Creating an SF/F Modern World

My good friend June is the best worldbuilder I’ve ever met. I’ve seen her create a world on Friday afternoon, discuss it with friends that night and have a friend finish a story in that world on Sunday evening. She creates playable gaming worlds on the fly. She’s amazing. Everything I know about worldbuilding, I’ve learned from her.

In her estimation, the hardest worldbuilding there is in SF/F fiction is creating an SF/F modern world. Why? It’s a little complicated.

In order to have a believable world in fiction, you’ve got to present it well enough and have it be realistically consistent enough for the reader to forget they’re reading and buy into what you present.

When you’re writing a full Science Fiction or Fantasy novel and you’re inventing everything, that’s not so hard. I mean, if you’re writing about a world you totally created, who’s to say that culture doesn’t work like that? If your book takes place on a planet orbiting twin suns, there’s scientific theory to deal with, but who’s to say what the culture and society would be but the author? As long as you put things together in a way that reads interesting and consistent, you can pretty much do what you want.

Now bring the story into the real world and everyone thinks they know how this world works.

And they do, as far as their perception goes. And that’s where it gets complicated.

Everyone’s view point is colored by their own experiences. Someone who grew up rich in New York is going to have a different experience of the same culture than someone who lived homeless in the same city. Someone growing up middle class in Chicago is going to have yet a different experience. A white middle class person is going to have a different experience than a person of color in the same city. Growing up during the Reagan Era will give someone a different experience than someone who was young adult, an adult or a retiree at that time. Everyone’s understanding of the same thing is different.

Because of the fundamental human fact, the writer still has to do all the work of getting the story’s definition of the real world into the book well enough that the reader forgets their own experience and biases to fall into the created one.

This can be especially challenging if your story revolves around some aspect of society (government, military, police, elderly, race) being either glorified of vilified. Depending on the reader’s experience, that might make it an easier, or highly difficult, sell.

When adding SF/F elements, it becomes a delicate balancing act to maintain the believablility of the real world. After all, if all you’re adding are little touches that are difficult to dramatize and/or doesn’t really impact the story, why go to the work of putting it in? Gotta make it big enough to justify the effort.

One famous way of doing this is to make the this easier is to keep the Other a secret to the real world or a separated world, at least at the start. (This doesn’t include cross-over stories where characters from the real world suddenly find themselves in the other world. The real world is a frame, not the main story world.) Depending on your story, that can world marvelously. There’s many wonderful stories set like that.

However, when your story demands that it be our world with other elements, you have to make a lot of decisions. What’s necessary for your story to happen? What’s your geek points about an SF/F modern world that makes it worth writing? How much do you want to stay the same?
And know that, no matter what you decide, people will hate it. Even if they love your story, there will be people who hate what you decided to keep and what you decided to change. But, then, that’s true for anything about writing, so you should be prepped for it.

For the Magical Crimes Unit, it’s a geek point that it takes place in this world (circa 2000 CE), but magic has always been. There are other races of humans (dwarves, trolls, goblins, werewolves, merefolk, etc.) that have always been. They are citizens. They have jobs. They pay taxes. And some of them have magic which are unique to them.

But if magic always is, why is there technology? My answer: Because magic isn’t cost-effective to use instead of technology. Just because magic is known and the vast majority of people have talent with it, it doesn’t mean it’s the answer to everything. Just like being able to create art, or comprehending mathematics or science, being able to close a sale or win friends is something that everyone can do, people have varying levels of talent and interest in doing it. Magic is no different in this world.

This allows me to keep much of the world we live in the same, but it also should subtly clue the reader into a base fact in this series: Magic will never be the solution to the conflict. It will often be part of the conflict, but it will never be the solution. Magic doesn’t exist to make it easier for the hero. It exists to make the conflict more interesting to read (and fun to write).

As for social implications of having other races there, the impacts of these facts on history, well, we’ll see what points will impact the story I’m telling. I’m a true believer in not creating more than what affects the story at that moment in the story.

Thus far, people have liked the way I’ve mixed the real world and the fantastic, so I have some confidence in going forward as I have.

What challenges or successes have you had in creating a modern-day fantasy/science fiction world?

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