Constructing a convincing setting for your story (world building) is no easy matter, and can mean the difference between an absorbing page-turner and a read which is picked up and put down again.
World building is an art in its own right. Get the story world right and you can have a hit on your hands; get it wrong and your book can sink without trace.
Why is it that some readers won’t touch fantasy or scifi? Whilst the genre’s they do prefer may be equally fanciful, unlikely, or impossible, to the reader, they seem more ‘grounded’, because reality in the story world works in a more familiar way.
For example, whilst the physical aspects of a historical novel may seem familiar, many of the sensibilities, attitudes, and morals of the story may not have been recognizable to the people who actually inhabited that timeframe. This is because the historical fiction author is writing for modern readers who understand the world through modern sensibilities, attitudes and morals.
Build foundation parameters
Changing just one parameter about the real world can make all the difference. For instance, if we make a rule that everyone can have a full and fruitful life, until the age of twenty-five when they will naturally die. How would this change people’s behavior? How would the priorities of life change? How would people justify supporting this rule? How would people oppose the rule? How is the rule enforced and who by? Who brings up the children? What sort of relationships become the norm?
World building exists in the real world too.
Don’t believe me? Then let’s look at some real life examples of how a single parameter has molded new societies or sent existing ones off in a new direction:
Take the one child policy in China: how has this changed Chinese society? Termination of female fetuses has increased dramatically, as has the number of abandoned girl babies. Also, with five males to every two females, in a society that values monogamy (a secondary parameter), three in five males will remain single. This fundamentally alters the rules of dating and marriage. Females and their families can afford to be more demanding in terms of the wealth, education, and success of their prospective spouses. Education is no longer just a means to escape poverty or forge a good career, for the modern Chinese guy it also increases their marriage prospects and their chance of reproducing. Where, one might ask, does love feature in all this? Or the sex industry?
However, in Tibet, just across the border from China, monogamy is not a necessary parameter. Here, where the five male to two female ratio has occurred naturally, a different model of society has developed. In the remote mountainous areas it is not unusual to find three or four brothers all married to a single woman. They all share the same house and bringing up their various children is a single family.
How about a country where all citizens have the right to own and bear arms? Would this single parameter lead to a violent and fearful society where people shoot first and ask questions later? How does law enforcement work in such a country? How do people vent their anger with authority? Many countries have high gun ownership, but the fact that gun ownership is a lawful right in the USA does seem to create some unique problems and tensions.
Not to let my own country off the hook, how about a country, like the UK, with an all-encompassing cradle to grave welfare system? With the fear of real poverty removed and free healthcare always on tap, how does this change people’s expectations and drive? What happens to the concept of personal responsibility? What sort of cash based subculture develops when people become trapped or dependent on means-tested benefits? How do the majority of the tax paying public react to the new subculture? How does everyone react to outsiders wanting to live in their country?
Taking our queue from the real world, we only need to change one real-life parameter to make an interesting story. If you are a sci-fi or fantasy author you will be well beyond a single parameter change. I bet you have a whole world of foundational, secondary, and third-tier parameters already worked out. Before you start your first draft, however, you should carefully consider how each parameter impacts not just on the others, but the individual character’s behavior.
Well, that’s the theory, but in practice, no matter how well you plan, you will probably hit a chapter where you suddenly realize that one or more of your foundational parameters doesn’t work the way you expect it or has far more impact than you realized. In this instance you have only two options: revise the story or change the parameter.
In my first dystopian steampunk novel, Gaia’s Brood, one of the main characters is an airship: the Shonti Bloom (yes it does sound like the name of a well-known news journalist).
This vessel started life as a fairly conventional airship, with a massive whale-shaped blimp supporting a tiny gondola. My key parameter for this ship was to power it with electric synapses, like artificial tendons, so the tail of the whale-shaped blimp could flap up and down like a real whale flying through the air. So
far so good.
However, towards the end of the first draft, I realized this fairly realistic (in my opinion) design, would not satisfy my target readers. One of the tropes in steampunk stories is that airships tend to look more like eighteenth century warships, minus the masts, supported by blimps of about equal size. I therefore had to adapt my design to meet these expectations—writers can’t always have everything their own way.
Changing the fundamental parameters of the airship meant a complete re-write of the manuscript, because it also changed how the story worked. Some things previously possible, became impossible, and other things, previously impossible, opened up new opportunities to increase the drama of the story.
Altering just a small parameter like this can have a disproportionately large impact on the story.
Even if you are a ‘panster’ who loathes planning, make sure you at least know what drives the motives of your characters before you start gushing your story. Otherwise, like me, you will be re-writing the entire manuscript.
Use parameters to drive the story
Some sci-fi and fantasy writers think detailed descriptions of their story worlds are sufficient to engage their readers. This may be true for a small minority of genre fans, but to attract a wider audience the peculiar parameters of their story world must drive the behavior of the characters in the story, by creating conflict.
Let’s return to our first scenario: the society where life ends at twenty-five. What happens when someone fails to die at twenty-five as expected? Exploring how this incident impacts the main protagonists and antagonists can drive the story.
Or what if we introduce a secondary parameter: if you have enough wealth you can buy an extra ten years of life for yourself. Exploring the tensions and conflicts this rule causes between characters could make an interesting story. Maybe the phrase ‘terminating your debt,’ if you have borrowed the means to extend your life, would take on a new and frightening meaning. Could you commit murder by making someone bankrupt? All interesting possibilities that could drive the motives of the characters in your story.
For the sci-fi or fantasy geek, story world parameters can hold a fascination all of their own—in fact, working out the story world parameters can be part of the fun. The other 99.99% of readers need character change through conflict to be the major story drivers.
The main task facing the sci-fi or fantasy author when world building, is to understand how every parameter will drive the behavior of each character. The essence of sci-fi is to show how each character’s behavior changes through conflict with one or more of your story world parameters.
You will need to edit you story world parameters with a large chopper. If a particular parameter, no matter how well loved, has no bearing on the behavior of a character, it has no place in your story: it is nothing more than window dressing, an unnecessary distraction. Get rid of it!
Bend rather than break the rules of reality
Most people know, or at least suspect, that science fiction and fantasy writers have incredibly vivid and active imaginations. In the authors mind nothing is beyond the scope of possibility. Much like Minecraft, the rules of nature cease to apply; biology, physics, chemistry, cosmology, all bend to the will of the writer and the demands of the story.
Unfortunately, not all potential readers have such active imaginations—making our jobs that much more difficult. Somehow we still need to pull readers into our imaginary worlds.
One of the arts of world building, whether it be sci-fi, fantasy, historical, or any other genre, is to create a story setting that is within the scope of readers imagination, and therefore convincing. The story world needs to sound plausible and acceptable to the reader, whilst still serving the imagination of the author and the demands of the story.
The difference between pulling off a good story world and ending up with a cheesy flop is to not stretch the reader’s imaginations too far. If you want your readers to believe something is possible, you first have to believe it is possible yourself, then convince the reader.
In story writing, conviction and realism is conveyed through detail: consistent, repetitive, but subtle, detail. So you will need some parameters for the small things as well.
Maybe it’s just me, but when it comes to conviction, I believe it is always better to bend real world parameters than invent entirely new ones. However, you have to be selective about what you alter and this often demands that the author do proper research. I can best illustrate this using an example from my own work:
In the chart below of different wind patterns at altitude, below, lots of the interesting stuff happens above 20,000 feet. Everyone knows that no matter how genetically modified a person may be, there is just not enough oxygen above 20,000 feet to breath, so it probably won’t convince anyone to change this parameter.
Vastly fewer people know anything about wind patterns at altitude, so if I artificially squash the wind patterns down from 40,000 feet to a maximum of 16,000 feet, as below (same chart different scale), I can increase the drama of the story, e.g. catching a 200mph subtropical jetstream (which would normally only be possible at 40,000 – 50,000 feet).
I can still talk authoritatively about wind patterns in terms that are familiar to readers from weather reports, but with very few people noticing that for the purposes of a good story I have altered a real-world parameter. If I do this consistently throughout the story, the action will sound real and plausible.
Crank up the sequel by changing more parameters
With the expectation that a second novel must be at least as good as the first, I am often asked how you write a sequel. My answer is to change a story world parameter or two.
By changing a parameter, your characters are being driven by different motives. In the second Hunger Games book, the initial parameter, that you can only be entered for the games once, then live forever in luxury, is turned on its head. This creates new tensions, conflicts, and motives that drive all the characters in different directions. Distinctly different from the first novel and yet familiar.
For the sequel to Gaia’s Brood, the Shonti Bloom has been refitted to be wind powered. Initially, she was going to have fan-shaped sails.
However, research suggested this sail arrangement would only work if she moved ahead of the wind at all times, which would severely limit her maneuverability—a parameter I would find difficult to pull off convincingly.
Then I discovered that modern sails work like aircraft wings, creating a low pressure effect in front of them that can pull the craft (by creating lateral ‘lift’) in a different direction to the prevailing wind. So by fitting the airship with a single large lateen sail I can make her go almost anywhere I want.
Sail powered airships have been the stuff of dreams since balloon flight was first invented. It is, of course, impossible. Apparently, the only thing stopping the wind blowing a yacht over is water resistance acting on the vessel’s keel. A sail powered airship would just spin out of control like a cork in a stream until it crashed into the ground.
Never being one to let reality stand in the way of a good story trope, I came up with an alternative design parameter: large junk-rigged keel sails which help counteract the toppling effect of the lateen sail and also aid steering. In reality, the keel sails would require a surface area at least as large or larger than the lanteen sail, the hull, and the blimp combined, making it completely impractical, and again, not maneuverable. However, very few people will know this.
So I reckon, that by authoritatively explaining how a keel works, most readers will say, “Oh, I always wondered why yachts have keels,” and accept that an airship with a keel sail is a convincing possibility—at least for the duration of the story.
So the final design, taking all the parameters into account, looks something like the picture above (obviously a real artist could make it look much better).
For the next book in the series I will have to change another parameter (or two) which will change the behavior and motivations of other main characters, giving new drive and direction to the story.
How to write good scifi
The most parameter driven of all story genres is science fiction. How the main characters react to the story world parameters should always tell us something about the human condition.
I’ve been binging on a box set of a television series called ‘Humans’. The story is about a chaotic, dysfunctional, British family, living in a world where everyone has synthetic humans (androids/cyborgs) as servants/slaves. This family buy their first synthetic human to look after the house, but she turns out to be conscious and to have feelings. She also appears to have the ability to make other androids sentient: giving them consciousness and feelings, which can then be spread to others. The rest of the story is about the consequences they have on the human family.
The series appears to be driven by one main parameter: what sort of threat would androids/cyborgs/synthetic humans be to the human race if they could suddenly gain consciousness and feelings for themselves. However, like all good stories there is a twist in the tail. The first parameter is in fact a misleading Mcguffin, but one what every human fears. The actual parameter driving the story, and which slowly reveals itself is: how do humans learn about life through chaotic dysfunctional families.
The series ends by asking the question: what would it mean if android consciousness could spread through families groups as well?
An excellent example of how, if chosen carefully, story world parameters can not only drive the behavior of your characters, but also raise important issues and question.
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