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World Building for Science Fiction or
by: Tina Morgan


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Creating settings for a science fiction or fantasy world can be an exhilarating or daunting task. Unlike other genres, there are few limitations on where the imagination can go. This is the ultimate opportunity for a writer to stretch her/his creative muscles.

However, there is one catch you need to be aware of before you start writing. Many science fiction and fantasy readers are well educated and well read. Do not make the mistake of condescending to them or you will greatly reduce your odds of publication.

Like any other genre, you will find readers from a variety of occupations but in science fiction you will find many readers who know the science. Often their love for technology or space came from reading a science fiction of fantasy novel as a young child and they transferred that passion into a career in the technology or science industry. For this reason I say the most important aspect of creating your setting will be research.

Learn your material before you start writing.

Where do you start researching? Do you need to know quantum physics to write science fiction? Of course not. But you do need to have a rough understanding of what life is like under different situations. Start first by determining
where your story will take place.

Earth or earth-based? On a space ship? On a radically different planet that calls for sealed environments?

What is the physical world like? What raw materials are available for fuel or building? What type of ecology inhabits your world?

Part of determining location is also dictated by
time. 'When' your world exists will determine the level of technology available to your characters. Are you using a prehistoric, medieval, present day or futuristic time frame? The possibilities are endless. Don't allow what you've read in the past to dictate your decision on when in time to place your story.

All aspects of world building can benefit from research. Don't think that because you've invented planet Jo-Jo that the basic rules no longer apply.

If your world strays too far from earth then you need to consider the viable options for supporting life. Many of the science fiction stories I read as a young adult featured the moons of Jupiter as viable future habitations for human colonies. Although it was enjoyable fantasy when I was much younger, now it would fall quite flat. Jupiter is a gas giant and in order for the gases that comprise its physical form to exist the planet has to be hundreds of degrees below zero (Celsius or Fahrenheit). Jupiter's temperature is this low due to its distance from the sun. So by extrapolation, that means that its moons must be far too cold to support any life form currently living on earth that we have discovered to date.

Because we are looking at developing worlds for science fiction or fantasy, however, it would still be feasible to create a man-made habitation of an out-lying planet or moon in our own Solar system. Let's look at some of the things you may need to include:

-- Make sure that your fictional habitation is complete with biospheric domes or that you include ample life-support systems.

-- Remember to consider how your colonists will replenish food and water supplies. It's a long way back to Earth, so consider alternate ways to transport the necessities that can't be produced locally.

-- Think about where the air your characters breathe comes from and how it might be filtered.

-- Waste disposal could also pose a problem on inhospitable planets, and communications with the 'mother' planet will definitely require some creative thinking.

-- How and what will your colonists trade? Many civilizations fund their growth via trade. Importing air and water would be terribly expensive, so how will your fictional colonists fund these necessities?

Another consideration with placement of your 'world' is neighboring star-systems. Let's assume that you want to send your colonists to a binary system. It's glamorous, and there is plenty of creative scope for a world with two suns! You've created an Earth-type planet, with plenty of fresh water and sufficient oxygen, and thrown your characters onto the stage. Can you see any problems yet?

Many avid star-gazers would be quaking in horror right now. Even though your world might be entirely fictional, our own Solar system has a neighboring system that is a binary system.

Alpha Centauri isn't just one big, hot star, like our own Sun. It's a binary system. Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri spin merrily around in a double orbit. This is where I risk lots of rabid emails telling me that I've worded that wrongly. Or worse, that I've forgotten all about little, red Proxima Centauri, orbiting both giants in a separate orbit all of its own!

Think about the ramifications of putting a planet in between two or three stars. What would the temperature be like? And would your humans remain human-looking for more than a couple of generations? Would they be able to survive at all?

Inhabitants are another vital component of your world building. Will they be human or non-human? Animals: real, earth-based, mythological or something totally new? Take care with creating a new ecology and don't put in too many predators. Many new writers make the mistake of creating a world full of teeth, fangs, claws and other lethal natural weapons but they forget to give their predators enough prey animals. If predators don't/can't find prey, they will eat each other - possibly to extinction.

Creatures big and small need to be able to function in the world you've created. This doesn't mean that goo-dripping aliens are out, but it does mean that I'm not going to believe that they pilot spaceships with controls suited to human hands.

Once you determine your inhabitants and your characters' species, you need to consider their
society. Where your characters fit into that society will greatly affect their ability to function and react.

What type of government and laws rule your world? Arts & recreation, education, religion, vocation, economy- money based or barter are all vital elements of a society and will add richly to your setting if you incorporate these aspects. There's no need to spend a lot of time explaining every element of your world, but showing how your characters live can help bring the story to life. A group of soldiers could play a game of chance involving rune stones or carved dice, the butler opening the door can pay the cabbie with gold coins, the priestess can marry a couple at the county fair by waving a branch of oak leaves over their heads. Simple things that can be mentioned in passing will give a fictional world a third dimension in a reader's mind.

Where do you find the inspiration to create these societies? Research. Look at the forms of society developed in our own world. Find a battle that intrigues you and use the tactics that won or lost it in your own war.

The Internet offers a wide source of research material but don't forget to spend time at your local library either. You'll find a wealth of information just waiting for you to make your own.

Copyright 2003 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved.

For a more detailed look at world building check out Tina Morgan's World Building chapter in The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy. Available at
Amazon.com and through Dragon Moon Press


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