Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds
by A.R. George
Everybody says, "My topic is the most important thing you can learn in order to write science fiction and fantasy," when they write a tutorial for FARP. But I'm actually not exaggerating. The art of creating worlds is crucial to good Fantasy and Science Fiction.
There are four basic parts of a story: plot, character, setting, and theme. You cannot be a good writer unless you can command each of these. If you have a mediocre, predictable, or contrived plot, your book will bore readers. If your characters are two dimensional, unmotivated, or cliché, readers will not care about what happens to them in your story. Theme is what makes a story more meaningful than mere entertainment.
But what sets Fantasy and Science Fiction apart from other genres is the setting. The story of a rouge police detective dodging a former colleague because he's been set up by the authorities sounds like a fairly typical mystery/thriller. But what if the crime the detective was accused of hasn't actually happened yet, but was only predicted by a police psychic? Suddenly you have the brilliant Science Fiction movie Minority Report. Gattaca is essentially a thriller centered around an identity theft crime. But what makes the story Science Fiction is its setting in a eugenic society based on DNA determinism. A story about an engineer hired to help build a ceramic engine for a race car transforms into a fantasy story when you find out why the owners want a ceramic engine. They are "allergic" to iron because they happen to be elves.
To be a good writer you need to know character, plot, and theme. But to be a good Fantasy and Science Fiction writer, you need to master setting. This is true even if your world is not a major focus of your story. Alien for example has two worlds: the barren, stormy planet where they discover the derelict alien spacecraft, and the Nostramo. You never see the ship's engines or learn anything about how they work, you never learn much about the politics of Earth, you learn absolutely nothing about the mysterious alien wreck, there's little there about the technology of the android, or any of that. The rest of the universe, the "Corporation", the government, is essentially implied, but it's there enough that you are aware of a world bigger than the Nostramo. There's just enough to give the alien good hiding spaces for it to jump out and slaughter the crew one at a time. The key is that those hiding spaces don't come across as meaningless or contrived like the Chompers in Galaxy Quest.
Nor do you need to create a universe that is totally original or free of those dreaded Fantasy clichés. Think about the "greats". Fantasy worlds like Middle Earth, the lands of Jordan's Wheel of Time, Discworld. These worlds are made up, in many cases of pieces borrowed from other sources. Tolkien took most of his world from ancient Norse mythology and Celtic legend. Discworld is an intentional hodgepodge of other fantasy ideas. The worlds of Dungeons and Dragons are so derivative of Tolkien, it was nearly sued out of existence in its early days. The pieces may not be entirely original, but the whole is a world that sucks the reader in and keeps them coming back.
And that's the key for creating a realistic world for your story, creating the world as a whole. Our world, its physics, geography, environment, biology, and the human cultures and civilizations on it all connect in complex interdependent systems. You don't have to detail every aspect of your world, nor does your world have to be totally feasible from a purely scientific standpoint. But if your world can reflect some of that complexity it will make your imaginary world more real to your reader. It will anchor your characters to the environment, anchor the plot in a greater flow of history, and especially in Science Fiction and Fantasy, provide a foundation for the development of your theme.
All this is not to say that your worlds have to be completely scientifically realistic. Middle Earth, geographically speaking, doesn't work. There should be a rain shadow east of the Misty Mountains that would make the huge forest of Mirkwood impossible. The reality of Middle Earth is in its history. The Emin Muil isn't barren and rugged because of geological forces like volcanism. It's there because of the wars 3000 years before that destroyed it.
J.R.R. Tolkien studied languages. Especially the history and development of English and related Germanic/Scandinavian tongues. He began playing around at inventing a language or two of his own. He combined this with his love of the legends and mythology of England and slowly began crafting a history to explain the development of the languages he was inventing. (In other words, the model for creating worlds suggested by this tutorial is hardly gospel, there are other ways of achieving the goal of creating a world that becomes real to your readers) That story is the basis of the quintessential fantasy, The Lord of the Rings. One of the reasons readers enthusiastically return again and again to Middle Earth is because the history of Middle Earth lends power to the narrative. The characters aren't just slogging their way over hills, but treading across ancient battlefields, skirting ruins of ancient towers, walking through forests planted in the dawn of the world. That history gives the world of middle earth a reality that sucks the reader into the story.
George Lucas's Star Wars universe was never very well developed, especially from a technology standpoint, but it still works. For example, when we first see the Millennium Falcon and Luke comments, "What a hunk of junk!" Han counters, "She can make point five factors past light speed." Now we are never told exactly how fast a "factor" is or why only one half of a factor is so blazingly fast. But we can easily infer from the reactions of the characters, and the confidence of Han, that whatever the speed is, it's considerably faster than usual for small, run-down cargo ships.
You're never told anything about the engineering behind a "blaster" - notice they avoid the term "laser" when talking about hand held weapons- or what kind of engines the ships use. That's all black box technology. The important thing is that when you pull the trigger the gun shoots, and it fires consistently. You don't get a gun barely wounding a person in one scene when in the scene just before the same gun blew a cubic foot hole in a stone wall. When you push the throttle forward the ship speeds up. Or when the engine breaks down and Han and Chewie start fixing it, you may not have any idea what the "transtator" does, but they clearly do. I do have a hard science buddy who always complains about how the fighters fly more like airplanes in an atmosphere rather than a space ship in micro-gravity. But as long as it's the way things consistently work your reader has a much easier time "suspending their disbelief" and living in your world with your characters.
Since one of the most fun parts about writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is that you get to be the god of your own universe, I'm going to look at how God created the universe as a model for creating your own. Since everyone is relatively familiar with the creation narrative from Genesis I will use its 7-day structure to divide the process up into convenient bites. But I want to make clear my primary point: a world is a cohesive whole with all manner of forces working together. The key to creating a realistic world in your story is working from the beginning of the process to make sure all the parts will work together.
- Chapter 2: Day 1 - Physics
On the first day God created light: How do the laws of physics, energy, and matter apply to your world? What kinds of technology are available? How does FTL travel work?
- Chapter 3: Day 2 - Weather
On the second day God creates the sky. What kinds of weather blow across your world? How will it affect the characters in your story?
- Chapter 4: Day 3 - Geography
On the third He causes the dry land to appear and he covers it with plants and trees. What is the geography of your world and how does it affect the civilizations and characters in it?
- Chapter 5: Day 4 - Astronomy
On the fourth day He populates the day and night with the Sun, moon, and stars. The lights in the sky may just be distant points of light in your story, or they may be divine beings, or maybe they're member planets of a vast interstellar empire.
Includes a PDF solar system worksheet.
- Chapter 6: Day 5 & 6 - Zoology
On the fifth day He populates the sky and the sea with birds and fish. And on the sixth day He populates the dry land with animals. What creatures inhabit your own world?
- Chapter 7: Day 6 - Anthropology (part 1) (part 2)
Also on the sixth day He creates humans. Your world may be filled with an array of civilizations, cultures, and races. What are the conflicts and alliances, the races, religions, and governments in your world?