Worldbuilding Basics (Part One of Three)

I write science fiction (no, DUH), space opera specifically. And it’s either a case of choosing a genre to match my skill set, or developing skills over the years that served my genre choice, but I’ve been told I am skilled at world building, which is a fundamental skill when writing spec fic of any kind.

I’ve never really written stories set in the real world. Writing in the real world means research. If I’m writing a story based in London, I’d better have lived there, spent a lot of time there, or spent a lot of time in a library. If I decided to write in Toronto, it would be easier, but, honestly, I don’t want to be constrained by the fact that the CN Tower is beside the Rogers Centre. Maybe I’m just a control freak.

I’m honestly a little hesitant to talk about this, because when I’m making decisions about the settings I put my characters in, I make a lot of decisions based on what feels right, without actually quantifying they why of the decision. This piece is me trying to get at those reasons.

When I’m writing, I start with addressing the basic needs of the story. If the story requires your characters to travel from planet to planet, then you have to have some kind of system for that. Is it FTL? Wormhole? Some kind of long distance teleportation? Each will give your story a specific feeling and tell you something about your society. Some kind of interplanetary teleportation means that your society is extremely advanced, and that means you have to deal with a lot more. How have humans changed? How does the economy work? What other comparable advancements have been made? When I was working on Soul’s Blood, I wanted travel to take time, because I wanted to write scenes with the characters filling time. I wanted it there to be an element of challenge for them. Humans could travel between the stars, but it took them some time. So I settled on a form of hyperspace FTL tech that shortened the massive interplanetary distances.

Which leads to a second principle to consider, which is that tech changes. When I set about to write Gatecrasher, it became about the development of stable, artificial wormhole technology. And that opens the door to a host of other questions. Who benefits from the change? Who loses? If you hold the patent or the monopoly on FTL travel, you’re not going to be thrilled when a better, faster, more efficient technology comes along. And what will that make you do?

A corollary to that is that technology may be widely available, its use won’t necessarily be ubiquitous. Look around you at the real world. While smartphones are everywhere, you’ll still see people with flip phones. You’ll see people with tablets, super thin, ultrabooks and still others lugging old, bulky laptops. In Soul’s Blood, I wanted to have the characters be able to talk to each other in a private way, represented by a specific method of rendering text, so I created “nodes” which were basically an embedded smartphone. And I wanted it to be a tech that was in limited use, which showed that our heroes were on the bleeding edge, with access to this specialized tech. And that led me to have to answer the question “what does everyone else have?” (answer, a wearable link rather than an embedded one)  What people have or don’t have tells you a lot about where they fit in society. Where they live, what they eat, where they work.

Look at what we have now, the tech and the mores of the many different cultures that about on our planet. Ask yourself what that might lead to, what might be the result if it continues unchecked? What would happen if it suddenly changed? Is your the culture you’re creating as economically stratified as ours is? If not, why not? Are people trying to change it How are they doing it? Was there war, revolution, environmental disaster?  How have people’s sexual identities changed? What is considered moral or immoral in the society. Writing Chasing Cold, (and the short story it was based on) there are many questions that led to answers that fleshed out the world. The submission call I wrote the story for was about desolate places, so, being a good Saskatchewan boy, I went for snow and cold and that kind of isolation. And that begs the question, why are they there? Is that cold natural, or artificial? Do they live there by choice or were they forced to? The first set of decisions led me to a culture banished to a small frozen world by an alien invasion. They slept communally in small groups in dens. There was much less privacy than we are used to in our own world. Which led me to question what that would do to their attitudes on sexuality. So, they became more polyamorous in nature, with a freer, more open attitude to how they interacted sexually.

I suppose world building comes down to asking the questions. Like I said, every story starts with basic assumptions. Is the culture advanced or primitive? Democratic? Authoritarian? Then, start asking yourself how did it get that way? Each decision you make resonates both forward and backward. Is the character doing something that has never been done before? Or is it a common, everyday occurrence? If it has never been done before, why not? And what will it mean to the character and the world that they are doing it now?

Think of smartphones and the internet. If you’re old enough, that is, you young whippersnapper. Once upon a time, information was curated. If you wanted to research something, you went to a library. Sources like encyclopaedia, dictionaries, etc. were what you used. We went from that to suddenly having access to a vast store of information by simply going into another room and firing up a computer with internet access. And now, we have that access through a device that fits in our pocket, far more advanced than anything Star Trek imagined having centuries from now. But the downside to this is that this vast storehouse of information is no longer curated. Anyone can put up a website that says anything they want it to say. We have access, but not reliability. The changes in the tech lead to changes in how we act, even how we think.

And sometimes the changes in tech can happen between drafts of something you’re working on. Especially if you’re a slow writer like me. When I wrote the first drafts of Gatecrasher, twenty years ago, I was all excited to give a character a flat, portable device with a stylus that he could use to draw with. I thought it was just the coolest idea. It wasn’t until I sat down to do the rewrites that I realized I was writing on exactly the device I had described. Tech had caught up with me. So, I had to rethink it. What did my character have at his disposal? He had a node with a connection to my future version of the internet called Know-It-All (hyper advanced internet and cloud storage you access through a wearable or a node). And that led me to rethink what that tech might be able to bring to the creative process.

In the end, world building is about that continuous “Decision>Question>Implication” process. A writer I admire greatly, Nalo Hopkinson, once said to me, “You can do whatever you want. As long as you know why.”  World building is all about knowing why.

Next: World Building: Part Two

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