This is # 2 of a 5-part blog series on how to make fantasy and science-fiction world's feel real. It's based off of a science fiction and fantasy world-building prompt session I ran at this year's Ladder Literary Conference.
About this World-Building Series
When we think of a fantastic world, we often think of the broad strokes, but it’s the small details of the world that make it come to life. Those little details are what we’re going to focus on in this blog series.
In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the characters are hardened, often augmented by artificial body parts, and spend half of their lives in cyberspace. They speak their jargon and refer to people and events beyond the narrative, which would not be possible without a developed world history.
Consider this quote from Neuromancer, describing the forced removal of the main character’s (Case) cybernetic augmentation, which had allowed him to access cyberspace:
To an observer, Case has a scar – but now we know it’s so much more.
This passage is in the first few paragraphs of the first chapter of the novel. With examination, I can tell that there was a war, Russia makes mycotoxin, they use cyberspace at a microscopic level, and cybernetic ability can be painfully extracted. These are all pieces of the world history, acted, or in this case inflicted, upon the character. But, these pieces are meaningless if not rooted in a consistent and developed narrative.
Characters need orientation in their world to be able to act and react to plot points. They have access to a small sliver of the universal knowledge, to which you have unlimited access and creative power. Give characters a diversity of expertise, so their fragments of understanding come together to form the world you created.
World History in the Details
When I write a story, sometimes I include just the small detail, and sometimes I write the full history behind it – whatever fits in the narrative. What’s important is I know, and my characters know, the story behind these unique details. Even if I don’t use the object history right away, I might use it further in the story. As I build the web of my world, these details and their accounts can connect to make a strong structure and vibrant setting.
The Prompt: Write a small, but significant physical detail from your science fiction or fantasy world.