Professor Beej, a professor, a Beej, a writer, a gamer, and an all-round good guy, is writing a series of novels that I’m really looking forward to, starting with Birthright. He has a Kickstarter page up and running, which he describes over at his place at this link, and he’s been making the blogging rounds writing about his writing, like this post over at Syp’s Bio Break and this one over at Ferrel’s Epic Slant. He has graciously offered a great post on writing for me to share here, which is just the sort of background analysis of the production process that I love. So without further ado, Professor Beej, class is in session!
Three Rules of Worldbuilding and Design
When you’re a kid, and you think about authors and writers and how they get to tell stories and make stuff up it sounds awesome. Because that’s their job. To make stuff up.
Then, when you’re an adult, and you think about authors and writers and how they get paid to make stuff up, it sounds even awesomer. Because, come on. They’re getting paid to make stuff up. And you think to yourself, I can do that.
So you sit down to write your novel, to make stuff up. And you do. You have rocketships and dragons and wizards and bugbears, but not one single, eency-teency thing you’ve written down makes a bit of sense.
Because you made stuff up. You made it up good. You just didn’t make it up well.
You see, there’s something you didn’t think about when you were fantasizing about how awesome making stuff up for a living could be: fictional worlds, even science-fictional and fantastical worlds, have to be governed by rules. And you have to be the one to enforce those rules.
Kind of sucks the fun right out of it, doesn’t it?
It shouldn’t. It’s a bit of work, sure, but I came up with 3 guidelines that helped keep my characters, technology, and narrative on track when I was working on The Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy that starts with the novel Birthright).
They worked for me, so I think they will for you, too.
1. Write in Limitations from the Start
Alan Scott’s Green Lantern ring couldn’t affect anything made out of wood, and Hal Jordan’s was baffled by the color yellow In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, magic only works by characters burning flakes of metal in their stomachs–no more metal, no more magic. In Dungeons and Dragons, wizard spells are often one-offs and have to be relearned for each new use.
By having magic or technology be intrinsically fallible, you can avoid Superman or Luke Skywalker syndrome. Kryptonite is cool and all, but when Supes can grab an entire continent made of the stuff and fly it into outer-space, that limit ain’t so limiting. And Luke Skywalker…well, you tell me where the glass-ceiling is when size matters not.
In Birthright, the technomages get their power from nanotechnology. The really powerful technomages have had their blood replaced by nanites, while newbies have to wear a thin sleeve of nanites like a second-skin. What this distinction did for me as an author was rein in the power-levels between various characters so that their interactions and conflicts actually meant something.
Where one character might be able to Conjure wings and fly himself or herself out of trouble, the newbies in the sleeves simply don’t have enough nanomachines to do the job. They can try, but they can’t succeed because the rules of the universe forbid it.
2. Find a sweet spot between technobabble, pseudoscience, and good-old-fashioned analogies
Birthright is a difficult project to describe because I try to blend multiple genres into the conventions that make up the narrative. There’s a fantasy plot in a science-fiction world–kind of like how Firefly is a western in space. As awesome as that is, it also presents a number of problems in terms of marketing and comprehension.
Namely, will fantasy fans know what I’m talking about when I mention hyperspace? Will science-fiction fans rage if I simplify this theory to make it fit in my universe?
With that in mind, I had to make a compromise. I wanted Birthright to read like a story, not a mathematical proof (I’m looking at you, Ringworld), but at the same time, I didn’t want to be accused of “teching the tech” with scads of meaningless technobabble. So every bit of technology and “magic” within The Technomage Archive is based on some kind of real science–proven or theoretical. Whether it’s nanotechnology, pocket universes, or even hyperspace, the world of the novel is based on science.
Note the key phrase there. “Based on science.” Like fan-favorite movies and made-for-TV crime dramas, I’ve taken the science and boiled it down to its consummate parts. Because damn it, Jim, I’m an English teacher, not a scientist.
And neither are you (unless you are a scientist, in which case, I’m sorry for making hasty generalizations). I had to find that sweet spot between verisimilitude and narrative accessibility.
For instance, when one character is trying to explain hyperspace travel to a group of disoriented and frightened technomage recruits, he can’t very well start throwing around PhD-level jargon. He breaks it down into a rudimentary analogy so the recruits–and the readers–can understand.
Here’s an excerpt of that scene:
“Right now, we are traveling through hyperspace—“
“What are you talking about?” asked another voice from the crowd. “Hyperspace? Did you just make that up?”
Roman was nonplussed. He was used to that kind of disrespect during these initial moments. This was a lot to take in, so he forgave the kids a little rudeness. “No,” he said. “I didn’t. Hyperspace is pretty easy to understand. Think about it like this. Have you ever rubbed your hands together and felt heat build up, that burning sensation?”
The student said, “Well, yeah.”
“Well, it’s friction doing that. Now, have you ever rubbed your hands together with something between them? Like some water, jelly, anything like that?”
“Does it make it easier to rub your hands together? Does it stop the burning and make you not blister?”
“Well, think of that jelly, water, or whatever, as hyperspace. If we were to move through normal space, we’d be slowed down by what you can basically think of as friction. There’s a limiting force to how fast we can go without destroying ourselves, kind of like that burning when you run your hands together too fast. However, if we coat ourselves in jelly, so to speak, we can move far more quickly and far more smoothly to where we’re going without burning ourselves up from too much friction. Does that make sense?”
“So we’re in a spaceship that’s covered in jelly?” the student asked.
“It’s not a perfect metaphor,” Roman said.
“It’s a stupid metaphor.”
3. Screw it.
Just make sure that you keep some perspective. Worldbuilding can be frustrating and thankless. But you’re the one in control. You make the rules, and by that same logic, you get to decide when to break them. Just make sure that whether you are making the rules or breaking them, there is consistency and logic in what you do. Your readers will thank you.
At the end of the day, when you’re irritated that your characters aren’t playing nice with each other and the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, just remember that people are giving you money to make stuff up.
And that’s pretty freaking awesome.
B.J. Keeton is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the first book in The Technomage Archive series. He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness atwww.professorbeej.com.