Mapping and World Creation

Think about your favourite science fiction or fantasy story–and the amazing “world” that the author has created for it. How do writers come up with these fantastical ideas? We’ll be exploring this topic together over the next few posts.

Speculative fiction includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero, dystopian, utopian, and other similar genres. These genres can be mixed together and form unique new sub-genres with surprising new worlds and ideas: vampires in space, techno-mages, superheroes in parallel worlds and whatever else your imagination can conjure.

Rules and systems: Whatever fantastical “world” you come up with, remember that it has to “make sense” and be “believable” to your readers. Worlds have “rules” and “systems” — physical, metaphysical, magical, societal, governmental and more — and you need to establish those rules and develop your plot and characters from them.

Borrowing ideas: Can you borrow ideas from worlds others have already created? Certainly, you can get “inspiration” for plot and world ideas … and you can follow classic story development. While you can get ideas from modern books and movies, don’t forget classic texts (Shakespeare, The Bible, The Iliad/The Odyssey) and characters from classic literature. Then consider, for example, combining modern scientific and technological ideas with classic characters (a fantasy Sherlock Holmes? A galaxy jumping Ulysses?). Ancient stories have provided us with plot outlines that have been used in even the most famous modern sci-fi and fantasy genres. The “hero’s journey” is a great place to start!

Science Fiction: If a story is set in a universe that follows the same general rules as ours, it’s science fiction. In general, science fiction is about “what could be but isn’t.” Like our world, it is basically involved with science and technology, and magic is rarely invoked other than some “metaphysical” references/beliefs. Some “rules” of science fiction include:

  • Explain logically how space travel works.
  • Avoid using “techno babble” (jargon in any genre should be avoided!).
  • Use names that fit the world and story–and avoid names that are difficult to say and/or read.
  • While special languages can be intriguing, use them for “effect.” Using them too much is annoying and confusing for many readers.
  • As in any other story genre, “show” what things are or how they work–avoid too much “telling.”
  • In most cases, your characters should have some fairly “humanoid” characteristics (legs, arms, body, face)–especially your main characters–as this makes it easier for your readers to relate to them.
  • Make sure that the technology your characters use fits in with the world’s rules and the place and era.
  • Once you’ve created rules for your “world,” keep them in mind as you write your story. Just like in our real world, if the plot doesn’t match up to the world’s “rules,” your readers will notice–and be annoyed!

Think about the science fiction you have read and/or watched. What worked in those worlds? What didn’t work? Why didn’t it work? What other tips would you suggest to authors who want to write sci-fi? (Please share your thoughts in the comments).

Fantasy: This genre is set in a universe that doesn’t follow our world’s rules. In general, fantasy is about “what couldn’t be but is” (because you’ve invented a world with new, different rules, and your story’s plot and characters fit with this new world’s systems). Fantasy almost always involves some level of magic, rather than relying on scientific rules.

Some fantasy rules to consider are:

  • Magic has to have limits. Too much reliance on magic makes it unbelievable to your readers. Just like any other genre, if you rely on “magic” (or any other unbelievable or way-too-handy) solutions to your story’s problems, your readers are likely to roll their eyes!
  • You don’t have to have every fantasy creature or characteristic you’ve run into when you’ve read or watched other authors’ fantasy works. Don’t clutter! Figure out what best fits your world–and the creatures that inhabit it. Be original.
  • As in sci-fi, avoid difficult names, and avoid too much use of the world’s special language. For fantasy, created languages can be useful for magical chants and prophecies–but don’t have your characters use them all the time.
  • Again, show–don’t tell!
  • Just as the technology in a sci-fi story has to make sense in the world you’ve created for it, so magic has to fit in with the rules of magic for your world. What? Magic has rules? Absolutely! And make sure your readers understand the rules of magic in your world so that when you do solve conflict with magic, they’ll understand and accept it.

What other fantasy rules can you think of, based on your own reading and viewing of fantasy and your own experiences writing fantasy? (Again, please share your thoughts in the comments).

What else should you consider when creating worlds? Don’t forget the basics of all good storytelling:

  • Characterization: Too often the #1 problem in a boring story is a boring main character. Of course, you want to create a character that has an interesting, complex personality that develops through the story. Besides that (and along with it) there are lots of ways to make a character interesting: murder and mayhem, marvel or mystery, any kind of conflict–all important aspects of speculative fiction.
  • Setting: Focus on the strangeness of the world you are creating. How will your hero/protagonist live there or travel through it? How will it affect your character and the actions in the plot?
  • Defining events: Use a defining event, such as the death of the hero’s mentor (think Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, or the death–and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) or the arrival of a superior species (think War of the Worlds), to focus on how your protagonist (and sometimes your antagonist and other characters) deals with that event.
  • Unique ideas: Use a unique idea that requires exploration by your hero/protagonist–or even use an “issue” in our own world, and explore it through the unique world you are creating. For example, suppose fuel supplies for transportation are found in one main location, and the ownership of the location is being fought over. Sound familiar? This is an ongoing issue in our own world, and with some unique twists, became a major plot element of the Dune series.

Read, Watch, Listen and Write: Read as many books as you can. Watch as many different types of movies and TV shows as you can. Especially look for ones that are high quality and/or ones that are truly unique, creative, different than the norm. Remember, the more you read and write the better writer you become.  But while you can draw on a favourite author’s style, don’t forget you develop your own ideas, voice and spark that makes your writing different (unless you are writing “fan fiction” … but that’s another topic).

The title for this post included “mapping” worlds–and we’ll be getting to that in upcoming posts. We’ll also look at topics like the “hero’s journey” and other ideas related to creating worlds. Stay tuned!


Check out all the posts in this series on writing speculative fiction:
Mapping and World Creation (with a focus on Science Fiction and Fantasy)
The Hero’s Journey
Utopian or Dystopian Story Writing
World Building Through Mapping
More Aspects of World Building–Part 1 (conflict, political systems, technology, magic, values, small details, economic system, cultural groups)
More Aspects of World Building–Part 2 (realistic hangouts, world naming, food, alternate realities, time/era, transportation, morality, architecture, overall considerations)
Characterization in World Building
Links to Some Great Posts on World Building
Tips for Writing Super-Hero Stories

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