3 Speculative Fiction Worldbuilding Techniques That Contemporary Writers Can Adopt

April 14, 2022

Worldbuilding is a term that’s usually associated with sci-fi and fantasy. However, as an author of contemporary fiction, I’ve discovered that I can borrow principles from those genres to provide vivid backdrops for my scenes. Consistent, well-structured settings enable readers to vicariously experience the same sensations as the characters, so any strategies that add more layers of realism are a win.


In fantasy worldbuilding, the writer essentially plays the role of a god, designing a new universe with distinct plants, creatures, races, cultures, climate, politics, geography, and history. A supernatural entity with its own set of rules, such as magic or deities, may also be present.


In contrast, a contemporary fiction writer frames the story in a pre-existing world. Inventing everything from scratch isn’t necessary—but developing the elements that are significant to the characters still is, and that’s where taking a page from speculative fiction can help. Instead of letting readers fill in the gaps (because they know what modern-day homes and businesses look like, after all), you’ll treat the blank slate as an opportunity to infuse meaning into each detail you mention.


1. Evocative Atmospheres

Since speculative fiction writers have the freedom to shape their worlds without any boundaries, they often apply a mood or an emotion to each place the characters visit to give it cohesion. For example, Tolkien’s maps of Middle-Earth display a wide variety of terrain: mountains, caves, rivers, and fortresses. His main character, Bilbo Baggins, hails from the Shire, a quaint, quiet town nestled in low-rising hills. It hums of peace and innocence, whereas the jagged cliffs that loom over the volcanic plains of Mordor whisper of evil and death. Each region establishes the tone for the events that occur there and the beings who populate it.


Contemporary writers need to mimic that degree of focus. Yes, Earth already has continents, countries, and cities. But those perimeters offer plenty of options for conveying comfort or fear. The tactic that you’re adapting from speculative fiction—drawing inspiration from your personal experiences—is relevant to any project. You can tap into a flashback of hurrying through an empty Walmart before a storm hit or laughing at the dozen blowups bouncing in your aunt’s yard and translate those ideas into words.


When a friend gifted me Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (because I’d never pick up that genre on my own), the captivating southern setting surprised me. I highlighted phrases so rich that I could hear the drone of insects and the plop of frogs in the muck, taste the humidity thickening the air, and detect the hint of loss and mystery underlying the protagonist’s thoughts. Like her speculative fiction counterparts, Owens included enough information to illuminate the imaginations of readers who have never slogged through a swamp. 


Are you struggling to figure out how to make the mundane seem interesting? Or maybe you’ve never seen the suburbs your characters grew up in. You have access to more resources than you think. Jot notes when you’re touring the types of buildings or cities that appear in your story. Watch videos and shows that feature the native flora and fauna. Take photos when you come across the right aesthetic, or simply search your own memories for all the sights, sounds, and flavors that bring your world to life.


2. Memorable Cultures

Social structures in speculative fiction involve a lot of nuances: either choosing or creating different races, defining languages (maybe even dialects and slang), and fleshing out each individual’s history, job, traditions, beliefs, and class. Star Trek’s iconic Mr. Spock, for instance, has a complex assortment of traits. He’s a Vulcan, an extraterrestrial that suppresses emotions and relies on logic to make decisions. They dress modestly, have angled dark eyebrows and pointed ears, possess great strength, and live for a long time. Because they’re talented at remaining calm and impartial even in tense conversations, they frequently serve as ambassadors between warring parties. A quirk they’re famous for is the mind-meld, which allows them to  telepathically connect to another being through touch.


Contemporary writers use many of the same aspects to distinguish their characters—minus, of course, the obligation to acquaint readers with unfamiliar anatomy. Whether your protagonist lives on a spaceship or in an apartment above a music store, his physical appearance, backstory, career, and worldview will influence how he interacts with and is perceived by others. Making him unforgettable and compelling is no less of a priority.


The first version of my protagonist in my upcoming novel, Inside the Ten-Foot Line, required a little tweaking, but the nucleus of a star burned inside her from the moment I introduced her. Why? I’d spent so much time on the volleyball court that I knew the sport’s culture tighter than a spandex uniform. I could predict how the coaches, players, and parents would react in multiple scenarios, enabling me to assign characters the best and worst idiosyncrasies I witnessed. From the sports-obsessed aunt who doubles as a mentor to the hot-headed fans screaming from the sidelines, my characters’ behavior reflects the norm—which I didn’t have to invent.


Writers of every genre would benefit from focusing on character development, especially when trying to integrate the setting. You could collect images of your characters’ doppelgängers and the clothing they might wear in a Pinterest board. People watching is another effective strategy. Find a cozy spot at a beach, bookstore, or park and sketch out your impressions of how passersby dress, act, and talk. Finally, dip into your memories again where your past overlaps with your characters’ current circumstances. What would you smell, taste, see, and feel?


3. Realistic Politics

From large-scale regimes to small-town classrooms, power struggles break out. In speculative fiction, the politics typically dictate who rules a country versus who is oppressed, plus the rights and privileges thereof. A coalition of wizards might be vying for control, or elves might be jockeying for a promotion in social order. An imbalance between the haves and have nots can ratchet up any conflict. And guess what? Contemporary writers can stir the pot too. However, instead of fabricating a dispute, they can capitalize on systems that are causing divisions in the real world.


Politics in contemporary fiction may not (and usually won’t) relate to the government. More often, the chain of command at school, work, and home will impact the protagonist the most. In my novel, coaches have the authority to position players on the field or send them to the bench, and their decisions can enrage a mob of overprotective parents and glory-seekers. The upstarts will either ignore justice or fight for it, depending on the situation.


If you’re planning to incorporate some sort of factional unrest into your novel, observation is once again the best method. Study news articles and listen to debates. Take notes on how both sides feel, how they speak and advocate for change, and how you would approach the issue. Blending all of those viewpoints together will ensure that your portrayal of the controversy is authentic and fair.


Imitation Is the Highest Form of Flattery

A vibrant story world will capture readers whether it’s imaginary or a mirror image of their own. They want to believe in the characters’ surroundings, even if only for the half a dozen hours that they’re exploring the landscape between “once upon a time” and “the end.” Who better to apprentice under when creating a new reality than notable speculative fiction authors who have honed these god-like skills? Although the process and results may look different in a contemporary novel, the fundamentals of worldbuilding don’t fluctuate much from genre to genre.


I’d suggest checking out a few speculative fiction titles from the bestseller list and paying attention to the people, places, and politics that stand out to you. Then compare those books to contemporary fiction and search for similarities in how the authors developed the same areas. What did you discover? I’d love for you to share your findings in the comments below!


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