3 Considerations for Sci-Fi Worldbuilding

In science fiction, the world that the story inhabits plays such an important role in the story that the imagined world becomes another character in the tale. How the characters live their lives is very much determined by how they interact with their make-believe world. While there are many elements that go into creating a world for a sci-fi story, here are three of the most important ones.

Figure Out the Basic Infrastructure

The infrastructure of the sci-fi world determines just about everything in the story. Elements, like currency, food supply chains, social classes, etc., provide critical elements against which the characters play and sometimes fight against. They’ll also change, depending on what kind of sci-fi you write. The infrastructure will be different in a steampunk novel than it will be in a space opera. In many cases, the way the characters interact with one another and each other is also determined by the infrastructure. Star Trek is a good example of this. While an away team does have the option to take a small craft down to a strange planet, most of the time, Picard and crew get beamed down via the transporter. Crew members order tea from the ship’s computer. They don’t really exchange money. You get the idea. The basic infrastructure determines how they move about their world.

Choose Your Tech

Star Trek offers a good segue into the technical aspects of science fiction. Like the infrastructure, the tech that the characters interact with plays a big role in how the story plays out. The story’s technology tells the reader what kinds of resources are available to the characters. For example, Trek-level technology creates different parameters for the characters than steampunk-level technology would. Perfect technology is fun to think about, but overdone. How about something a little closer to home, like self-driving cars that can still malfunction and cause crashes? How would the characters deal with that? What reverberations would this malfunctioning tech have on the trajectory of the story? Whatever tech you decide on, make sure that the characters interact with it directly. It shouldn’t just be a set-piece.

What Date Is It?

This element ties in with the two previous ones. Clearly, the date for a steampunk novel would be different than a Trek novel, and the effect would be different. For example, since steampunk exists largely in the 19th century, it has elements of science fiction, but it also has historical elements and even alternate timelines. With this genre, some of the world is already in place; you know what happened during the Victorian era because it’s part of history. Clearly, this historical parameter affects how the tech will work and does so in a vastly different way than it would if you set the story 400 years in the future. The date also affects what the characters will be familiar with and what they won’t. For example, unless it’s a story like The Time Machine, Victorian-era characters wouldn’t know about President Kennedy. However, the characters in a Trek story might.

Worldbuilding in science fiction takes plenty of thought and planning. Whatever parameters that the author sets for the characters in terms of infrastructure, technology and time periods have an effect on the story’s outcome. When creating these worlds, it’s best to think of the story’s characters interacting with another full-blown character because that’s really what this new world is: another character.
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