This was originally posted on Jason Strang’s blog as a guest article in May 2015. Slightly edited for timeframe. It also contains a bit about how I began writing Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Worldbuilding. It’s one thing that the Sci Fi and Fantasy genres can really call their own, their call to arms. Without it, these places of make-believe are just crime dramas and soap operas with some glitter and elves throw at them.
Take a soap opera about the command structure of a naval vessel. Not that interesting. But put it in Spaaaace, and you have Star Trek. How about an essay on military formations in the early renaissance, gender politics, and the nature of good and evil? Not actually a history book. Just throw in elemental abilities gifted by the creator and you have The Wheel of Time saga.
These are trite examples, but my point is that worldbuilding is really what brings readers in to Sci Fi and Fantasy. Have an existential question? Define some geography, and a reason for fighting about it based on past history and you have people pulling up chairs to hear your story.
But I don’t want to talk about just worldbuilding. I want to talk about what drew me into reading and then emulating my favorite authors, and that is universes.
And by universes I mean not just building a world, but building an entire cosmos to support your story. What better ego trip than to play God to an entire universe of possibilities? Some of my favorites are:
The Eternal Champion Cycle (Micheal Moorcock)
The Cosmere (Brandon Sanderson)
Known Space (Larry Niven)
The Deathgate Cycle (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman)
And to a slightly different extent, where the action only focusses on one world, but there are lots of hints that others are out there:
The Discworld (Terry Pratchett)
The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher)
The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan)
The Riftwar Saga (Raymond Feist)
And so on. I haven’t even gone into the visual universes of stories, like Star Trek, or Star Wars, or the Marvel or DC universes, or, of course, Doctor Who.
I could go on for quite a while. But there is a similarity between all of them. All of Sanderson’s Cosmere books are set in the same universe, but on different planets where the inhabitants (save a select few) aren’t even aware there are others. His systems of magic, at the very base, follow the same set of rules.
Micheal Moorcock goes one step further, where he has a singular personality or soul who is reincarnated into a hero (or antihero) to solve a problem in different planes of existence. Sometimes different incarnations even exist at the same time.
Larry Niven uses the idea in a Science Fiction setting. Many of his books take place in the same history, with the same alien species, the same technological developments, and the same colonized planets. But the stories range from those with small consequences, or set in the near future, to those of galactic import, or set thousands of years in the future.
When creating a universe, the author, or authors, doesn’t have to follow sequentially with the last chapter of the story they wrote (though some of them do). It doesn’t even have to be the same author, in the case of the Star Wars Extended Universe. The stories can be about completely different things, even different genres of stories, but a single universe has the same underlying rules. So you can hop in and read (or watch), and if you know some of the other stories, you can see the breadcrumbs the author dropped about other heroes and heroines you’ve read about.
Now, as an aspiring and unpublished writer, as I am, you might feel a bit daunted jumping into the deep end here, and that’s understandable. If you’re not sure you’ll even get published, much less finish your first book, why worry about future stories that you’re never going to write?
Because it’s so much fun.
I started my first novel when I was about fourteen. I wrote many words, got several chapters in, and had a start to a fantastic tale with universe-shaking consequences. Nay, Multiverse shaking. I, not content to merely parade through one universe, had set up the basis for literally trillions of stories.
Life happened, I went to college, I didn’t write except for an occasional scene or idea. A few years after I finished college, I picked up writing again, and dove fully into it. I picked up my old story, realized how terrible it was, and saw it was so heavy it was liable to stretch the boundaries of space-time just by writing it.
So I trimmed it down to one universe of possibilities. I solidified the magic and the characters, and I finished writing it. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had, writing what I knew to be the last few words of my 200,000 word masterpiece.
Then I found Writing Excuses. The very first episode I listened to was Episode 5.13, “Writing the Second Book.” In it, the podcasters went down a list of all the things that were wrong with my book. Specifically my book. It was like they had read it. And I realized both what the meaning of “trunk novel” was, and also that I needed to write another book.
So I did.
A few books later, I came back to that original story, pared it down again and re-wrote it from the ground up, without using any of the same text. I didn’t even look at the old text. This one was only 150,000 words.
Why did I come back to it? Because it has so much potential for a universe of stories. Even if the first one I write never gets published, I could easily write a whole series about a different planet, or past history, or the future. The universe of the story lives on. Since then I have written one short story and one novelette set in the same universe, along with several stories not associated with that first one. It was fun playing in my own world, and it helped me define more of the societal customs and rules that make the story vivid. I will go back to that original story again at some point, and add in all the new details I’ve discovered while writing about things my main character has never heard of. I’m an archeologist, putting fossils on display in a museum on the other side of the world from where the action is. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. I have ideas for not just the main sequence of novels, but more novelettes about side characters, political mysteries, histories, and more. I get to write my own fan-fiction, and I’m not even published!
Just to make clear that I’m not completely crazy here, Brandon Sanderson’s first book published was his eighth or ninth book written, if I remember correctly, but several of his unpublished books are set in his Cosmere, and he even references the worlds in his unpublished books in his published works, if you look carefully enough. I can say what I want to do isn’t just delusions of grandeur.
So in summary:
Worldbuilding is what really drew me into Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s one of the main tools in these genres that is almost unique, and it’s why groups of fans can have hours-long discussions about their favorite works.
Pros to creating your own universe:
You have plenty of opportunities to create stories. If one doesn’t work, find a different story. During that time, you will build up a more complete history of your world or universe.
You can have your favorite characters pop up in different places, even if your readers don’t know who they are yet (I’m looking at you, Hoid).
You can write different genres of stories, all with the same underlying rules.
You can create your own fan fiction.
Cons to creating your own universe:
Your first defining story in that universe is not likely to be very good, or even publishable.
You will have The Second Book Syndrome, as best described by the Writing Excuses crew in season 5 episode 13.
You will grow as a writer, and thus the stories will not be of consistent quality
Your ideas will change over time. You might need to make “adjustments” in later stories.
I get excited about story universes because they have so much potential. If you want an explanation of the video possibilities, rather than the text possibilities, look for Marvel’s 2014 special “From Pulp to Pop,” which dives into how they created their own universe and how it became so successful. I went to see Age of Ultron on opening day–did you? And I’m going to stay on schedule watching Agents of Shield because they tie in to the movies, and I have to see that extra bit of history unfold. And I will be waiting for the events of the Civil War. This is why we see the rise of the superhero story lately. Because Marvel (followed by others) is building an entire new universe for us to live in.
Story universe tie readers together and give them communities. They make us feel smart for catching that Easter Egg the writer threw in. This is why I write Epic Fantasy–for the worldbuilding. So I will keep writing books, whether they’re published or not. If not, I have my own private universe to play in. And if they are, then I can let others play there too.