic use that may cause chronic problems for your character?
Working on language can supply your characters with dialects and trademark slang and profanities.
Setting and Plot
A well-developed world can help you develop the plot. The core of many stories is that there is something wrong with the world and your main characters' job is to fix it. This works on many levels.
What's wrong with the world of your story may be something very limited and personal. In Shakespeare's Hamlet the death of Hamlet's father has turned Hamlet's world upside-down (the death of the king barely seems to affect anyone else). His world is further disturbed by the revelation that his father's death was murder. He must repair this injustice, this disruption in the moral order of his universe, by seeking vengeance against his uncle. His failure to avenge his father and repair this injustice ultimately ends up destroying his finance, her father and brother, two of Hamlets friends, Hamlet's mother, his murderous uncle, and even himself.
In a more standard story it may be something like the balance of power between two rival nations shifts to one side or the other and war breaks out. The hero(s) are part of an elite fighting force (or more usually a 'rag-tag' fighting force) working to restore peace, as in the Anime Venus Wars.
In a more epic story, there could be something fundamentally wrong with the fabric of the universe: the corruption of the mystical energies used by the sorcerers, a rift between worlds that is tearing the fabric of space/time and time letting in demons from other dimensions, the Dragon of Light has disappeared, or a mysterious and powerful race of aliens has invaded the Earth.
Since you have built your world from the ground up, you will have some good ideas about what might be wrong in your world that your heroes must fix. Because you built a whole world, with interdependent parts, you will be able to understand just how profound an impact that problem has in all different parts of your world. This will give you many ideas for conflicts, disasters, or obstacles for your characters to deal with that will both advance your story and build tension and drama in your story as the characters, and the reader, come to understand the full magnitude of the problem.
Many fantasy/sci-fi stories follow a quest format. Having a basic map of your world will help you develop your plot. Just tracing a path across your preliminary map will help you find all sorts of interesting plot points, some you might not even have thought of: crossing a mountain range or desert, trekking through a treacherous jungle, or crossing the border of a hostile empire.
You might also try a calendar instead of a map. The Harry Potter books all follow the school calendar of Hogwarts: the trip to Diagon Alley, the train to school and the banquet, the start of classes, Halloween, the start of Quidditch season, Christmas, Spring Break, Finals, and the story finale. There are other events depending on the story, but it gives J.K. Rowling a basic skeleton for all of her books.
The End of the Beginning
Wow. That ended up being a lot bigger a series than I thought when I first started outlining it. But here we are at the end of 'The Beginning'. We've:
- Developed a basic theological/spiritual foundation for your world with a magic system.
- Determined the basic physical laws that drive the natural forces in your universe and how the civilizations in your story may have harnessed those forces in technology.
- Defined the scope and role of weather and climate in the story.
- Mapped out your new world noting the geography and how it influences the people and civilizations living there.
- Filled your world with animals specially adapted to live in the environment you created.
- Built the complex cultures and civilizations that your characters live in and interact with.
- We finished by looking at how all this work will help you develop the rest of your story.
Thanks for sticking with me through this whole thing. I hope you found some great ideas to develop your world and write your story.