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In the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, the earth floats through space on the back of
four wise elephants, who themselves stand on the back of a giant turtle called Great A'Tuin.

 

In today's session, we're going to have a go at worldbuilding. This is exactly what it sounds like: creating a world for characters to live in and events to take place. Most often, we use worldbuilding in two specific literary genres, as defined by the Google dictionary:

Science Fiction: fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.

Fantasy: a genre of imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting other than the real world.

Fantasy and science fiction novels often include not just other worlds, but other universes or realities.

 

Some of the most famous series in literature and TV include:

Books and Book Series:

  •     Narnia, C. S. Lewis

  •     Discworld, Terry Pratchett

  •     Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin

  •     Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling

  •     Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

  •     His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

  •     Binti, Nnedi Okorafor

  •     The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

  •     The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

  •     The Witcher, Andrzej Sapkowski

  •     Dune, Frank Herbert

  •     The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum

  •     Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffrey 


TV:

  1.     Marvel Cinematic Universe

  2.     Star Trek

  3.     Star Wars

  4.     Stranger Things

  5.     Doctor Who

As well as being good fun, science fiction (sci-fi) and fantasy also allow us to explore real-world problems from new angles. By taking something out of its every-day context, we can explore the 'what if' and 'what might happen' side of things. Science fiction and fantasy have often been at the forefront of discussions around gender equality, sexuality, racism, climate change, ethics, artificial intelligence and new technology.

 

A good example of this is the Star Trek Next Generation Episode (S2E9) The Measure of a Man, which explores the question of when something is considered to be alive, and how alive something needs to be in order to have rights. In this case, one of the members of the starship is an android, an artificially intelligent machine, who was built by people but has exceeded his programming to develop a will of his own. The question is very relevant to society today, both relating to how and when artificial intelligence might be considered human in the future, and how we treat those we consider to be different to ourselves. Because we care about the characters and we know the background to the story, we are more willing to engage with this ethical dilemma, and better able to understand it, than if someone just came up and asked us about this issue on the street.

By removing a problem from its familiar setting, we can often gain a different perspective on that problem and consider new approaches. As with fairytales, these sort of stories help us to develop abstract thinking skills, and to imagine beyond what we already know.

See the additional articles at the bottom of this unit for more information on why science fiction and fantasy are so popular and how they help us to advance as a species. 

 

ACTIVITY

Today, we are going to have a go at worldbuilding.

Start by watching this video by Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Professor Trent Hergenrader:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Download this walk-through PowerPoint guide to building a world. 

 

Open the slide show and work your way through the questions one slide at a time. There is some further advice in this video if you want it.

If you are working through this in a writing or roleplay group, assign each member a role:

  •   Astronomer 

  •   Tour Guide

  •   Anthropologist

  •   Head of State

  •   Minister of Trade

  •   Chief Justice

 

When you have finished working through the slides, get into character and help each other to record videos with your phones. Imagine you are making a documentary about your world or welcoming an ambassador from another planet. Each person should talk briefly about their area of expertise: 

  •   Astronomer: your solar system and climate

  •   Tour Guide: the main features of your city (use the map if you have made one)

  •   Anthropologist: the main races, religions and cultural customs of your city

  •   Head of State: who leads your country and how government works

  •   Minister of Trade: what your country trades in and with whom

  •   Chief Justice: how your legal system works and how serious crimes are dealt with

If you are working by yourself, you could write a speech as each character, or develop a short story around each aspect of your world, from an outlaw awaiting trial to a priestess in the temple.

The exercise is designed to get you thinking about the key aspects of your world: what is important and what the rules are. It should help you to add depth and detail, and act as a reference to look back on once you start writing your story.

 

Additional Resources

Articles

    Sci-Fi and Fantasy Build Mental Resiliency in Young Readers 
    Imagining the Future: Why Society Needs Science Fiction
    How Science Fiction and Fantasy Can Help Us Make Sense of the World 
    What Fantasy Writers Can Teach Us About Creativity
    Why We Love Sci-fi and Fantasy so Much 

Books on Worldbuilding

    Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold 
    The Art of World Building (10 book series) by Randy Ellefson 
    Collaborative Worldbuilding for Writers and Gamers by Prof. Trent Hergenrader
    Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer

    Titan: The Fighting Fantasy World, Steve Jackson & Ian Livinstone

    Out of the Pit, Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone