Look at the top-selling books and movies of all time. Harry Potter. Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. Even stories like Gone with the Wind or Titanic. They all transport people to a different time and/or place, providing an escapist fantasy for the reader or viewer to fall into.
But it only works if the world is immersive and believable enough. In today's article, Oliver Thiermann from theArcShapeR gives some world-building tips.
Writing good science fiction or fantasy requires strong world-building skills.
It doesn’t matter if you're writing short fiction, an episode of a web or television series, or the screenplay for a major motion picture, you need to be able to create worlds that your readers/viewers/audience would want to visit or live in.
How is that accomplished? If I knew the exact answer to that question world-building would be easy, which by the way, it is not.
In the meantime, here are 4 methods that will help you shape the environs and settings, that will take your readers to another world:
Start With the Classics
Every author from Tolkien to Isaac Asimov has had influences: ancient Norse and European legends, Greek and Roman poetry, political discourse, and 19th-century philosophy. They, in turn, created works that have influenced generations of writers ever since. If you want to create powerful and immersive settings, start out by reading books that are highly praised for their worldbuilding. Examine their descriptions, their character portrayals, and their world’s internal logic.
Why is it so easy to accept the scientific or magical realities of a particular fictional world? Ask yourself what makes the reality of that place and time plausible instead of logical or rational. Create a strong foundation by leveraging what has already been accomplished, and then learn to stand on the shoulders of giants.
Create a Strong Sense of Place
Your setting should have a unique visual and spatial presentation. Many authors re-imagine favorite locales or places to which they’ve traveled and add fantastic twists to them.
Think of those places in your own life, and let your imagination run riot. If you grew up in a place where old abandoned factories were everywhere, build on those images and memories when describing the ruins of an ancient city, or a desolate alien civilization.
It is important to remember that your truth will become your audience’s truth as they proceed along your narrative's path. Believe that truth, and make it plausible by rooting it in actual locations you have visited. Focus on the sensory language of that place especially. Strong odors or aromas oftentimes possess the strongest ties to sensory memories, followed closely by sights and sounds.
Take what you remember and exaggerate, expand, and embellish it to give it an air of fantasy or otherworldliness.
If you want your work to be taken seriously, and if you don’t want to take your audience out of the moment, you must avoid cliches at all costs. There is nothing worse than using a worn-out description, or a character archetype that is so overused that it’s fast becoming a faceless blur.
Your world needs depth and variety to make it unique, and cliches are anything but that. Instead, layer your character’s motivations and emotional responses. Let your own voice shine through in your descriptions.
Make sure you know what the common cliches of your genre are, and have a friend or colleague proof your work. Cliches are insidious, and they will bedevil your best efforts to create a truly unique work. Have the guts to cut them out and go your own way.
Make Your Dialogue fit Your World
The denizens of other worlds, and the dwellers in strange or forgotten lands will not speak like 21st century people. Everything from their use of reflexives to how they curse needs to be worked in such a way as to set the existence of those characters apart.
Remember that languages are as tied to place in much the same way that traditions or foods are, so try to find ways to give your characters a way of speaking that suits their surroundings. This means planning ahead as you create.
- Do the people in the northern region or continent have a unique speech pattern that is uncommon in other places?
- Are there phrases or words in old languages that are applied to everyday speech?
Consider profession, social class, and economic standing when writing plausible dialogue for characters, too. The captain of a space freighter is not going to talk or act like an inner-spiral diplomat with decades of training in poise and speech. By the same token, a barbarian king will not speak or act in the same manner as a merchant baron off a tropical coast.
Plan ahead, and possibly create a rough outline of your world, in order to help you keep everything consistent and unique.
These tips will get you started with world building, but when all is said and done, you just have to sit down and write it into existence. Think about utilizing a physical or a digital notebook. Write down any ideas that will make your characters, and dialogue world specific.
Never throw anything away or erase/scratch anything out. Keep it all.
Lastly, and definitely most importantly, you need to believe in your ideas and in your world. Nothing will make your world real to your audience, like the belief you invest in your creation. Remember that you have more to offer than you think, and every great world began as a crazy fantasy that was shaped into a reality.
What strategies do you use to build compelling worlds? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Oliver Thiermann is the founder and CEO at theArcShapeR, which unites authors with readers who are passionate about science-fiction and fantasy. Team leader by day and content creator by night, he always keeps an eye out for innovative ways to bring readers and writers together. Ollie is also an epic nerd, who hungers for all things Fantasy and Sci-Fi related.
Mellany Cedeno says
Wow nice tips.. I will definitely use them. I have been writing my first book series and making my world feel real is a big deal for me… i mean, that is why we read right? To have an alternative reality that maybe, who knows, could be real.
Can I write real-life politicians in military scifi, or could I be sued, or translations not go through, if I do this?
I’m already avoiding US politicians. I change the appearances, names, and personalities (somewhat) of any US politicians I write that are based off US politicians.
Joanna Penn says
A general tip is to obscure people, unless it is historical – but for legal questions, check out http://www.helensedwick.com and her book on legal things for self-publishers.
Rick Badman says
Usually, Sci-Fi tales can be incredibly striking that you can’t stop flipping through the pages for more. This habit can become productive by improving the power in focusing and increasing one’s attention span. Why is it important to have focus? It’s because it is a vital factor in the learning process, as every day, people need to acquire knowledge out of things. Without it, one will not have the ability to complete a task effectively, for they have trouble focusing on tasks for any length of time. So, if you want to refine your concentration, you know what to do.
Diane Mary Cowan says
This is good information, and very helpful. I’ve decided to change genres and I’m starting to write Social Science Fiction, so this was very useful. I’m not sure of fictional names for Science Fiction characters. Could I go onto a baby naming website for ideas or have you any other suggestions.
From Diane Cowan
Joanna Penn says
I often use baby naming websites for names with meaning. I also look at actors and actresses in specific countries to find varied options.