World Building and Science Fiction

I’m making a pretty obvious statement when I say that world building is extremely important when writing. It’s like an expanded version of the well worn, but totally necessary, statement “show, don’t tell.” Even in stories set in the world as we know it—be it fiction, non-fiction, or even poetry—it’s important for the reader to be able to visualize what’s happening, where the characters are, how the speaker or main character is feeling. While world building is important for any writing, it is why I love science fiction so much.

While world building for other kinds of writing tends to show us things we already know, science fiction can give us completely different worlds, set in the past, future, or present. We can get descriptions of an Earth in a fictionalized version of the past, we could get a completely different world defined by magic, and we can get entire galaxies and planets. The universe feels so much larger with science fiction and fantasy, something that expands the imagination rather than keeps it grounded.

One of my favorite things about watching movies like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars are the stunning visuals. CGI has come such a long way, and while the plot is the most important thing in stories by far, seeing the vastness of Middle Earth or watching the Millennium Falcon zoom through the galaxy are some of my favorite things. As a writer of science fiction myself, and as someone who always likes to envision other worlds and possibilities, seeing these stories come alive on the screen inspires me to write and get better at my own world building.

Of course, I am a book purist, and while it would be cool to have one of my stories—when they eventually come out—adapted to the screen, it isn’t my ultimate goal. Honestly, I just want to be able to tell a compelling story and world building is a huge part of that. I think that the reason the depictions of setting in films inspires me more than reading it is because, though I love reading, I’m a more visual person. I tend to understand things better once I physically see them.

This is in part why I have begun to take up drawing again. When I was a kid, my dad would have my siblings and I work on art projects. Sometimes he would just have us draw pictures, but more often he would have us write books, about fictional characters, great-grandparents, or most recently a fictionalized account of the founding of Kwanzaa. As a result, I’ve learned to draw fairly well, but I haven’t really drawn (other than the occasional school art project or the doodles alongside my notes) in a long time. However, once I started to really take my writing seriously I began to draw again. My story needed maps, pictures of certain ancestors, and timelines. These things took time, and even though the versions I made have changed since, they are extremely helpful and help my world feel more real than it did before it was committed to paper.

I tend to have a problem with curbing my imagination; I say “problem” only because sometimes I can get caught up in creating the setting, the world around the plot rather than the plot itself. I have pages and pages of notes on the worlds I’ve created and may or may not have any narrative attached to them. I think I become more attached to a story when I know more about the world around it, both the landscape and the history. History is a huge part of my own world building because of my strong belief that the things that happen in the present are affected by the past. Generally in my stories what is happening in the present doesn’t just happen, they are the consequences of past actions. Spending a lot of time on what happened before my story starts is what helps the plot progress once I actually get around to writing the plot.

While I definitely need to work on my writing management skills, world building in general is one of my favorite things about fiction—especially science fiction—stories. They are what allow entry in a world where the plot exists; it’s what makes the story feel real, what makes it live independent of the pages in which it is inscribed.