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How to Build a Universe: Worldbuilding for Science Fiction

Updated on February 5, 2013
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Introduction

Every science fictional world, from the galaxy far, far away of Star Wars to the gritty, high-tech world of the Matrix, is the product of quite a bit of worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is a fun and enjoyable hobby, and if you're writing a science fiction novel, it can be quite rewarding.

The problem with worldbuilding science fiction settings is that science fiction requires more work and more rigorous rules than a lot of other genres do. If you're writing literary fiction, for example, your readers will probably know, say, where the characters' food comes from and how gravity works. On an alien planet, though, such basic rules won't apply.

This is where worldbuilding comes in. Worldbuilding is just figuring out how your world works. It can be as simple as building out which families live in a small down, or as complicated as crafting an entire solar system. You can do it just for your own amusement, or make a world as the setting for a story.

If you're writing a science fiction novel, I'd definitely recommend putting some time into worldbuilding. Thinking through the details of life in your world will make sure that your story is both consistent and more interesting.


Basic Worldbuilding

  • First, decide what tone you want your world to have. Is it a space opera- big, dramatic, full of pomp and glitz and strange worlds? Is it a noir-ish detective story set on a near-future Earth? Is it a hopeful story? A cynical one?
  • Next, figure out exactly what world, or worlds, it's going to take place in. If it's an Earth-centric story, then skip the next step.
  • You're going to need to figure out the solar system that your world is located in, and that involves a lot of technical work. For example: What sort of star does it orbit around? How irregular is its orbit? This is the hardest part of science fiction worldbuilding, because it involves a lot of astronomical know-how. Poul Anderson wrote a really great essay called "The Creation of Imaginary Worlds" on this very topic.
  • Decide what sorts of beings inhabit your world. Is your galaxy only inhabited with humans (like in Firefly or Aasimov's Foundation novels)? If there are creatures that aren't human, where are they from? Are they aliens? Robots? Genetically engineered organisms?

These are the basic steps you need to worldbuild science fiction. But if you're writing a science fiction novel, there's a little more work you need to do.

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Culture

The next thing you need to do is figure out what the culture of your world (or worlds) is like. This covers everything from architecture to clothing to religion and politics. This is the 'fun' part, and I'm not going to get in the way of you writing a science fiction novel. But here's a few things to keep in mind.

  • Cultures adapt to the area that they're in and the conditions they're in. There's a reason why monotheistic religions tend to get established among desert herders, for example.
  • Cultures change as conditions change. However,things do tend to get 'kept around' long after the conditions that inspired them have left. For example, the United States Electoral College, or the Royal Family in Great Britain.
  • Your character is part of the world that they inhabit. They shouldn't have views that radically differ from the ideals of the mainstream of the world without good reason.

Conclusion and Resources

Writing a science fiction novel doesn't have to be a struggle, and doing worldbuilding ahead of time will make it much easier. With a little bit of thought and some practice, you can create worlds that your audience will want to explore, worlds just as fascinating as any in published science fiction.

Resources

http://limyaael.livejournal.com/- This is geared at fantasy writers, but good for anyone who would like to put more thought into their worldbuilding. She covers topics like 'how weather conditions affect your world', making constructed languages, and how social change and propaganda affect your fictional world.

hollylisle.com- Geared at writers of all genres and skill levels; Ms. Lisle is one of my writing idols. She's got a plethora of really fantastic articles on worldbuilding and language creation, and one of her articles specifically focuses on worldbuilding in science fiction.

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