One of the defining characteristics of the science fiction and fantasy stories is that they take place in a setting different from our everyday world (the “real world”). Even science fiction and fantasy that takes place on Earth must have some key differences that distinguish it from the real world, otherwise it would not be science fiction and fantasy, but would simply be contemporary or historical fiction. However, the fact that science fiction and fantasy stories are set in such an imaginary world requires one key concession from the reader or audience: suspension of disbelief.
Suspension of disbelief is simply the willingness of an audience or reader to temporarily accept what is clearly untrue in reality for truth in a given fictional setting. For example, while dragons and other magical creatures do not exist in the real world, an audience or reader must “suspend their disbelief” and accept that dragons and magical creatures do exist in the context of a given fantasy setting. Even so, there are limits to how far an audience or reader will go in suspending their disbelief. While they may accept that dragons exist in a certain fantasy setting, they will not accept a dragon that in one scene is red and then in another scene is blue (unless it has been established that dragons can change color). In other words, suspension of disbelief cannot be used as a convenient “out” to cover-up plot holes, contradictions, logical fallacies, or shoddy historical research. In order to facilitate suspension of disbelief, the work must at least be internally consistent.
Without internal consistency, a work of science fiction or fantasy will quickly dissolve into absurdity and chaos. All writers strive to remain internally consistent within their own work–even parodies need to be consistent in their satirical mockery. But mistakes do happen, and when a reader stumbles upon such an error in consistency, they are rudely jarred from their suspended disbelief into the sudden realization that not only what they are reading is make-believe, but that the author is sloppy as well. There is simply no excuse for such embarrassing mistakes because they can be avoided easily enough if an author simply takes the time to build his or her world.
Science Fiction vs Fantasy Settings
Science fiction and fantasy settings are fundamentally different from one another in that science fiction settings must accept known scientific laws as truth, whereas fantasy settings do not have to (although they usually accept Newtonian laws by default). Even so, the rules for creating an internally consistent setting are common to both. Works of science fiction (and when I speak of science fiction I do not mean fantasy in a futuristic setting) may speculate on future science, but only as long as it does not directly contradict our modern understanding of science. For example, a work of science fiction cannot present a starship that simply accelerates beyond the speed of light in normal space (regardless of using chemical engines, nuclear engines, or super-whatzit engines), as this directly contracts the fact that no object having mass can reach (let alone exceed) the speed of light. However, a science fiction story could present a means to travel between stars using wormholes (such as an Einstein-Rosen bridge or a Lorentzian wormhole) by appending to known science additional “speculative science” of how to actually open and stabilize such a wormhole.
Hard science fiction does not have to use any speculative science at all (and probably should not), and this does make creating such an internally consistent setting somewhat easier, at least as long as you know your science. However, the majority of science fiction is either speculative in nature, or is actually better defined as “futuristic fantasy”, in which case all aspects of the speculative science or fantastical elements must be well-thought out or at least clearly defined in the author’s mind. Even if a certain detail of the speculative science never comes into play during the course of the story, the effect of that detail may have serious implications–regardless of any characters explaining how it works. For example, if for our science fiction story we decide that hyperspace is a forth spacial dimension, and traveling through it reduces relative distance in normal space by a factor of 20,000, then traveling 20 light-years would be equivalent to traveling 0.001 light-years. This is about 9,461,000,000 km, which is a little less than twice the distance between Earth and Pluto. Characters in the story (including the narrator) may never mention this fact, but the author will still need to use the established formula when calculating distances and travel-times between star systems. If there is ever an inconsistency (due to the author not taking the time to maintain consistency) then an astute reader might pickup on the problem.
The World Book
So how does one keep track of it all? For one-shot short stories or and novellas, a few pages of notes will probably suffice. However, if you plan to write a series of short stories, a full novel, or a series of novels, then a few pages of notes simply won’t cut it–you will need a full-fledged worldbook, otherwise known as a “world bible”. This worldbook or bible should lay out every aspect of your setting, be it a kingdom, a world, a star system, or an entire universe, depending on the scope. Having a worldbook also helps if you ever plan to take on a co-author, open your setting for other authors to write in, or create a derived work such as a comic book or game.
The worldbook can be as large and detailed as you feel is necessary, but the greater the scope of the setting, the larger the worldbook will have to be. For example, the worldbook for a setting which takes place in a single kingdom about the size of France would not nearly be as large as a worldbook for a setting covering an entire continent of France-sized kingdoms. For example, my worldbook for Mythania covers an entire world and is about 500 pages long; what’s more, it only scratches the surface of what I really feel needs to be covered. However, it is not necessary for you to sit down and write a massive worldbook prior to beginning your first story or novel. Instead, you should begin by noting all the basic information you need (perhaps 50 pages worth) and fill in the details over time.
While a worldbook is primarily for you, the author, it should be written as though to be read by someone else who is completely ignorant of any details of your world. This way you will force yourself to provide as much detail as possible without resorting to shorthand notes or sloppy organization. This will also prove valuable if you ever decide to publish your worldbook in some form or another.
What to Cover
What should be covered in a worldbook? While the organization and division of your worldbook will necessarily be dictated by any unique aspects of your world, most should cover these basic areas: geography (including maps), history (perhaps including geological history), politics, important historical persons, important places and locations, races (human and/or non-human), level of science and technology, details on magic or psychic powers (if they exist), details on creatures unique to the settings, and details on any significant religions.
When designing a world for your story or novel you first need to decide if the setting is on Earth. If it is on Earth, when? Is it present-day Earth? Some time in the past? Some time in the future? Is it an alternative timeline where certain historical events played out differently, or perhaps one where magic is common place? Does it take place in Earth’s mythical past or a completely fictitious “forgotten age”, as is the case with the world of Conan?
If the setting is not Earth, but an entirely different world, then every aspect of the world needs to be fleshed out, including the size, rotation period, and orbit of the planet, as well as information about the sun and the moon (or moons, or lack thereof), the length of the year and seasons, the kinds of constillations seen at night, and many other related details. The civilizations inhabiting the world also needs to be fully developed, including their history (or at least a timeline of significant events) and information about past civilizations that no longer exist. Each civilization (especially the current ones) also needs to be defined in terms of their scientific and technological development. For instance, one such civilization may be at the same level as the Roman Empire, but be highly dependent on magic and having medical science equivelent to a 19th century understanding. Another civilization may be a rich and decadent version of 16th century France in terms of its culture and scientific knowledge. A third civilization might be ravaged by civil war, or devistated by plegues and rampant poverty, mired in what would be equivelent to the Dark Ages of the 8th or 9th century.
If you are still uncertain where to begin, fantasy author Patricia Wrede has provided an exhaustive list of questions (organized by topic) to help guide you through the process of world-building. Her article, at SFWA.org, should be read by every world-building writer, and even if you do not answer every question, it should give you some idea of the kind of questions you need to be asking yourself. However, I would not recommend that you answer them point-by-point (like some high school quiz), but instead seek to answer them in the process of creating your worldbook.
With these points in mind you should be well on your way to solidifying a vision of your world. Do your research, organize your ideas, and write your worldbook. While it may seem a tedious and tiresome bore, your stories will be all the richer for it having a depth and breath your readers are most certain to enjoy.