World Building, part 2

Last week I covered three guidelines for creating a convincing world in fantasy and science fiction. I’ve got three more to add to that list.

1. Do your research

This may seem counter-intuitive or unnecessary for something that isn’t real anyway, but some of the best sci-fi and fantasy is well researched before it’s written.

My post on natural laws in the previous world building list could be part of this “research” aspect. Things have to make logical sense within the world that you create.

If you have an alien planet with a gravity of ten times that of earth’s gravity, chances are that the dominant species on that planet will not be humanoid up-right bipeds. A creature with a human-like form and physiology would not be able to withstand the intense gravity. Let your creativity flow, but do a little research first.

For another example, let’s say you’re writing a fantasy story about a medieval-like kingdom battling an invading army. Both sides are using bows and arrows, swords, horse-drawn chariots, and the like. However, if you have an army of women bounding through the treetops, swinging from branch to branch shooting at the enemy with longbows, you might want to stop and do some research.

Longbows can stand six feet high, and shoot an arrow with enough force to pierce through thick metal armor. The bows are much too large and heavy to be wielded by someone bounding through the treetops. This is not to say that you have to become an expert on medieval archery to write a fantasy battle (I probably got some of the details wrong myself in that little illustration). But my point is that a little research on some of the key topics could save you embarrassment later.

2. Names and Languages

Many writers like to invent languages—or at least words and phrases in other languages. Most of us aren’t as adept as Tolkien was, writing several full-fledged dialects of his Elven language. But inventing a few words, or even a system of grammar and syntax, can be a fun challenge and can add a layer of realism to any fantasy story.

Character names should reflect the language, if there is one, and should definitely reflect the setting and the culture. Just imagine how jarring and inappropriate it would have been if Tolkien had tossed in a Braedan and an Emma in with Elrond and Galadriel, or a Josh and Mary in with Théoden and Éowyn.

In my current WIP, I haven’t invented any languages, but I do have characters from several different cultures—and the names are distinct to each culture. One set of creatures—the rulers of the woodland areas—have names that reflect who they are: Forest Dreamsong, Moon in the West, and Summer River. Another kind of creatures have names like Sydämen-Syöjä, Iku-Turso, and Ajatar. There’s no confusion as to which character might belong to which culture.

3. Consistency and Continuity

This is really the most important of all of these world building guidelines, I think, and one that I’ve mentioned repeatedly. No matter how much research you do, or what natural and cultural laws you establish or how many names you invent, the key is to be consistent.

Many readers can forgive a glaring lack of research if the element still fits within the context of the story and is consistent throughout. But I can almost guarantee that readers will be less forgiving if you forget halfway through your story that your alien race breathes only methane. Or if the kingdom in your epic fantasy forbids women to wear purple, and the princess goes out in a violet gown and no one bats an eye, the readers will notice and wonder about it.

With sci-fi and fantasy, you can build any kind of world you want, and that’s what makes those genres so fun. Just remember to establish the rules of your world, do a little research to make those rules believable, and then stick with it! Continuity keeps even the most absurdly fantastical story together.

Any other world building guidelines or suggestions you’d like to share? Please comment!

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8 thoughts on “World Building, part 2

  1. Details- even little throwaway ones that have no particular relevance to the plot- can take a setting from just some convenient place for plot to happen and turn it real. Tolkien is one of the more dramatic examples, where every stream they crossed had multiple names and a long history, but it made the world feel like it was a real place that the characters lived in, not something that existed only because of them. And, if you’re sneaky enough, you could hide a Chekov’s Gun in amongst the other little details. JK Rowling was a master of that one…

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    • Yes – the little throwaway details. That’s a great one to add to this list! Quickly-mentioned background details, whether in-jokes or not, definitely add depth and realism to any setting. Tolkien was indeed an over-the-top master at that sort of thing; but thankfully for the rest of us, such realism can still be achieved without having to invent six languages and a millennia-long back-story. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Research for a Fantasy Story « StorytellerGirl

  3. Pingback: Storytelling Techniques from Babylon 5: World-Building | StorytellerGirl

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