SF World Building – External Method

You, are a world builder.

“But, Mike. I write modern day literary fiction.”

All writers do some form of world building even if their work is set in modern day Wisconsin.  The choices of what to show and what to hide are just as important to the setting of the story.  Many writers will do just as much work to learn about an existing place as I do research to fill out a world created from whole cloth.  I would argue that writing about an non-imaginary place is harder.  If I make it plausible, a reader might accept my creations of flora and fauna (because I SAY jackalope ride yeti on Seti Alpha V) but they can find out if the crocus start to bloom in northern Wisconsin in March.

“But, Mike. I’m a historian. I don’t do world building. I work with historical documents and facts.”

You’re fooling yourself.  ALL writers select the world that they’re writing about.  The world only needs to maintain internal consistency so as to make the reader think you know what you’re talking about. Historians are some of the most prolific fiction writers out there.

“But, Mike. I take umbrage with–”

“Shut it. I don’t argue with historians.”

This is a continuation of my previous post about world building.  Here, I’m going to take a deeper dive into the nature of world building in general and how I think it specifically applies to speculative fiction with some differences between fantasy and sci-fi.

A quick search will tell you that worldbuilding (this contraction is currently used in Wikipedia) is the creation of an imaginary world with constructed qualities of geography, ecology and history used to enrich the backstory of fiction.

I take exception to the word imaginary. As I mentioned above, I believe that every story, fiction or non-fiction, has a degree of worldbuilding . It is far more than the time and place where your story is set. It’s more than the clothing and climate and political backdrop. Your world colors the edges of everything your character sees. Done right, it adds a richness of understanding and helps to explain a character’s choices and interactions. Done poorly, it distracts and drones.

The worldbuilding examples that are given are almost always speculative fiction – Herbert’s Dune and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are two popular examples. The worlds in these books function as characters and are central to the plot as in any milieu story. Although the world does need to have depth, it doesn’t always need to be as prominent as in these examples.

Two Ways to Worldbuilding

External and internal worldbuilding are the two most common methods.  I’m sure there are others that I haven’t thought of, but this will cover most cases. Simply, when a writer uses external method, they build the world first and then populate it with characters.  Internal flips it and builds the characters first and lets the conflict help define the world.

External worldbuilding if very common in all kids of speculative fiction. Building the place that the characters will inhabit seems to be an innate characteristic of SF writers.  We worldbuild while we’re on long car trips, walking, hiking, in our sleep, in meetings. We could no more stop the urge to imagine new worlds than we could stop eating pumpkin pie and drinking sparkling water by the gallon. Wait. That’s me. If you’re the chocolate cake and gin type, that’s cool. You know what I mean.

For me, this usually takes the form of a what-if question. These worldbuilding fugues take the form of me arguing with myself.

The Argument

What if the Earth developed normally, except Australia? It still has this boss Triassic jungle and dinosaurs everywhere!

That could work, but why? Why would it just happen there? You can just have massive geological changes and extinction events everywhere but Australia.

How about…because I say? I can have one big incongruity if the first book. The characters won’t know why so I won’t need to explain it right away.

Oh, so this is going to be series now? Another one? Okay. I’ll grant you ONE massive hand wave for now.  What about historic visitors? Surely the British would sailed their tall ships there and harvested trees. They would have still dumped their criminals on shore.  Would there be a human population living cheek to jowl with the dinos?

Hmmm…I was thinking virgin Triassic forest. Kinda untouched. I don’t think they could have used those big ferny trees for masts, it’d be like using a 200 -foot-tall boiled carrot, but I see your point. I like the idea of badass Australians riding a rauisuchia.

What’s a rauisuchia?

Imagine an eighteen-foot-long komodo dragon that runs and hunts like a tiger.

You’re just googling now, aren’t you?

Shut up. No, I don’t want dinosaur riders in this one. What if there was some kind of barrier?

Didn’t Wonder Woman do the barrier? You going to have Greek Gods come into the mix too?

Here’s a question-why are you such and ass, non-italics Mike? How about aliens? An alien preserve maybe. Ship’s been in a fixed orbit around Earth protecting it for thousands of years.


IDK! Earth doesn’t know.  All of the sudden the place just appears.  Maybe some satellite hits the alien ship and it’s destroyed.  What if Sputnik 1 hits it?

Interesting. So we’ve got 1950’s Earth that suddenly has a new continent appear plus alien wreckage in orbit?

Yeah! All the cold-war stuff and McCarthyism. All of the sudden–BANG. Massive new resources to exploit on Earth and in orbit and aliens that didn’t want the place touched. Maybe they’re on their way back right now!

I like it. Lots of potential conflict. Now, what kind of characters are you thinking?

That’s the external process in a nutshell.  There’s still a ton a work to do but you’ve got a world swirling around in your head that’s bubbling with conflict. I wouldn’t recommend having major holes like Italics-Mike suggests above, but it’s a start.

Next week, we’ll cover internal worldbuilding.


Leave a Reply