Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

World Building: Environment, World and Space

Welcome back to the series on World Building. Now that we’re out of the Social Life segment, we’re going to talk about the environment, world and space.

Now, it’s tempting, when writing science fiction and fantasy, to throw in five moons of all different colors, add in a few psychedelic plants, maybe find some obscure phenomenon from a NASA research paper, throw it all in a blender, and see what comes out. If you’re writing for children or other whimsical motivations where things like tides, weather patterns, and organic sustainability don’t matter, then by all means, have a purple moon, an orange ocean, and three black holes within sucking distance of the galaxy.

And I’m not saying that most creators don’t take some liberties with the suspension of disbelief. I did when creating Sifura’s world, and I know it. I’m not ashamed. And I do it again with Brelix (*hint hint*). To an extent, you have to take some liberties because these are fictional places that you can’t visit and study. As a creator, you have to play God a little, command the sun to shine and the plants to grow and the animals to exist.

But that’s not to say that you get a free pass on believability.

I don’t know too many stories where the creator came up with the environment and ecosystem before the plot, and I don’t consider drawing inspiration from photos the same as inventing the environment. Seeing a beautiful picture of the Andes at sunrise and imagining a story about a fictional people on a fictional world who live in mountains that look like the Andes, is not the same as inventing the landscape, weather patterns, and any necessary spatial and galactic considerations, before thinking about the people who live there. Typically it’s the other way around.

So where do you start? In this case, you probably want to work from the outside in. First, consider your people and what you, as the creator, already know about them. When you picture your people, what do you see? Let’s go with mountains.

Now consider anything and everything you know about your people’s daily lives. Do they have long days to accomplish their chores, or are the days shorter so they have to rush? What are the implications of each on work ethic, social interactions and hierarchy, agriculture, religion, and other elements? Do your people’s homes have special mechanics to seal up before a storm, or is it better for them to be open and airy? Again, what are the implications?

On an Earth-type planet, long days typically mean a good growing season, which means that agriculture probably flourishes. But this wouldn’t matter if your people live at an elevation where vegetation is small and sturdy—or perhaps almost nonexistent—because of lower temperatures, windy open faces, poor soil, or perhaps too short a growing season owing to radical changes in axis tilts comparative to the global location of the mountains. Similarly, you have to consider how clouds move around your mountains, and how that may affect storm systems. Maybe your people live high enough in the mountains that they stay pretty well clear of most storms. Maybe they live at a middle elevation that gets blasted with conflicting currents. Maybe they live at a lower elevation and take everything as it comes.

Or maybe your people don’t live on an Earth-type planet. Maybe it’s a really good idea to live high in the mountains because conditions at sea level are dangerous or even deadly. Maybe it’s a really bad idea to live high in the mountains because of exposure to deadly solar radiation that is filtered by a thick layer of clouds at a middle elevation. Maybe your people live on the mountain for religious reasons. Maybe it’s just a generational thing, that your people have known nothing else and have no need or desire to travel.

But let’s say your protagonist does decide to travel, to descend the mountain. First off, it’s a good idea to have a solid store of terminology when it comes to landscapes, in order to better differentiate between various biomes.

When branching out from your mountains, consider how your weather works. Where it rains, there is probably going to be vegetation. Where it doesn’t rain, not so much, and there is a strip of land on the west coast of South America that is a desert, despite being squished between the ocean and the mountains. There is one particular spot that, if I remember right, hasn’t seen a drop of rain in over five hundred days. And it has to do with weather patterns, the moisture from the ocean lifting over this stretch of land—the winds and the currents being just perfect—and then falling on the other side of the mountains where it is lush rainforest.

Depending on how long your story is supposed to last, its total timespan, consider how things may change over time. Desertification as one example. The Sahara used to be much greener than it is today. Or maybe you want to tackle global cool—I mean warming—I mean climate cha—er, disruption. I think disruption is the term they’re going with now. That’s the buzzword for this decade I guess, until they have to rebrand.

But, in all seriousness, there are cycles of warming and cooling, and your fictional world may be pretty mellow or pretty active. Consider the role of volcanic and earthquake activity in these cycles. Or it may be that none of that matters to your story, in which case, carry on.

It would probably be helpful for you to have a map of your world, or at least the area your people are running around in, just to keep things straight.

Now let’s say your story goes beyond the surface. Your people have achieved space travel, or at least your protagonist has.

If you have the means as well as the ambition to make sure everything in your novel is within 99% probable accuracy, I would advise you to check out Universe Sandbox. It’s a program that has most of the variables ready to go, allowing you to play with different stars, solar system setups, planets, moons, asteroids, black holes, all the fun stuff.

If you’re less concerned about impressing NASA and just want to get through chapter one of your story without sounding like an elementary school science fair flunk out (like I was), then take a deep breath and relax. You are writing fiction. And unless you’re billing yourself and your story as a top-notch scientist with all the latest research and theories, don’t worry. The environment sets the setting, the mood, the scene, but perfection in scientific theories can’t rescue a sucky plot or characters.

That is not, however, a permission slip to completely slack off. If your human protagonist is going to visit a planet that orbits a white dwarf, you should probably understand what that means and what protections he might need to avoid being incinerated in the first three seconds. Or what atmospheric gases can sustain him well and what will kill him with a presence of only one part per trillion. Or how close he can fly his space ship to a black hole before being irrevocably sucked in.

And it may be that none of this matters to your story in the sense of hard science fiction. Maybe your people are extremely primitive and still pray to the sun to bring rain. Maybe they don’t understand the workings of the universe. That’s okay, and it can make things a bit easier. But for your sake, it wouldn’t hurt to keep some more detailed notes of your own, the scientific reasoning behind why the sun did or did not grant rain.

Maybe I’ll put it this way: God created the universe. Therefore, He created the laws of physics. So unless you intend to write brand new physics for your universe, try to stick with what works and what’s been reasonably proven.

And now we cue the overly-excitable moron who’s intent on proving the moon landing was faked and the Earth is flat.

You know what? If you want to write a story in which all the planets are flat, go right ahead. Make it a good enough story, and I’ll check it out. That’s what I’m in it for is the story, and I enjoy new things. Quite frankly, I don’t care whether the Earth is flat or round. I say it’s round and we went to the moon. Earth is flat, Earth is round, I’m still trying to train my horses to pull a grader and not spook around cars. I don’t care.

Whatever you decide to do, whether it’s hardcore science fiction where every scientific utterance can be backed up by four acclaimed research papers, or whether it’s more flexible and draws on fun and obscure hypotheses from a century ago, at the very least, try to be consistent.

And that’s the scoop on environment, world and space. The next installment will be tangentially related as we cover the science and technology of your people.

Go Back