John Hewitt's Blog

Creating a believable world

By Sharon Caseburg

One of the greatest difficulties Speculative Fiction authors experience when writing stories in this genre is in their ability to provide a believable environment for their readers.

Any kind of speculative fiction, whether it be hard-core Science Fiction, Time Travel, Horror, or Fantasy requires readers to put aside the conventions they have become accustomed to in the “real world” for the world the author presents in the story. This of course holds true for speculative romance stories as well. For the most part, readers of these genres are more than willing to put aside the customs of the world they live in, for the environment the author has created. However, when the author does not provide a believable realm, readers can easily become disenchanted with both the author’s world and in turn, the story itself.

Basically, this translates to the more the author knows about the world he or she is creating, the more confidently the author can write about it. If it is obvious to readers that the author fully believes in this alternative world, then, more than likely, readers will follow.

So how can the author successfully prepare for the creation of an alternative environment?

The answer may sound easier than it really is: work out ALL the details of your story before submitting your final draft to a publisher.

Although this point may seem obvious, it is more difficult to perform than it sounds. No New World can successfully come into being without the author first performing proper research. Whatever you do, don’t entirely make up your New World as you write your story! Map out everything you can possibly think of before you write about your realm. This activity will help make the actual writing about the environment much easier and will prevent any glaring inconstancies, the bane of any speculative fiction reader, from occurring.

One easy way to get started on creating a believable environment for your story is to pick up a reference book on world building from your local library or check the Internet for good sources of information. Use a variety of search engines when doing your research on the Internet. This will give you the widest pool to draw from. Be thorough in your background exercise and consider questions about your realm that may never come to figure in your story. You would be surprised at how knowing details that do not figure prominently or at all in your story can enrich your story-telling technique and help you in creating a lush and vibrant landscape for your readers.

Here are a few things to consider about the world you are creating. Answering as many of the following questions as you can will help you shape a strong, believable world; a realm you will be confident in writing about; a world that your readers can believe in. As well, don’t limit yourself to this list. When you get down to it, there are thousands of other details you can consider; however the following list can help you get started:

  • Is the New World predominantly like the one we currently live in? Is it different? How is it different?
  • What is the environment like on your New World? Is the air quality good? Is the air polluted? Is there an Ozone layer? Do civilizations live in protected environments? How are these environments constructed? How are these environments controlled?
  • Is there water on your world?
  • How does the sun rise? How does it set? In fact, is there a sun?
  • What are the life-sustaining factors of your world?
  • What is the nature of your society? For example, is it predominantly agrarian or is it technological? Is it modeled after a real civilization that once lived on this earth? If it is, research everything you can about that civilization. It will help you decide what is similar and what is different. If the world is technological, to what degree?
  • Is your world contemporary, futuristic or alternatively historical? If it is futuristic, is it far-futuristic or near-futuristic.
  • What year does your story take place in?
  • What calendar does your civilization observe? In fact does it even observe a calendar?
  • What seasons exist in the realm?
  • What is the plant life like in your realm? In fact is there any plant life?
  • What is the style of clothing worn?
  • What currencies are used?
  • What mode of transportation is used? If you are inventing one, how does it function? Is it petrol powered? Solar powered? Powered by another source? Describe the source in detail.
  • Does the military exist in your world? How is the military structured?
  • What is the hierarchy in the elected officials of the realm? Are there elected officials in the realm? Is it a monarchy? A democracy? Do elders exist in the community? What role do they play? Is there a hierarchy that is adhered to with these individuals?
  • If you are inventing new races of life forms, be prepared to make detailed notes about their societies as well.
  • How do people communicate with each other? Is communication verbal?
  • Are there computers on the world? Are they the same as here?
  • Do people read and write?
  • Does telepathy exist?
  • What is the same in the New World as in this world?
  • What is different?
  • How do people celebrate?
  • How do people grieve?
  • How are the young in society treated?
  • How are the elderly in society treated?
  • What is the average life span of your characters?
  • What is the diet on your New World?
  • And anything and everything else you can think of about your New World.

Remember that you are the creator of your New World. And you are all-powerful. While you may choose not to answer every question on this list, or perhaps you will create new questions to consider, knowing as much as possible about your New World will result in a more believable environment for your readers. The more intimately you yourself know your new environment, the more deftly you can convey its intricacies, even the unseen ones, to your audience.
Sharon Caseburg’s work has appeared in Visions and Voices, The Writing Parent, Freefall, Backwater Review and forthcoming in Pottersfield Portfolio.