The Interwoven Intricacies of a Real World by Erica CameronOne of the most daunting—but, in my opinion, also the most exciting—aspects of writing speculative fiction (spec-fic) is worldbuilding. It’s hard to do, and it’s complicated, but in my opinion it can make or break a book. A shallow plot can be at least partially saved by complex characters and a fascinating, fully developed world.
Every author does this, even if they’re writing a contemporary romance in the town they’ve spent decades living in. They still need to construct a fictional world around their characters and establish it in a real way for readers. No matter how long the author may have lived in a town, it’s going to be a new place for almost all readers; all relevant details need to be laid out in a way that’ll help show why this particular story is best set in this particular place.
All subgenres of spec-fic demand an even more in-depth approach to worldbuilding. Establishing a setting takes on a new importance in the story when magic or currently unavailable technology is added, or if the story takes place somewhere other than modern-day Earth. Nothing that happens to the characters—and no actions they take—will make sense if readers don’t understand the rules of the world. This is because readers (and movie-goers) understand worldbuilding on a subconscious level, recognizing both excellent and poorly constructed universes on instinct. Instinct, however, can only help so much when trying to create a universe from atoms. One mistake that’s easy to make, and one that could easily become a critical failing, is cause and effect.
If you’ve ever watched a nature documentary (and, if you haven’t, I highly recommend changing that—Netflix has a lot of excellent options), ecosystems are complex, multilayered structures. The various animals, plants, and organisms are interdependent on each other, so the failure of one can harm so many others. A shift in one can change the world. Failing to take those facts into account can cause your world to crumble on page one.
But what, exactly, does an author need to be thinking about when constructing a universe, and what kind of questions do they need to ask about each aspect?
Landscape: Where people live has a huge impact on how their society develops. This is one of the reasons why Polynesian cultures are so different from African ones, and how both are equally distinct from South American. People living in the deep arctic are unlikely to develop magic dependent on trees or a diet primarily of poultry. A desert-based culture probably isn’t going to specialize in water magic or subsist on an entirely vegetarian diet. A family living on a cargo ship in deep space isn’t likely to have a bone-deep loyalty to any government, but neither are they likely to have fresh meat and produce at every meal. Landscape changes so many aspects of a society. In fact, it can’t help but change everything.
Food: What grows in the landscape you’ve chosen? In a rainforest, fruits, bugs, and small animals are going to be the staple. In a desert, people had better learn irrigation if they don’t want to live off snakes, reptiles, and camels. On a space station, hydroponically grown vegetables and farm-raised animals are the expectation. Every landscape includes an ecosystem, and you must remember how that system works when you describe what—and how—a character eats. What and how much a character eats will have rippling impacts that spread into all other facets of a world.
Social Structure: How does the society deal with change? With stagnation? What are their views on diversity and difference? How striated are their social classes and how easy (or impossible) is it for people to move up or down between them? What does it look like—is it tribal? Militaristic? Isolated? Exploratory? How these traits appear (or fail to appear) within a culture is shaped by curiosity, necessity, and the availability of resources, because a society is shaped by its environment, and vice versa. This is especially true regarding the availability of resources. Little will turn a normally peaceful city chaotic than a sudden lack of food and water. Abundance, on the other hand, makes peace easier for societies to maintain.
Government: There are dozens of forms a government can take, and each one will change the way the citizens perceive it. It will change the way they expect resources to be shared—or hoarded. The kind of control a government has, how it uses that control, and the level of propaganda it spreads to its citizens will also greatly impact the level of trust people have in it. Also, the elected officials aren’t always the people in charge. Corporations, religious leaders, and other powerful individuals can exert influence on governments, sometimes from the shadows and sometimes in plain sight. Knowing both the shape of the legitimate government and who is actually in control of it is incredibly important, even if that aspect of the world doesn’t come into play in the plot. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking this must be an actual government. If you’re telling a story about a village or a single starship, government can simply mean “the people in power.”
Religion: People fight and die for beliefs, so know what your characters believe. Because then you’ll know what they’re willing to put their lives on the line for. There are a lot of religious belief systems—agnosticism, animism, atheism, deism, dualism, humanism, idealism, naturalism, new age, nihilism, nontheism, monotheism, polytheism. And those are just the most commonly accepted systems. There’s also acosmism, antitheism, binitariansim, determinism, duotheism, dystheism, esotericism—well, you get the idea. Spend the time to make sure the belief system you’re building into your world is the right one.
Families and Relationships: How and by whom are children raised? Are marriages arranged or chosen? Are all relationships expected to be limited to two-partner monogamy or are open relationships more common? All these questions need to be answered, but all the answers will greatly depend on the foundations that have been laid for the world. Religion and government will have an especially powerful impact on the family unit and the expectations people have of and for it.
Villages, Towns, Cities, and Homes: Structurally, where and how do people live? Maybe major cities don’t exist in this world. Maybe everyone lives in ant-farm-like underground communities. Maybe towering apartment buildings are the predominant structure on the planet. How people live with each other changes a lot about the way they interact, so it’s absolutely necessary to keep it in mind.
Language: How people talk can be as important as what they say, and language is influenced by a lot of things. This includes both the vocabulary and the actual sounds included in the language. Invasion of different cultures can also have a massive impact. So can landscape. The Inuit people of northern Canada and Alaska, for example, have dozens of distinct words for snow and ice. The Sami, who live in Scandinavia and Russia, have at least one hundred eighty words for snow and ice, and close to a thousand to describe reindeer. Whatever is most important to a culture will be reflected in the language.
Science and Technology: Science is how we test our assumptions about the world around us, but what we discover or develop through these tests isn’t always accepted. Just look what happened to the early European astronomers, especially while the Inquisition held power. Neither scientific nor technological progress is always positive, however it’s important to know if a society’s relationship with it is. Do people trust technology? Do they push for advancements or punish those who try to create change? Are cities reliant on magic or machines? Are there factions working on developments against the will of the main portion of the government and citizenry? These answers can change the way characters approach change or anything new, so it’s important to understand them.
Magic: Obviously this section is going to impact those creating a fantasy world more than it will for those working on science fiction…although not exclusively so. When developing a magic system, remember religion. Remember landscape. Remember resource availability. Remember views of technology and science. Remember that nothing is free. Even the most powerful mage in the universe has limits, and there are always consequences to every spell and potion. That can be a cost paid by the mage themselves (exhaustion, hunger, lost time, etc.) or it can be an external cost (holes in the universe, a life lost for a life saved, etc.). There’s always a downside, though, and someone has to pay for each choice by the time it’s all over.
Relationship with Nature: Despite our reliance on clean air and water, modern humanity tends to be incredibly disrespectful of our planet’s natural resources. This isn’t universal, though. Some cultures revere the natural world and manage to live harmoniously with it. Most cultures fall somewhere in between. How a character sees the natural world can also impact the importance they place on life in a general sense—which can severely impact the character’s actions and views.
Death: If life as we understand it is involved in the story, then eventually someone is going to die. How do they mourn? What do they physically do with the dead? Are there religious rituals that must be completed? Piles of government forms? If the landscape is a rocky, barren desert, then corpses probably aren’t buried—they’re either entombed or used somehow. If the characters are living on a spaceship, then the corpses must be either shot out an airlock or held in storage somehow until the ship lands on a planet.
Secrets: Keeping secrets can cause trouble, or it can help someone gather power. Who can keep secrets in this society? What kind of secrets are people punished for? Forgiven for? If the government and/or the religious leaders are watching everyone, hiding anything is an act of rebellion. It can also be a rebellion if society expects total and absolute honesty.
A final point I want to make is choice. As an author creating a world that diverges from ours, you have to make choices. Magic or technology? City or middle of nowhere? There are thousands of options—millions or billions, maybe—and each one shapes the world your characters and readers will live in. This means that what you include is just as important as what you exclude.
If you have a fantasy world where dragons and magic are real, but diversity of the human population isn’t, that’s a choice. One that doesn’t reflect any kind of biological reality I’m aware of. If your story set thousands of years in the future doesn’t include a wildly diverse cast, what are you saying about our future?
As you carve your world out of words and use it to breathe life onto blank pages, consider the list of facets above, and then consider this last bit. When it comes time to fill that world with people, create them consciously. With purpose and full knowledge that they can and should reflect the wonderful diversity of the people who will be reading the story one day. Diversify and represent, just make sure you do it right.
About the Book:
On the isolated desert island of Shiara, dying young is inevitable. The clan comes before self, and protecting her home means Khya is a warrior above all else.
But when following the clan and obeying their leaders could cost her brother his life, Khya’s home becomes a deadly trap. The only person who can help is Tessen, her lifelong rival and the boy who challenges her at every turn. The council she hoped to join has betrayed her, and their secrets, hundreds of years deep, reach around a world she’s never seen.
To save her brother’s life and her island home, her only choice is to trust Tessen, turn against her clan, and go on the run—a betrayal and a death sentence.
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About the Author:
Erica Cameron is the author of books for young adults including the Assassins duology, the Ryogan Chronicles, and The Dream War Saga. She also co-authored the Laguna Tides novels with Lani Woodland. An advocate for asexuality and emotional abuse awareness, Erica also works with teens at a residential rehabilitation facility in her hometown of Fort Lauderdale.
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