Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing: How to Build Fantastic Worlds
by: Kameron Hurley
So, you’re ready to write a science fiction or fantasy novel. But where to start? Lots of writers begin by creating a map, or researching some distant heavenly body. Six novels into my speculative fiction career, I’ve discovered that I create my best work when I begin building my fantastic worlds by starting not with magic systems or geography, but with a single character. Here’s why this method has been so successful for me.
Asking the Right Questions
When you begin your worldbuilding process by creating a character first, then asking what type of world created that character, you focus on the parts of the world that matter most to the people in it. That means spending less time on research that you ultimately aren’t going to use. I look at my worldbuilding and character creation processes as interconnected. They don’t – in fact, can’t! – exist independently of one another. As I flesh out a character, the world, too, will come into sharper focus. If I create a skilled government assassin who’s tasked with bringing in deserters from a centuries-long war, I have to ask myself what the war is about. If it’s about a lack of resources, what does that world look like? Dry, dusty, low in metals? If a planet was low in metals, how would their technology progress? What would they use to power their vehicles? If they had crashed there on a big generation ship, what was the likelihood they would ever get back into the stars, and how would that change their religious philosophies?
Overcoming the Gauntlet
Most approaches to building new worlds ask you to fill out long questionnaires about geography, magic systems and technology levels, social structures, governments, how people greet one another, the languages they use… the list goes on and on. But how much of that are you really going to squeeze into your novel? How much is relevant?
The first fifty pages of a science fiction or fantasy novel are what one of my editors calls “The gauntlet.” It’s in these vital first pages that readers must orient themselves to a new world, complete with unique societies and ecologies. Dumping all of this information onto readers in long narrative chunks up front overwhelms most readers. Few will be able to get past those first fifty pages.
To dissuade this tendency to dump information onto my reader up front, I only map out my worlds in broad strokes before I start writing. I knew that in my recent space opera, The Stars Are Legion, there would be a legion of living starships that each had independent ecological systems. I knew the worlds would be inhabited entirely by women, whose bodies the living ships relied on to birth vital pieces of themselves. I wanted the two primary societies to be surface-dwellers who organized themselves into authoritarian states. But the nitty gritty details of how people ate, what they wore, and how the ships themselves functioned was something I left for myself to discover during the writing process. By doing this, I was able to convey details about the world to the reader in manageable bites.