Here’s a little known fact: I am better at world-building science fiction worlds than I am fantasy worlds. It’s a curious thing that always bugged me. Why was writing one easier than the other? Well, the other night, I sat down and started thinking about it and even made some comments about it online.
Now, I have come to my conclusion.
When you’re a writer like me, world-building is a slower and more fleshed out process than it is for some. I don’t just envision a story and tell it, I need to create the world around the story and its characters. I build charts that show each and every facet of a world that surrounds a story and its characters. I need to see its past, present, and possible futures.
In short: rather than just tell a story as it is, I need to see all the doors and what’s behind all of them. Having that knowledge helps me build a story that makes more sense than most ideas I get, and hopefully helps build characters that are more memorable than stereotypes.
How does this play into fantasy and science fiction? It’s actually remarkably simple.
When world-building science fiction, you are (normally, not always) drawing from this world. Our past, present, and possible futures all get poured into developing a world of the future. The rules of reality that you know of are still there, even if flexed a bit. You already know that Earth orbits the sun, that we breathe oxygen, that a bullet is fired by a pin striking a miniaturized explosive cap in a shell-casing which causes the gunpowder inside to detonate.
This world, along with all of its history and rules of reality, are known. When you delve into inventing an entirely new world, particularly in fantasy, that all changes.
When an entirely new, foreign world is required, the slate is wiped clean. All of the wars, famous and infamous people, cultural issues, and defining moments of history that we have no longer exist. You have to build your own history of the world, filled with it’s own conflicts and issues, and populate it with people who are shaped by that world.
Altering the rules of reality, on top of it, adds its own layers of challenges and difficulties. When you introduce something world-defining, take magical powers for example, you change the entire way that the world works and you alter the way people are shaped by it.
That isn’t to say that you can’t draw at all from our own history. If you are thinking of how people might perceive something, you can try and think of certain events in our own history, throw in some theoretical questions, and draw parallels. For example, if magic-wielders are meant to be feared and hunted, think about what something like the Salem Witch Trials might be like if the people who were burned actually had magical powers. Questions like that can help bring some insight to an otherwise unknown possibility.
When you’re like me and you decide to stir the pot, rather than just go with what’s been proven to work, you can create some interesting results. In the process, however, you wind up creating a slew of new problems and challenges.
I am currently world-building and mapping Under a Falling Sky, something that I take no shame in admitting has been one of (if not is) the hardest world I’ve had to craft. The reason why is because I have the very specific set of conditions that need to be met in regards to the world, while also blending together both fantasy and science fiction.
Yes, it’s a bloody Sci-Fi / Fantasy hybrid. Let that sink in for a moment.
Doing a hybrid like this is another challenge unto itself. Not only do you have to have boundaries for the power of magic and rationalize why it exists, you have to validate it in comparison to guns and armored vehicles. Where do you draw the line between magic and machinery? Divine powers and advanced gadgetry? Where does the fantasy end and the science fiction begin, or do they really have any clear boundaries?
Not only are you creating a new reality, where you’re trying to justify the news rules of existence, but now you’re trying to create a past that leads all the way into the age of steel and beyond. Do you decide to keep civilization somewhat primitive in mentality and theology, or do they evolve at the rate of their technological advances? What values did they hold dear when the ages were young, yet might have been cast off when futuristic items and tools came into their lives?
As you can see, it’s not about thinking that you have this one great story and you can just tell it. You need to build the world, build the rules, around it and provide a home for it to be told in. This is why, when I world-build, I try to create it so thoroughly that not just the one story, but possibly many others, might be told in it.
So, in what form does the payoff for all this world-building come in? At the end of it, when you look at your maps, codices, along with .doc files with character and faction text, you realize what you’ve built. You have built a world from it’s deepest roots to its tallest spires. You see all of the doors and what’s behind all of them, because it’s your world, built from the ground up by your own mind and populated by people that only you will truly know.
You know its beginning, its end, and everything in between. You may not be a god of that world, but you know if there is one and what they’re like.
That’s what world-building is really about for someone like me. You’re not just building the setting for a story, but you’re creating an entire world or universe for that story, and many more, to be told in. It is empowering, chaotic, terrifying, and inspiring all at the same time, and there’s nothing else like it.
So, time for me to get back to creating a new reality and polishing it off. The tales of those that shall never be born demand to be told, after all.