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 In 10 years’ time, my theory for people using holograms might seem totally outdated.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 It can suck me out of a world if I see something so unrealistic or outdated in a fictional setting that’s supposed to be technologically-advanced.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

15 thoughts on “Writing Science Fiction: Thoughts on Worldbuilding and Characterization”

  1. The best science-fiction is always about characters. Otherwise it’s not really worth reading.

    Re: technology/science, as long you don’t violate basic scientific laws, or at least supply a plausible explanation of why you’re violating basic laws, then the most important thing is to make your future tech and science consistent in its premise and action. You don’t need detailed explanations of how it works. The central question is how this future tech affects the characters you’ve created.

    Good luck with your project..

    1. Thanks. I think you make a great point — what matters is consistency and how the tech affects the characters. That’s what I’ve been trying to do lately. My story isn’t really tech-focused anyway, but it’s such an important part of worldbuilding in this genre…

      I think there will always be that nerdy side of me that obsesses over the “science” part of sci-fi and second guesses what I come up with, but I also love brainstorming and putting all of the elements together. And I’m really, really glad to hear people love science fiction for the characters as much as I do!

  2. Very cool post! I can see how it would be difficult to create a sci-fi/future world, but I think you’re right about focusing on the characters. If you get the characters right, everything else should start to fall into place.

    I also have an idea for a sci-fi story, or a futuristic space story, at least. I’m not sure if anything will ever come of it, but maybe I’ll try expanding it next November for NaNoWriMo, like you did. My somewhat recent introduction to the comic world makes me think it would be cool to write a comic series.

    1. That’s so cool you have a sci-fi idea too. Maybe we can be NaNoWriMo buddies this year then. =)

      Writing a comic book would be interesting, it’s definitely a cool medium. Also, are you an artist at all?

      Actually, speaking of other projects like that, I downloaded this free software to create a visual novel, and that’s a project I’d really like to undertake if I ever get enough free time! Maybe after I finish this novel, I can jump to that… the closest I’ll ever get to making my own story-centric RPG!

      1. Yeah, maybe so!

        No, I’m not artistically gifted at all. lol. I can dream it, I can write it, but I definitely can’t draw it. So, if I ever did do a comic book, I’d have to have an artist team up with me.

        That is cool. I had to look up what a visual novel was, but that does sound like a cool thing to make! It seems like it’s mostly popular in East Asia and mainly uses anime. Would you make yours in that style or try to pioneer your own sort of unique Western style visual novel?

  3. The science in science fiction doesn’t mean ‘hyper logical, technology-based’ garble. To me, sci-fi is about taking a strong philosophical idea, and creating a fictional world to explore that idea with. The technology in Star Trek enables them to interact with different cultures, histories, views, and opinions – it hardly should be the point.

    A character-first approach is not only a great idea, but I believe it is the best idea. Nothing loses me quicker than a long description of an elaborate world followed by the introduction of a few stock characters. Your characters are your reader’s anchor and the window through which they are exposed to these new ideas.

    Technology is important only so far as giving the world believability. While Fantasy often boils down to heroic journeys and good versus evil, good sci-fi is a complete fiction that we can still learn and apply to our everyday life. That’s the beauty of Star Trek to me: not the Federation versus the Klingons, but the exploration of alien cultures.

    In other words, you should doubt yourself less because I believe you are on track. As long as you have something worth saying and a world just believable enough to make what you are saying not seem like it only applies in your fiction, you’ll do great.

    Also, I love sci-fi, so feel free to chat with me about the genre or even about your novel anytime. 😀

    1. You’re totally right — these are all the things I think about sci-fi too! And it’s what I love about the genre. I’m glad you feel the same way, because sometimes when I pick up sci-fi, it just seems cold to me. I gravitate toward a very specific kind of science fiction — the character-driven kind where the science is sort of secondary — so those are my inspirations, too.

      Actually, creating aliens is my favorite part of writing sci-fi. It’s so much fun to brainstorm how these races would have evolved and then invent their cultures. That interests me a lot more than the technology, really… and I feel like I have a better grip on that, after being a history major and all.

      Anyway, thanks for your support! I can always use that. =) Do you do any creative writing?

      1. DM me on Twitter if you need any specific contact information, I don’t recall what you have.

        Truthfully, no I don’t do any creative writing. Outside of a few pieces of microfiction, I haven’t had the conviction to write a full story. Ideally, I’d like to get into short stories and work my way up toward something longer, but I am still getting a handle on regularly writing.

        The current story idea in my head at the moment is one based around the concept of ‘person-states’. Essentially, in a future of increasing global income inequality, it isn’t just corporations that control wealth, but individual persons and rather than hide that power, it has become more transparent to the world.

        My favorite sci-fi author is Alfred Bester, so I imagining it in a sort of space opera limited primarily to the entire earth. Bester’s mastery of active, snappy language is some of the best the genre has ever seen. He never gets bogged down in detail, as he prefers the action and dialogue to explain everything.

  4. This is an excellent article, Ashley. I also started a SF novel last November. Because of work, the kids, etc., I did not even try to confine it to the NaNoWriMo schedule, but that was an excellent jumping off point.

    The key to allaying your anxiety is to ensure that your science concepts are plausible, while letting the characters drive the story. Just like your example from Dune, readers are quick to suspend disbelief if the characterization is rich.

    My approach to minor characters is to give them each a quirk: A man might be obsessed with the tornados; a woman might cuss too much; a kid might enjoy funerals. You get the picture. They’re minor oddities, but enough to make your characters says, “Huh?”

    Good luck with your novel. I’ll look forward to future updates.

    1. I like that idea for minor characters! Quirks can help readers quickly identify them, and they make the characters feel more original. I do spend a lot of time developing characters — it’s my favorite part of writing.

      Yeah, I see what you mean about readers suspending their disbelief for the science/tech, as long as the characters feel real. Maybe I’m a little picky, then. When I read sci-fi, I’m quick to notice things that seem implausible, and even though I do “forgive” them, it makes me worry about my own book having distracting technology or something that doesn’t quite work. I don’t want to break the immersion for my readers even a little bit! But you’re totally right… I am learning to let go at some point. And really, I do enjoy the worldbuilding process! =)

      Good luck with your new sci-fi novel too! It’s nice to hear somebody else writing away! NaNoWriMo was just the kick in the butt I needed to get started on my book.

  5. For me it’s always been about the strength and depth of the characters. You could incorporate super-novas, black-stars, intergalactic politics or discovering that humanity was created by alien scientists, that resemble albino Jason Statham’s! Prometheus. How can I ever forgive Ridley Scott for that?) But if I don’t empathise with the characters, then all the lasers and irritated larynx in the galaxy could not make me care.

    Good luck with the novel.

    1. Thank you! Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel about sci-fi. It’s the science fiction aspect that really interests me — that’s why I read sci-fi and not JUST other genres — but ultimately I have to feel for the characters throughout the story to really like the work.

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