“If you write science-fiction or fantasy, world building can make or break your book.” ProWritingAid.
World building is harder than you think. It is difficult and takes time. Many details need to come together in a cohesive fashion to produce a believable world.
You can be creative and design your own world from scratch or use time-honored tropes like elves, fairies, vampires, dragons, etc.
A good way to start is to use a familiar trope and change three things about it. For example, a dragon who likes to swim, is tenderhearted, and is a vegetarian. Create a plant or an animal with different characteristics and give it a new name so the reader will not be confused with the original species.
Deciding on how many worlds you need for your story is also important. Some writers get carried away with extensive world building. Consider limiting your efforts to the characteristics of the world you need for your story. It takes less time and effort and you can concentrate more on the story and the characters.
Three main rules of world building
- New worlds imply lots of decisions about the geography, ecology, geology, and its society, laws, religion, customs, etc.. You must also think about the characters. Where they live, what they look like, what they eat, their type of clothing, body decoration or jewelry, etc..
Even if you’re writing in other genres, like historical fiction, or time travel in science-fiction, you must pay attention to details and the setting will need to be accurate for the time period and location. Also, if you change one fact in history, you must consider all the possible repercussions this will entail for your characters as well as the world you have created.
- Use other author’s worlds to inspire you and help hone in your skills. Analyze favorite science-fiction movies like Blade Runner, the first Dune, Avatar, or apocalyptic worlds or series like The Twelve Monkeys. Read science-fiction and fantasy novels for your enjoyment but also to learn how they develop their worlds. Take notes and adjust your own creations.
- Don’t get so wrapped up in world building that you can’t see “the forest for the trees”. The most important part of your novel is the story, not the world. Your readers must focus on the story and empathize with the characters, not the world. This is how you will keep them reading.
Don’t over complicate your world building. Adding tons of interesting elements is tempting but if they don’t move the story forward, you will loose the interest of the reader.
Species, monsters, and gods. How do you distinguish between a monster and a new species?
The basic difference is a monster doesn’t communicate, has no language, and you can’t reason with it. If there are many monsters as in a group, they become more like a species and you have to give them a name and describe their behavior in the group.
New species and monsters can add spice and excitement to your story. ProWritingAid (PWA) has important recommendations about using species developed by other authors. For example, elves are okay to use but Hobbits are the property of Tolkien, same as Vulcans and Klingons are for Star Trek.
If you do add a new species, you must not only consider its physical characteristics but you may need to define their natural habitat, and envision how they would survive in other habitats. This means you must add some backstory to make it look real.
Details of physical characteristics, language, customs, weapons, etc. in the case of an intelligent species, must be noted and weighed carefully if the author is writing a series. You can’t easily change a new species in book 3 of the series. Please refer to PWA for details.
Try to avoid the cliche horrible-looking creature which has an insatiable appetite and kills constantly. Your monster may look horrible but may kill to protect its young or retaliate against previous attacks. It also may have a weakness that brings about its undoing.
Sometimes the monster looks human but behaves like a monster. For example, think of the series “Dexter”, the serial killer.
Make sure your monster is a tool to bring the story forward otherwise it will only distract the reader and make your story weaker.
All cultures on Earth, past and present, have gods. Therefore, incorporating gods in alien cultures is a logical step. Science doesn’t exclude religion and gods can be an interesting addition to your story.
Think outside the box. Gods may help or hinder the characters. They may be benevolent, malevolent, or vengeful. They may change forms and take human form. They may look human but have incredible powers like the supreme being in the delightful fantasy set in a futuristic world, “The Fifth Element”.
Relationships between gods themselves and between gods and humans may be complex. They may have children, may be immortal or become mortal in certain conditions. Think of the complex story “Circe” based on greek and roman mythology by Madeline Miller. For a more in-depth analysis of gods in science-fiction, please refer to World building 101 by PWA.
A great tool to help your world building
PWA has included a great tool in the last chapter on world building: the ultimate world building questionnaire, a detailed, well thought framework to help in your world building endeavor.
Source: ProWritingAid World building 101
By Cami Michaels, author of the science-fiction fantasy romance novel I Am Sheffrou An Alien Love Story, Book 1 of the Sheffrou Trilogy.
Cami Michaels is a retired physician who loves reading sci-fi fantasy, photography, and traveling. She is currently finishing her second novel, book 2 of the trilogy, Betrayal, The Color of Treason, which will be published in the fall of 2021.