World Building is something that every author has to do, no matter what the genre or setting. For example, here’s a passage from Laura Lippman’s In Big Trouble, followed by another from And here’s another one from Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle:
A sign hangs next to the cradle of Texas liberty, reminding visitors that concealed firearms are not permit-ted on the grounds…
…Within the walls, it’s like being in a shallow dish— azure sky above, the taller buildings crowded around, dwarfing the Spanish mission, which isn’t very big to begin with. She walks through the gardens, noting the placement of each plant, each bench, each sign. Changeis not to be tolerated. She picks up a cup with a lit-tle electric blue raspa juice inside and drops it in the trash, as fastidious in her own way as the Alamo’s keepers, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
It is a shrine, and not only to Texas liberty. A shrine to her, to them.
And then after walking all day through a golden haze of humid warmth that gathered around him like fine wetfleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcroppingwhite stone overlooking the city of Pidruid. It was the provincial capital, sprawling and splendid, the biggest city he had come upon since—since?—the biggest in a long while of wandering in any case.
There he halted, finding a seat at the edge of the soft, crumbling white ridge, digging his booted feet into the flaking ragged stone, and he sat there star- ing down at Pidruid, blinking as though newly out of sleep. On this summer day, twilight was still some
hours away, and the sun hung high to the southwest
beyond Pidruid, out over the Great Sea. I will rest
here for a while, Valentine thought, and then I will
go down into Pidruid and find lodging for the night.
The Lippman establishes the setting as contemporary San Antonio, downtown to be specific. The Silverberg is a science fiction secondary world, but both have the same effect: introducing and drawing us into a living, breathing setting we can picture in our minds. This is world building.
No matter what your genre or setting, the basic concerns tend to be the same. Some require a bit more than others, like science fiction worlds requiring space travel, alien cultures, other planets, etc. but all still call for thoughtful consideration of the same categories of details. In her chapbook Checking on Culture, Lee Killough offers a great checklist which lists the relevant concerns. Here’s my adaptation of it:
Use this list by checking off the items as you go through them and think through that aspect of your world. But first things first, before you start world building, you must already know your time frame. Near future, current day, or far future? When does your story take place and where? This will determine everything else. Then your research and planning can center around things relevant to that time period. Once we know the time frame, we proceed on with the list. The order depends on your priorities, but for me, it usually goes something like this:
Existing or Secondary World
He returned his attention to Barbirike Sea, which stretched, long and slender as a spear, for fifty miles
or so through the valley below the gray cliff on which
Kasinibon’s fortress-like retreat was perched. Long
rows of tall sharp-tipped crescent dunes, soft as
clouds from this distance, bordered its shores. They
too were red. Even the air here had a red reflected
shimmer. The sun itself seemed to have taken on a
tinge of it. Kasinibon had explained yesterday, thoughFurvain had not been particularly interested in hear- ing it at the time, that the Sea of Barbirike was hometo untold billions of tiny crustaceans whose fragile
brightcolored shells, decomposing over the millennia, had imparted that bloody hue to the sea’s waters and
given rise also to the red sands of the adjacent dunes.
Furvain wondered whether his royal father, who had
such an obsessive interest in intense color effects,
had ever made the journey out here to see this place. Surely he had. Surely.
(The Book of Changes, Robert Silverberg)
Existing worlds are Earth or known planets in our solar system or even a few beyond. Secondary are inventions of the author. Are you inventing everything or building on what already exists and what we already know? Then you need to know geography, gravity, culture of lifeforms, etc. How many suns or moons? How many other planets? Etc.
If you are creating a secondary world, do not put your planet around a famous celestial body just because it is well known. Many of these are highly unlikely to have habitable planets around them and it requires careful thought about viability before placing planets there, particularly earth-like, human habituated ones. You should carefully consider the scientific realities of planetary location and solar system building before deciding upon such a course, even if writing a soft science story, instead of hard science fiction. Because believability for readers is paramount. Remember: you should create the questions readers ask carefully and guide them toward questions you can answer satisfactorily and away from ones you cannot. Not one covers everything. There will always be gaps. But try to avoid awkwardly obvious, glaring ones. Also, constellations will appear differently from various points around the galaxy, so don’t describe them as they appear on Earth when viewed from elsewhere.
Secondary or not, ask yourself what are the key geographic features and how do they effect population density, location of settlements, travel around and across the surface, economics, weather, etc.? Avoid oversimplifying but just saying a planet is all jungle, all ice, etc. because based on location from sun, rotation, geography and other factors, this is not scientifically plausible as we know it and will tend to seem unrealistic and poorly considered. Frank Herbert put a lot of thought into his desert Dune planet, but too often the results of oversimplifying come across as lazy thinking. Planets are big places and will have a lot of variety. For example, civilizations will form cities around bodies of drinking water and food supplies, and their diets will vary depending upon the area in which they live and the wildlife, plants, etc. that also reside there. Those things also choose habitats based upon location of resources and so on and so forth. There is a circle and a chain of logic that will determine much of it and thus should be considered.
Geography determines travel options. Heavily mountainous areas may not have room for landing zones for starships or local air travel. Large bodies of water may need to be traversed via boats, ships or other craft in order to avoid long delays in supply, commerce, shipping, etc. So consider these things in determining where your cities are located and how people get between them.
Gravity affects quality of life from retention of water and atmosphere to breathing to ability to run and jump, etc. But this can also affect the magnetic field and exposure to radiation from solar flares, cosmic rays, and more. High gravity worlds would have shorter mountains and require people to have thicker, stronger muscles. Air would be denser and tension on body parts might lead to premature aging, sagging faces, etc. Also accidents might multiply as objects are thrown about or pulled loose by stronger gravity and strike people, vehicles, buildings, lifeforms, etc. On high gravity worlds, rain and rivers would erode land much more quickly as well, smoothing rough edges. Oceans would be calmer and bigger, more extensive, and evaporation would be slower, leaving the air and atmosphere drier with water taking longer to boil and clouds hanging lower. Planes would need bigger wings as well. Reverse these factors for lower gravity worlds, with larger land masses and smaller bodies of water, etc.
If your planet has an Earthlike atmosphere, a very slow day will result in extremes of temperature from day to night. Wind speeds will be affected by rotation as well. Oblation will tend to occur for planets with shorter days and rotations verses longer. It will be thicker or thinner at the equator accordingly. Axial tilt will determine the seasons. Slants greater than Earth will create more extreme seasons. Weather conditions will be affected. The amount of exposure to the sun’s heat determines extremes. Wind and ocean currents will moderate the effects. Higher rotation planets will have more hurricanes and dangerous winds. Ice caps form because poles receive less heat and water freezes. Planets with ice caps will generally be cooler than those without. The skin color of people can be affected by location with desert peoples generally tending toward darker tones due to sun exposure, while people living in shadows or colder climates who spend much time underground, indoors, etc. may have lighter skin. All of these are interesting factors to take into account.
As you can see there are many factors to consider and I can only scratch the surface here. You may not use all the details but knowing them gives you the option to write the story you need to tell, without being boxed in or slowed down by ignorance.
Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Mary Sutton, whose YA fantasy debut chapter book I edited for Delabarre Publishing. As a software technical writer, Mary has been making her living with words for over almost 20 years. Power Play is her first published fiction work. She is a member of Pennwriters and is the incoming secretary for her local chapter of Sisters in Crime. Find her online at marysuttonauthor.com. Here are her thoughts on world-building:
The Importance of World-building
by Mary Sutton
One of the most important things in fiction is that activity known as “world-building.” Most people associate this with fantasy fiction, but you have to do it no matter what kind of fiction you write. “World-building” is where you draw the world in which your characters live. This world can be completely fictional or set in the “real world.”
World-building is a tricky exercise. If you use the real world, as in your story is set in New York, you have to get the details right. This is anything from the names of any famous streets or buildings, to basic geography and history of the locale, to the “feel” of the world. For example, New York is a busy place. People talk fast, walk fast, and drive fast (well, when they aren’t stuck in traffic). It would not be believable if you wrote a story where the “city that never sleeps,” slept.
Fantasy worlds have their own challenges. A lot of people think fantasy and science fiction give the author free rein to make up whatever she wants. Well, that’s sort of true. Your world still has to make “sense,” it has to have a certain degree of believability. You may decide to create a science fiction world that is devoid of gravity, but you better spend some time thinking through things as simple as “how do objects stay in one place” or “how do people go to the bathroom” or your readers, who do have certain expectations of basic physics, aren’t going to find your story “believable make-believe.”
For Hero’s Sword, I had to create two worlds. First, I had to create the “real-life” world of middle school. Fortunately, a lot of things haven’t changed since I was in eighth grade, some thirty-odd years ago. There are still cliques; still the kids on the “outside,” and kids still have those seemingly impossible crushes. I was also fortunate in that I have a first-hand view into today’s middle school through my kids. So it wasn’t hard to build Jaycee’s school world. Between memories and observation I got a very good feel for what I was trying to do.
Slightly more challenging was making sure my characters felt like they belonged to this world. The vocabulary and speech of the characters that inhabited that middle-school world had to be right. It’s been a long time since I thought or spoke like a thirteen-year old, but again I was fortunate enough to be able to observe my kids and their friends.
For the fictional world of Hero’s Sword and Mallory, I had a bit more freedom. After all, this was the world of a video game, so I had lots of options. I could have gone all out with magic, dragons, elves, and wizards – all the trappings of high fantasy. But that’s not really where I wanted to go.
Instead, I wanted more of a medieval “real world” feel. Sure, there’s a certain amount of fantasy. After all, Jaycee is transported into a video game and that’s pretty fantastic.
But I didn’t want to get involved with inventing a new set of rules – or explaining them. It would be far easier to simply base the world of the game on some basic tenets of history, including feudalism, over lords (the “Empire”), petty wars between feudal lords (barons, or in my case, estate owners).
This freed me of the need to develop my own complex set of “standard operating procedures” for my world. Anybody who has ever played a game based on feudal principles would understand the rules of the road. But since my game world is fictional, I was able to build the relationships between Empire, estates, lords, and commoners pretty much how I wanted to – such as simultaneously allowing a woman to rule and having her people not completely approve of that because of a long history of male rulers.
Once I got into the groove, I really enjoyed my fictional world. Since so much of what I write is crime fiction that is very much based on fact (face it, there are certain things a police officer just cannot do), this was an extremely fun and liberating exercise.
I really enjoyed the world of Mallory and I hope I get to spend a lot more time there. And I hope you did to.
So tell me – what is the one thing you need in a fictional world to make it believable?
by Mary Sutton
All Jaycee Hiller wants to do is survive eighth grade. Mostly that means hanging with her friend, Stu, avoiding the cheerleading squad, secretly crushing on Nate Fletcher, and playing her favorite video game, Hero’s Sword. When she receives a new video game controller, Jaycee finds herself magically transported into the Hero’s Sword video game world. Survival takes on a whole new meaning. No longer battling with a plastic joystick, Jaycee picks up a real sword and bow & arrow and readies herself for battle. Can she save Lady Starla’s rule in Mallory, keep herself in one piece, and maybe even learn something about surviving middle school?
I’ve been a fan of science fiction since I was in high school, but Green Light Delivery was my first attempt to write a novel-length work in this genre. Of course, any type of fiction is a challenge to do well. But I found that writing science fiction offers special hurdles I had not run into before.
Part of the over-arching challenge of science fiction is what a broad genre it is. When The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Gods Themselves are both placed under the same heading, you know you’re dealing with something bigger than any one definition can cover.
Green Light Delivery is humorous. It is also set in an alternative universe, meaning that there are no humans, and never have been. These decisions about its setting brought up even more specific issues I hadn’t considered before I began. And I find, now that I’m well into drafting the sequel, that these were not simply beginner’s stumbles. I’m facing all these hurdles again. Good thing it’s so much fun!
The differently-abled alien. When you create an alternative universe, you need to people it with somebody. Even if you decide there are nothing but robots on your planet, you still need to know what they look like and what they can do. I chose to make the Raralt Planetary Circle (a set of four planets) be the home for many different species. Nice, I thought. So very Star Wars, I thought. But once I got rolling, I realized that inventing a creature and using it in fiction are two very different things. As I wrote scenes, I found that I couldn’t remember what all the different characters were shaped like. I wanted one to shake hands—or does he have flippers? Or neither? I wanted one to sit down—but how tall is she, and does she bend down into the chair or climb up into it? I wanted one to talk—how many mouths does it have, and where on its body are they situated?
It wasn’t such a big deal to keep track of the main characters’ physical attributes, but the secondary folks drove me crazy. The only answer was to keep a list.
What was his name, again? A list was also essential for naming. Most experienced authors have mixed up their characters’ names at some point. They call Amy by her best friend Sue’s name for three pages in the middle of Chapter Six, and their beta reader spots it. No biggie. With an alternative universe, I wanted the names to sound other-worldly. I love making up names by gluing phonemes together. I can do that all day. But five paragraphs later, I can’t remember the new guy’s name. I mean, not a clue. And forget about asking beta readers to keep track of this stuff. These people have jobs.
Moniker confusion was a problem not only for characters, but also for places, brands, holidays, and any other element of society that might be labeled with a proper noun. I made a very big, complex list. And now that I’m writing the sequel, I keep having to refer to the Green Light Delivery list so the details are consistent.
Just how humanoid? If there are no humans, how can the reader relate to the characters?
Of course, the characters must be driven by human desires and needs, or you won’t have a story. Even if the species are extremely different from humans in both their physiognomy and psychology, they must know happiness, sadness, fear, jealously, wrath, love, lust…and I would add humor, too. It doesn’t matter if the specifics are unfamiliar to the reader, as long as the motivation makes sense.
A closely related issue is that of human-language (in my case, English) and human-concept terms for various measurements. Do you have days and weeks, or make up some other delineation of time? Do you have hours and minutes? Miles and feet? Pounds and tons? In Green Light Delivery I found myself avoiding mention of specific measurements whenever possible rather than embellish the invented culture to that degree. Asimov and Roddenberry might not approve, but I needed to complete the manuscript.
Drawing on an eclectic background that includes degrees in classical languages and musicology, Anne E. Johnson has published in a wide variety of topics and genres. She’s written feature articles about music in serials such as The New York Times and Stagebill Magazine, and seven non-fiction books for kids with the Rosen Group. Nearly thirty of her short stories, in various genres and for both children and adults, can be found in Underneath the Juniper Tree, Spaceports & Spidersilk , Shelter of Daylight, and elsewhere. The humorous, noir-inspired Green Light Delivery (Candlemark & Gleam) is her first science fiction novel. She is also a children’s author. Ebenezer’s Locker, a tween paranormal mystery novel, was recently published by MuseItUp. Her tween medieval mystery, Trouble at the Scriptorium will be released by Royal Fireworks Press in August. Anne lives in Brooklyn with her husband, playwright Ken Munch. Her website is http://AnneEJohnson.com.
We all live in a box. You may not be aware of yours, but you should trust me, when I tell you: it exists. It’s hard to see it when you’re inside of it, too. It’s only by stepping outside of it where, in essence, the control and comfort it automatically provides are gone that one becomes aware of its existence. It’s vital to be aware of this when creating characters and building worlds, because it can be such a valuable tool in that process. So much of our own cultural identity, understandings of race, class, gender and sexuality result from that box. It’s the lens through which we view ourselves, our world, and everyone around us. We’re all biased, even though we often hate to admit it. It’s not fun to think about, but it’s very much the truth.
A person who grows up poor and black in a ghetto and only meets white people as authority figures (cops, teachers, government officials, etc.) who treat them as lower class and tell them how to act, who control their income or access to various opportunities and goods and services, will inevitably regard white people differently than a black person who grew up in a middle class neighborhood where people of all mixed races lived, intermarried, etc. To the poor, ghetto kid, white people may be either hate or envied or both. For the middle class kid, they more likely are neighbors, playmates, friends, at least until one comes along who treats them badly for racial reasons or they step outside their box and encounter attitudes about separation of race. Because those attitudes may not be as apparent in the middle class box. I am generalizing, so let’s not debate specifics. I am aware the real world gets far more chaotic in such divisions but these are just examples, after all.
Growing up in Midwest, I had only a few friends of color (i.e. non-white skin: black, yellow, etc.). I used this term for anyone non-white to keep it simple, so pardon any offense inherent in the term. My grandparents and great uncles and aunts had often grown up in generations where segregation existed. I was born in 1969, after all. The Civil Rights movement was fresh on everyone’s mind. Places still existed with old signs about separate sections in restaurants, separate sections on public transportation, etc. Black and white churches were still quite the normal, with only a few mixed congregations. We happened to attend one, actually. Racial jokes weren’t all that out of fashion in public yet. You didn’t tell them in front of anyone non-white usually, of course. Unless they were the one telling the joke, which happened. But the older generation, in particular, had a stockpile of the jokes. As a kid, you don’t really get what’s wrong with them, because jokes aren’t something you tend to think about with much depth. It’s only later in life, when you’ve unpacked the issues surrounding race, that the obvious issues with such humor become readily apparent and you start to wonder if grandpa’s racist or Uncle Joe has issues. I never saw any mistreatment of people of other races by anyone in my family. They were invited to events and gatherings whenever appropriate like anyone else. No one made them use separate facilities or eat at different tables. No one treated them like servants or separated them in other ways. But they did have these jokes, and growing up in that environment, one’s attitudes about class, race, gender, etc. are affected, right or wrong. I never looked at anyone by race, class or gender as less than myself. Never have and never will. But what it did do is create a sense of numbness about the pain such jokes could cause. It created a sense of ignorance about how passionately some people felt about this issues and divisions and attitudes and how strong they had to fight daily against them in other places.
When I went to college, I met people who had grown up solely in urban areas. They interacted daily from birth with people of all races. Nothing stood out to them about anyone different. And it was so normal, they hardly noticed. They didn’t like the same kinds of jokes. It wasn’t just frowned upon, it was wrong and insulting and just not allowed. They didn’t understand why anyone would tell them, and to them, it’s just a sign of deep pure hatred. How could anyone see these normal people around them as anything but equal? Who cared about skin color? It was like hairstyle and clothing–a factor of diverse humanness, not an indication of worth, value, status, etc.
Then as a volunteer I went to Ghana, and I witnessed another attitude that’s also stayed with me forever since. There are African-Americans who come to Africa with a certain attitude. You may have heard it expressed on TV: “I’m going to the motherland. I’m retracing my roots. I’m going home.” It never really occurred to me that anyone in Africa, outside of South Africa (which for part of my life had major racial discrimination in Apartheid), would take issue with this. Certainly no one black. But then I saw my Ghanaian friends get irritated with a couple African-American tourists with this attitude. “You’re not African,” they mumbled. “My people bought and sold your people a long time ago.” Suffice it to say, I was pretty shocked. These were Ghanaians who had travelled widely. Some had Ph.Ds. They lived in European-style houses in nicer areas and neighborhoods. They were not tribal villagers or particularly poor by their cultural standards.
Ironically, I later saw a similar attitude amongst some poor. And it was not every Ghanaian, but it was not uncommon either. I later talked with them about this and they said: “You’re more African than those people. You’ve taken the time to study our clothing, our history, our language, our culture. You’ve eaten our food, been to our homes, learned our customs. Those people have no identification with our ways–our culture, our traditions, our history–what makes us Ghanaian. It’s offensive for them to suggest otherwise.” Now I asked Nigerian-born author Nnedi Okorafor about this and she took great offense. She feels it’s a very pedantic and insulting attitude. So not every African or African culture may reflect this. But I bring it up because in these stories, we have several different ways people look at their world and make determinations about who belongs and who doesn’t based on race, birth, gender, etc. The Ghanaian attitude frequently extended to things like foreign adoption. White or black, they didn’t want African babies adopted by foreigners because “they would not grow up African. They won’t know who they are.” It shocked me that if a child had a shot at a much better life, they’d object to that, but they were fairly adamant that “African children belong with African parents.”
In regards to sexuality, if you grew up in the church and never met anyone who had a civil marriage or dated the same-sex, your attitude upon encountering the issue of gay marriage or gay couples will be a lot different from someone who grew up with gay classmates and had people who were civilly married. Let me be clear, I am not equating gay relationships and civil marriage as exclusively related. I am pointing out that many times, if people see marriage as strictly a sacred church right between a man and a woman, it really pushes them outside their understandings to discover some get married on the courthouse steps and that some who want to marry are same-sex. They have so long equated marriage as a sacred act that the possibility of it being non-religious is hard to fathom and may have never occurred to them.
Due to length, I won’t get into gender here, but I hope you can see how attitudes and experiences with gender roles can also be similarly impacted by environment, history and experience.
I don’t bring any of this up to debate its validity. And I would ask you to refrain from doing so in comments, because I don’t intend to engage in such dialogue. Instead, what I want to unpack is its value for us in building realistic worlds and characters. How your characters and their neighbors regard each other and others with whom they come into contact as belonging or not belonging to their group can say a great deal about the characters themselves and their culture. In cosmopolitan areas, you can create people with a variety of such attitudes, affected by their personal background and history. For example, India has the complicated class system which involves various levels, including ‘untouchables.’ And there is no sense of moving from one class to another. You can be a wealthy ‘untouchable’ and still be ‘untouchable’ just the same. Other societies allow much more fluidity based on wealth, education, jobs, etc. One can move into various levels of the socioeconomic spectrum based on where one stands in any one of more of those factors. Quality of life can be determined merely by the respectability of job class or ability to send children and yourselves to higher class schools, eat in high-class restaurants, own transportation, etc.
If you grew up knowing people of diverse race, gender, etc., you are far more likely to be accepting of that in adulthood than someone who was never exposed. Yes, there are people who are sometimes naturally accepting for various reasons. But that doesn’t make them colorblind. Those so used to diversity often don’t even notice consciously the differences anymore. Those less familiar with it will find it tends to be more often recognized and mentally noted when they encounter it. Thus, they may be more likely to make accommodations in obvious ways with obvious effort, whereas those who are colorblind just go about life as if no divisions exist and never have to make an effort to accommodate.
I hope you can see what I’m getting at here. These are all attitudes, conscious or unconscious, subtle or obvious, which can be employed to define your characters and their relationships with other characters and the world around them. Subtly interwoven into your world building, they can create rich tapestries with which readers will immediately connect and which make the world much more vivid and realistic in reading your words. They can be woven into the dynamics of world and character relationships in many ways. They can create subtleties to be exploited in building character and conflict in your storytelling which can be quite powerful and useful.
On the other hand, sometimes, they can be employed to create a world so foreign its hard to grasp. In some ways, Joe Haldeman did this by making heterosexuality forbidden in Forever War, for example. There have been alien races which had solely same-sex mating customs, etc. Mike Resnick, in his books Paradise, Purgatory and Inferno, and his Kiranyaga stories, posits futures involving aliens and even African colonists and looks at how relationships exist between them and their cultures, classes and other beings. It’s so powerful and yet subtle, and actually resulted in him oddly predicting real historical events in Africa before they happened.
In my own Davi Rhii novels, I have employed a lot of alien races and class divisions. Everything from religion to skin color to education plays a part, some more subtly than others, in societal attitudes and roles. The biggest divisions are ideological and species (i.e. aliens vs. human) but others are touched upon as well. For me, it creates a more interesting tapestry for building my world and characters and their relationships. It also affects the story itself, adding many dynamics which sometimes were unintentional or which I had to go back an exploit in later drafts for best affect.
How do you think about and employ these factors in your world building? How have you seen them handled both well and badly in books you’ve read? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on ways to explore these aspects of world and character creation. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
Recently I came across a situation that reminded me how important transitions and seeding story details are to good fiction. These are things which most pros do without even thinking about it, but up and coming writers, learning craft, probably have to be more deliberate about. I will not specify where I encountered this but will give examples and suggestions how to handle this better. By transitions, in this case, I am talking not about segways between scenes, but rather, transitions in introducing new world elements so that we accept them as organic. And by seeding, I mean subtly introducing these things early enough so that when they become key to the story we have no trouble believing they belong there. (These are the best terms I can come up with to describe it, so that’s what we’re going with.)
You can put anything you want in your world but it has to fit together in a way that feels organic for the reader. Thus, you must carefully consider what you introduce, how you do it and when you do it. Foreshadowing it, planting seeds early and transitioning properly are essential.
In the case at hand, the story is a mixed genre story with both epic fantasy and science fiction elements. For the first six chapters, though, it’s all epic fantasy, clear and plain. Then, all of a sudden, these important characters from afar are said to have a space ship. Later, the protagonist is on the space ship and they pass a planet and he has a revelation that the planet has elves.
My reader’s reaction was a laugh and a “WHAT?!!” Which is NOT the reaction you want, believe me. It threw me out of the story and made me question the plausibility. Why are there elves and space ships? Just because the author likes them or is it organic to the world? The way it’s written, they don’t feel organic but as it turns out, the elves and the space travel are vital parts of the later story and world. They can’t be cut and they definitely are not thrown in there just to have tropes the author likes. There are good reasons. So the issue here is they are not handled appropriately. So I made some suggestions and I’ll share them with you.
Early on, the protagonist explores cities and the world. If the protagonist saw sky highways with space ships or flying cars of some kind, we’d know subtly that this is not your typical fantasy world and to expect space travel and SFnal elements. Another possibility is to have laser guns mixed with the swords. Just a subtle mention of either would have laid groundwork to make the later space ship reveal much more plausible.
BUT the author has set up a world where one group hogs all the fuel and space travel is thus not available to everyone. So the world where the story starts has no space travel. How can one reveal it as not sudden then?
One way is to have foreigners come by space ship as merchants to trade. Another might be to have disabled ships grounded with no fuel and comment on the situation when they appear.
If you, as an author, box yourself into a situation where elements necessary to your world are so limited, you still have to do the work to find a way to introduce them as possibilities so you don’t lose plausibility or chase off readers. Inventing such restrictions does make it hard for yourself but that doesn’t excuse you from doing the work to make it believable.
The same is true of the elves. If he encountered elven merchants, traders or vendors in the market on his wanderings, it would be no surprise when they turn up later on a neighboring planet. No dialogue or interaction would have to occur, it could all be descriptive passages as the protagonist observes the world.
In this case, however, there are no elves on that planet and he would not encounter them because they are alienated. So such a set up would also be inorganic to the world. So how to handle it?
One way is to have references to elves earlier. There could be problems that people comment on: “If the elves weren’t banished, this would totally seem like their handiwork” Or “Those nasty elves, always making trouble” or “This looks like the kind of trouble we’d expect from elves, not our own people.”
Another is to have the elves just appear as the protagonist encounters them and have him ask all the questions we as readers would ask. Our discovering them along with him would make it far more plausible.
In this case, since he’s traveling with others, they could tell him “we’re doing to see the elves” and have a dialogue about those questions before hand.
Whichever way is chosen, it would lay groundwork so it’s not like elves just appear out of nowhere and make us shake our heads as to why they are there. World building is hard. It takes attention to detail even beyond what you need for the story. You may not need to describe certain aspects but you need to know them because they affect other things. Food chain affects diet, even if you never have to describe it. Geography affects diet and availability of resources, etc. And those elements you do include must but introduced well so that they seem natural and not unexpected. In both the above cases, I was thrown out of story with “why are there suddenly space ships/elves” and “why didn’t we see them earlier.” In this case, the writer has a strong vision, but she’s still learning this aspect of craft, so my job as editor is to point that out and suggest ways to resolved the issues. As I explained, the author had good reasons for this, but we are not going to stick around and find out what they are if we are not sold on them. Because if we think the author doesn’t have a plan, we lose confidence and our interest wanes. Unless we have a compelling reason to read on (it’s a friend or family member), you may well lose us as readers.
So transitions and seeding are vital skills to learn and use as writers. What are some similar issues you’ve observed in reading/workshopping stories? How did you resolve them? Please share in comments so we can all learn.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novelThe Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
Research, hate it or love it, is something every speculative fiction writer must deal with at one time or another. Most deal with it often. Research is an easy thing to neglect for many reasons. Above all, it’s usually less fun than writing and creating and it’s time consuming. Still, research is necessary. Here are ten mistakes writers make with research. Consider the costs of making them yourself.
1) Skipping the research. I don’t need no stinking research. Mistake number one. You may be able to fudge some things, especially in science fiction stories set in worlds far distant from our own, for example, but in your historical fantasy, your contemporary urban fantasy or your medieval epic fantasy, you’d better know the facts. If you don’t, readers will and they’ll be unhappy you didn’t care enough to make sure you did. In any world building or story crafting where facts and details readers could know or research are required, research it yourself. Know what you’re talking about. That’s usually impossible without research.
2) Relying on novels by other genre writers. How do you know Terry Goodkind or Patrick Rothfuss got it right? Where did they get their facts? People make up inaccurate facts all the time and write them into their novels. (I am not saying Goodkind and Rothfuss did. I have no such examples. Just using them as examples.) There’s nothing worse for fantasy fans than reading another stereotypical novel set in a stereotypical fantasy world that gets it wrong. Don’t trust anyone but yourself to do the research and do it well, unless you can afford to pay a research assistant, in which case, be sure and hire a trustworthy one.
3) Using only one source. How do you verify facts? Check them against multiple sources. Don’t assume the source you are using has it all right. Check their facts against other sources. The internet is a great resource as are libraries. You can find multiple resources on almost any topic you’d want to research. So make use of that and be sure you’ve got it right.
4) Researching only when and what they have to. To a degree, you only need research for a science in your science fiction, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean you should stop there. How do you know your world makes sense geographically? How do you know the dietary patterns and plants you place in various locations are correct for the climate or environment? Who cares? Informed readers, that’s who, and all it takes is one to blow the whistle and cause other readers to doubt you. Once they doubt you, they have trouble trusting the stories you tell and if they can’t suspend disbelief, your science fiction and fantasy can’t succeed very well. So research details whenever you can. Even if you’re not sure they’re important. This doesn’t mean you need to research every word, of course, but play detective and ask yourself what you can research to make your story better and more skeptic-proof and true to life and then get busy.
5) Using questionable sources. Just as one source may or may not be reliable, the validity of any source must be verified. A good sign is when you use sources commonly used by many other people. You can also check data about the author and publisher. And you can find reviews and evaluations as well. There are many ways to check the sources, even comparing them to other respected sources to see how they compare. If you find one source that says “it happened like this,” and no other source agrees, perhaps that little factoid might not be the best one to put in your story.
6) Thinking every iota of research must be in the novel. Info dump and listen for the thump as readers drop your book on the floor. They may never pick it back up again, either, so don’t make this mistake. In world building, you have to know everything but your readers don’t. Neither do your characters. Include what’s necessary to tell the story and make the world come alive and leave the rest for a sequel or your files. The point of researching wasn’t to add fluff to your novel but knowledge to your head. The more you know, the smarter you write. And smart writers don’t info dump.
7) Making stuff up without checking. Making something up is part of fiction writing, yes, I get that. But if you make something up which actually exists and the facts are wrong, you’ll look foolish. And nothing turns off a reader more. Make sure that things you invent don’t exist before you put them in your story and make up facts or science to explain them.
8 ) Including research that’s hard to understand. Just because you understand it, doesn’t mean your reader will. If you think the story needs it, make sure the research is explained well when you write it in. Quoting scientific jargon from your sources is one way to blow it. Put it in simple, every day language so readers of all backgrounds will get it. Include only what’s necessary and forget the rest. Tom Clancy used to spend page after page describing weapons in intimate detail. If his books hadn’t been so compelling, readers would have left. Instead, they just jumped ahead. His books sold, so he kept doing it, but unless you’re a bestseller, don’t count on getting away with it. Explain it simply, fast and well, then move on. It’s the same as anything else in your prose, communicating with the reader is the goal. If you don’t do it well, your work won’t succeed. So first, make sure you understand it well before you write it, then write it as if you’re explaining it to a child.
9) Underestimating readers’ expectations. A lot depends on the genre and subgenre, of course. Space opera fans and hard SF fans have different expectations. But don’t make the mistake of assuming since you don’t know, readers won’t either. I struggle with this myself. Research is one of my least favorite past times, but when someone comes along who knows better, the illusion is blown and it can turn off fans and readers in droves once word spreads. Take the time to be informed so you can inform your readers. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups, they say. Don’t assume your readers aren’t smarter or more informed than you are. Most often they are.
10) Rushing through research. As the other 9 points prove, research takes time. Just like writing prose does. While you probably shouldn’t include time spent researching toward your writing word count goals, you should set aside quality time for research. How much you need depends on what you’re researching, how much you already know about it, the subgenre, genre, and many other factors. But research, when done, should be done right, like anything else. It’s an element of craft and quality writing as with anything else done to complete your novel. Treat it accordingly and don’t rush it. Research is just as much a part of the writing job as creating prose and thinking up ideas are.
Well, there’s ten common mistakes speculative fiction writers make in regards to research. I’m guilty. What about you? And do you have other suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novelThe Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.