K. B. Hoyle’s Top Ten Tips for World Building an Alternate Universe
Any writer of any genre has to be able to successfully suspend the disbelief of their readers. Writers of speculative genres such as Science Fiction and Fantasy have an extra challenge. Not only do they have to suspend the disbelief of their readers, but they have to do so in such a way that an entirely invented world is accepted as plausible, and even desirable.
I automatically think of the blockbuster movie Avatar when I consider this topic. The screenwriters built their alternate universe so successfully that there were people in the audience who couldn’t separate fiction from reality. Help and suicide hotlines were set up in the wake of that movie for people who fell into deep depression over their desire⎯and inability⎯to go to Pandora. On the one hand, obviously this is not the desired response one wants to ellicit! On the other hand, I can’t help but admire the skill of the world building that took place in the screenwriting. Not only did their audience buy it, but they bought it and, in some cases, found it more desirable than reality. For my own writing, this confirmed a conviction I’ve long held:
People want to be transported, and it’s the fiction writer’s job to transport them successfully.
So how is this done? I’ve had to wrestle with this over the past seven years that I’ve been writing, and I’ve come up with some principles to abide by.
1) Ground the alternate universe in reality.
Maybe it seems odd to begin this way, but I firmly believe that no writer can create something ex nihilo. We all write from a repertoire of experiences and knowledge we have stored away, even if we can’t remember how, when, or why we came up with something for our stories. So when world building, your alternate universe should be consistent with reality. There are a number of ways to do this, and much of it takes place in the character building I mention below, but I think one of the best science fiction examples is found in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. In the first book, when the character Ransom disembarks on Mars, he observes trees and mountains that are impossibly tall and skinny with heavy tops. The smaller gravitational pull on Mars allows these sorts of natural formations to exist without toppling over, and Lewis at once succeeds in creating a fantastic foreign environment that simultaneously makes the reader feel like, “Oh sure, that makes sense!” His alternate universe is consistent with reality, consistent with the laws of physics, and suspension of disbelief is achieved.
2) Focus on character building.
People your universe with characters real people will relate to and care about. Ultimately, the alternate universe only comes alive through the characters. They are what the reader invests in, and they’re what the reader follows through the story. The reader is a shadow of a character or characters and experiences the world you’ve created through foreign eyes. If you’ve written weak, poorly conceived characters, it won’t matter how much beautiful planning you’ve put into your world building because the reader won’t be able to become immersed in it.
3) Plan ahead.
I’m sure I sound like a broken record with this for anyone who’s ever followed my blog, but I really can’t stress enough the importance of planning ahead, especially in regard to world building. If you don’t plan out your alternate universe in detail before you write, your reader might be able to tell, and once they can identify the weaknesses in your world, suspension of disbelief wans. Along these same lines…
4) Do your homework.
This is part of the planning process, obviously, but you must discipline yourself to work on the research aspect of your planning. Some of this will be ongoing as you write, but much must also be done before you start. For example, if you’re going to be using genetic manipulation as a major catalyst in your plot, make sure you actually know how genetics works! This doesn’t mean you have to become an expert in genetics, but knowing the basic principles is a must. The same applies to any aspect of your story that is grounded in reality.
5) Become a resident of your alternate universe.
Imagine yourself living in your alternate universe. What would you see? Touch? Smell? Hear? What would you desire to experience? How would you react upon being introduced to this alternate universe? Answer these questions honestly, and then apply the answers to your characters. If you can’t imagine yourself reacting to your alternate universe the ways you have your characters reacting to it, then neither will your readers.
6) Write what you know.
Yes, even in science fiction, you must write what you know. Piggybacking on the example of genetics I used above, if you know absolutely nothing about genetics, but you want to use it as your story catalyst, then maybe you should re-think your story. While you can (and should) always do research, you should also start with a basis of something you know or are at least interested in. And if you don’t know anything about it, but are interested in it, then be prepared to put in a long haul of homework. Readers aren’t stupid. They can tell when you’re making stuff up.
7) Treat the alternate universe like a character in the story.
Your alternate universe should never be static. Is the world we live in static? No! And neither should your created world be. Treat it like a character in the sense that it should also be dynamic. I’m not suggesting you should give it actual thoughts and emotions (unless that’s your story premise!), but you should imagine how the universe would naturally respond to the conflicts in your stories.
8) Be thorough.
Most readers can see through a flimsy, shabbily-crafted alternate world. You must create more than a façade; the reader can’t just look at the world from one angle, but be able to immerse in it and evaluate it from many angles and perspectives. Be prepared to answer tiny, detail-oriented questions from readers who may come to know your work in ways you never anticipated. Are you creating a world where everyone is purple? Be prepared to know, and explain, why they are purple. “I just liked the idea” doesn’t work for the astute reader. Does it help them camouflage into their environment? Does it keep them cool during hot, sunny days? Is it because their blood is purple? Why is this an optimal color for their environment, and what does it say about their identity? These are the sorts of thorough, nitpicky things you must figure out as the writer. And let me tell you, from experience, readers are super impressed when you can flawlessly defend your reasoning behind aspects of your alternate universe!
9) Go big or go home.
Like comedy, or performance of any sort, I suppose, you have to be fully committed to your craft to sell it to your audience. Go big, or go home. Demonstrate that you buy your alternate reality, and your readers probably will, too. Be your own biggest champion. Sometimes this involves making risky decisions when you’re figuring out the particulars. More than once when I’ve been writing, I’ve stopped and thought, “This is too much. Either my readers are going to buy it and love it, or they’re going to not buy it, think it’s cheesy, and hate it.” Usually when this happens, I evaluate if I truly think it will add to the secondary world I’m creating. If the answer is yes, then full tilt ahead!
10)Choose your reveal.
I’ve saved what is possibly the most important one for the end ⎯ choosing your reveal. A book I use with my creative writing students says one of the primary functions of an author is to be an Enchanter. I would take that one step further and say that an author must be a Manipulator. You manipulate the experience of your readers. You may have crafted the most beautiful, thorough, grounded-in-reality, imaginative world the reading community has ever seen, but if you botch how you reveal that world to the readers, you may as well throw all your hard work in the trash. Choosing voice, perspective, and tense, as well as through which character/characters your reader will experience the unfolding of the world is of crucial importance. Some of you may choose a more in medias res approach, but I like to perform my reveal through virgin eyes. In my first dystopian novel, BREEDER, the perspective is limited (first person present) to Pria, a character escaping a sheltered home to experience the real world for the first time. Because it’s all new to Pria, it’s also all new to the reader, and they experience her wonder and shock at things that other characters find mundane. It’s also a slow unfolding that way, as the reader only learns what Pria learns as she learns it. Imagine how much wonder would be lost from a story like Harry Potter, for example, if the reader got to jump around from character to character and learn things all at once. Be diligent and purposeful in choosing your voice and perspective. It can make all the difference in how your alternate universe is received by your readers!