How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

Create a Culture Clinic

The Ethics of World Building
by Tina Morgan

Writing a Science Fiction or Fantasy novel is different to writing general fiction. You have the unique opportunity to create a world vastly different from the present. Unlike historical romance or western, you do not have to concern yourself with being historically correct.

When you create a new world, you are free to create your own history. For the purpose of believability, however, you must adhere to the history you create. If you stray too far from the version of history you've explained to your readers, they may put the story down and not come back.

Alternative History, be it labeled "Modern Fantasy", or "Near-Future Science Fiction", is a sub-genre rapidly growing in popularity. A few already-tired favorites include "What if the dinosaurs had not died out", or "What if Hitler had won".

It is possible to twist, or completely recreate history, showing the world a brand new version of past events and still create a believable story line, but there are a few things you should keep in mind.

Is your idea considered 'Politically Correct'?

Don't stop reading just yet. I know many of us - writers/non-writers - are tired of hearing that term. However, writing SF/fantasy does not give you the right to be insensitive. Some ideas simply will not appeal to a wide audience and others may offend your readers. Both of which can block the sale of an otherwise well written story. Think about how well a novel portraying the Civil War as being the fault of the slaves would be perceived. Step with caution!

Real History vs. Alternative History

If you are creating a world where the history comes close to matching the real world, decide very carefully why you want to change real events. Are you changing a world event that resulted in the deaths of hundreds/thousands of people? Sometimes even the death of a single person can touch the lives of complete strangers: Princess Diana, John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa, just to name a few. Changing or eliminating an event like; Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or the Holocaust, can alienate your reader, particularly if your audience has a close affiliation to those events. If you negate the importance of that trauma, you risk losing credibility.

Character Traits

The same applies to creating characters. If you wish your character to be a victim or abuse/rape or to have a disability/illness, do a little research before you start writing. A writer cannot portray a character as mentally disabled and then credit them with highly advanced thought processes. If you fail to follow through on your research it will show in your writing. At the least, you may lose your reader's attention, and at the worst, their loyalty.

Know Your Audience

Science fiction has a global audience. Even if your story is distributed solely in the United States, an editor is not going to continue buying your stories if they receive a lot of complaints. Think one little story isn't going to elicit that kind of reaction? Try telling someone that their loved one did not die due to a brutal war or nuclear 'mishap' and see how they respond. If you belittle your readers' life experiences, they are not going to thank you for it.

What Makes a Successful Writer?

The biggest authors in the fiction industry are those that create believable characters and settings. Their fans come back time and again because they care what happens to the characters. They can suspend disbelief and live in the world the author has created for the time that they are reading. "Star Wars" takes place in "a galaxy far, far away" but the reader/movie go-er can immerse themselves in that world and empathize with Luke's problems, even though they will never fly in an 'X wing fighter'.

The opening sequence to the "X-men" movie is believable because the screenwriter didn't try to tell the viewer that the Holocaust never happened. Despite the fantastic, mutant powers of the characters, the movie draws you into its battle between good and evil. It is a good example of a near future SF/fantasy story line. History is changed just enough to make the plot line credible.

"The Matrix", "Equilibrium" and "Gattaca" are each frighteningly believable in their portrayals of a future gone mad, based upon past experiences, and the consistency of human nature regardless of the chain of events.


Reaching every reader is impossible. No matter how hard a writer tries, they will probably offend someone at some point in their career. The goal is to intelligently consider your plot line and setting before you put your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). You don't have to personally experience an event or know someone with a disability to write about it.

You do have to read and research. If it sounds like too much work, then consider something easier, and write about things you know.

Copyright Tina Morgan. All rights reserved



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