Writing Science Fiction: Thoughts on Worldbuilding and Characterization

Since NaNoWriMo in November, I’ve been writing a science fiction novel. That’s been a big dream of mine for a long time, because I’ve always thought science fiction is the most difficult genre to write. You have to be knowledgeable about everything from politics to economics to religion and make all of those pieces fit together in a rich, realistic world — and that’s on top of the usual characterization and plotting that all novelists have to master. Fantasy also deals with all of that, but in addition to the imagination that goes into creative worldbuilding, science fiction writing also requires at least some knowledge of science, because most of the time, you’re developing a world with advanced technology.

I’m fascinated by all of that, but I’m not an expert. That’s why I put off writing science fiction until now. I developed worlds, characters, an idea of how interstellar travel would work — but then I would set aside my notes for later. I needed to be older and more mature. I needed to better understand how the world works.

How Realistic Does Future Tech Need to Be?

But underneath all that was really just a fear of getting the technology wrong. As soon as I think of an idea for an FTL drive or an alien race, I worry that it’s too unrealistic. In 10 years’ time, my theory for people using holograms might seem totally outdated. Will we ever get invisibility cloaks? What are wormholes? What will weapons look like 100 years from now? What type of energy sources will we use? All of these questions come up, and I second-guess everything I just imagined for my fictional worlds.

On my blog, I posted a little bit about how anachronistic science fiction can seem once a short amount of time passes. Seeing big, bulky computers and thick data pads already seem totally old-fashioned, yet they’re all over sci-fi from the 20th century. It can suck me out of a world if I see something so unrealistic or outdated in a fictional setting that’s supposed to be technologically-advanced.

However, for the most part, I forgive it. I consider these features to be part of that fictional world. I’m sure we could all pick out unrealistic things in Star Trek, Mass Effect, Dune, or any other number of popular science fiction — yet we rarely rail on them. We accept them. These worlds belong to fiction, and we like to imagine how everything works together there, even if it’s not how our future will look.

paul1There’s also the issue of leaving things unexplained. In Dune, the spice melange mutates its users. It gives them all-blue eyes and, in extreme doses, makes them totally change shape. It also allows some to see the future or even fold the fabric of space-time. None of this is very scientific — it almost reeks of magic — but it’s presented in a scientific way.

I guess I’ve always wanted to write hard sci-fi. I want all of my future tech to be feasible in the real world — our world — but for someone who would rather write than research, I find it hard to keep a balance between fiction and what could be fact.

Last year, I decided it was time to stop putting off my science fiction novel. I dove in. Although I’ve done plenty of research, I don’t know everything about science, advanced technology, politics, religion, and everything else that make society function and, at times, fall apart. But I’ve decided that the best science fiction worlds come from their authors’ imaginations more than anything, and I’ve forced myself to trust my instinct as I build my fictional world.

Characterization is What Counts

My favorite fiction has always centered on vibrant characters who feel real. A lot of science fiction focuses so much on the worldbuilding — all those gears that turn to make the big old futuristic setting work — that characters come across like part of the clockwork. They’re cold. They can sometimes feel like pawns, and the bigger political struggle or themes about humanity are what matter. Although that can be interesting, science fiction suffers when it doesn’t have solid characters, in my opinion.

serenityThe sci-fi I love most has strong characterization. The crews of the Bebop, the Serenity, the Normandy, the Enterprise — they’re dynamic and interesting. They ground the world and make you feel a part of it. You don’t have to hear long descriptions of how the political system of the sci-fi world works; you just hear snippets about it from characters you love, or you watch those characters’ lives changing because of what’s happening out there in the wider universe.

In this way, good characters can ground a science fiction work. You don’t have to enter this cold, metallic future all by yourself. I was taught that in fiction, a car crash doesn’t mean anything unless you first care about who’s in the car. And when you’re dealing with a world that’s as foreign as a sci-fi world, that becomes even more important.

My science fiction book definitely focuses heavily on characterization. While I’ve spent a lot of time building my world, I don’t want my story to get bogged down in how all the big gears work. I want to reveal the details of everyday life through my characters, and anything that happens in the universe is only relevant because it affects them personally.

I think that’s why a lot of science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) focuses on characters who hold a lot of sway in their worlds. Even if they’re hobbits, they go on epic adventures that will change everything about the way their worlds work and the way they live. Other times, the main characters are royals, politicians, war generals. They’re people who matter, and that can work really well for the story.

The trickiest part of writing science fiction, for me, has been making “small” characters work. I have ideas for writing books about royals and “starship” commanders, but my current book is about everyday people taking on slightly bigger responsibilities than before — but they’re still part of the fray. Any big political machinations that happen in my world have to affect my characters’ every day lives, and my characters need to be actively involved in it somehow. It took time for me to find a story that made that work, but I’m excited to see how it all comes together as I continue fleshing out my book.

— Ashley