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Whether it be the bio-luminous jungles and mega-fauna of Pandora, the Blue Danube waltz of a Pan Am space shuttle approaching a tumbling, wheel-like space station, or the vast, ash-strewn lava plains of Mordor littered with the bodies of elves and men at the feet of Sauron, the visionaries of speculative fiction have relied on worlds that hold their readers and viewers in thrall long after the story is told.

Works of speculative fiction need worlds to operate in.  But prior to the task of creating our worlds, I believe that it is helpful to chart out a course before diving headlong into such a Herculean (or, rather, Atlantean) feat.  Quite likely, you are already a creator of speculative fiction and have worlds and ideas bursting forth from that fruitful noggin of yours.  But I would like to invite you to pause a moment and enter into the world-building process like a fine sculptor of intricate details.  It is my hope that in doing so, your worlds will be richer, your stories will be easier to tell, and your audience will be more inclined to listen.  

In the Beginning…

Nearly every work of fiction asks the question, "What if…?"  But in the realm of speculative fiction, which includes science fiction, fantasy fiction, and others, those two words are fundamental:  "What if people landed on the Moon?  What if alien beings with advanced technology landed on Earth?  What if a magical ring was the key to eradicating overwhelming evil?  What if Nazi Germany won the Second World War?"  The classic pioneers of speculative fiction must have incredibly dynamic imaginations, but the process of asking "What if…" is as old as storytelling itself.  "What if I went on a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise?" asks Dante as he engages Italian corruption.  "What if a man encountered gods, sorceresses, and incredible creatures in an effort to return home after war?" asks Homer as he contemplates what it means to be a man of the ancient world.

In the Modern Age, the realm of speculative fiction is now in dialog with the products of modernity – primarily the advent of the scientific method, but also with philosophies of humanism, existentialism and liberalism.  In the last two centuries, industrial revolutions have sprung up, only to have to make room for the unimaginable technology of today.  Yet the question of who we are as human beings, though seen today through different lenses, remains the same since before Dante and Homer.  It is my belief that the task of all artists may begin with "What if…" but it must continue with "…and who are we in the midst of that?"  

You may already have some really awesome ideas, colorful characters, and incredible worlds in mind for your story.  You may even have some witty dialog dying to get out (forgive my pun if you write about vampires).  Jot down your ideas or dialog in your writing notebook and put those aside to simmer for a while.  Before you spend too much precious time writing your bestseller, let us (you, your readers, and me) take a little time to plan our trip into these uncharted territories.  Otherwise, we might all find ourselves as hopelessly lost as Hansel and Gretel when our literary breadcrumbs have run out.  

Genres of Speculative Fiction

The reason for determining what kind of fiction you want to write is largely for the benefit of your audience.  You don't need to explain every detail, but as you create your world your readers will want some sense of how your universe works.  This goes for hard science fiction as well as the wildest of magical fantasies.  If you, the writer, can give your readers an idea of which rules are fixed and which ones are negotiable, they will be able to enjoy your storytelling abilities rather than waste time in confusion.  As a writer, you want all of your reader's attention on the story instead of distracted by your world's quirks.

To begin, let's look at some of the kinds of speculative fiction.  What you decide to write will make a big difference in how you create your world.  Don't worry, if you decide during your writing process to change the type of story you write, it is easy to modify.  But being aware of the different kinds of stories you write can make the transition from one to the other much smoother.

When people from different cultures look up at the constellation sometimes called Ursa Major, some see a plow while others see a large ladle, a horse-drawn cart, a bear, a lobster, sages, or countless other unrecorded images.  The genres of speculative fiction that I am about to propose may be a little different from what you might find at a bookstore or what writers themselves might propose.  What I would like to suggest is that, for the purpose of creating worlds, we look at this category of what is often called "speculative fiction" in three broad camps: science-fiction, fantasy-fiction, and alternate history.

The first kind of universe is the "science-fiction" universe.  In the context of creating a cosmos, I define this kind of genre as one in which the laws of nature must either be maintained or at least somewhat plausibly explained.  In other words, your universe's natural laws, like gravity and electromagnetism, must be the same as the gravity and electromagnetism that you would find explained in those drab school science books of yours.  Of course, if that was the end of the definition, it wouldn't be science fiction.  So the escape clause is that, for a science fiction story, any aberration from these laws – traveling faster than the speed of light, for example – must either be the result of technology or some as-yet-unknown-but-logically-explained phenomenon.  Everything must be subject to some sense of scientific methodology.

Again, you don't have to know every circuit and rivet.  It can be as simple as saying, "I push this button, and my spaceship goes faster-than-light."  But that will tell your readers that technology is the means by which things in your universe work.  Likewise, you can say, "I don't know why these mountains float, but that scientist thinks it has something to do with a type of mineral they are made out of, and if we can figure out how to mine that mineral, we'll be rich, I tell you!"

This might make more sense when I contrast "science fiction" with "fantasy fiction."  Whereas technology or a natural scientific phenomenon are the means by which the science-fiction universe work, in the fantasy universe, magic and miracles are the means.  My definition for a "fantasy" universe in the context of world-building is that one or more laws of nature are broken.  Instead of "plastic & rivets", you have "trees & elves".  Like I continue to stress, this is for the benefit of your reader.  By establishing early in your story that your world is one in which magic or some paranormal phenomenon is at work, your reader won't suddenly be scratching her head when unicorns suddenly burst into the story and make the main character's house fly.  

"But what about those fuzzy areas in between?" you might ask.  "Is Star Wars a science-fiction story, or is it a fantasy story?  It has space ships and droids on the one hand, but on the other, there is this somewhat magical 'Force' thingy that seems to make rocks and Muppets float if a special person simply concentrates hard enough."  

According to the categories that I just laid out, I would classify it as a "fantasy universe" because at least one universal law differs significantly from the universe most of us often calls Reality.  The "Force" is not caused by technology, and despite some flirtation with a phenomenon in Phantom Menace, this power is not the result of a naturally objective field.  While you may incline to agree or disagree with my assessment here, remember that the reason for examining this is for the audience's benefit.  At a point in A New Hope it is revealed that despite this highly technological universe appearing to be one that obeys natural laws, there is one exception: The Force.  In a few simple words, the audience is made aware that a quasi-religious but "real" power exists in that universe…maybe. It can be argued that it may all really be illusion and luck until the Empire sequel.  But because George Lucas knew that this magical field was a part of his universe from the beginning, and he effectively communicates that, the audience can get down to the business of the drama and action, which are ultimately the real elements of the story.

I've identified a third genre of speculative fiction with respect to world-building as alternate history, for lack of something better to call it.  What makes this different from the other two genres is that the main focus is upon the chain of events that created or manipulated that universe rather than the means by which events in that universe are created.  This genre is every bit as speculative.  When the writer asks something like, "What if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War?" she is speculating.  But what makes the world is an alteration of events; not "plastic & rivets" or "trees & elves" but "choices & gas masks" (I would say somewhat tongue-in-cheek).  This can be one of the easier universes to create because much of the world, usually Earth, is already made.  By letting your audience know, "In the year 2012, when the Mayan calendar…blah blah…" you've already painted much of the universe using a handful of words.  Now, the writer does not need to spend extra time and energy explaining the means by which the universe exists and is explored.  It is not dependent up a certain technology, phenomenon, or artifact.  Don't fall into the trap of thinking that because an event happens in the future, it is automatically science fiction. Likewise, because an event happened in the past, it is not necessarily fantasy.  For the purpose of creating worlds, if the primary thing that changes is time or place, you probably have an "alternate history" type of universe.

Let me turn to some examples, acknowledging that there are many authors who blur or cross over these lines.  The point is to get you thinking about your world, how to make being a brilliant author easier on you, and how you are going to communicate that efficiently and effectively to your audience in a way that will get them clamoring for more.

Some themes that I would consider prime real estate for a science-fiction universe might be space travel & colonization (Arthur C. Clarke or Asimov, most Star Trek, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Moon (2009 film)), alien life (War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 film), The Andromeda Strain, Alien movies), time travel (The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, Back to the Future movies), genetic manipulation/mutation (Species, Splice, Gattaca, Dark Angel), cyberpunk and steampunk (Blade Runner, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and robots & nanotechnology (Bicentennial Man or I, Robot  by Asimov, Prey by Michael Crichton).  I would argue that technology or a science-based world is the central means by which these worlds are created, maintained, and explored.

In addition to the use of "magical" means in a fantasy universe, another trend that I can also see in examples of a fantasy-fiction is the evolution of how and why myths are told.  Some of the earliest examples of human beings telling stories would begin with classical mythology.  For example, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey both utilize the existence of gods and sorcery to help explain why the unexplained happens.  This method evolved into (or are related to) fairytales, like those collected by the Brothers Grimm, or into legends and tall tales, like those of Paul Bunyan.  Today, we still delight in myths like Bruce Almighty or in fairytales like Labyrinth.  

As humankind entered the Enlightenment and shifted philosophies, gods and fairies gave way to monsters, vampires, ghosts, and werewolves such as in Dracula and Frankenstein.  Such themes continue in works like Steven King's Christine or good old B-movies like Night of the Living Dead.  As a note, I consider the Horror genre either a subset of a fantasy universe when the characters exhibit magical powers, or the alternate history universe when the characters are mass murdering sociopaths.  

I would argue that the next phase of the fantasy manifested in comic books as superheroes.  Here, the gods, made in Nietzsche's image, are the likes of Superman, who can fly at will and use his eyes to both detect x-rays and emit "heat rays".  (However, I would draw a tentative line at the character Batman and most of his non-magical nemeses who solely utilize technology).  

In the post-modern age today, our gods, demons, and magicians are now aliens and people who possess ESP, psionics, or other paranormal powers (X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  The realms of dreams (Nightmare on Elm Street), and alternate dimensions (Field of Dreams) have replaced the heavens, and alternate realities have replaced the fairy-filled forests (Toy Story movies…nearly anything from Pixar, really).  

While there are many alternate histories that can involve some science-fiction or fantasy elements, the main drive for these kinds of stories is the chain of events in this world.  How they happened is largely inconsequential; otherwise it is not truly an alternate history then.  One of the earliest, in my opinion, is Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  Some classic examples that I would consider in this category would include fundamental changes in historical fact (The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick with that classical question regarding the "winner" of WWII; or Harry Turtledove's many books).

Another form of the alternate history universe is the "alternate reality" such as, the portion of the film It's a Wonderful Life in which the main character, George, finds himself actually interacting in and with the world in which he does not exist.  An even better example of the alternate reality is the 1993 film Groundhog Day.  All of the world's rules seem to work, and there is no explanation, magical or otherwise, why Bill Murray's character relives the day.  It could be effectively argued that the alternate reality should really be in the fantasy category.  But in the context of the making of worlds, all that the audience needs to know is that it is the same reality…just shifted slightly. 

Some of the most popular and fun alternate histories involve blissful utopias and chilling dystopias (Gulliver's Travels, 1984 by Orwell or Huxley's Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood). There abound the post-apocalyptic tales of all kinds, including nuclear (Roadwarrior), pandemic (Children of Men, Outbreak), environmental (Waterworld, The Day After Tomorrow) or just involving some unnamed social decay (The Road by Cormac McCarthy & its film adaptation staring Viggo Mortensen).  Some focus on specific disasters, like Jaws, Deep Impact, and Airport, with varying degrees of that oft-used line: "Based on a true story! (Titanic)."  Many of these universes can be dramatically and memorably outlined in a single sentence: "Big Brother is Watching You!", "Soylent Green is people!", "We're going to need a bigger boat!", and even "Iceberg, dead ahead, captain!!!"

I hope that I have begun to invite you, the speculative fiction writer, to become more aware of the types of fiction available to you.  But furthermore, I hope you are also more excited about your options.  And I certainly hope that I have piqued your interest about the careful crafting of
your world and how to involve the reader.  In part 2 of my essay on world creation, I hope to explain what I mean by the acronym E.P.I.C. and how its elements will also help you to determine the kind of worlds, both literary and graphic, that you can make.

For Discussion

In the meantime, just for fun, consider the following: 
  • TRON
  • Doctor Who
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Quantum Leap (television series)
  • 3rd Rock from the Sun
  • Pokémon
  • Charlie/Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  • 2012 (the movie)

How would you categorize these in the light of the three types of universe that I described above?  What would putting these works into that category mean when it comes to creating the worlds that go around these stories?  What do you think your readers might expect if you switched to a different category?
Part 1 of my tutorial/essay on creating worlds for speculative fiction for the #BuildMeAUniverse group. The opinions herein are solely my own and not necessarily indicative of the group. Feel free to use or distribute this as you see fit, but be kind and respectful and give credit where it is due.
Meshug-a-Land Featured By Owner Jul 13, 2016
This was in-depth, well written, useful, and fun to read :D Thanks for posting this!
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