Genres of World Building
Fantasy, Science Fiction, and More
When you’re writing epic or high fantasy, it’s good to remember the conventions that are out there, and then smash them to bits. Elves, dwarves, and orcs are great, but you don’t want to just retread Tolkien’s world, or even reboot Gary Gigax’s worlds. (For the uninitiated, Gigax created Dungeons and Dragons.) There are different views on the use of races people already know. Some people hate them, and won’t read a story if it has any version of elves. Others think they’re great, and actually prefer when a writer uses the traditional take on them. Still others think that it’s okay to use the traditional fantasy races, so long as you use your own take on them.
Personally, I’m in the third camp. Yes, I do have the traditional races, but I try to have a different origin and culture for them. After all, I’m using humans, so why not elves and dwarves? Okay, yes, humans are real, but this is a story about a non-Earth world, so why would there even be humans? My point is that, whatever world you create, make it your own.
The key to epic fantasy is that it’s not just a different world, but that the story has the character of high adventure, so creating a world for that genre is really just creating a rich, in-depth world. It’s all up to you what you make. Want elves in your world? Make them, but make them your own. Don’t just base them off of Tolkien, or D&D, or World of Warcraft. (Especially not WoW. I can’t stand Night Elves.) Make them yours. Want dwarves, or orcs? It goes for the same with them. Dragons? Go for it.
The real key to making epic fantasy is that it’s a vast world with a rich, maybe noble/maybe ignoble culture.
My advice for making epic fantasy stands for dark fantasy. Typically filled with vampires, werewolves, the undead, and dangerous magic, dark fantasy has expectations to it as well, mostly in the mood you set. One thing you need to be aware of is that it’s easy to make try to make something dark and scary, but end up just going for the same old thing. Yes, vampires vs. werewolves is cool, but don’t try to remake Underworld. Also, if you do have an idea that’s neither vampires, werewolves, or even the undead, then absolutely go for it. The key is that it’s yours.
- Are there vampires? If so, what are they like?
- Are there werewolves or shape shifters? What kinds?
- Is there magic or witchcraft? What kind and is it evil or benign?
- What kinds of demons, ghosts, or incorporeal beings are there?
- Is it Earth, an alternate Earth, or a non-Earth?
Another thing is that dark fantasy is more about the tone. It can be an alternate world, making it on the lines of epic or high fantasy, but it can also be in the modern world, making it contemporary. Genre can be a bit wobbly.
Okay, contemporary fantasy, or urban fantasy. It’s separate from epic fantasy in that it takes place in today’s world, as opposed to an alternate world, and from dark fantasy in that the mood isn’t necessarily horror-based. The definitions can get pretty fuzzy, particularly when dealing with the vampires and demons of The Dresden Files. The real difference between contemporary fantasy and others is the need to incorporate the real world into the fantasy. If the story is supposed to take place on the real Earth, just with magic, you need to understand the real location that you’re using. Otherwise, you might as well just make up your own, alternate world. Of course, there is a place for that.
- Does the public know that magic exists? If not, why? If so, how does it affect them?
- What magical races are there? Is it just one culture’s magic, or all of them?
- How is witchcraft and magic handled? Are witches evil, benign, or neutral?
When you’re making a world for science fiction, consider that you need to avoid making it a rip off from Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and pretty much everything else out there. As always, make it your own. Even so, a few questions need to be answered:
- Are there aliens/nonhumans? If so, why didn’t humanity know about them sooner?
- How does FTL (faster-than-light) work. You don’t need to get into all the scientific theories, and there are some, like Battlestar Galactica that actually avoid getting into that, so they don’t muddle things with technobabble. Is it hyperspace, warp drive, space jumps, or something else entirely? At least make it clear what they’re doing.
- How far out from the Earth is it? Confined to the Solar System? The Galaxy? Or is it even a different galaxy?
- How far into the future is it? This would decidedly affect the technology level, which really seems to be growing at an exponential rate. Look into futurist predictions to figure out what would work best. Granted, they’re just predictions, but you want it to at least be plausible.
- What happened to the Earth? Some writers make it an uninhabitable Garbage World, others destroy it, and still others (like Star Trek) make it a paradise.
- Is it the future, or the past? Star Wars is the most notable example of making it deep into the past. You don’t have to avoid that just because George Lucas did it. Just use an interesting take on it.
Contemporary Science Fiction
When most people think of science fiction, they think of space stories. At the same time, you have X-Files, Men in Black, and other science fiction stories that take place on Earth. Many are in a subset I call “conspiracy science fiction” because the only way that aliens and other hi-tech stuff are hidden from view is by a government conspiracy, sometimes malevolent, as in X-Files, and sometimes (mostly) benign, as in Men in Black and the (non-alien) series Eureka.
- Are there aliens? If so, how does the public not know about them?
- Does the public know about the hi-tech stuff? If not, why?
- Is there a government conspiracy? Are they evil, neutral, or benign?
This is a fun one. Harry Turtledove has made a living at alternate history, and Eric Flint has the Ring of Fire series that started with 1632, a novel about a West Virginia mining town being sent back to Thuringia (in Germany) during 1632 C.E. (the middle of the Thirty Years War).
Alternate history often involves time travel to explain why the timeline is different from what really happened, but not always, as in the case of Fatherland, a story of what if the Nazis won WWII. It’s an interesting way to create a world based on our world if things had been different.
Time Travel Fiction
Like alternate history, time travel involves imagining things as they might have been, and often overlaps. However, I’m including it in a genre of its own, because I want to talk about worlds that involves multiple timelines and multiple ways the world plays out. This is based very much on the characters and all the possible interactions they might have. In Back to the Future, Marty sees different possible futures and presents that are caused by his meddling with time. When creating a world where time travel is real, it’s not so important how it happens, but how it affects things. Look into the different paradoxes and see which ones you want to include and how to explain away the others.
Realistic World Building
When writing fiction that’s neither fantasy nor science fiction, you’re essentially taking the world and saying, “This is how it is.” At the same time, there is a certain amount of world building that goes into the story. You have to decide which portions of the world you want to show, and in what way you want to show it. Not only that, but it’s different for historical and contemporary fiction.
Just a quick note. When world building for historical or contemporary non-speculative fiction, you need to do research. Research before you write. Otherwise, you run the very large risk of insulting people. Poor research in historical and contemporary fiction is a large factor in racist depictions of people groups, and in simplistic renderings of ideas and ideals. If you’re writing about this world, don’t try to make it up. Figure out what happened or what happens, how things are done, and treat the subjects with respect.
Making things up for fantasy and science fiction world building is great, but not something you want to do for realistic fiction. That’s the whole point of realistic fiction, that it’s not just made up. Make up the characters, the places even. Fictional towns and cities are great, because you don’t have to be bothered by geography or specific history, but don’t make up the culture or the dialect. Make your research your world building.