No one has ever said the world is perfect but sometimes you come up with a great idea for a book and know the only place it can happen is somewhere that isn't here.
My debut book The End of the Line started with a simple idea, I wanted a bunch of criminals trapped on a train with a serial killer who had psychic powers. Simple enough. But with that one little flap of the butterfly's wing, one thing lead to another and soon I’d found I’d stepped off of the streets I know to another place entirely: a world where magic is real and anyone can do it, a world where magic and technology interact in unexpected ways.
Building a new world is tricky. There are plenty of ways to get it wrong. But you're a writer. You didn't start doing this because it was easy.
Why do it?
There are lots of reasons to set your book elsewhere. There's a wealth of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) that holds a mirror up to the world, built to show readers the outcome of a path we're travelling; environmental disaster, the return of fascism, the growing poverty gap. SFF has a rich tradition of speculation, presenting a facet of society from the outside to lend perspective. Or, with the world being as it is, sometimes readers just want to escape. Perhaps you want the feel of something but not the constraints of reality (or factual accuracy). Fantasy let us have the War of the Roses, but with more assassins, battles and dragons. I got to have criminals using magic in heists, and along the way I got to talk about knowledge and power and how one doesn't necessarily lead to the other. Why is your book set somewhere else? Have an answer on that and your journey has begun.
"Why is the book set somewhere else? Have an answer for that and your journey has begun."
It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Stephen King's books are often set in familiar spaces with one significant difference, i.e. it's a small town, but there's a big dome. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has lots of strange things happening but it all happens behind the facade of our world. The average person doesn’t know vampires exist, the story happening in the shadows. Or there’s the cut-from-whole-cloth fantasy world. You can go do what you like there…
Don't re-invent the wheel
It's tempting to create entire new worlds with nothing that's familiar to ours but be warned, what might be fun for you may not be for the reader. Sometimes you want a character to take a cheeky, crunchy bite from a piece of fruit. May as well call that fruit an apple. In that scene, the attitude of the character is what’s important, not the fruit. If it doesn't move the story on, then think twice about including it. Some exotic detail is nice but it's like a spice, a little goes a long way.
"Your people are integral to the story."
Think of your society
You've started to build your world, you hopefully know elements of its culture and, where relevant, its issues. In The End of the Line, magic can be done by anyone but can have negative side-effects for the untrained. Magic was banned in the UK after its terrible uses in World War Two. But how do the new generations feel? Especially now they can pick up spells on YouTube? Your people are integral to your story. What do they think about their world? How has it shaped them? Not everyone gets to be the hero of your book, but the people who inhabit your world are more important than any spell, creature or piece of exotica. Readers latch on to the familiar and the societies of your worlds are the, let’s call them barometers, of your world. Your background characters set the tone for your world.
Think of the characters
Your characters are going to be the lens through which your readers see the world. There are two main branches, I feel, for making alternate worlds. One is the ingénue, someone who has stepped through a wardrobe or off a boat. With them, you can lay on the enchantment and wonder. The character is seeing the flying whale at the same time as the reader – this shared experience is a great way to develop the reader's bond with the character.
Or maybe your character was born into this strange world, used to its sights. This allows for some more involved storytelling. The stakes can be higher. They have already picked sides, their emotional ties can be deeper. Ingénues can have a very simple story arc, escaping their new world or acclimatising, the native has already skipped that part.
Think of your readers
When you're introducing readers to a new world they're going to have questions. It's up to you to guide them, feeding them the information as and when they need it, while trying to avoid info-dumps, losing the pace of a scene or breaking the characters. How many times has a sci-fi boardroom slideshow started with 'As you know...' and someone explains something that everyone in the room should already know? This can be where true craft lies, feeding that information and keeping its intrusion to a minimum. This is where the ingénue shines, they need everything explained to them. The native characters are trickier. It's important to look for your openings, find realistic opportunities to plant your information, whether it's in the scene descriptions or dialogue or if you can infer enough information that the readers can fill in themselves. This is where the true masters of SFF really shine.
"It's important to look for your openings - find realistic opportunities to plant your information."
Despite the blood, sweat and tears we put into our work, this is all about having fun. Whatever our messages or intentions, ultimately we are here to entertain. If you're building a world, have fun with it. The sky (and beyond) is the limit.
Gray Williams' debut book The End of the Line is out in ebook and audio from 8th July 2019. You can buy it here. You can also sign up to his newsletter, where you will receive a free short story on sign-up.