In last week’s post, I discussed some world-building basics for science fiction and fantasy writers. These included tips about rules and consistency in the use of technology or magic, physical geography and climate, and the social, economic, and religious constructs in your world. You can read more here: World Building Basics. But great world-building alone does not make a great story, so today, let’s dig a little deeper. Here are some things to consider once you’ve thought through the imaginative backdrop for your tale.
Don’t give out too much information all at once.
Once we’ve created our world and thought through the details, we’re excited. We want to share it with readers and give them a vivid, complete picture. But beware! No matter how interesting you find the complicated economic structure of your imaginary civilization, no matter that you’ve created an entire taxonomy for the flora and fauna on an M class planet circling a red dwarf star, your readers’ eyes will glaze over if you give them too much at once. Don’t spend all your time describing your world to readers. Instead, reveal it to them through your characters’ adventures, challenges, and conflicts.
It’s always about your characters.
The world you’ve created serves your story, not the other way around. Your characters move through the world and are impacted by it, but their story should be the driving force.
Create depth in your storytelling through complexity.
Don’t oversimplify or stereotype. Our world surely isn’t simple, and complex issues are, well, complex. Absolutes rarely exist and history is often told through the eyes of the victor. Differing values, opinions, and world views exist within the same country on our world. Why would it be any different on another? And, it’s these very differences that we writers can explore through our storytelling.
The familiar should feel authentic.
In one of my science fiction novels, the female main character is a healer. Her world is populated by humans, so all my medical scenes are well researched and accurate. Another character is a pilot. Granted he flies a spaceship, but here on earth we’re familiar enough with flight that, as readers, we’d expect those scenes to feel believable. I watched a ton of flight simulator programs, researched dogfight scenarios, and actually talked to military pilots. They could tell me if his behavior, language, and his feelings in the moment seemed authentic. Even in a made-up world, readers know when a writer hasn’t done their homework!
What about the cool stuff?
It’s tempting to use magic or futuristic technology to get your characters out of a bind, but it’s important to think of these things as tools wielded by the characters, with limits and rules, not as contrived solutions out of a difficult situation. If the magic or technology is so all powerful that it can easily rescue your characters, the story becomes more about the cool stuff and less about the characters. The stakes might not seem high enough and any potential victory for your characters will ring hollow. Even if the story is a quest to find the magic sword, which is the only thing that can kill the dragon plundering the land, it’s the difficulty of the task, or the sacrifices the main character must make along the way, that creates tension and invests the reader in the tale.
Your novel cannot stand on world-building alone! A rich, well-thought out backdrop is important, but even more important is the story unfolding within.