Friday, July 16, 2010

Building Realistic Worlds - Part I

I thought it might be fun to begin discussing some of the many details, large and small, that go into creating fictional worlds. Authors of science fiction and fantasy continually strive to build multilayered depth into their worlds so that the setting, itself, becomes a character of the tale. Some story worlds are so profound, so memorable, that they become household names - even amongst people who have never read the book. Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Herbert’s Dune are two such worlds. Non-readers have heard less of these places, but they have heard of them.

So what makes a story world so memorable? That’s what we’re here to explore. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll delve deeper into the art of world building. You may find a nugget of truth in my ramblings, which I hope you can use as inspiration on your current project. Go forth and build worlds that are truly astonishing.

Reality vs. Imaginary

The setting in SF/F, whether a novel or short story, creates a sense of wonder in the reader. It is our objective, perhaps even our obligation, to transport the reader to a place other than the reality they know. Every rock and tree, every person and robot and dragon, every village and space ship - it’s all under our control. Creating an entire world from nothing to act as the backdrop of our stories is a daunting and endless task. It can be quite overwhelming. You start with blank canvas and build mountain and river, forest and town, one at a time until your world takes shape. When choosing a setting, you create realism by combining what truly exists and what is only imagined. It’s that slow build of layer upon layer, mixing real and imaginary, which breathes life into your worlds.

The Real

Real aspects ground the reader in something with which they are already familiar. An oasis in the middle of a desert usually has some forms of plant life around it. Trees tend to grow upright, reaching toward the sun. Ocean coastlines often have sandy beaches or rocky cliff faces where land and water meet. Rivers swell and flood with too much rain. These aspects (and a million others) create a sense of reality that the reader can grasp onto because they know these things subconsciously if not overtly. It makes logical sense to the reader.

If your characters travel over terrain, as often is the case with quest driven fantasies, ask yourself if the location mimics a real place. Allow yourself time to research similar places on Earth and add those aspects that are important into your fiction. Granted, we can’t write every single detail. The poor reader would quickly become board. Still, we seek to bring the reader along on a fantastic journey. Be sure to give them handrails to hold onto during the ride.

Fictional worlds that are truly memorable and stand up to the test of time share this grounded approach. However, just because they are realistic settings doesn’t make them any less fantastic. Here are a few examples.

  • In Dune, the entire planet of Arrakis is a desert wasteland where no rain ever falls. One of the unique features is the sky. With no rain, no open source of moisture, the sky is nearly black - day or night. There are no clouds, no fog, no light-blue heavens. It’s a memorable detail.
  • Lord of the Rings is known for the painstaking detail Tolkien put into the story. The valley that makes up Mordor, where Sauron the Deceiver builds his war machine, is dominated by an active volcano called Mt. Doom. The smog of toxic gas spewed by Mt. Doom settles to the valley floor with little wind to dissipate it.
  • Split Infinity takes Earth’s moon as it’s setting, at least in part. Anthony remembers those little realistic details in memorable ways. Not the least of which is that people on the moon still need to breath. They live under a huge dome - not profound until you consider it’s an entire city and the sheer immensity of the dome itself. None-the-less a realistic detail to make the story believable. Most of the inhabitants walk around completely nude - a byproduct of slaves not owning any possessions and the higher temperature under the dome (no atmosphere to filter the sun).
  • In Black Sun Rising, the world Friedman created is on the very edge of the Milky Way galaxy. It sits on the tip of a spiral arm as far from the galactic center as it possibly can be. Along with the sun and stars, there’s an additional celestial body in the sky. From so far away, the galactic core - tens of thousands of stars in a tight ball - hovers as an additional source of light. And some rare nights, the world is positioned just right and the sky is black and pointed into deep space - no stars, moons, or core - what the author calls “True Night.”
The Imagined

The meat and potatoes of SF/F is imagination, or so it’s thought by beginning writers. But even the fantastic must root itself in reality. We want to bring the reader along with us, but if the make believe is unbelievable, then the reader s lost. Everything in your world has its own reason for being. It has an origin, a life cycle, a geographic location, a logic that only you can define. Even if the trees on Jupiter are blue leaved and have purple poke-a-dots, they are still trees and must still have some form of nourishment to grow. What makes those trees grow?

With each imaginary aspect of your world, you can build reality by asking only one question, over and over again. “Why?” Remember playing that game as a child? I asked “why” so often that my mother started telling me the reason the sky was blue and grass didn’t grow on trees was “to make children ask questions.”

Here’s a simple exercise: Take part of your imaginary world, just one part. Let’s think about that purple tree. Ask yourself “why” five times, letting each answer lead to the next question.
  1. Why is the tree purple? Because it’s not really a tree. It’s a giant amoeba that only shapes itself like a tree.
  2. Why does it shape itself like a tree? To avoid predators and blend in with the forest.
  3. Why would predators be after it? Because the giant amoebas of Jupiter are the only source of some special mineral they need to survive. (Note: define mineral later)
  4. Why are the amoebas the only mineral source? Because the mineral is in the air and the amoebas are the only ones who can absorb and concentrate it into usable form.
  5. Why is a mineral in the air instead of in the ground? Perhaps a big meteor exploded millions of years ago in the atmosphere and Jupiter’s constant winds prevent the partials from settling onto its surface.
Wow, that’s allot of layers for some silly purple tree in the background. You could spend hours and hours on this exercise alone, examining each imaginary aspect of your story. Although that’s pretty time consuming, you should at least consider doing this for the important ones. Notice, too, I did not define “mineral.” Sometimes it’s enough to have a rough sketch of the world rather than all the specifics. If the mineral turns out to be important in the story, a definition of it should be forthcoming at a later date.
Building believable worlds is a fun and challenging activity. Next week, well take a look at how the authors above treated the imaginary aspects of their stories and what makes each one unique and memorable.
Until then, write on!
Q4U: What is your favorite part of creating your own story world? How do you bring reality into your story?


  1. One thing I think is important to remember is that maybe 90% of what is planned in the world, the underpinnings or the 'whys' never actually grace the pages of a novel, especially the first one set in that created world. But logic and planning provide a foundation that the reader can sense and helps them to suspend their disbelief as they read.

  2. Good examples of revealing story elements (the hows and whys) over time within the context of the novel(s).


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