How to build your sci-fi world


06 July 2018
Gareth-POwell-38769.png Gareth Powell
Author Gareth Powell lays out guidelines for building worlds in your science fiction and fantasy stories
How to build your sci-fi world Images


Author Gareth Powell lays out guidelines for building worlds in your science fiction and fantasy stories

World building is a term you often hear bandied about in relation to science fiction and fantasy, but it can easily apply to other genres, from westerns to historical detective fiction. Put simply, it is the process through which you determine the framework of your novel’s reality. Not just the backdrop against which your characters act, but also the rules that govern those actions.

If you’re setting your story in the contemporary world, you might feel much of your world building has already been done for you. After all, you only need look out the window to see how people act and dress. But what happens if you want to include a vampire character? Suddenly, you have to start considering where this character came from, how it came to be, and how vampires and humans have coexisted up until this point in time. You have to decide what rules the vampires will follow—are they allergic to sunlight and crosses? Can they set foot in a church? Do they glower or sparkle? In short, you’re building a world.

With science fiction and fantasy, the term ‘world building’ takes on a slightly more literal aspect, as often the author has to invent not only his or her characters, but also the very ground upon which they walk. In fantasies such as Game of Thrones, this can involve the creation of a detailed map of this new world, along with the different flora and fauna found there, the varying factions and races, and a long, rich history that explains the current geopolitical situation—not to mention a good idea of how the economy works and who grows the food. And that’s before we even get into the realms of magic, and the different rules we’ll need to invent to constrain its use and prevent every problem in the novel from being instantly fixed by a kindly wizard.

When writing science fiction set on other planets, we must not only invent the planet itself, and decide how its atmosphere is produced, how its orbit affects its seasons, and how the gravity affects its inhabitants—we must also decide how our characters got there in the first place. If humans are moving from one planet to another, we need to know how their starships work, because it will have a profound effect on the events of the story we’re trying to tell.

For instance, deciding if our spaceships can fly faster than the speed of light dictates the timescale of our story. If we obey the currently accepted laws of physics, it’s likely our heroes will have to enter some form of cryogenic sleep in order to prevent them dying of old age before they reach their destination. But if you’d prefer for narrative reasons to move your characters from one place to another on a scale of days or weeks rather than centuries, you’re going to have to invent some kind of faster-than-light drive. But, just as fantasy writers have to invent rules and limitations for the way magic works in their worlds, so SF authors have to work out guidelines for the ways their spaceships behave.

Luckily, we don’t have to know exactly how our starship’s jump drives actually work, any more than we have to know actual magic spells in order to write about magic. But what we do need to know are the limitations involved. After all, when writing a western, you would know a horse couldn’t carry its rider from Tombstone to New York in the course of a single day, and you would know the number of bullets in the hero’s revolver, and that he or she couldn’t mow down an entire army of bandits without having to pause and reload now and again.

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In my most recent novel, Embers of War, I postulate ‘higher dimensions’ in which the usual laws of physics are mutable and the speed of light can be exceeded. I liken the process to a dolphin leaping out of the water into the air. For a moment, the dolphin finds itself moving through a different medium, where it moves faster because the water no longer drags on it. However, in order to give my characters time to interact and get to know each other, I’ve had to impose a speed limit on hyperspace travel. It can’t be instantaneous, and journeys can take days or weeks, and regular fuel stops need to be made to keep the engines powering the ships forward.

Whatever you decide, the way your starships move, your vampires evolve, or your magic operates will shape your story, for good or ill. But learning to live within the limitations you impose will help make your story more interesting and authentic, and give your characters more obstacles to overcome.

FInd out more about Gareth and his books at


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