Allegory: C.S. Lewis and Gun Kata

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Equilibrium with Christian Bale, you might want to watch that before reading this.

I’m not a big fan of allegory. I see the point of it as a teaching tool, but as a storytelling device, I think it fails, and here’s why. In allegory, the point of the story isn’t necessarily the story itself, but the meaning that is behind the story. I realize that there are themes in everything; you can’t get away from them. Unfortunately, allegory goes beyond themes, because it requires that everything, or almost everything, has a thematic analogue. Take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example. Aslan is Jesus Christ. The gifts of Father Christmas are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Edmund Pevensie is both Judas Iscariot and the proxy for the grace of God. I could go through the entire book and describe how it’s the Christian Gospel story retold. The Magician’s Nephew is about creation, even including a Garden of Eden scene. The Last Battle is essentially The Book of Revelation.

It's a beloved children's book, so I'm not going to rag on Narnia too much.

It’s a beloved children’s book, so I’m not going to rag on Narnia too much.

But that’s all fine, because C.S. Lewis was writing both for children in those books and to spread the Christian message. He was an unabashed apologist, especially if you look at the rest of his writing. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an even more obvious allegory, with the names being blatant descriptions of what they were supposed to be.

Allegory is great for devotional books, but for a storytelling and world building device, not so much. When you make a story an allegory, you’re not making a world of your own, you’re taking another world, even if it’s this world, and putting it into yours. If you’re honest about it being allegory, that’s fine, but at least be honest about it.

Notice how they look like scary-but-badass agents, all decked out in black?

Notice how they look like scary-but-badass agents, all decked out in black?

In the Kurt Wimmer movie Equilibrium, we’re treated to a flashy albeit logically impossible martial art called Gun Kata, where the users are able to predict and dodge bullets by using a set of exact movements, and they just have to remain standing still. In itself, that would serve for a nice two hours or so where I don’t have to think and just watch the fight scenes. The problem with it is that it also uses a dystopian environment as a direct allegory of the filmmaker’s apparent view that religion is evil.

Oh, look! He's wearing white. He must be a good guy now!

Oh, look! He’s wearing white. He must be a good guy now!

In the first scene, John Preston, played by Christian Bale, and his partner Errol Partridge, played by Sean Bean, confiscate books and artwork, simply because those cause emotion. You see, in the world of the movie, emotions are banned and suppressed with a drug called Prozium. A problem occurs when Preston finds Partridge reading a book of poem and legally executes him…because the sentence for emotion is death. This starts a chain of events where Preston starts questioning the law against emotion and rebelling against the totalitarian regime.

Now, where’s the allegory in that? You see, Preston is a cleric. In the movie, that means he’s trained in Gun Kata and able to dodge bullets (without superpowers, mind) and use the gun as the perfect weapon. If he was just a I’d have no problem, but he’s essentially a priest, and the law enforcement agency is the Grammaton Clerics, who are governed by the Tetragrammaton Council. Now, if you didn’t know, Tetragrammaton is from the Greek for “four letters” and is another name for the Judeo-Christian God, based the unpronounceable name of God, YHWH.

There’s at least one point where Preston does some fancy hand movements that mimic the letters in a scene just before going into a fight.
The rest of the movie pretty much hammers home the message. The execution is reminiscent of medieval robes and done by fire. Everything artistic, literary, and musical is banned. There’s even a Big Brother character known as “The Father” who is later revealed to have died years before. Now, if that’s not a stand-in for Nietzsche idea of “God is dead”, then I must be thinking of another Nietzsche. The message is basically slammed in your face, with absolutely no subtlety to it. If it had been more subtle, the message might have been more effective, but the scene where Preston is killing other clerics because the gun-priests want to kill a puppy was just silly.

Even in a good allegory, the message should line up with reality, and although the movie was definitely anti-religion, the points it was making just don’t add up. If Kurt Wimmer had wanted to say that religion removes individuality, which is apparently what he was going for, then there were more subtle ways to do it than saying religion removes emotion. Also, insinuating that priests were puppy-killers who shoot their friends in the face was a bit much too.

Basically, the problem I see with allegory, especially with how Wimmer handled it in Equilibrium, is that it hurts the final product if it’s too obvious. Equilibrium could have been a popcorn movie about a Big Brother regime that removes individuality and focuses on illogical but supremely fun to watch martial arts. If the allegory had been toned down or made more oblique, then I probably wouldn’t have noticed it and thought, “Hey, that was a fun movie.” As it was, the obvious shout-outs to the intended theme was a little jarring.
If you’re going to try to put a message in your book, movie, or other sort of media, do try to make it a little less obvious and jarring. Let your audience focus on the story rather than the message.

I’ll talk about allegory, themes, and messages in stories in later posts, but what books or movies do you think had allegorical themes that were a bit too obvious?

(Correction: A previous version of this post stated “There are a few times when the seal of the Tetragrammaton Clerics actually shows the letters YHWH.” This is based on a faulty memory of the movie. Sorry about that.)

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Humans: The Original Fantasy Race

Harry Dresden

Paul Blackthorne as Harry Dresden, a human wizard from Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files”

Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, what? Humans aren’t a fantasy race! That’s, like, elves, and dwarves, and dragons, and stuff.”

Yes, but, if you think about it, humans really are a fantasy race. After all, how many fantasy novels have you read that haven’t had humans? Okay, that’s not really the best answer, but seriously, the humans in fantasy stories are often fairly unlike the humans in the real world, and if you consider the genre of science fiction, it’s sometimes even more apparent. Take the world of Harry Potter, for example. You essentially have two races, or rather, two sub-races. You have wizards and witches, who are born with the ability to work magic, so much so that they need to learn how to control it or else be a danger, and you have Muggles, who have so little magical ability that they may as well not even try.

As far as Harry Potter witchcraft goes, we’re all Muggles. We can’t wave wands and say words that send another person flying through the air, or turn teacups into toads. The wizards of the world J.K. Rowling created are a different breed of human, with a genetic difference that makes them…something else.

In Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, it’s even more apparent. The Numenoreans are considered one of the races of Man, that is, humans, but they live more than two centuries on average. Really, they’re descended from both elves and humans, and so they’re a sort of half-elf with a human heritage. The point is that they’re considered to be human, and yet they’re different from humans.

Here’s an example from science fiction. On Doctor Who, the characters often go into the future, so far into the future that humans aren’t really humans anymore. They evolve, change, and become something else. Likewise, on Enterprise, the prequel series to the Star Trek franchise, the character of Daniels is asked, “Are you human?” His response? “More or less.”

Yes, even Voldemort is human. No, really!

Yes, even Voldemort is human. No, really!

Why do we even use humans in these stories? For science fiction and contemporary fiction, it makes sense, because we’re writing about our world, this world, where we already know humans to exist. When we write about other planets, or other universes, why would there be humans? I think it’s because we need someone to relate to. That’s why portal fiction, which involves a character from our world entering another world, exists. The other world may not have humans, but the human character is someone we can understand.

If you’re not writing portal fiction, though, but writing about a world separate and apart, why use humans? Like I said, someone we can understand. We know human psychology, more or less, and we know human physiology. We have a basis to work from in describing and comprehending the world of the story.

That said, I still hold that humans can be considered a fantasy race. In a fantasy story, we can make them whatever we want, change the entire species according to our whims like some cold, capricious god of literary madness. If you change them too much, of course, then they won’t be humans anymore, but suppose you want to give everyone some kind of magical ability. It shouldn’t be too hard to justify it.

It can also be tied in with the creation myth. In my world of the Three Realms, humans are descended from the Ancient Race, an original race of people created by Ilahar for the middle realm of Yma. When the lesser gods rebelled, they took many of the Ancients and corrupted them, turning them into other races, including elves and orcs. Some of the Ancients fled, however, and went deep underground, eventually being changed by proximity to arcane forces deep within the planet. They shrank in size, lost almost all magical ability, and became so short-lived that they could barely even reach a century. In short, they became humans.

That’s just one example that you could use. Perhaps you have a plant-god who grew the world out of the primordial soil, and humans were the sprouts that grew from it, giving them a deep connection to the ground. Perhaps you have a pair of warring gods who slew each other, and humans rose from the blood that spilled onto the ground, and so you have a warlike world where the natural inclination of humanity is to kill and destroy. (Shocking, right?)

World myths are full of the creation of Man, and each one shows how they view humanity and the world around them. What are your humans like, and where do they come from?

Clarke’s Third Rule: Applying Science Fiction Mechanics

I tend to write more fantasy than science fiction, mostly because I don’t have enough of a technical mind to explain everything. Of course, that also means that my magic systems won’t be at the same level as Brandon Sanderson’s, but that’s a different blog post altogether. As far as science fiction goes, I feel a little guilty trying to do it. You see, I have ideas for stories, but I don’t know how to make it work without technobabble, and yet I also don’t want to just shrug and say, “What’s the big deal? It works.”

Let me explain. I have one world, or one set of worlds, that is, since they’re canonically linked, that includes the concept of time travel. I’ll deal with time travel and its ramifications in a different post, but what I have here is a distant future with technology that is so advanced humans have stopped being humans for the most part, but have split into various post-human races. Two of these groups end up getting sent back to the far distant past and continue to war against each other, thereby creating two alien empires across the galaxy. By the time that Earth comes around to what we are, there has been intervention by both groups, resulting in individuals with extraordinary powers from the alien technology. In addition, whenever time travel happens, that is to say, whenever someone arrives in the past, then the laws of physics change temporarily as the universe rewrites itself, and anyone caught in the vicinity is altered, mutated, often given strange abilities. Yes, I just explained the premise of a superhero world.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer of (obviously) Clarke's Three Laws.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer of (obviously) Clarke’s Three Laws.

You see, I didn’t just want to say, “Oh, they have powers. Why not?” or “They’re just evolved mutants.” I wanted some origin to them, as well as the ability to explain futuristic technology in today’s society. To that end, I decided to actually bring the futuristic technology to the present day, but in the end, even the tech, which can change what we know of as the laws of physics, is so advanced it seems magical, as per Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Rule.

Clarke’s Third Rule of scientific prediction states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What this means is that, if we are presented with a technology that uses scientific understanding that is beyond us, then it would look like something that breaks the laws of physics. For example, if you show a pistol to someone in Ancient Sumer, they would have trouble believing that such a small thing can kill a man from such a distance as you claim, yet if they were to see you do it, then they would think it akin to the divine power over life and death. Computers, with their hidden components that rely on electrical impulses, would seem to be strange machines to someone in the time of Archimedes. Sure, given enough time and backward engineering, someone like Archimedes might be able to figure out how to build a computer, a Tesla coil, or a motion sensor camera, but to most people of the time, it would seem to be magical, even divine.’

That said, if someone from a distant future, or from a distant and highly advanced alien culture, were to approach us today with a technology that uses an understanding of the universe that we don’t have, then it would seem to break the laws of physics. In an age where we’re beginning to understand quantum mechanics and physicists theorize the existence of more dimensions than our viewable three, there is still the possibility that there are things about the universe that we won’t understand for thousands of years.

Currently, most scientific understanding scoffs at the idea of ESP, clairvoyance, or other psychic phenomena, but it’s almost a standard in science fiction. What if there is some technology that would allow humans to tap into a currently unknown portion of the brain that would access those abilities? To some, it would seem like magic, but to those who accept Clarke’s Third Rule, it would be, well, sufficiently advanced technology. That said, I want to add a few rules of my own:

  1. Gaps in scientific understanding can be passed off in a story as sufficiently advanced technology.
  2. Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule as an explanation should explain it before being allowed to continue.
  3. Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule to justify technobabble should just put down the mouse and step away slowly from the keyboard.

Now to justify Tom Austin’s Not-Pretentious-At-All (no really) Rules for Applying Clarke’s Third Rule.

Rule 1: Gaps in scientific understanding can be passed off in a story as sufficiently advanced technology.

We can’t know the future or what technologies will come from it. As early as the 1200s, Friar Roger Bacon, also known as Doctor Mirabilis (Latin for “Wonderful Teacher”) predicted flying machines and horseless carriages. Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci actually designed a few flying machines. Five hundred years from now, we might be able to predict what would be possible. Eight hundred years, it might be a little more wild. What about stories that take place thousands of years in the future? We can’t know what technologies are going to be around in the year 20,000, no matter how much we’d like to predict. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the ensuing sequels show how far technology can go with Hal 9000. Heck, even Star Trek, famous for the writer’s bane that is technobabbleshowed it the first full movie, where we saw how the Voyager space probe turned into a sentient godlike being known as V-Ger.

(The movie’s been out since the 80’s. It’s as much a spoiler as knowing that Vader is Luke’s father.)

Basically, if you want to write a science fiction story, like I’m doing with my superhero world, but you don’t want to have to write out the wild, unexplainable stuff, go for the copout and say that it’s “sufficiently advanced technology.”

Rule 2: Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule as an explanation should explain it before being allowed to continue.

2001: A Space Odyssey, possibly Clarke's most famous work.

2001: A Space Odyssey, possibly Clarke’s most famous work.

Okay, here’s the kicker. You can’t just throw it out there and say, “Oh, but Clarke said…” No, I’m sorry. It doesn’t work like that. In what way is the tech advanced? What is the field that we’re talking about more advance than we currently understand it? You see, there are a few areas of the world that are fairly well understood. Sure, there are things that scientists are always needing to learn, but the mechanics of them is pretty much down. Biology, chemistry, and Newtonian physics. It’s when you get to the deeper stuff that you can start playing around with things.

I realize I’m not a scientist, and I’ll probably tick a few of them off with this, but here are some ideas. Subatomic physics are pretty well understood by scientists, but even so, they’re still learning about them, and that’s actually how they consider the possibility of more dimensions. Atoms might disappear and reappear somewhere else. Yes, they can teleport atoms, but only atoms at the moment.

Another thing to consider is the theoretical concepts that haven’t yet been shown to be verifiable, such as the existence of wormholes. Some may think it’s an outdated and cliché concept, but I think there is some validity to including it in a science fiction story…if it’s done right.

You see, I’m not saying just make up some kind of unknown quantity such as dilithium, even though that’s exactly what I did when I came up with the Østergard Singularity Drive to provide near infinite power and gravity to a starship. I’m saying that using Clarke’s Third Rule is a copout, but it’s a copout that you can use if you know how to properly b-s it.

Rule 3: Whoever cites Clarke’s Third Rule to justify technobabble should just put down the mouse and step away slowly from the keyboard.

Hal 9000, the super-intelligent computer from "2001: A Space Odyssey".

Hal 9000, the super-intelligent computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

Okay, I take back a bit of what I said. No, not really. I want to clarify. Using Clarke’s Third Rule to explain why your tech isn’t comprehended today can be done right if you know how to properly b-s it. Technobabble is not doing it right. Trying to sound all scientific in order to convince your audience that you know what you’re talking about doesn’t work. Here’s a case where this is done right: Battlestar: Galactica. In the remake, they didn’t use technobabble. In fact, they made a point of avoiding it. FTL worked. We didn’t need to know why. AI was sentient and could communicate over light years. We didn’t need to know why. It was a technology on a level that most people today cannot understand. Given enough time and enough genius, someone today could possibly reverse engineer it (if it was an actual, real thing, that is), but most people would see it as magic.

Really, you don’t need to lean on technobabble to solve the day. Let your characters do that. If you think that falling back of sufficiently advanced technology is too much of a hand wave, then go ahead and write your hard science fiction. Enjoy. I’m going to stick to saying my superheroes can fly because of technology from the distant future.

“Leech” by Jason Roll

“Leech” by JasonRoll (Click to view the original on deviantART.)

Here’s another great picture from Jason Roll’s deviantART page. I love the use of greens to show the industrial atmosphere, and the airships are well-designed to show that, yes, they can fly, but it seems to be vague enough to avoid technobabble.

Religion: You can’t avoid it, but you can make it what you want.

Okay, so, last night, I put up a blog about religion. Specifically, about the different ways that deity or deities can be viewed within religion. It was more of an overview than anything, and I’m certain that there’s more to say on the subject. Now I want to go into the why. Why should you bother including religion in your constructed world? You may be an atheist and nonreligious, or even opposed to religion. You may be religious and not want to include anything that doesn’t mirror your own. These are both valid concerns. Really, they’re the same concern .

Why would you include a sociocultural point of reference in your fictional world that disagrees with the real world?

That’s the concern.

If that’s the case, then why are you making a fictional world to begin with? You’re creating a fictional world, but making a world is making everything that would be in a world. Religion is a part of the world as much as settlements and towns, even if it’s organized  irreligion. If you don’t want to make a religion, go the Gene Roddenberry route and make humanity “evolve past religion”, but even in Star Trek, the Prime Directive is treated religiously as the guide to all things good. Breaking the Prime Directive is treated in the same way as blasphemy. If you want to make only your religion, then make it allegory.

My point is that, when you’re making a full-fleshed and believable world, you need to take it seriously and to not take it seriously. It’s not this world, so you shouldn’t be so serious about copying this world. At the same time, if it’s supposed to be two or three hundred years into the future, you should consider using religions that exist, but consider that things will change. I have one religion in a science fiction world I’m developing that doesn’t appear until the early twenty-first century, because do we really believe that no new religions will form?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when creating a religion for a science fiction story:

  1. Is your bias getting in the way? Are you removing religion from your world because you want it removed, or because you sincerely believe that will die out on its own?

    Take Joss Whedon’s Firefly as an example. Whedon isn’t religious, and he certainly isn’t Christian, but he still had the presence of mind to include multiple forms of Christianity five centuries into the future. That’s a case of someone, who may not agree with a religion, understanding that the religion won’t simply go away.

  1. Are there sects or denominations that seem to be merging in their ideas? What new ideas might come out of what’s already here? In what way would a charismatic leadership be able to form a new religion out of what’s here?

    When creating a new world, whether a future world or a fantasy world, it’s a good idea to research the topics you’re using. I don’t mean to become a doctoral student on everything, but to at least have a passing knowledge of religion, society, culture, and the rest of the building blocks of the world. Religion forms through theology as much as it does through the charisma of teachers, and the social surroundings play a major part in it. Look into how other religions and sects formed through history and what was going on around them, what might have led people to that.

  1. Think of what new changes would happen in society that would prompt an entirely new religion? How would the religious react to terraforming planets, mining asteroids, or simply living in space?

    Might there be a religion formed around faster-than-light travel, or perhaps about opposing FTL? Might a religion believe that terraforming, or making an uninhabitable planet inhabitable, is the highest form of worship? Might a religion react to the vastness of space by becoming a cold warrior race that worships the entropic nature of the universe?

When you’re making a religion for fantasy, you might ask yourself these.

  1. Does my bias get in the way?

    It’s a bit more forgivable to allow religious bias in fantasy, since you’re making the world up from scratch and not reinventing the real world. Also, fantasy has been used for religious allegory for centuries. At one point, John Bunyon wrote about giants and monsters in Pilgrim’s Progress, and in the last hundred years, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman have added to the debate with Lewis’s Christian series The Chronicles of Narnia and Pullman’s atheist series His Dark Materials.

    I’ll just say this. If you have religious bias in writing your fantasy, make sure that it’s intentional. There’s little that’s worse than an unintentional bias.

  1. What is the actual cosmology of the world and how would people react to that?

    The nature of religion is still important, but knowing if there really are gods and goddesses, angels and demons, or other spirits out there, would really help to know how religion would be affected. Do the deities take part in the world? Do they physically order the world and form the religion? People can get it wrong, easily. A fantasy world doesn’t require the presence of deity, simply the presence of magic.

  1. Are there any more questions I need to ask?

    Okay, I realize that this one is a copout. I didn’t have a third question for the fantasy section, so I just added this one. Still, it’s important to never stop asking questions. Was there something I missed? Was there something I could have done better? If you have a story set down already that delineates your world, then it’s canonized. But even then, it’s not that you don’t have to change it; it’s that you can’t. I’m not saying never write your story out, but never stop trying to figure out if there’s more you can do, maybe in later stories in that world.

Genres in World Building

Genres of World Building

Fantasy, Science Fiction, and More

Fantasy

Epic Fantasy

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.

Dark Fantasy

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.

  1. Are there vampires? If so, what are they like?
  2. Are there werewolves or shape shifters? What kinds?
  3. Is there magic or witchcraft? What kind and is it evil or benign?
  4. What kinds of demons, ghosts, or incorporeal beings are there?
  5. 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.

Contemporary Fantasy

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.

  1. Does the public know that magic exists? If not, why? If so, how does it affect them?
  2. What magical races are there? Is it just one culture’s magic, or all of them?
  3. How is witchcraft and magic handled? Are witches evil, benign, or neutral?

Science Fiction

Space Travel

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:

  1. Are there aliens/nonhumans? If so, why didn’t humanity know about them sooner?
  2. 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.
  3. How far out from the Earth is it? Confined to the Solar System? The Galaxy? Or is it even a different galaxy?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

  1. Are there aliens? If so, how does the public not know about them?
  2. Does the public know about the hi-tech stuff? If not, why?
  3. Is there a government conspiracy? Are they evil, neutral, or benign?

Alternate History

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.