On Wednesday, I wrote about reusing existing fictional worlds as the basis for a novel. Today, I’ll explore building new ones from scratch. It’s so much trickier than relying on someone else’s hard work but when you do it yourself and get it right, it can be the basis for a lengthy series of books, especially when readers love the world you’ve created.
It might sound strange to talk about creating the real world, but it’s the most common world used in fiction and it still requires work. In my debut novel, Enemies Closer, I co-opted the FBI, the CIA, Heckler & Koch (a weapons manufacturer), the US military and a variety of other actual organisations to create a military industrial complex. You can also co-opt people to become characters such as President Clinton (the first or the second), the Queen, Charles Darwin and so many more. The great thing about real worlds is that they feel real – readers don’t need to be convinced, it just happens automatically.
Different worlds use real concepts with fictional elements. The West Wing did it beautifully – adopting the actual US political system but changing the four year cycle to two years either side of when the real presidential elections are held and electing a man who would never ever be elected president in actuality (and anyone who disagrees only needs to look at the Republican president in office for most of the show’s run and the most recent Republican candidate to be silenced – even Barack Obama can’t compare to Jed Bartlet).
This is a very common type of fictional world as well because it doesn’t take a huge amount of work to make it feel authentic.
Dystopian worlds are big business these days. Think The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and so many more. In most dystopian worlds, there has been a war and the characters are living in the disappointing result under varying levels of oppression, whether they realise it or not. The plots invariably involve the main character, usually a teenager, realising everything isn’t as rosy as it might seem and finding a way to change their entire societies.
Unlike real worlds and different worlds, despite the best efforts of the characters, a dystopian world can never be put right. Even when the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them, it’s still not quite what everyone wishes it would be. That’s life, isn’t it?
Alternative History World
Alternative history worlds are so much fun, thinking about how everything could be different if a key moment in time had gone the other way. In Fatherland by Robert Harris, the Nazis won World War II and the repercussions have been huge. It’s terrifying and wonderful at the same time.
Alternative history worlds require a lot of research because before it is changed, the world as it was needs to be understood in a lot of depth. In 11/22/63 by Stephen King, the main character tries to prevent the assassination of JFK (among other things) when he discovers he can travel back in time. Stephen King admitted he had the idea for the book in the seventies but didn’t write it until thirty years later because he didn’t think he had what it took at the time to do the research necessary.
Alternative Future World
Instead of changing the past, alternative future world changes the years that haven’t arrived yet. It’s essentially the same as taking an educated guess (where a more realistic world is written about) or an outlandish jump (where elements of fantasy, science fiction and the supernatural are thrown in). The danger of alternative future worlds is a completely unrealistic scenario that throws the reader off and prevents them from ever getting back on board.
I once did a manuscript assessment on a novel where North Korea and South Korea had agreed to reunification. I wrote to the author, “The North Korea/South Korea thing rankled the most. This is the most unlikely conflict to ever be resolved. North Korea is run by a dictator, whose father ran the country before him, whose father ran the country before him. The people of North Korea are brainwashed and beaten into submission and believe (or are told to believe) that their “Supreme Leader” has a direct link to God. The idea that the two countries would ever re-unite is frankly ludicrous. They had a war over 60 years ago and not one iota of progress has been made since. Towards the end of the book where the North Koreans renege on their deal to reunite the two countries, all I could think was ‘D’uh!’ Because it made no sense in the first place. Alternative futures are quite common in fiction, but there still has to be a sense of realism, of believability, because readers are smart and need to be convinced if you are proposing an alternate reality that is so very different from the one they currently live in, especially an alternative reality that is based on the current reality. It would be different if your story was about how Earth is now ruled by aliens. But you position it amongst conflicts that have been raging for 60+ years and then just expect the reader to accept the fact that they are suddenly over. Your story needs a metaphorical nuclear weapon dropped on it – in the same way that World War II ended with a life-changing moment. Otherwise readers will dismiss you as someone who hasn’t cared enough to provide a realistic background to the story.”
I wrote that nearly five years ago but it remains as true as ever.
All of my novels to date, published and unpublished, are set in fictional real and different worlds. But my next big idea is for an alternative future world and I can’t wait to immerse myself in it. It’s going to be a challenge though. In addition to the plot, characters and writing – the big three – it adds another element. But if I keep doing the same thing over and over, I run the risk of boring my readers and getting bored myself. It’s a risk worth taking.
So I’ve outlined nine different kinds of fictional worlds and within them are infinite possibilities. Go forth and conquer.