From The X-Files to The Dresden Files, popular culture is full of stories that mix science fiction and fantasy with the everyday. Creating a galactic empire for a space opera or secondary world for a fantasy epic can present its own challenges, but when your story is half-grounded in the world we already know, you must decide which of reality’s rules hold fast and which can be bent or broken. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you go about the task of “world-editing” in the early stages of an urban fantasy, paranormal, or near-future science fiction story.
This guest post is by Mishell Baker. Baker, author of Borderline, is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and her short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Redstoe Science Fiction, and Electric Velocipede. She has a website at mishellbaker.com and frequently tweets about writing, parenthood, mental health and assorted geekery at @mishellbaker. When she’s not attending conventions or wild research adventures, she lives with her husband and children in Los Angeles.
1. Which real-world setting(s) do I know best?
Your own neighborhood is often a good place to start. Choosing a setting because it’s trendy or glamorous may be tempting, but nothing beats the ring of authenticity that comes from personal experience. Even if you think the town you live in or grew up in is boring, it might be fascinating to someone who has never been there. You, better than many other writers, are equipped to find the most mysterious or surreal things about your hometown and expand on them. More importantly, all those mundane details you’re so familiar with can be crucial in grounding readers before you take them on a wild ride.
2. What don’t we know about my setting?
Even in a world constantly under smartphone and satellite surveillance, there are plenty of unanswered questions, so this is your chance to come up with the wildest answers you can. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] Where does human inspiration come from? Was the universe created for some purpose? What makes two people fall in love? What happens after death? These and other perennially unanswered questions create opportunities. Even in fiction, the educated public might scoff at supernatural explanations for diseases, weather, or the movement of the stars — but when it comes to life’s most intractable questions, you have freedom to provide creative answers without insulting readers’ intelligence.
3. What in my setting gets ignored or taken for granted?
While life’s biggest mysteries are the most obvious targets for world-editing, let’s not forget to consider some of the small questions people neglect to ask because they think they know the answers. Take advantage of the “monster under the bed” effect – enigmas lurk in unwatched and unexamined places. That one house on the corner whose inhabitants you’ve never seen. Those weird symbols on money. The timing of traffic lights. The camera that’s pointed at you right now.
4. What are my readers already speculating about?
Many readers try urban fantasy or near-future science fiction for the first time because they want to expand their imaginations, but some of those potential fans may not yet be fully invested in the furthest reaches of make-believe. For this reason, radically innovative ideas are not always as successful in these subgenres as they might be in a secondary-world epic or far future dystopia. While you’ll of course want a spark that is uniquely your own, don’t be afraid to light the fire with a few solid, well-aged archetypes. A good old fashioned fairy tale, epidemic, vampire hunt, superhero caper, or alien first contact can ring “true” for hesitant readers in a way that a wildly original scenario may not. Familiarity bolsters acceptance, and so a classic legend or well-loved theory can make a helpful jumping-off point from reality.
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5. What real-world consequences will still be relevant?
Remember to stay in touch with the things that drive us in reality. A job loss, relationship failure, or health crisis still matters even if aliens are invading. Electricity bills still have to be paid, or your protagonist will be decoding messages from Elder Gods in the dark. Reminding readers of your characters’ mundane vulnerabilities can actually enhance the urgency of your story’s supernatural elements, because it forces them to examine the repercussions in ways that are personally relevant to them. Be sure that real life continues to tug at your characters’ sleeves and that it keeps them from disappearing headfirst into the bizarre. Your readers will thank you.
6. What keeps the supernatural element from taking over?
Last, but not least: in the same way that real-life concerns should limit your characters’ ability to get lost in magic and weird science, there also need to be limitations on the bizarre and its ability to consume all of reality. Is there something in earth’s environment that is toxic to your aliens? Is there a need for secrecy that keeps your superhero from simply taking over the world for its own good? Are vampires as afraid of us as we are of them? What allows most of your story’s characters to go on living mundane lives when there’s arcane or scientific chaos just around the corner? Be sure to carefully place limitations on any magic or technology that has the potential to run rampant through your story… otherwise you may find it very difficult to return to the status quo for book two!
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.