7 Deadly Sins of SFF World-Building

Writing science fiction and fantasy is fun, and in my opinion, world-building is the bestest most funnest part. Whether you’re writing urban, historical, or alt-world fantasy, or a science fiction set in a galaxy far far away, world-building is a crucial part of the story-telling process. The world (or universe!) you create must be complex and multi-layered; it must be a place your characters operate in and interact with; and it must set the stage for your plot. It’s no easy task, and there are countless pitfalls at every stage of the process of creating a world.

Read to jump in? Here are my top cliches and tropes to avoid, listed in no particular order.

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Basing your other world TOO much on Earth

This is one of the biggest and easiest traps to fall into. Earth’s history and many cultures are far-reaching and complex, and it can be tempting to borrow elements whole-sale without bothering to do much work creatively. Think of how many famous fantasy worlds resemble Medieval-era Earth completely, right on down to the rampant sexism and casual racism (*cough* Westeros *cough*). There’s nothing wrong with using our world’s history and cultures to inspire your made-up world, but make sure it doesn’t become a lazy short-cut. If there’s sexism or lack of diversity in your world, you need a better reason than “that’s how things were back then.” You’re writing fantasy, not historical fiction. Get creative!

Over-use of common nouns

You know what I’m talking about…

The Keeper of the Shadow Throne awaits the Birth of the Kindred.

A Rim-born Elder must name the Crystal Celebrant on the Day of Undoing.

Don’t get me wrong–naming things is half the fun of writing fantasy and science fiction. And capitalizing a regular old word or concept can definitely lend it a sort of otherworldly gravitas. Just be careful not to over-use this trope, or your world will quickly begin to feel lazy and unoriginal.

perfect_planet-626x1024Making your races/cultures/societies too homogenous

So the indigo-skinned Topworlders enslaved the ruby-eyed Burrow Folk a hundred years ago, and now they hate each other with a vengeance. That’s fine, but does every Topworlder relish owning a Burrow slave? And do all Burrow Folk agree with the politics of the Burrow Queen who surrendered to the Topworlders’ superior technology instead of fighting for their land?

Here’s where taking cues from humanity is a good thing. I could strike up a conversation with the person sitting beside me on the bus and within ten minutes we’d be able to think of at least a few things we disagreed on–politics, religion, whether cilantro tastes like soap. Races, cultures, even sub-cultures don’t have monolithic beliefs that trump individuality. Make sure the individuals in your alien races or fantasy societies reflect this diversity.

Introducing a world-changing technology/magic without taking into account all its ramifications

“It’s like our world, but everyone can teleport!”

Yikes. The minute you start talking about wide-spread teleportation, it ceases to be anything like our world. How could it be? Something as potentially life-changing as that would have first-order, second-order, and third-order effects on the way a world was structured and the way its citizens operated within it. Do your world the service of thinking through massive changes in technology or magical power, and what kind of structural changes might arise from that.

Language that doesn’t reflect the world

Contextual short-hands and idioms are rife in the English language (or whatever language you’re writing in!) and they can really trip you up if you’re not careful. This is something I’m constantly correcting in my own worlds–if a concept or idea doesn’t exist in the world you’re creating, why would the character make any kind of reference to it? Good examples of this might be “inching along” if the unit of measurement isn’t inches, or “red as a rose” when there aren’t roses in space.

paperback04Not thinking about minutiae

Do you ever have that moment when you’re watching an intense adventure movie and you think to yourself “Good thing none of them have had to poop this whole time.”?

Worlds, at their core, are pretty boring. Your character may be battling the Dark Overlord of Doom, but the rest of the world isn’t. There’s waste removal and food service and communication infrastructure and architecture and the menial jobs that hold a society together. While your novel doesn’t have to focus inordinately on these things, it helps if you as an author have a basic understanding of how these processes work in your world, so there’s a seamless backdrop for the story to play out against.

Unless you’ve created a magical and majestic world were people literally just don’t poop.

Basing one-dimensional fictional ethnic groups on real-life ethnic groups

Okay, this is basically a continuation of the very first point, but it’s kind of a biggie. Rule of thumb, if you want to have Italians (or Native Americans, or the Irish, or Nigerians) in your fantasy or science fiction novel, you’re going to have to do your utmost to create an accurate and nuanced view of Italian culture. What you cannot do–please please don’t–is name them Etolians and have them running around shouting “Mamma Mia!” while they stuff their faces with spaghetti.

Any cultural or ethnic group within your novel should have multiple dimensions and a believable culture regardless of whether your main character comes from this culture or sees it as “other.” And this is where it gets tricky–the more your fictional group resembles the real-world group, the more you’re going to have to worry about being respectful and true to life. This becomes especially true when dealing with marginalized groups, but should really be implemented across the board. When in doubt, find a sensitivity reader, but that should be your back-up plan. Do your homework, and make sure you’re not basing a fictional ethnic group on a real-world ethnic group just because it’s easy.

Well, that’s world-building in a very large nutshell. Any questions? At the end of the day, creating a made-up world as complex, multi-faceted, and often nonsensical as our own world isn’t something that happens overnight. Take your time, be creative, and don’t rely on short-hand to make your point.

What are your favorite/least favorite SFF world-building tropes? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

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Where Stories Live

I think as often as my books begin with a character or an idea, they begin with a place.

Sometimes it’s an epic place, like the Chimayo Badlands in New Mexico:

Sometimes it’s an amazing place, like San Francisco, California:

And sometimes it’s a familiar place, like the historic building where my husband works:

All three of these places have inspired stories, served as places where my characters can live and laugh and love. While other people may see, well, a desert and a city and a shopping mall, I see a cursed land and a world of magic and a gamer’s playground. These places, which have, at different times of my life, been my home, now belong to me as much as I ever belonged to them.

It’s not a one-for-one exchange, though. I pick and choose what parts of the place will appear in my fiction, and I corrupt them, changing them in big ways or small, while the effect they’ve had on me is permanent and complete. I will never be the same, for my time in San Francisco, while the city itself is untouched by my fictionalizing influence.

When I wrote SHAKEN, I wanted to make magic a physical part of the landscape. That gave me an excuse to play with the city’s historical quirk: my San Francisco never voted to stop burying the dead within city limits, and the remains of the dead are magically important to the city’s atmosphere.

Hmm. It sounds creepy when I put it that way.

Magical pollution by the dead aside, the fact remains that my San Francisco means nothing to the city itself, and has changed nothing for anyone living there. It’s my city now, and has less to do with the actual city than that city has to do with my creative influences. Landscapes alter our dreamscapes, and that in turns shape the way we write our stories.

Where do your stories live?

 

Living Up to Expectations

Last December I released WORLD OF ASH, my NA paranormal post-apocalyptic novel. It was the first time I’d ever written a book in this genre (not paranormal, that’s ma bread and butter). The age range was familiar to me because the end of my Elemental series the characters were all 18-19 years old, but post-apocalyptic was totally new for me.

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The book was very challenging to write for more than one reason. First, I attempted to write this book in more of a Sci-Fi vein without magic or supernatural creatures. My readers have heard me say that, after accomplishing this, upon my read-through, I hated the book. I just didn’t enjoy it at all. I am not a Sci-Fi nerd. I enjoy watching Sci-Fi far more than reading it. And really I prefer my Sci-Fi along the lines of Doctor Who – with a mix of fantasy.

So I knew I had to revamp the whole book. After a massive overhaul, research into rare plague bearers of Norwegian myths, and changing the whole damn thing from past to present tense, I had a much better book. It’s a dark horse in my catalogue of books, but it is by far my most well-received book.

And that’s kind of terrifying.

When I was first starting out with my plucky YA paranormal series, I was wide-eyed and a bit naïve. I did my research into the biz, made sure I did things professionally and smart, but, mostly, I kept my head down and wrote and polished and published and hoped for the best. I built a readership and enjoyed my work. And, while each release brought with it a new wave of butterflies and mild panic, I had no trouble writing the next book. Not so with this new world.

WORLD OF ASH has set me up for a whole new world of feels. As I sat down to start working on the outline for book two and sat down to start putting words to screen, I realized I was kind of terrified. In my first series I had a pretty good balance of love, hate and somewhere in between with my readers (luckily there wasn’t a lot of a hate, just enough to let me know that I was comfortably in the middle of “not pleasing everyone,” which is what you expect). But so far, WOA hasn’t had any hate or even any, “Eh… it was okay.” People are excited to read the next. They have a lot of questions and feels. I’ve had writers volunteer to beta read the second book who didn’t for the first because they became fans after reading WOA.

This is a lot of pressure that I didn’t expect.

Merida, Brave, exasperated

Like I said before, WOA is my dark horse. I’m not gonna lie and tell you it’s my best seller, because it’s not, but it seems to be the best received.

So I find myself asking HOW DO I LIVE UP TO THESE EXPECTATIONS?

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I don’t. Plain and simple. I need to go back to my old way of thinking, just put my head down and write the best book I can. Often I find myself thinking about the book and thinking I’m not doing a very good job. That I’ll send it to my betas and they’ll rip it apart and the new volunteers will cringe, wondering why they offered to read. But you know what? Every writer has those doubts. Whether it’s their first sequel, or their thirtieth.

So, how am I dealing with it? I just am because I’m a writer and I want to continue to be a writer and to do that, I have to keep writing. I will just allow myself to have my doubts and my worries, so long as I keep writing. My editor and betas are supposed to help me make the book better, so if they hate it, they can help me build it up to the level it needs to be to live up to the precedent that WOA set.

I’ll drink my coffee, add to my soundtrack, build the outline, and somehow find the end of the book and hopefully people will love it as much as the first book. Hopefully.

(Hopefully this is what my betas and my readership will say when I’m done.)

(And then there will be wine.)

World Building is…not what I thought

Primarily I write contemporary romance. But one day my hubby and I were talking about new story ideas and I told him I wanted to write something about lawyers and paranormal. But I didn’t want to write vampires. So I made up my own species. The Vampyyri and Jaktur.

TU-smallThe Vampyyri are beings who live off the emotions of humans. One touch is all they need to gain enough energy to make it through a day or two.  Any emotion works: happy, sad, angry, depressed. The stronger the emotion the more life-sustaining energy they gain. The Jaktur hunt the Vampyyri. Unlike the Vampyyri, the Jaktur are mostly human. They live off food and water just like we do. But they are immortal for the most part since they can only die at the hands of a Vampyyri with a specific kill shot. And they possess superhuman powers.


So you ask…what does this have to do with world building?!EVERYTHING! When I started this story I thought “I’ll set it in modern-day Dallas.” Which meant, to me, that the world building wouldn’t be that extensive. Because I associated world with the setting around us. Boy was I wrong. There is so much more to it than the setting. I have pages of notes about the Vampyyri and the Jaktur. Building their societies, their species, was all part of world building. From their origination, to how they die, how they survive and their hierarchy. With each question I answered there were five more I had to ask myself.

The work to build not just the plot and character arc, but also a species and their quirks can be exhausting. The reward is WORTH every frustration, every minute contemplating and every ounce of confusion. Because world building is the freedom granted to a fantasy writer to make their characters however they want them to be. The only rules are the ones you make up.

Contemporary is fun because you don’t have all of the “other” things to worry about. Humans are humans and the settings don’t really change. However, the constraints can be great depending on your story. I can’t very well have my cowboys walking around in the Wyoming winters wearing shorts and flip flops in a contemporary story. But if I wanted to do that with a fantasy story…well, that’s my prerogative. And THAT is awesome!

Needless to say, when I sat down at the computer on the first night the concept of world building changed for me. And now…I can’t wait to get started on my next new world!

Story in the Round – PART 1

Today we are beginning a new segments of posts, a very creative journey together, namely: A Story in the Round. Today I start the story, the first 500 words  of the introduction, and then leave off for the next Scribe to pick up. We’ll each add to the story until it comes to its natural conclusion. We’re not discussing where we each want to see where the story will go or what characters should arrive or do or whatever, it will be as much of a surprise to us as it will be to you, dear reader. So! Enjoy!

Southern summers were sticky, hot, and fierce. They held the kind of wet heat that you could never really prepare for. Short hair and short shorts didn’t do much to help, but I tried anyway. Now, walking through the field, the grass tickled my dewy skin, scratching and tickling all at once.

I hefted my backpack higher up on one shoulder, as I trudged up the hill, skirting around the fireflies that drifted just above the ground. The bonfire was tonight, and the drum circle. People would dance and sing and light the fire to breathe in the healing smoke. A new level of heat would be added to the night. The last time I’d danced around the bonfire my mother had been alive. The magic poured from her as she danced to the rhythm of the drums, her scarves swirling around her like a kaleidoscope come to life. Her bare feet skimmed the grass and for a moment, my ten-year-old self believed she was flying.

She died six months later – right before Winter Solstice. It was like some cruel cosmic joke.

I lost my magic with the death of my mother. How could magic be real if someone as beautiful and wonderful as my mother could die? Especially if I couldn’t bring her back, no matter how many spells I tried.

My father said she didn’t want to come back – that she would have found peace and moved on. And so should I. So, I walked away from magic, since it had obviously abandoned me.

Ten years later, I stood on top of that hill, and looked down at the celebration already started. The ground vibrated with the beat of the drums. The breeze carried voices back to me. The song was in a language I didn’t know, but was somehow familiar. There was power in those words and that power touched me, made my blood rush in my ears and pulled at my body to run to it.

“You ready for this?” Danny asked as he came up alongside me. I turned to look at him, pulling my eyes away from the celebration at the bottom of the valley. His brown eyes were alive with excitement. The power of the gathering was already filling him. It wasn’t filling me, not yet, but when I looked into his eyes, saw them alight with life and power, I knew I wanted to feel that too.

“I think so,” I finally answered with a strained smile.

“Then let’s go.” Danny nudged me with an elbow before starting down the slope leading to the bottom of the hill. “Oh,” he said over his shoulder, “remember to watch out for fairies and wraiths.” He grinned at the look on my face. I stumbled for a moment and had to swallow against the lump that had formed in my throat. Danny laughed and shook his head at me before turning away and hurrying down the hill. I had no idea if he was serious or not.

Learning to Play

When I was a kid, my best friend and I spent half our time pretending—we were lock smiths who moonlighted as thieves, we were pioneers on the Oregon Trail, we were jockeys riding in the Kentucky Derby, we were witches making potions, and we were a thousand other things I can’t even remember.

It’s easy to play when you’re a kid. Pretending comes easier to children, who don’t feel the same limiting attachment to the so-called real world. Sure, maybe you had to clean your room or pick up sticks in the yard to earn your allowance, but responsibility was only something you knew for a spelling test.

As an adult, playing is hard. We’re attached to the notion of ourselves as our ideas and our pesky responsibilities. We are our jobs or our relationships, and we very often like those identities. It’s hard to let them go without feeling self-conscious or just plain ridiculous.

Enter RPGs.

Role playing asks us to put aside our grown-up selves and take up new, fantastical identities. It asks us, for a few hours at a time, to pretend we can cast spells, fight with a sword, heal a wound, or fly like a bird. It asks us to become an entirely new person, a character of our own creation, and to guide that persona through the most magical of adventures.

Role playing is fun.

When I ventured into my first tabletop RPG, I fell in love. I wanted to play. It’s a writerly pursuit, one that demands creativity and willing suspension of disbelief at every turn. And I knew that my nerdy, delightful, online writer-buddies would make just about the best role-playing troupe the world would ever see.

I was right, of course. I’ve teamed up with fellow-Scribes Emmie Mears and Shauna Granger, plus Emmie’s agent and her boyfriend, my own husband, and two other writers, to start an online RPG that will broadcast on the SearchingforSuperwomen.com YouTube channel.

As Game Master, I’ve been in charge of facilitating world and character creation, and these folks have blown me away with their ability to pretend it’s possible for magic to make science and for humans to lock away Elder Gods and let the world around them deteriorate from overuse.

Hmm. Okay, maybe that’s not so impossible to imagine.

But believe me, they’re phenomenally creative, and Magetech, our game, is going to be a rich world populated by strong, unpredictable characters who are nothing short of heroic.

So if you want to see creativity in action, and adults re-learning how to play, be sure to tune in. It’ll be a hoot, I have no doubt, plus we’d like to open up the world and the notion online tabletop gaming to a wide audience and to other gamers and writers.

Intrigued? Emmie and I will be doing an introductory broadcast on Monday, July 1 at 8 PM EDT and the first gaming session will be Monday, July 8 at 8 PM EDT. Be sure to check in on Twitter and our websites for links!

Let’s Make Some Magic

English: Sparkler, violent reaction (guy fawke...

Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings. The Belgariad. The Wheel of Time. The Hollows. All of these influential series have something major in common: they take place outside the realm of “normal” human life.

Magic. They’ve got it.

For all of us over here at Spellbound Scribes, magic is an integral part of writing fiction, whether it’s in small doses or large. Here’s how I go about making mine.

Chinese floating lotus lanterns on a pond.
Chinese floating lotus lanterns on a pond. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Make Some Rules

Magic could just run around willy-nilly, but it’s kind of hard to write a story when literally ANYTHING could happen with no rhyme or reason to it. What are the basics that form your magical system? Is it earth based? Spirit based? Blood based? How do the practitioners access it? Is it inborn or can it be taught? Does it necessitate ritual or does it come from within a person?

Once you have your groundwork laid, stick with it. Make sure that if your character has to perform a ritual to do something, you don’t just have them poof it into existence later without the chanty-chanty abracadabras.

Another thing to look at here are taboos. Do most practitioners use earth based magic but abhor blood magic? Or the other way around? Taboos and forbidden corners of magic are fun to play with, especially if you can force your protagonist into using something she doesn’t want to touch. A perfect example of this is Rachel Morgan in the Hollows series by Kim Harrison. She starts out a die hard earth witch, but after a couple books, she dabbles in ley lines and then into what is essentially blood magic. Her transition causes her character to seriously question her morality. This sort of thing can be a phenomenal character developer.

Fire Dancing Treasure Island
Fire Dancing Treasure Island (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

Set Some Limits — Then Push Them

Everything has limits. Your bank account. Your patience. Your ability to tolerate Jersey Shore. Your magical system should have them too.

In David Eddings‘ Belgariad, death is one of those boundaries. The sorcerers in the books can do pretty much anything with the Will and the Word, but they have some limits that draw back on that seemingly endless possibility. One of those is bringing someone back from the dead.

One point they make with that is that if someone’s dead, they’re probably dead for good reason. Like…a sword in their heart sort of reason. Bringing them back won’t heal the wound, and they’ll just die again anyway. What does Eddings do? He pushes Garion to fight this barrier to save the life of a newborn colt.

Eddings is a great example of magical limits, because not only is death a hard limit, but in this world, doing things with sorcery is almost as physically exhausting as doing them the normal way. Find limits for your magical system, then use them to create obstacles for your characters. Magic’s great and all, but it can’t be a cure-all.

As the time goes and our watches sway, the gre...
As the time goes and our watches sway, the great magic of the urban beauty and nature stays, it observes people and brings magic into our minds! Enjoy!:) (Photo credit: || UggBoy♥UggGirl || PHOTO || WORLD || TRAVEL ||)

Mix Together that Black and White

The most fun thing about getting to write magic is that it opens up a whole other level of allegorical possibility and chances for your characters to explore their morality. Sure, maybe they can get their annoying sister to stop talking just by waving a hand, but should they? Magic is something that can be clearly abused, but sometimes it’s at its most powerful when your character has to abuse it herself — and justify it.

While I’m not a huge fan of the “magic is addictive” trope (and I think fellow Scribe Kristin will agree with me), there are plenty of gray areas to explore with your characters in the magical world you’ve created for them. The best part is that you’re God of your own world, and you get to control what happens.

Kind of like a magical power, isn’t it?

What do you think about when you’re creating your magical systems? What limits do you like to set?