Category Archives: World Building

“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

First posted to ‘of Altered States’:

I had no real idea what I was going to write this week then this turned  up on io9. Thank you, Mr Heinlein (and thank you io9 for sticking it where I could see it). Problem solved.

“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

I should imagine all writers get asked this question—a lot. You can cube that number for writers of Speculative Fiction, and you can cube it again for Science Fiction writers on their own. It’s understandable really.

Everybody, who isn’t a writer, is curious about where writers get their ideas. Writers are less curious and more envious when somebody comes up with a great idea (a ‘Bugger, wish I’d thought of that’ moment is something all writers will recognise (Check THIS out, so very envious).

With non-Speculative Fiction (excepting maybe Crime Fiction, where people back slowly away from the writer in case the scribe feels like doing a little hands-on research) people can kinda see where the idea might come from: a marriage break-up, an historical incident, a present-day incident, a conversation overheard in the street, and so on. Those sort of things make sense to readers, because everybody with an imagination will have had those moments of wondering.

With Fantasy, people can kinda see that the idea may derive from the 7000 odd years of mythology and legend that just sits there in the collective unconscious. Horror pretty much comes from the same place as Fantasy, but it does cross the line into Science Fiction (and Crime Fiction).

But pure SF?

Heinlein’s letter shows the answer. I don’t know if he trawled through his notebooks for his friend Theodore Sturgeon, or if he just started spilling ideas onto the page in a flood, it could have been either, but the important thing is that all the ideas actually built an entire world in very few words.

Even the ‘ghost cat’ idea creates a world in sixteen words.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a reason why Heinlein is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Science Fiction writers. This flood of ideas is part of the why and the world creation is a lot of the rest of it. Everything connects together in Heinlein’s work. He describes a world from the inside in a master class of how to do exposition. (Read the beginning of Starbeast if you don’t believe me). He takes an idea to its logical conclusion and that logical conclusion is the world building, then he lets his characters loose in that world.

Not many writers can do that. Really. It’s a rare gift.

However, the ideas bit is what all Science Fiction writers do automatically. We don’t even think about it. Some science journal or political journal has some article and we instantly think, ‘hmmm, I wonder?’

I wonder: if building bots that mimic human play in online games  will lead to them being used as NPC characters in new games, which will lead to Machine Intelligences being released onto the net; if sons leaving DNA in the mother will allow dead sons to be cloned from these tissues at some point in the future (it is probable that daughters leave the same DNA behind, but male DNA is easier to find in a woman); and so on. Instant extrapolation.

And this happens pretty much anytime I read anything scientific, or political, or sociological, or…okay pretty much anything I read about pretty much anything…because I’ve trained my brain over decades to do this. And all those stray thoughts stick somewhere in my memory. I only write down really cool ideas (or what I think are really cool ideas). I actually learn about stuff by writing stories about them. Sometimes the stories fail, but I’ve figured out sommat about the idea, then later that same idea will pop up in another story, which works because I understand the idea better now.

Don’t get me wrong here, a lot of writers will do the same thing, some will probably have looked at my two instant extrapolations above and gone “Is that all you saw? Sheesh, what about this…?”

But to answer the question ‘where do SF writers get their ideas from?’ is easy, from reading stuff and wondering how the hell it would affect the world. The “My God, what if” of Brian Aldiss.

If dead children can be cloned from DNA left behind in the mother, what about taking that same DNA and using it to create ‘spare-part’ clones for the children? What about using it to create a designer clone because the first (naturally born) version turned out a bit disappointing? What would happen if the ‘natural’ child was disinherited and the ‘designer’ child became the heir? What would it be like to have a younger, ‘suped-up’, version of you running around with all the money you should have inherited? What would a world that allowed this to happen be like?

That’s where we get our ideas from. But of course, Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, Anderson, Wyndham, Le Guin, Shelley, Wells, Aldiss, Verne, Gibson, Vinge, and all the rest of the greats, have been doing the same thing for centuries.

And doing it better.

But what can I do? My brain is trained now, so I’m stuck with it.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’:

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Filed under Genres and other foolishness, Storytelling, Art, and Craft, World Building

Fan Fiction and World Building

I’ve had a couple of revelations recently or the heading might have read: Fan Fiction. Why?

The first revelation came in the comments over on the Passive Voice blog. My standard ‘why’ question was being debated, and I was sticking to my standard ‘I don’t understand the impulse’ position, when  I remembered writing a Dr Who story in my teens. Bang goes my ‘not understanding the impulse’.

The second revelation came when talking my nephew, who does like his fan fiction. I understood the impulse now, but I still didn’t understand ‘why’ people chose to invest so much energy into something they can’t sell. He was adamant that some fan fiction was better than the original fiction. You still can’t sell them, was my response to which he agreed, albeit a tad reluctantly. [EDIT: Kindle Worlds seems to be allowing people to sell fan fiction now, not sure how that is going to work out. A watching brief seems to be in order.]

However, this blog post is more about an insidious problem for writers of fan fiction rather than the legal and ethical concerns. I’m just mentioning them to get them out of the way—and to nail apologists for plagiarists hides to the wall (see below).

The final revelation came from an argument on another blog—I’m not sure which one—where the whole ‘nothing is original and therefore I can plagiarise to my heart’s content’ argument came up. That argument is bogus, bullshit, and should be thrust back down whichever throat it issues from whenever it is spoken, typed, or in any other way preached to the hard-of-thinking.

Philosophical bullshit based on a grain of truth (no story is truly original, but all creative stories are unique to the author) is still bullshit. If you don’t have any ideas of your own then don’t go stealing mine and asserting your rights to do so with sophistry and pedantry.

So, taking all three revelations as read, that pretty much everybody who writes will at some point write some form of fan fiction, that some fan fiction is extremely well written, and that it is still technically plagiarism and expect to see the inside of a courthouse if you try to steal another writer’s work and sell it without their consent, why do I still have a bit of a problem with fan fiction?

It’s to do with the fan fiction writer themselves. The most common reason people give for writing fan fiction (in my experience) beyond sheer love of the world and characters, is that it allows the writer to explore character and plot without them having to explore world building at the same time. In short, it’s easier for the tyro writer to focus on these aspects of writing rather than have to deal with the whole thing.

So what’s the problem with this?


Characters and plots are intimately linked to setting. If a writer creates a character, that is not the main protagonist of the story they are fanning (is that a term?—it’s a good one, because fan fiction does fan the flames that can lift a story or a series to a higher level. I’m not against fan fiction, I’m just against people thinking they should be ‘paid’ for writing fan fiction and that the original author should not get a cut—a big cut) then that character is linked to that world. Even if you file off the serial numbers and publish that work as being set in a different world, it will still bear the imprimatur of the original world being fanned.

The world you are born into, that you grow into, defines who you are. If I wrote a novel based in the… um… yeah that’ll do… the Star Wars universe and the story went so well that I decided to file off the serial numbers and release it as an original work then no matter how deep I go with the cutting and the editing, no matter how hard I try to create a different world, the character will still bear the marks of being born into a Star Wars world. Otherwise, it won’t be the same character.

So the story will be lesser for that reason. It’ll be a copy of a world run through photoshop. Jedi becomes some other warrior monkish order, the Empire becomes some other overpowering enemy, droids become some other semblance of AI. But all have the creative DNA of Star Wars running through them like “bloody prequels” through a stick of Blackpool rock.

(And yes I am well aware that people will start yelping about how Star Wars took this from here and that from there and then mashed them all together to make this amalgam of stuff that they called a universe. I’ve got news for you, that’s called World Building. If you take a whole bunch of stuff from a whole bunch of sources and create a world that works without looking like any other world that some other writer created using the same sources then you have committed World Building. It’s a skill, a craft, and in the hands of a master like Frank Herbert or Iain M. Banks [EDIT: RIP. Damn, I hate writing that, one of the finest writers of his generation] or Terry Pratchett, it is an art form. And I’m not talking about the gross level of this is a Space Opera world, or this is a Medieval European Fantasy world, or this is a Cyberpunk world. Those are genres and tropes. Not excuses for plagiarism using the NIO—nothing is original—defence.)

Plots are slightly different, this is where the NIO bullshit comes from, because plots really can be grouped into strands of creation running back to the dawn of time. So much so that modern writers of original works have to takes this into account when storytelling. “Look look, it’s a love story, oh… she died… look, look it’s a revenge story… oh he died… look, look it’s a legal story…” And so on.

You don’t actually have to kill off your characters, but you do have to point one way (the way everybody expects the plot to go) and go another. Unless of course you are so good at this writing malarkey that you can keep the readers on board because they love the characters so much that the plot is just what needs to happen to show the characters off (that is my favoured approach by the way: it is the most fun and the most difficult to pull off, which are my prime motivations for writing stuff in the first place. Though you do still need a strong storyline for them to follow. You don’t get anywhere with characters just wafting around with nothing to do).

But plots are constrained by the world. The byzantine politicking of Dune is entirely different from the more direct politics of the Hyperion Age. And, just as with characters, you can grind off the serial numbers to your heart’s content, but the story will still bear the faded marks of the world it was originally set in.

So what’s my problem with this?

When you are learning to write (particularly in the field of SF&F). You are essentially learning to balance character against plot against setting against idea and/or theme (I throw that last in because some people seem to think it’s important. It is, but I never think about it myself. To my mind, theme is a critic’s bread and butter. I’m a writer not a critic…snobby? Yup, you betcha, after all ‘snobby’ should be part of the definition of the word critic, so sod ’em.)

So you are only learning to balance character against plot when writing fan fiction. The world is already there, it’s set in stone, if you’re writing fan fiction then you have probably read it so many times that it is more real to you than the world you actually live in. You are not learning how to balance the character and plot against the setting (the theme/idea really will just take care of itself—really, stop thinking about that nonsense right now. Unless of course you like writer’s block because you get a lie in).

And you only have so many stories inside you. There are only so many characters and plots you can utilise. As time wears on you may find more, but they will still—essentially—derive from your earliest work. That’s just a fact of creative life. The thread of your thematic concerns, your characters, the plots you develop, can be traced all the way back to the first thing you wrote.

A fan fiction writer chooses to constrain those formative writing experiences in another writer’s world.

I’m just not sure that is very wise at all.

[EDIT: Since writing this, I have become aware of Mash-Ups… they do sound like fun :grin:]


PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’:

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Fan Fiction, Storytelling, Art, and Craft, World Building