World Building from Scratch: I Need a Planet

So, I’m assuming that you are doing science fiction, but this is also true for fantasy. Some worlds grow over time, until readers realize that “Wait, there’s more than just this country!” in the world – see Velgarth, where Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon created what seemed to be separate worlds, then over time readers discovered that they are all part of one planet, which is about to have Problems thanks to a much-earlier Moment of Excitement. You need a world in which to tell your story.

First, a little research is needed, especially if you are going away from “Earth-like but . . .” If you are creating something with higher-than-Earth gravity, for example, you need to sort out why it is like that. Is it planetary size? Is it speed of rotation? Have you read “A Matter of Gravity” by Hal Clement? No? [pats paw on floor] You probably should. Or if you are going with an atmosphere that’s different from Earth standard, again, you should look for examples. Prehistoric Earth is not a bad option if you just want different chemical composition, or Mars, or Venus. Terry Lee Kepner’s Proximity Zero has a list of information, based on current astronomical knowledge. There are also writers’ guides to planet-building, although some of those are very dated in terms of the science.

So, an example. When I started writing the Azdhagi species in the Cat Among Dragon books, I needed a place (planet or two or more) to put them. I had been reading about dinosaurs, and paleomammals, and was intrigued by how the ancestors of whales returned to water after being on land for a while. Also, some dinosaurs seem to have tried being bipedal, then went back to quadrupedal. So, what if we have a sapient species (full intelligence), with grasping forefeet, that are preferential quadrupeds but can also go around on all fours? Why? Higher gravity. Why? Larger planet? OK, is it seasonal? Parts are. Why? A greater-than-Earth planetary tilt. And so on. I tinkered around and sketched (literally drew out) some ideas, and looked at tectonics and geology. So Drakon IV (fourth world in the system) has three moons, two of which are large enough to have military bases on them but are not as large as our moon. It has two major continents, one of which is inhabited, the other is . . . Well, we’ll get to that later. There are also lots and lots of islands of varying sizes on the “other side of the planet,” some of which are inhabited but not by Azdhagi. They don’t swim. They don’t even float.

From there, I built the geology of the inhabited continent, which then determined the weather, or vice versa. I also had to mentally sort out why certain geologic features existed, if only because I am compulsive that way. Oh, what about other creatures? 95% reptile. Mammals are things like shrews, squirrels (“tree fuzzies”) and are pests. So when a sapient, bipedal mercenary female mammal shows up, one who can hold her own in talon-to-talon fighting against the Azdhag males,* she’s going to upset a lot of cultural apple carts. She’s also going to bonk her head on doorways, because even though she’s only 160 CM tall (not quite 5′ 3″ tall), when the largest male stands 3′ 5″ at the shoulder most of the time, doorways will be lower. Not ceilings necessarily, but doorways. This could be a point of humor, either at the character’s expense, or she could make jokes about it. (“I stay because I like being tall!”)

The Azdhagi are mesotherms**, so they like warm temps. The hotter and more humid, the better. Rada Ni Drako, a mammal, detests heat and humidity. She melts. Winter is her idea of wonderful. This all shapes culture, settlement location, and so on.

I hope you are starting to see how you could build a world. There are books on planetary cosmology, or you can start with writers’ guides (check your library!) and planetary astronomy sites. Those can give you ideas. Read books like Clements’ and others, where planets are not Earth standard. Some may be off from modern knowledge (Azimov had one of those, and it works in the story. Then science moved on, and he sort of sighed and acknowledged where he’d gone wrong.) If your world has one single climate zone, you’d better explain why: Arakis (Dune) works. Tattooine does not. Why?

*Rada Ni Drako is a firm believer in dirty tricks, sneakiness, using an opponent’s strength against him, and cheating. It’s the only reason she’s lived this long. Age, treachery, and so on . . .

**They have a baseline temperature and metabolism, but need external warmth to truly thrive. They’re not exactly warm-blooded, or cold-blooded.

Image: Image by David from Pixabay

27 comments

  1. Yeah, World Building is fun! Even though I mostly do parallel earths, some split off long enough ago to be different. So, fun with Plate Tectonics. And Evolution.

  2. What’s really fun is starting with a detail and working backwards. This character has to be severely weakened by using his power. What does that require?

    1. Yeah, I tend to start with a male lead character and extrapolate outwards, starting with the female lead and the supporting cast. Generally, that gives me a starting glimpse of their natural habitat, both social and physical, and from there I can go away and do my homework and try to make the world around them believable. If I try to build the world first, sometimes the characters who fit will eventually show up, but more often the world just stays as a fun exercise and doesn’t go anywhere.

      Or I conclude I don’t want a closer look at part of the setting, like the clockpunk Numenor/Atlantis-inspired idea I was playing with a month or so back, where I concluded that I was seeing too many decadent late-era Atlantis hijinks in real life, and started mucking around with a later era in the same setting. Something similar happened with the space opera; I got distracted by a prequel set 17-20 years earlier, then concluded that I neither had enough plot to make it happen, nor the stomach for a closer look at the bad guys’ activities in that period.

      1. That seems to be what’s working for me too. The current world started out from a character needing a space to go do stuff that wasn’t already defined.

        That didn’t happen, but the world was cool, so the prior WIP ended up being based in it. And I was trying to figure out how a couple of side characters worked in that one when one of those side characters stole the plot bus and ran off with it…

        Trying to just make a world and start from there hasn’t especially worked for me.

  3. [Apologies for possible duplicate comment…]

    The gaming world has construction kits that can be useful in defining a habitable environment: geography, continents, city plans, etc. You can even tinker enough to make river valleys, etc. I used this in one of my series for the faux-Earth setting, complete with global continent distribution. I really enjoyed creating that world from literal bedrock, to the degree of detail I required, and tinkering with it as needed.

    Right now, I’m focused on an urban (circa-1800-style) setting, but of course it does not exist in a vacuum in its world. My maps keep getting larger and larger… “New city across river from Old city”, “needs agricultural hinterlands defined”, “what about upstream riverine networks?”, “needs pre-existing terrain protection to explain original fortified Old city site location” , “Just where does the faux-Near East cultural trade material come from?”, “Just what (and from where) is the cultural equivalent of coffee, tea, silk?”, etc.

    You can’t do it all in advance, and there’s no point in spending a lot of time on areas you’ll never illuminate in the text, but the more you can pin down a coherent environment, at whatever level of consistent detail, the more you’ll be able to spark off of it for plot construction. Logically-consistent “Setting” is often deficient in SFF genres (esp. Fantasy), but it should be a real partner in the process instead — an asset instead of just a requirement.

    1. May I ask what your tool of choice is? I stocked up on SF and psionics RPG sourcebooks when I started messing with the space opera setting in earnest, and although relatively little of that is really visible in the finished book, it certainly expanded my mind in terms of possibilities.

      1. [Possible duplicate comment, triggered by live links now disguised?]

        Fractal Terrains 3 by ProFantasy. Here’s a brief writeup of using it for the Chained Adept series, to design the planet and a landscape for the large regions/nations in the story. It’s a cool tool though, like all such things, a time sink.

        NOT-A-LINK-https://hollowlands.com/2016/02/maps-are-your-friend/

        NOT-A-LINK-https://hollowlands.com/2015/03/building-the-world-of-the-chained-adept-part-1-maps/

        1. Karen, I’m not sure what’s going on. A lot of your comments are in the spam-trap, or held for moderation. I’ve cleared what I can.

          1. Thanks very much… I’ve been trying to figure out what triggers it, and I have a CLUE this time. I’ll see if that changes things moving forward. (When the gods align, no spam & no dups. Gotta propitiate the right gods…). If I’m right, this reply should behave normally (famous last words).

  4. Yeah, at some point I really should figure out the geometry of the ring station thing I’m using.

    In reality, it’s there to have a place remote and wild enough that you can have paranormal stuff happen in a scifi setting without the entire scientific body of Earth descend upon it to figure out how and why it ticks.

  5. I know you’re supposed to dive right in and write and build the world as you go along.

    But sometimes, especially if you’ve got a complicated world in mind, it may make more sense to spend a few days or weeks mapping out your world.

    Don’t forget to ask yourself: who is the president of Paraguay? Which is to say, worlds are darn big and what’s happening in the local area has nothing to do with what’s happening half a world away. Those people might as well live in a different world for all they have to do with you.

    Except that gravity and atmosphere and basic chemical composition remain the same.

  6. One of the things that bothers readers about my primary world is that (duh!) the day length and year length are both different from earth normal. But earth normal is what people expect, so when a character is 10 they expect 10 year old behavior, rather than the physically 13 year old the child actually is. 15 is 19, so age of majority is 15 and people get all upset over it. So I stopped using ages unless absolutely necessary. Same with skin color, since people insist on putting their own cultural assumptions on it.

    I’m still not sure that changing the name of “horses” and “hounds” was a good idea. They’re native animals that fill the same niche, but people kept getting upset at the idea of reptilian hounds and claw footed horses.

    1. You can’t rename everything in an SFF context — too much, and you can’t tell when they’re drinking “beer” and eating “cheese” because you’re redefining every noun. Too little, and you can’t understand where cheese comes from in a world without dairy animals. It’s a choice about genre conventions — you only have to redefine so much. In an alien world, “horse” is less legitimate a choice than in a fantasy world which defaults to generic unless otherwise defined.

  7. I assume the Clement reference is to “Mission of Gravity”.

    And, in terms of the world building for that planet, Clement explains the world building in a lot of detail in the essay, “Whirligig World”, which first appeared in Astounding (where Mission of Gravity was serialized). Since that’s hard to get, if you want to read it, it was reprinted in the NESFA Press collection of The Essential Hal Clement, Vol 3, or, since Orb and the SFBC both reprinted the NESFA Press book, you can get it under the title “Heavy Planet: The Classic Mesklin Stories”.

    1. Hi Ben!

      https://archive.org/details/Astounding_v51n04_1953-06_starhome/mode/2up

      A link to the June 1953 issue of Astounding at archive.org, with the last part of “Mission of Gravity” and the essay “Whirligig World.”

      The novel version weighs in at 419 Kb; the serial version is 509 Kb with plain text. Like Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress”, the serial got cut down a bit to make the novel.

      One of these days I need to do a comparison and see what got cut… I did that with TMIAHM, and it seemed to be mostly deletion of spurious adjectives, adverbs, and descriptions, probably justified in that case.

      1. Also note that the NESFA Press/Orb editions include the 1999 appendix that Hal wrote, mentioning the errors in the science.

        And my general feeling is that since Hal made the changes to produce the novel version, I think of that as the preferred text.

    1. It depends on what you’re personifying. For instance, both Star Wars a New Hope and Transformers: the Movie (1980s animated film) have a mechanical, planet-shaped thing that destroys other planets as the main threat. The animated film, which can pull off imagery that would be very expensive in live action, makes the planet destroyer a sentient eldritch abomination that talks (mostly to lesser villains). The live action movie just adds a mundane human Space Nazi in charge of the planet-destroyer weapon, whose job it is to troll and threaten the damsel in distress and get blown up aboard the planet-destroyer so the audience can get closure even though Evil Samurai Wizard Guy lives to fight another day (and eventually get reformed by his son, but none of that is relevant to New Hope in itself).

      Basically, if you already have a “something” the good guys are fighting, and you need a personality to go with it, you have to look at what that something is, and what kind of personality would be aligned with it. If it’s a supernatural evil, how does it operate, and what kind of personality goes along with that operating procedure? Morgoth is an anarchist, looking to crush, destroy, and torment; Sauron is a fascist (a real fascist), obsessed with control. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula likes to flaunt his strangeness in front of the normies (because he holds them in contempt?); Christopher Lee’s Dracula only interacts with normies if he has a specific use for them, mostly feeding (because he knows some of them are dangerous?)

      If it’s a natural disaster like an earthquake or a giant shark or a dinosaur, the humans most likely to be on the enemy’s side are going to be government figures protecting their phoney-baloney jobs (mayor in Jaws) or eco-terrorists (Vince Vaughn in Jurassic Park 2).

      At more human-level dramas, whichever character you come up with first tends to dictate their foils (friends, family, love interests) and the nature of their opposite number. Elizabeth Bennet is a witty, intelligent, moderately good person who sometimes misjudges people. This requires a love interest who can appreciate her good traits, has enough good traits for her to ultimately accept him, enough bad traits for her to think him worse than he is, and because so much of their arc is about self-deceit, their main antagonist is primarily a deceiver.

      1. I think psychological control. Problem is I’m having a hard time really understanding it and how it works, which means I’m having a hard time understanding how it is broken.

        And doubly frustrating is most of the publicly available information on it is filtered through politics.

        1. If you do a search under Villains, there are easily a handful of posts. One thing to keep in mind is villain vs. antagonist, but it sounds like you want a villain.

          Small, constant lies are one way to control someone, especially if they are otherwise isolated (physically or more importantly socially). The victim is kept off balance, eventually doubting themselves to the point of denying what he sees and hears for himself. This is even more effective if the villain is warm, charming, and helpful to others, so that the community thinks that she’s a wonderful person, and the victim is the terrible one.

          Whipsawing a person between punishment and reward, but never allowing the victim to know which is coming, can also work. One of the best descriptions I’ve read of that is in the opening chapters of Mercedes Lackey’s _Black Swan_, the chapter with Rothbart and his daughter (Odette). She’s desperate for his attention and affection, and will do anything for a smile or “well done.” He’s manipulated her into that position over the years.

  8. The more you plot/build your world early, the less problems you’ll have (less being relative) as you write the story… At least that’s what happens to me. When I do it on the fly, I usually end up having to go back and ‘fix’ problems… sigh

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