The Ethics of World Building
by Tina Morgan
Writing a Science Fiction or Fantasy novel is different
to writing general fiction. You have the unique
opportunity to create a world vastly different from the
present. Unlike historical romance or western, you do not
have to concern yourself with being historically correct.
When you create a new world, you are free to create your
own history. For the purpose of believability, however,
you must adhere to the history you create. If you stray
too far from the version of history you've explained to
your readers, they may put the story down and not come
Alternative History, be it labeled "Modern
Fantasy", or "Near-Future Science
Fiction", is a sub-genre rapidly growing in
popularity. A few already-tired favorites include
"What if the dinosaurs had not died out", or
"What if Hitler had won".
It is possible to twist, or completely recreate history,
showing the world a brand new version of past events and
still create a believable story line, but there are a few
things you should keep in mind.
Is your idea considered 'Politically Correct'?
Don't stop reading just yet. I know many of us -
writers/non-writers - are tired of hearing that term.
However, writing SF/fantasy does not give you the right
to be insensitive. Some ideas simply will not appeal to a
wide audience and others may offend your readers. Both of
which can block the sale of an otherwise well written
story. Think about how well a novel portraying the Civil
War as being the fault of the slaves would be perceived.
Step with caution!
History vs. Alternative History
If you are creating a world where the history comes close
to matching the real world, decide very carefully why you
want to change real events. Are you changing a world
event that resulted in the deaths of hundreds/thousands
of people? Sometimes even the death of a single person
can touch the lives of complete strangers: Princess
Diana, John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa, just to name a
few. Changing or eliminating an event like; Chernobyl,
Three Mile Island, or the Holocaust, can alienate your
reader, particularly if your audience has a close
affiliation to those events. If you negate the importance
of that trauma, you risk losing credibility.
The same applies to creating characters. If you wish your
character to be a victim or abuse/rape or to have a
disability/illness, do a little research before you start
writing. A writer cannot portray a character as mentally
disabled and then credit them with highly advanced
thought processes. If you fail to follow through on your
research it will show in your writing. At the least, you
may lose your reader's attention, and at the worst, their
Science fiction has a global audience. Even if your story
is distributed solely in the United States, an editor is
not going to continue buying your stories if they receive
a lot of complaints. Think one little story isn't going
to elicit that kind of reaction? Try telling someone that
their loved one did not die due to a brutal war or
nuclear 'mishap' and see how they respond. If you
belittle your readers' life experiences, they are not
going to thank you for it.
Makes a Successful Writer?
The biggest authors in the fiction industry are those
that create believable characters and settings. Their
fans come back time and again because they care what
happens to the characters. They can suspend disbelief and
live in the world the author has created for the time
that they are reading. "Star Wars" takes place
in "a galaxy far, far away" but the
reader/movie go-er can immerse themselves in that world
and empathize with Luke's problems, even though they will
never fly in an 'X wing fighter'.
The opening sequence to the "X-men" movie is
believable because the screenwriter didn't try to tell
the viewer that the Holocaust never happened. Despite the
fantastic, mutant powers of the characters, the movie
draws you into its battle between good and evil. It is a
good example of a near future SF/fantasy story line.
History is changed just enough to make the plot line
"The Matrix", "Equilibrium" and
"Gattaca" are each frighteningly believable in
their portrayals of a future gone mad, based upon past
experiences, and the consistency of human nature
regardless of the chain of events.
Reaching every reader is impossible. No matter how hard a
writer tries, they will probably offend someone at some
point in their career. The goal is to intelligently
consider your plot line and setting before you put your
pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). You don't have to
personally experience an event or know someone with a
disability to write about it.
have to read and research. If it sounds like too much
work, then consider something easier, and write about
things you know.
Copyright Tina Morgan. All rights reserved