When writing fantasy, science fiction, or other speculative fiction, there are a number of important aspects to consider. Today we are going to look at conflict, government and politics, history, technology, magic and super powers, religion and values, basic infrastructures, economic systems, and cultural groups and issues. This post is part of a series on world building for speculative fiction and you will find links to the other posts at the end of this one.
Conflict: As in any successful story, you need conflict. Without that, there’s not much to tell. Who is the conflict between? Groups of people? People and the environment/nature? People and society? One person in conflict with him/herself? Who are the protagonists and what are their relationships? Once you know that, you can create a world which best showcases this conflict. Decide where and when your story is located–a past, future or alternate Earth? another planet? another dimension? a parallel world? This decision, in turn, will affect all the other decisions you make–physical descriptions, language, politics, magic, and so on. At some point, there will be a moment of great conflict or chaos in the story. What that is, is up to you. But the important thing is that your world and the people in it react in a credible way to the conflict, and work toward a resolution.
Fantasy, sci-fi and other speculative fiction also allow authors to take issues from everyday culture and focus on them in a different form. So it can be a laboratory in which you can explore all kinds of ideas. Just remember, your fantasy world needs to be consistent. Whether the world is based on a legendary or real historical place, or even completely from your imagination, every aspect needs to fit into that world, and not feel like it is out of step or place.
What kind of political or governmental system will you have? Kingdom, republic, democracy, dictatorship, communist, or? Patriarchal, matriarchal or egalitarian? Will you make its system clear or leave it hazy and mysterious? Remember that any laws and political systems you create will affect the plot, characterization, etc.
What important historical events have caused the current situation? Are there alliances? enmities? Have there been physical disasters in the world that have caused chaos? To see realistic to the reader, imaginary worlds need to be like real-life history–full of odd quirks, circumstances, and unexpected outcomes. History is never totally logical; there are many surprises … and yet, you still have to make the story reasonable! How did the world come to be this way? How does what happened in the past influence your character’s behaviour and attitudes in the present?
Technology is an important aspect of world-building, especially in sci-fi. How advanced (more or less) is it technologically? Are new technologies being introduced, and if so, by whom? Are they being shared, or kept under the control of a small elite? Are past technologies being hung onto or destroyed or changed? What effect does technology have on the different groups of characters? on the environment? etc.? Make sure that the technologies fit into the world’s situation, and make sure you clearly understand specific sub-types (for example, different types of a specific weapon) and what kind of people can use them–so research! It doesn’t really matter what the technology is–Roman roads, imperial British ships, the internet and smartphones, the One Ring, the Death Star–as long as it is accessible to, or alternatively is able to effect, large numbers of people. If your world has a dominant ruling class, make sure there is a reason for it. A technological reason. After all, political systems and even traditional armies can only do so much.
If magic exists in your world, how is it regarded? who practices it? what about the people who can’t use it but are affected by it? how does it affect relationships? what does it do to the environment? Where does the magic originate (gods, nature, sacred places, plants and animals, artefacts?) Is the magic believed in and respected by the population, or is it feared as an evil? How can people who do not have access to the magic make up for their lack–or gain access to it, or destroy those who have it? When you introduce a super power, like magic or an amazing new technology, it really changes the world and will have far-reaching effects–effects that might not be expected. So you really need to think through the possible effects before you introduce these kinds of powers. If you have magic in your world or very advanced science, you need to establish logical rules for how that magic or science works, and stick to them. Whether it is magic or scientific technology, ask yourself questions like these: Who has and/or controls this special power? What does it do? How does it happen? How will the user be affected? How will the rest of the world be affected? How does it lead to the development of different groups or classes, and what happens then?
What are the most important values of the society? Do different groups have different values? How does that affect their relationships? Are the values institutionalised into a religious system or a philosophical or even political system? What effect does that have on the story? Religion (if you want to include it–it can serve as the foundation of a society’s values and ethics–or of its wars!). Monotheism? Polytheism? Atheism? Ancestor worship? Star worship? Energy and motion, scientific discovery? You can create a religion around anything that people value. You just need believers, benefits and rites.
When planning your world, consider small details such as the building materials used in homes and other buildings, and the foods, plants, animals, and other micro-aspects of your world. Do the main species in the story keep other creatures for pets? or slaves? or food? or? By reading a variety of well-known stories in your genre, and researching historical time periods in which your world exists, you can create a truly believable world—even if it is totally imaginary. To make your world realistic, you need to think about basic infrastructures: How and what do they eat? How do they deal with basics like garbage and bodily wastes? Transportation? Survival methods?
You need to build an economic system. Will you have peasants or slaves to grow labor-intensive crops? Will you use human shields in your space war? What kind of food-producing system will you develop? Your social structures need to be supported by the realities of food, shelter and clothing. And every world needs some kind of currency, even if it’s a bartering system. Dollars, credits, gold pieces, salt, water, time, credit cards, gems. Just make sure it fits with the rest of your world’s systems.
Whatever cultural groups you are featuring, you need to create an accurate view of their society–well-rounded and detailed. Any cultural or ethnic group (even minor groups) should have multiple dimensions and a believable culture. The more your fictional group resembles a real-life Earth group (from whatever time period you’re writing about), the more you need to worry about being true to life. Rites and rituals are a really important part of many cultures–what rituals will define your culture?
We will continue our discussion of aspects of speculative fiction world building in our next post. 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