As a relatively new author, one thing I’m constantly focused on is how to build the most compelling worlds for my readers. This means not just things that are cool or make you say “Wow!” when you’re supposed to be sleeping, but all the details that make a story and its characters feel real and thus relatable. So, here are some of the rules I try to follow…as originally published by Reading Cafe on March 5, 2022.
Ten Sci-Fi World-Building Rules
As with all systems, you can probably come up with a hundred rules for world building, some vital, some trivial, and spend the rest of your writing life making sure you’re doing things “right.” There is no absolute right in science fiction world building, but there are pretty basic rules that will help you avoid obvious issues that will cost you readers.
The following are ten of those rules, which are a bit random because they reflect where I am in my writing career and process. A year ago, I probably focused on more basic issues. A year from now, I’ll be worried about something else, like what to do with all this money (buy one gumball, or two?). These are the ten that most concern me in my current WIPs.
1 / Know why you’re building worlds in the first place
All of my published works take place on Earth within 100 years of the present, in locations you can find on a map today (or close). The world building for these books was therefore the minimum necessary to encompass new technology, politics and the occasional alien invasion. I wanted this proximity to reality because each book is clearly about today’s society and/or warnings for things to come. You, however, might want to escape the planet, solar system, universe and time-space continuum entirely. Which is great. Just keep in mind that the more you leave the known, the greater obligation you have to build a world the reader can understand…and appreciate.
So ask yourself, are you building a world because it’s a cool way to procrastinate, and it’s fun, or because that’s what you need to tell the story? Neither answer is correct, but the more time you spending building the less time you spend writing…unless you’re building a world that will be used for multiple works, in which case, build away.
2 / Be internally consistent
Whether you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, the structure and behavior of your world should remain consistent by whatever set of rules you’ve defined for that world. If they’re not, you’re going to lose readers and, if you care, get worse reviews.
In Dune, there are rules about (not having) computers and artificial intelligence that allow for the semi-religious power dynamic of the books (not to mention the dependence on spice for navigation in space). Frank Herbert can’t then have robots magically appear later on to solve some poorly thought-out plot issue.
In Star Wars, you can’t jump straight from one point to another in space without running into things, which at least retroactively explains why the Kessel Run record was expressed in distance and not time (using the shortest safe route). The same franchise runs into massive consistency problems in later installments when, for instance, we learn that you can fly any ship into another at “lightspeed” (which in Star Wars is much faster than the speed of light) and destroy it, making it obvious that you could have obliterated the Death Star or anything else just by ramming it with a small ship. This breaks the plotline of almost every Star Wars film.
So, if you give readers a rule, you need to follow it unless there’s a clear and rational reason not to, and all other rules should make sense in that context. To understand how hard this is, look at Marvel’s Avengers. It’s practically impossible to keep clear which superhero has which relative power because they keep changing according to the needs of a movie or scene. We overlook this because we love the movies, but you probably won’t be as lucky in your books…
3 / If it’s in the near future, there should be a clear path from here to there
In writing Run Lab Rat Run, I had in mind a series of prequels that explained how the world got to where it was (as a hierarchical genetic dystopia), and thus left a lot of this backstory out of the book. A few readers asked how all this madness happened, and I realized that (absent the prequels), I’d left the backstory too vague. I can’t fix that now, but in future novels, this will be a key checklist item for me. Meanwhile, the prequels are coming!
4 / If it’s in the distant future or after a disaster that breaks the connection between the past and present, that should be clear
This is rarely a problem, as authors love to write about disasters / end of the world / plagues / meteors / viruses / invasions / loud noises that result in the rapid decline of society so they can talk about a woman and her dog lost in the radioactive wastelands of wherever, but it’s vitally important that you as an author understand what happened, when, why and how it impacts the world of your story–and communicate enough of this to give the reader an anchor.
Don’t get me wrong; sometimes this horrific event is the very thing you want to hide. In Planet of the Apes, the surprise is that the planet of brainy but mean apes is …Earth! Spoiler? Hmm. Anyway, you might be intentionally hiding parts of the world’s history to allow for this type of reveal, but it should still be very clear how the world got from A to B (at least by the end). I’m assuming the apes drank too much Red Bull.
5 / No matter what the world looks like, your story should be more about people / beings and the obstacles they face than the technology itself
I remember reading Larry Niven’s short stories, including one about how someone died inside an allegedly impenetrable General Products hull. But even with a black hole, killer gravity, an invincible ship and concerns about warranty violations, the story is still about a guy trying to solve a problem before he dies. Which is basically the same story as The Martian, where we care about Mark Watney a lot more than the technology he’s trying to salvage.
6 / You should have a massive backstory that never goes in your book
Because this gives your world a feeling of fullness / richness that you don’t get if there’s just a skeleton and no flesh. In world building articles, they’ll often talk about this in terms of hard vs. soft world building, which is different from hard vs. soft science fiction. Hard SF concerns itself heavily with science and the details of technology, while soft SF tends to use technology and science as (important) background that’s not central to the story. Hard world building is about how much of the world you know and show to the reader (a lot), whereas soft world building means more is implied and less is shown. I tend to think that even if you’re writing soft SF and doing soft world-building, you should still know far more about the world than the reader does.
The challenge here is, of course, that you’ve built this cool world and you want to show it to everyone. Trust me, almost no one cares. Share the parts that move the story forward and hide the rest. If you want to add adjunct materials to your website, great (I have a massive glossary for Run Lab Rat Run), but leave it out of the book. The story will move faster, the reader will stay more engaged, and your books will do better.
Why develop all this if you’re not showing it? Because you need to know how, when, where and why things happen even if the reader doesn’t. Otherwise, you’ll have trouble fleshing out the story and remaining internally consistent (See #2).
7 / The same is true of characters
Meaning, you should know the backstory of your characters even if the reader doesn’t need to. Where did they go to space laser college? Did they graduate with a minor in Babble Fish? What’s the scar from? Is they cybernetic right arm haunted or just made by the lowest bidder? Do they have past trauma their working through, and how does it affect them in your story? Do they prefer Twizzlers or Red Vines (there is a right answer, and it rhymes with lead mines).
Whenever I read something by Margaret Atwood, for instance, I know she knows way more about the characters than she’s telling, and that brings them to life. You know, until they die horribly. And then you’re really sad about that.
8 / If you’re doing hard science fiction, get your science right
Let me correct that: If you’re writing anything that is based on fact, even if it’s only the facts in your world, get it right. Don’t leave the reader picking up your bad math, physics, chemistry, laser optics or (in fantasy) spells. That’s not their job. This is especially true if you’re writing in areas that have…hobbyists. Enthusiasts? For instance, never screw up military ranks, military history, guns (even space guns), gravity, relativistic math, time travel paradox magicology, genetics, etc. At least one of your readers is going to have a PhD in that thing, and they’ll let everyone know you screwed up.
9 / In soft SF, the feel of your world matters more than the details (but see #2)
And because the feel of your world and its characters matter more than detailed scientific exposition, I’d suggest changing the minimum number of things from present reality and culture to tell your story. If having nineteen genders isn’t relevant or important, then leave it out. If you’re not comfortable changing languages and dialects, don’t. Tell your story using the world you build; don’t let the world take over your story. For instance, I love the lingo in Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner, but I try to minimize linguistic quirks in what I write so I’m not constantly explaining what a word means. Change a few things that matter, and move on. A little goes a long way.
10 / Minimize jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, etc.
One thing I know is technically “wrong” about Run Lab Rat Run is that there will be far more changes in language than I present in the book (whether my predicted future comes to pass or not). The reason is simple; if you’re not a native of that future world, you’ll need a while to learn the language, culture, usage, etc., and you don’t have time for full-immersion language class in the middle of your book. Your novel isn’t Lord of the Rings (sorry), where you can spend time developing entire languages and the reader will go along for the ride. They probably won’t. They won’t even look at a glossary if you put it in the book. You’ll just frustrate and lose your audience. For instance, I used “WIP” in the intro paragraphs (for Work in Progress). Many probably knew what it meant, but many didn’t, and I didn’t gain anything by using the acronym.
11 / Have a Little Fun
World building is a blast, and a great way to procrastinate. Don’t focus just on the serious stuff. What changes / new things are in this world that your reader will find humorous, disgusting or both? Put some of that in there. Science Fiction is about imagining alternate worlds and futures, including all of their glorious absurdity. If your dominant species is dogs, there should be some butt sniffing and dry humping because that’s what dogs do. If it’s about genetic engineering, like some of my books, then there’s going to be some random, stupid, irresponsible genetic experimentation that’s worth a joke or two (e.g., the sex model references in RLRR). Include eleven items in a list of ten. Get crazy.
In Blade Runner’s infamous “I only do eyes scene,” a replicant eyeball is placed on a man’s shoulder. It’s disturbing, threatening, and darkly funny, but it also reveals how truly synthetic the replicants are. In The Martian, we learn that you can’t grow potatoes on Mars without poop, which is both funny and pretty essential to not dying. If you’re enjoying your world, your readers will too. Unless they’re Vogons, in which case, run before the poetry starts.
It might surprise you to know that I’m not the first one to write about world building in science fiction. Here are some other articles that do a good job, especially the John Fox one. Most of them conflate SF with Fantasy as if all speculative fiction is just one big blob, but the rules are pretty much the same (just replace magic with science or vice versa).
- The Craft and Rules (https://screencraft.org/blog/the-craft-and-rules-of-worldbuilding-in-science-fiction-fantasy/)
- The Ultimate Guide (https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/the-ultimate-guide-to-world-building-how-to-write-fantasy-sci-fi-and-real-life-worlds/)
- How to Master (https://thejohnfox.com/2021/03/how-to-master-worldbuilding-a-guide-to-science-fiction-and-fantasy/)
Thanks your time. I look forward to hearing about your new worlds.