Worldbuilding for Non-Planetary Engineers

A guest post by Tammy Salyer

Tammy Salyer headshot

Long ago in a land far, far away, I began writing a fantasy novel. While the manuscript still sits in bits collecting virtual dust on my harddrive, I fondly remember the enjoyment that came with the process of making up an entire world from scratch. Little did I know when I was writing that trunk novel–creating maps of the geography, developing the culture and the social order, et cetera–that years later I would publish a science fiction trilogy. Yet, when people think of worldbuilding as a writing device, most of us tend to think of fantasy tales, and, in my case, that experience served to help me better think through and construct the society and physical settings for my novels.

Story conflict, which is primarily derived from a distortion of the norm, and worldbuilding are often interlinked, especially in genre fiction. Sometimes that distortion is more mild, such as in stories about unrequited love or missed opportunities, and less dependent on elaborate and variant worlds for the story conflict to unfold. But sometimes that distortion is more severe, even apocalyptic. The entire paranormal arsenal of zombies, vampires, and werewolves are based on the physical and mental distortion of human beings’ basic needs and desires, exacerbated by a distortion of the safety and security of well-ordered and well-understand social conditions. Part of the reason genre fiction is so widely appealing is because it allows readers to completely leave behind the known world and explore the consequences of massive physical, social, and behavioral distortions. A total escape from normal reality.

For me, inspiration for the worldbuilding in my novels came from two things. First, I made a decision to stick to “what I know.” I’m not a physicist, engineer, or astronomer, and for me to have tried developing a hard science fiction story based around the ideas of faster-than-light travel or planetary terraforming or even alien biology would have been biting off more than I could chew (hence the emphasis on “fiction” in my brand of SF). However, with a background in behavioral science and sociology, I have strengths in imagining possible behavioral actions by people within, and outcomes of, certain social conditions.

Secondly, I developed a simple premise that allowed me to explore a given set of social conditions, such as, if humanity is going to continue existing hundreds of years from now and have the technology required to travel to and settle a completely new solar system, there would have to be an almost universal system of values and cooperation among us. However, knowing that no good story springs from a perfectly harmonious world order, I extrapolated from the “good” things that would allow a future-based society to function and figured out what would turn them corrupt–in other words, I distorted them. Then I plunged my characters right into the middle of the chaos brought on by this deliciously corrupt world order.

My best beta reader describes the intersection between conflict and world this way: “You build a world because you have a story to tell, and the specific world you build is as much a part of the plot as the plot is. How you craft that world makes a grand statement and is often a way to explore social mores and/or make a statement about society at large.” Thus, the main three considerations in deciding how to develop your own unique story world are: the premise you want to explore, the conflict you want to create for your characters, and how these two things can manifest in the world’s physical and social attributes to serve as the setting for a page-turner that readers can’t put down.

Contract of Betrayal_Final Cover

Tammy Salyer is a nerd who spends her day surrounded by the written word, both hers and others’. As an ex-paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, her stories are often as gritty as a grunt’s pile of three-week-old field gear. Her military science fiction novel, Contract of Defiance, is the first book in the Spectras Arise Trilogy and debuted to acclaim in Spring 2012. Contract of Betrayal, the trilogy’s second book, released on February15 (heads up: stop by Tammy’s blog a few times in March for a couple of exciting contests and giveaways).

When not hunched like a Morlock over her writing desk, Tammy runs silly miles, cycles the playground of Southern California, and spends an inappropriate amount of time watching Henry Rollins videos on YouTube. Feel free to visit her blog or her editing website, or stop by and say hi on Twitter (@TammySalyer).

5 thoughts on “Worldbuilding for Non-Planetary Engineers

  • Pingback: Worldbuilding for Non-Planetary Engineers « Tammy Salyer

  • February 19, 2013 at 8:23 am

    Adding it to my must reads list-:)

  • February 19, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Thanks again for having me, Susan. And thank you for the props, Sheri 🙂

    • February 19, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      Thanks Tammy! It’s great hosting you here. Fantastic post. I love hearing about other authors’ approach to worldbuilding.

  • February 20, 2013 at 3:23 am

    Great post. I liked, “the specific world you build is as much a part of the plot as the plot is.” Oftentimes, the world is as much a character itself as the characters within the world.

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