Dos and Don'ts For Fantasy/Sci-Fi Writers
Writing good, well thought-out fantasy can be a challenging process, especially when featuring a setting or race completely different from that which is familiar to the author.
There are a myriad of places within a story where a writer can falter and insert details which are not well enough developed, uncharacteristic, confusing, or which simply don't make sense in the context of the setting.
This list is meant to point out some of these common areas of confusion and tell what can be done to be more aware of and correct any potential inconsistencies.
Remember that these are all only suggestions, and not everything on the list applies to every story. Use your best judgment as an author to understand when these things should be considered and when they can be safely ignored. Some fantasy stories are not set in original worlds, but on Earth, in which case references to Earth should be made; not all fantasy centers on the use of magic; not all fantasy is in a medieval world.
Still, everyone can take something from these suggestions, which might prove useful at some point in the future, in their writing.
Don't: Reference Earth
The major thing that all fantasy authors must watch out for is accidentally making reference to places, people, objects, and concepts that exist in their own world, but not in the world in which their story is set.
There are many different ways that this appears in fiction, and I will point out all the most common mistakes and what can be done to correct them. This mistake usually manifests itself most pointedly in the use of common Earth expressions, slang, and clichés.
In general, most of these things should be avoided in narrative anyway, except in instances where they are used to a certain effect or within a character's dialogue. One way to avoid this is: instead of using an Earth expression, idiom or cliché, come up with phrases of your own creation that have the same meaning or sound similar.
Changing the wording is also a good way to give a foreign feeling to the familiar. That's really the balance that you want to achieve in a fantasy narrative; a feeling of the unfamiliar, in a world completely unlike our own, but also with similarities. This makes it easier to write than trying to come up with something completely different and alien, because you may allow yourself to lapse into making references to things the writer and reader will be familiar with, without seeming lazy or apathetic to creating an original setting.
Something especially creative and fun is to invent slang or curses that your characters can use. Many medieval curses and exclamations were derived from references to God or Saints, for example, the epithets "God's thumb!" Be creative. What they will use as curses and slang will depend on what they value as a society.
We in the US have so many sexual curses due to its perceived "dirtiness" in our highly-religious culture, thus increasing the shock value of certain terms. To use an example, the term "mudblood" in Harry Potter is highly offensive due to the unique wizarding culture developed by J. K. Rowling. Think of what would be offensive or rude by the standards of the society your characters live in.
Another common lapse is the use of Earth units of measurement and currency. There is no excuse for making references to US dollars in fantasy writing whatsoever. Use of US or metric units of measurement is more excusable, but still to be avoided if one wants their original setting to be taken credibly.
The best way to avoid this mistake is to make up units of measurement and currency, or to at least use more archaic forms to give a medieval setting more authenticity. (Research in this area is priceless, and good to know, anyway.)
Many fantasy settings simply use gold, silver, and other precious metals or stones as currency, avoiding the need for definite units. This is a perfectly acceptable solution. For measurements in distance, it is more difficult to resolve. You may have to think of units in terms of the society in which your character lives; what is important to them and what are they most likely to stress and express when quantifying various objects? If they are nomadic, perhaps they measure physical distance in a unit referring to the average distance they cover in a day's travel.
Many units of measurement have historically been based on the dimensions of the human body; a foot was originally the length of a human foot, some things were measured in hand-spans, and an inch developed from the width of the human thumb. These might provide insight into coming up with an original measurement system, if you are so inclined. It is more work, certainly, but the extra effort does show in your writing, and being thorough in your setting will help you become a better writer.
The worst reference to Earth commonly occurring in the fantasy genre is transferring American (or any other) cultural/social expectations, customs, and assumptions to a fantasy setting, especially one dealing with non-human races and creatures. The point of fantasy is not to emulate the world with which we are familiar.
Again, think: what is important in this society? What are they likely to praise and detest?
Their values, customs, and government will likely be based on whatever is practical for them, or based on religious beliefs.For example, do not necessarily assume that they bury their dead. Some Asian cultures leave the bodies for scavengers to, well, scavenge, thus symbolically allowing the body to become one with all living creatures. In cultures with little room left for burying people, bodies are burned, or in places where there are often floods or areas that are beneath sea-level, bodies are put into mausoleums above ground. In fact, in some places in Europe with full graveyards and no room for expansion, graves are "rented" for a period of years and then the body removed to make room for someone else!
Another example is that of courtship rituals. Is this culture encouraging or restrictive when it comes to love and sex? Are promiscuous women punished as prostitutes, or glorified as powerful? Do women take their husbands' names, or the other way around, or neither? Are marriages arranged for money or property, never for love, or is love the only reason to marry? Are sexual relations considered a sin, or is it an encouraged or glorified part of life? There are many different directions in which this could be developed and expanded.
And what of a culture's standards of beauty? Many medieval societies found plump women attractive as a sign of their wealth and social standing; only a wealthy woman could afford to eat enough to become fat. In fact, fashions developed to try to make naturally skinny women look fatter, hence puffy sleeves and huge skirts.
Also, historically, pale skin was attractive, showing that one did not need to work outside and was well-off enough that they did not need to do heavy labor. These are both opposite the ideals of beauty in our society today, mostly because of technological advances making them obsolete. Now, food is readily available enough that being slim is in fashion, and having a tan mostly shows that one has time to lounge about in the sun, rather than being too busy with other matters.
Beauty is a relative concept, a social phenomenon based mostly on, again, what is practical in a certain society. It shows many things about the setting of your story; what is attractive is based on a place's standard of living, religion, and many other innumerable factors that would prove interesting to develop in any story of reasonable length.
Another important element of a society is not only its culture, but its system of government. Again, the government will be based on what is considered, in practical terms, best for the people. If you are writing about a feudal society like medieval Europe, one in which a few very wealthy landowners keep most of the population as serfs (basically, a form of slave labor), then the government would be focused on keeping common people in their place and glorifying the rich, giving landowners and nobility all sorts of privileges and denying basic rights to everyone else.
This kind of government was necessary at the time, in order to keep the existing social structure in place. This was a practical concern of the rich, which acted in detriment of most everyone else (which is why no such societies exist today).
A society's religion will tend to be based on their scientific knowledge and the type of society in which they function. A war-like culture would glorify a violent god and consider peace-loving gods as "weak." In a society in which a low value is placed on the individual life, the society as a whole, rather than each person on their own, is glorified through religions promoting "the greater good" for everyone. By focusing on the interconnections between all beings, some religions promote this principle, allowing society to function more smoothly. Many stories and religious myths arise from man searching for an explanation of various natural phenomena in which the scientific basis is not known (for example: "lightning is caused by Zeus getting angry").
An agricultural society without basic scientific knowledge of farming might deify the sun, thinking that if they anger the gods, their crops will cease to grow, rather than realizing that there are simply no nutrients left in the soil.
When creating a society, some important things to consider that will be very influential in the way the culture thinks, lives, and acts are their geographic location and topography (nomadic desert tribe vs. agriculture community vs. isolated hermitic group in the mountains), their standard of living, their knowledge of science (disease and germ theory, level of mathematical advancement, etc.), and their interaction with other groups/nations/races.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one that is intended to point out multiple factors that must be taken into consideration, and will prompt writers to thinking creatively about the social impact of various non-social factors on any culture.
References to Earth are the most common mistakes that I, as a reader, come across, even in popular published fiction. As a fantasy writer, one must put a mental barrier between the world that they know and the world they are writing about.
This is why character and race sheets, and Patricia C. Wrede's Worldbuilder's Questions (readily available online) are so helpful; they allow you to completely shape the other world before you write about it, minimizing the likelihood that you will write something out of place or uncharacteristic of a fantasy realm.
Do: Put Thought Into Fantasy Races
As explained in the pervious section, assumptions about anything, from the use of language, to units of measurement, to social customs, values, and expectations, are all highly dependent on a myriad of factors which will have an effect on a given society.
This is especially important when dealing with a non-human fantasy race. While there is an excuse for lapses in references to one's own culture in the case of human cultures and characters (still, I stress, to be avoided or at least taken into careful consideration), non-human races must be much more carefully designed.
First of all, think: what distinguishes this race from humans enough that makes this race important to the story? If there is basically no distinction between elves and humans other than you happen to find pointy ears "cute," there is no good reason to have an elf in the story. This goes for just about anything you could ever write; there must be a real reason behind your decision to use certain races, personalities, and even genders for your characters.
It must add something to the story that could not be brought about by any other method. (If the story would be exactly the same if your character were male or female, gay or straight, human or vampire, your characters and plot are not specifically developed enough.) So, when designing a race, you must consider the physical, mental, and social distinctions between them and their human counterparts.
For example, in Christie Golden's Instrument of Fate, the elven races think differently from the humans. They do not feel deep emotions as humans do, especially not love. When they form an emotional attachment to someone, it is enduring and lasts until they or the other person die. They must be incredibly moved to take a stand on any matter, preferring more to be objective and calm about everything. They are only moved to emotionally-charged action when it involves deep, firm convictions.
For example, their desperation to avert a potentially cataclysmic war is based on the dictate of their Goddess that there should be peace between the different races, meaning that they would typically take a long time to look at the pros and cons of any international action regardless of their personal feelings.
Another example would be Anne Rice's vampires. Sunlight kills them and they survive on blood, which are vital differences between them and humans. These are obvious, but there are many more subtle differences that go into making Rice's novels as detailed and interesting as they are.
Her vampires physically perceive the world in a fundamentally different way than we do, with a completely altered sense of sight. They form emotional attachments differently as well, feeling a deep love for other members of their vampire family regardless of gender or their relationship in pre-vampire life. Not necessarily sexual in the way we would think, but with a fascination beyond the platonic. These things make her vampires different from humans in a way that retains some familiarity with the reader while also allowing more alien elements into the story that make the plots richer and more fascinating than authors who make vampires merely humans with pointy teeth.
This is a subject that could be expounded upon in an extreme amount of detail, but I think these examples are sufficient to show why thinking about the race you write is so important.
Everything previously mentioned in how to distance your fantasy society from that which is familiar to you applies here, and more. Not only must you take that into account, you must somehow physically and mentally distinguish between your race and humans.
Think: what physical traits does this race possess, and how does that benefit or hinder them? What additional abilities do they have? An enhanced sense of sight, hearing, or smell? Also, remember that if you choose to give them superior abilities in one area, they should also have a corresponding weakness. If they are large and strong, perhaps they are also slow and not particularly agile. If they are very intelligent, perhaps they are at a physical disadvantage.
You do not want to make your races god-like or without flaws; this makes them uninteresting at best, and insufferable at worst. You do not want to bore or alienate your reader, but better fiction will explore races in detail. If you are particularly ambitious, perhaps you can use their differences from humans to point out enduring truths about human nature; utilizing fantasy to convey a symbolic message (ala Lord of the Rings). An interesting and intricate plot is the mark of truly great writing, and only stories of that variety will be enduring works that will be enjoyed for a very long time. Because they are independent of the author's society and time, they can be enjoyed universally while still containing a message that people will find important enough to preserve.
Don't: Combine Every Creature Imaginable Into One Monstrous Chimera of a Character
In general, it is not a good idea to combine several fantasy races to make your character. For example, a half-phoenix-catgirl-dragon-mermaid-vampire-elf with psychic powers and angel wings.
This is too complicated to make sense, and too ridiculous to be taken seriously, if that is your intention. If you do feel the need to combine the characteristics of two or more different fantasy races, it would be best to come up with your own original race altogether, keeping in mind all of the advice outlined in the previous section.
Do: Put Thought Into the Use of Magic
If your fantasy story is going to contain elements of magic in it, give a plausible explanation for how it works. You can't simply have characters who use magic for no reason. Perhaps their race is particularly attuned to focusing and molding the natural energy of the universe? Maybe they can harness the power of a particular element. Is a wizard's magic a natural, in-born ability (Harry Potter), or is it something acquired through years of study and practice? It is a highly ritualized process, or one requiring membership into a secret society to learn? Is a character's magic derived from a pact with something evil, or from dedicated service to a God? Are there certain tools needed to allow them to use magic (a staff, tarot cards, talismans, a complicated ritual set-up, ancient tomes of untold and horrible powers)?
There are many different ways to develop this. Magic use can be based on inborn traits (the ability to use magic, psychic powers), an ancient curse, the study of ritual magic or alchemy (in which case at least cursory research is necessary on the part of the writer; Mercedes Lackey has an extensive knowledge of these subjects and it shows in her novels), the incantation of spells, or anything else that you desire. Just have a reason why your characters can use magic, and how they work within that system.
This can satisfactorily be explained simply by stating "she is a witch," however, the more detail and thought put into it, the better, as with all aspects of writing.
From there, you must also consider the limit and scope of magic. Are there certain uses for which magic is forbidden, and, if so, how is this enforced, who enforces it, and what is the punishment? Are there certain things magic simply can't do? Are there things it shouldn't be used for, which yield unpleasant and unintended consequences, such as a botched love-spell resulting in the object of a character's affections falling for another (or the insanity of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), or the attempted resurrection of the dead that brings them back as a monster or a completely different person?
It is important to try to make definite rules about the purpose, abilities, and function of magic so that the author does not contradict himself or use magic as an excuse to avoid a creative resolution to conflicts in the plot. For these reasons, the use of magic should also not be unlimited.
There must be a "price" for the use of magic, which may be as simple as being physically strenuous, to the higher demand of requiring complex rituals and blood sacrifice. What if the use of magic requires part of the magician's own life-force, aging her prematurely? What if a seemingly costless use of magic results in all sorts of horrible, unintended consequences (i.e., selling one's soul to the devil, a genie who grants wishes in a way that the character did not intend).
In the anime Full Metal Alchemist, magic cannot simply conjure something into existence; one thing must be magically transformed into another, and the two objects must be made of the same basic substance. A composite of two different things can be created, but cannot necessarily be separated again. Organic magic is strictly forbidden and requires blood sacrifice, at a terrible physical cost to the alchemist and the subject of the magic. There is a military society of alchemists that adheres to and enforces certain codes of conduct, among other things. In fact, this anime is a prime example of good research and implementation of a system of magic.
As mentioned before, Mercedes Lackey is an excellent fantasy author who puts a good amount of thought into developing plausible and understandable systems of magic in her original fantasy worlds. She has also researched ritual magic and alchemy, not to mention the history and people behind them, and has incorporated the subjects into her writing, a wonderful example being The Fire Rose.
Don't: Show an Uncharacteristic Level of Technological Advancement
Remember a few things when writing about a world with medieval technology: no plumbing, no sanitation, flat-out stupid medical practices.
While there were exceptions, notably, the highly advanced societies in Mesoamerica and China, for the most part, medieval society was miserable, unclean, and unhealthy. Your fantasy world does not have to be like this, but as most fantasy stories are set in a period with a similar level of development, it is pertinent and interesting to consider.
Your characters probably use a chamber pot, and they almost certainly do not have toilets. In fact, chamber pots are perhaps the most glamorous method of waste-disposal your characters will have access to, unless you contrive an intricate system of plumbing and waste-management that is somehow completely independent of advanced technology. (As I said, it can, and has been done. But not in Europe.)
A magic-based system of waste management is also a good option, taking into account the section on systems of magic.
Also keep in mind the general level of scientific and medical incompetence of the medieval time period. The existence of germs was not known, and diseases were either seen as punishment from God or an imbalance of the "humors," four fluids thought to permeate the human body and to cause illness when one was in deficit or excess.
These four humors (corresponding to the four elements of earth, fire, water, and air) were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. If you intend to base your characters' medical knowledge on this, you must do a little research, whether or not you go into any detail at all about it. (I'm sure you can tell my prevailing attitude that RESEARCH IS GOOD FOR YOU by now.) Most diseases were treated by bleeding the patient (not necessarily with leeches), inducing vomiting, with medicinal herbs (again, if you want to use them, know what you're talking about; many of these are actually still used as effective remedies today), or by way of the simply bizarre.
Folk medicine did not know any reasonable bounds; diseases could be "treated" by grinding up and making a potion out of toads, hanging dead or decaying animals from a person's throat, feeding them all sorts of foul concoctions that combined dead animal bits, ashes, dirt, and who knows what else.
If you want to use any of these treatments in your story, you can either research actual historical medicine (which will be much more fun than it sounds. Seriously!), or by making up your own wacky medical practices.
Take into consideration also, that for a long time in Europe, bathing was considered unhealthy, and some people bragged of never having bathed their entire lives. Also consider that this was before the invention of deodorant.
This, in my opinion, was a major cause of the Crusades; there was a huge demand for nice-smelling spices that would mask an individual's unbearable body odor, and the easiest way to import them sometimes involved invading and conquering foreign countries. This is another subject that should be enjoyable to explore if you wish to research it.
In ancient Egypt, women would wear sweet-smelling wax in their hair that would slowly melt in the heat to cover the smell of perspiration. Remember: just because we in the modern day have found ways to keep people from smelling all the time does not mean that your characters will have access to that level of chemical technology. They will probably have to resort to highly creative ways of disguising or blocking natural odors. Another creative addition to a story would be to have a character who sees the value in bathing, viewed as insane and unhealthy by everyone around them.
In a similar vein, also realize that sanitation was not a high priority and, as such, people often died of preventable diseases or infections. Many medical practices meant to save a person's life, actually killed them because of unclean instruments. This also facilitated the spread of disease on a massive scale.
The level of ignorance in Europe during this time period was terrible, and, if your characters are in a similar setting, you must take this all into consideration.
As I said, this is not necessarily how your fantasy world has to be, but you can't simply romanticize the medieval period without providing plausible, viable alternatives to the technology you are familiar with.
Science Fiction Specific
Science fiction can be just as challenging to write as fantasy, but in different ways. While not all science fiction focuses specifically on the science aspect, most of it at least references advances or declines in scientific knowledge or technology. Because of this, the basic mechanics of whatever kind of sciences are being referenced must be understood by the author, whether the area of focus is psychology, biology, physics, geology, or sociology. Science fiction is not supposed to be science fact, however.
Unless one understands the basics of what they wish to explore in a story, they have no way to speculate on that area of science within their story. There is a difference between creative science, which expands on that which is already known, or examines it in a new way, and what is simply sloppy and, frankly, bad writing.
Not every sci-fi story needs to focus on science. Perhaps instead it could use technological advances as a place to start in examining people, personality, morals, and social dynamics. In fact, this is what the best stories in the genre do; they are more compelling than those that only concern themselves with "hard" science, because people want to read about characters in fiction. If they want to read about theoretical physics without characters, a compelling plot, and character development, they're better off reading a textbook.
That said, there is a market for "hard sci-fi" writing which focuses on in-depth, accurate science specifically within the boundaries of a plot, and which is driven more by science than the characters themselves.
Some examples authors who wrote like this are Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. The main point here is that there are still characters and a plot to speak of.
Not all of these factors listed will need to be considered in every science fiction story, but many of them should nevertheless be considered by anyone choosing to write in the genre. Some speculative stories focusing only on the effects of technology on the characters will probably not need to incorporate any of these points at all.
As with the fantasy section, use your best judgment in how you, as an author, will apply these to your story.
Don't: Reference Earth or Modern Times Unless it Makes Sense
Sci-fi is easier to write, in some ways, than fantasy because it is probably set in the future of our society. This is not necessarily so (Star Wars), but likely.
It is important to realize, however, that the future will probably not be like modern times. Fads, fashion, slang, religious and social attitudes, and scientific understanding will change.
Play around with it. Take into consideration the factors that can affect society in the future: how will changes in climate, technology, knowledge, and technological ability change the human race? What will become important to a society that lives in outer space? On another planet?
Stories about human colonists on other worlds, especially, need to consider the impact of geography, history, biology, physics, and every other factor imaginable. How will the land that they are now living on affect them as a society? Do they need special equipment to sustain life and, if so, how does that change their morals and concerns as people?
For example, the worst crime would probably be someone trying to undermine the systems that keep their colony functioning—what if they try to destroy the artificial atmosphere? On a space colony, what if they disrupt artificial gravity, or heating/cooling systems?
Obviously, these are unacceptable behaviors that would be punished and turned into moral issues. Does this new world still have contact with Earth? If not, how does isolation affect them? Does the species or society evolve differently to deal with very different issues necessary for their survival?
The point here is that, while there is much more reason to reference Earth in most science fiction than there is in fantasy, you must still strive to remove your writing from the social and cultural assumptions of your own world, unless it makes sense to do otherwise. If you are dealing with an alien species, or a completely different galaxy independent of our own (Star Wars), obviously, referencing Earth does not make sense and should be avoided.
The process for developing a society in this case is much the same as the considerations in the fantasy section, so I will not repeat them again.
There are some more, special considerations for stories set in the future. What kind of currency do they use? In a story with highly-evolved technology, likely, all money would be electronic, just numbers stored in bank accounts that could be transferred around using a variant of checks or credit cards. In light of this, security would be a major concern. What measures would be taken to ensure the safety of one's money? Would retinal scans and fingerprints, perhaps voice recognition be required in order to transfer funds from one part to another? How would this affect hacker culture and the black market? Would this be government regulated? What about the potential for abuse? The possibilities are endless, and, at the very least, have to be considered in as much detail as the story requires. Obviously, this will be more or less important depending on the focus of the story.
Remember: science fiction is a way to explore our fundamental reality by displacing it into a new realm free of current social, political, cultural, or even scientific assumptions; the most powerful and enduring science fiction uses an alien setting to explore essential human and/or scientific realities. In this way, it is important to try to remove oneself from a familiar and comfortable setting.
Do: Use Metric In Scientific Contexts
Scientists generally use metric units when they're in their work setting. There is little reason for using miles and degrees Fahrenheit in, say, the dialogue of a NASA official, as has been portrayed in so many woefully bad movies. It's unrealistic.
Do: Understand the Properties of a Vacuum
If you set a story in outer space, understand the principles of zero-gravity and vacuum. Space is a vacuum, a lack of atmosphere. This means several things.
First of all, there is no sound in space. At all. Ignore everything you've seen on television and in movies: there is no sound in space. Because there is no air, there also can't be really neat explosions in space, at least not with things catching on fire. Fire requires oxygen to burn, of which there is none in a vacuum. Maybe the explosion involves oxygen escaping from the spaceship, in which case, yeah, okay, you can have a neat fiery inferno of death. But the source of the explosion can't come from outside the ship or on its surface.
Another key thing is that, given the lack of atmosphere, there is no air pressure in space. Our bodies have internal pressure meant to counteract the force of all the air pressing down from above so that we do not implode or collapse in on ourselves.
In space, there is no air pressure, and so, without protective gear, the internal pressure of the human body (or any Earth animal) will cause the body to explode. Yes, it's disgusting.
Another thing to consider is that, without the insulating function of an atmosphere, temperatures in a vacuum are extreme. It is not a comfortable place; if in the direct light of a star, it is incredibly hot, and away from a star, unimaginably cold. Spaceships and suits are designed with this in mind; even if internal body pressure was not a problem for an astronaut, out of the light of the sun, they might immediately freeze solid.
Do: Understand Relativity and the Speed of Light
By all known science, it is and will always be impossible to travel at, and especially faster than, the speed of light. Any sci-fi stories in which an object can travel faster than the speed of light defy the fundamental laws of physics.
Many stories use a cop-out "hyperspeed" or "warp" drive, but this is simply bad science and can be avoided by means of other, infinitely less bland methods of travel.
For example, human space-travelers might cryogenically freeze themselves, put the ship on autopilot, and wake up years later when they have reached their destination (this appears in more stories than I can name).
Colonists might form a society, living for generations upon a spaceship until they reach their destination, which will be populated by the descendants of the original crew of the ship. Corporations could create and harness wormholes (which are like two stable black holes that are connected) and provide a plausible way to travel instantaneously between two distant planets, bypassing these problems (ex: the anime Cowboy Bebop).
In fact, there are works of science fiction that use all of these explanations, and all of them yield their own interesting impact on the plot.
Just imagine, what if the great-grandchildren of the original crew of a colony ship realize that they don't want to colonize the planet when they reach it, because they have been living in space for generations?
What happens if most of the storage units holding the frozen passengers of a ship malfunction—or are sabotaged—leaving only a sole survivor in a ship he can't run on his own? What if the auto-pilot malfunctions, damaging the ship or causing the ship to miss the planet entirely? If the opening on one end of a wormhole collapses, what happens to whatever's inside?
Because wormholes connect two distant points in space-time directly, the passage between them being outside of the known physical universe, what kind of realm will they be stuck in? Is there any way back out? Do the wormholes only work one way? Will the ship end up in an alternate reality, or will it just be obliterated? Will the laws of physics still apply?
If your characters do find a way to travel at the speed of light, or even simply very, very fast, the theory of relativity comes into play. You see, the passage of time is relative to the speed at which a body in space is moving. If a spaceship traveled for one year at the speed of light, only one year would pass for those on the ship, but many would have passed on Earth.
This makes for a great plot point, and can be very interesting to explore—there are many stories that detail the breakdown of relationships between people who travel in space for months at a time, where years pass for their loved ones down on a planet.
In fact, this is used very well in the novels The Snow Queen and Ender's Game. (Both of which I also recommend as good examples of a nice balance between science and character development.)
This also makes some interesting paradoxes; one would think that the progression of time between two different planets would be radically different as well, depending on the size, mass, and orbit of the distant world. This would make communication between different planets impossible, and what effect would this isolation have on the different segments of humanity?
Being aware of and exploring the different possibilities of relativity makes much more interesting fiction than any story with instant, non-relative travel ever will.
Another theory connecting both the speed of light and relativity is the idea that if an object does manage to travel faster than the speed of light, it will actually go back in time. Also, in the future, perhaps quantum mechanics would allow for instant, faster-than-light communication between two distant points.
Do: Put Thought Into Alien Species
The ideas outlined in the fantasy section in regards to developing a distinct race from that of humans still apply here, but with science fiction there arises also the need to understand the biological workings of an alien species.
Where all fantasy creatures are, it can be assumed, more or less like Earth animals (carbon-based, able to survive in an Earth-like environment and atmosphere, etc), alien species have the potential to be like nothing we could ever imagine. Their biology is very important if you want to explore them in detail, and it would have an extreme impact on their culture, society, behavior, way of life, and very way of perceiving the universe.
For example, what about a space faring race with the ability to survive in a vacuum? What special biological adaptations would they have to have? How would they breathe, or, if they didn't have to (which could be theoretically possible; they're not necessarily bound by the known principles of biology as they apply on Earth), how would they stay alive otherwise? And would they die on the surface of a planet with an atmosphere due to air pressure, or anything else? Without the ability to communicate aurally (through sound), would they have developed instead telepathic communication, or perhaps even all share one mind?
On that note, also consider the differences between a creature living deep the in ocean and one on land. Deep-sea creatures live without light, under pressures that would kill a human. On the other hand, some sea creatures (jellyfish) are not made to withstand air pressure, and lose their form out of water. These are special considerations necessary to any authors writing about a water-dwelling species.
The wonderful thing about creating an alien species is that you can't go wrong with it. Because we have never encountered anything living not from Earth, they could be like anything, and function according to principles that no life on Earth adheres to.
They don't even necessarily need to have bodies which can be perceived in our four-dimensional universe; perhaps they exist in other dimensions and seem like ghosts or gods to us. Just always be sure to remember that they are not human and should not act or think like humans. That's what makes them interesting to read and write about.
Do: Know What You're Talking About
Whenever basing any part of your story on scientific principles, have a basic understanding of what you're talking about, or have someone who is familiar with the subject read it and point out your mistakes. I cannot stress this enough.
There is nothing worse than science fiction with incorrect or inaccurate science, and having someone help you is not so difficult. If you don't know anything about the subject you're addressing, you probably aren't qualified to be writing about it.
If you really find the subject so fascinating that you can't not write about it, do some research into the subject.
Don't: Use Mindless Technobabble
Technobabble. We all know what it is.
"Captain, we've lost 43% of the power to the main aft thrusters in sector G!" The power flickers off and on for some reason.
"The main booster shields are at 150% capacity and the main circuit of the AI autopilot chef chip is malfunctioning! The shields are down in alpha zeta prime! We're going to crash!"
Don't tell me you've never heard this on TV.
It's the random use of technical-sounding terms that don't make any sense to anyone, least of all the person who wrote them. Never, ever use technobabble to make your story sound more "exciting" or "credible."
Write things that make sense, if you must use technobabble at all. (A good example would be Star Trek, which, while still using technobabble, uses technobabble that has a basis in scientific fact and actually refers to specific, concrete, credible things.
The people actually know what parts of the ship they're talking about, even if the viewer doesn't.)
"The shields are failing" on its own makes sense.
"The propulsion system is out of fuel; we'll have to make an emergency landing" makes sense.
Random babble about sector some-letter, in the zeta quadrant with random boosters and thrusters and phasers and whatever else thrown in sounds stupid, confuses everyone, and leads the reader to just skip that section anyway and not really pay attention.
There are a few things that can appear in both sci-fi and fantasy stories which are equally ill-advised in both. However, this is the only major one that comes to mind..
Don't: Make Up Languages
I know you may feel the desire, and haven't we all wanted to at some point? Resist the urge. I know it's hard. Just don't do it.
Unless you are a linguist, like Tolkien, and you really want to go all the way, please just say something along the lines of,
"She spoke some words he did not understand." Maybe even go into detail describing how the words sound. And definitely don't write out something in your made up language and then just provide a translation because the character already understands what it means. Just make it clear they are speaking in another language.
Why do I say not to do this? When you are writing, there is no good reason to do this. Chances are you are simply hitting random letters on the keyboard, and half your readers are skipping over your carefully-crafted dialogue because they don't know what it means.
I can make exceptions for movies and TV shows, where you actually hear the languages spoken, maybe even see subtitles. That is when making up a language is permissible, and, actually, better than simply assuming everyone speaks English. But when writing fiction, it is not the best idea.
Also, unless necessary, it's best not to throw in random words from existing languages that not every reader is going to be familiar with.
For example, random French, German, Japanese… Have a good reason for it, such as your character actually being from a country that speaks that language. And even then, don't use it so much that you confuse the readers. (While not a sci-fi/fantasy book, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is an aggravating read for including long passages of French text and dialogue in an English-language novel. At least the main character is actually from France, but it's still awful for someone who doesn't know anything about the language.)
There are plenty of ways to convey that another language is being spoken. In the novel The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge, she changes the syntax (word order) in dialogue to show which language is being spoken. It is easy to follow and effective, and, in my opinion, infinitely more creative than slapping random made-up words together in no particular order. Which, unless you are actually creating a whole language, chances are this is exactly what you're doing.
Applying This To Your Writing
This is meant only to be a basic guide detailing problems I have found in science fiction and fantasy writing again and again, and, sadly, not always in stories by amateur writers.
If you are careful and creative, you need not necessarily adhere to any of the guidelines I have set forth in this paper. These are not rules set in stone, but suggestions from someone who has seen a lot of excellent and a lot of terrible science fiction and fantasy.
Some writers might be angry that I dare tell them how to write, or feel that by defining a minimum of required scientific accuracy, I am limiting their creativity. The point of this is to hopefully help writers of all abilities to improve their skills and to write unique, creative fiction with their own style and focus.
Too many fantasy writers rehash the same Lord of the Rings plot, rife with elves and ancient evils bent on destroying the world, without taking the time to add an individual focus to the plot or setting.
Too many writers use the Anne Rice vampire without bothering to develop their own interesting characteristics for the species. Too many writers don't take the time to develop the biology of their alien species (acid blood, laying eggs in people's chests, and so on), instead deferring to the popular image of "little green men" with only the fact that they are extraterrestrials with funny-shaped heads to distinguish them from the cast of human characters.
These writers are not original and have not written anything really creative or new, re-using cliché ideas and scripting a plot without any sort of focus. They are meandering along a vague path of what is typical of the genre without any real thought put into what they're writing, and why. This does not make them bad writers (and, indeed, anyone who actually managed to read all the way to this point can't possibly be awful), but there is always room for improvement.
If you intend to become a professional writer, the ability to craft creative, original fiction is of principal importance.
Perhaps the best way to apply my suggestions to your writing is to think very hard about the purpose of your story. Why are you writing it? What's the point? What are you trying to convey to the reader? The answers to these questions should help you understand what areas you really need to focus on, and, thus, what areas of the setting and characters are important to expand upon.
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