I write speculative fiction, which means I build fictional worlds that aren’t quite like the world we live in. Spec fic worlds can be completely different – dragons and white walkers – or just a little bit different – like an oppressive regime which strips women of reproductive freedom a la The Handmaid’s Tale. (Only a little bit different for, say, El Salvador. A lot different for somewhere like Australia.)
I like to tell people that I write speculative fiction because I’m a lazy writer – I don’t want to have to do all the research involved in historical fiction.
It does, however, mean that I have to build a fictional world from scratch. It’s a lot of work, but I very much enjoy making up the rules as I go.
So – where do the ideas come from? How do I start?
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How I build fictional worlds
Step 1: Decide on a premise
I loved going to the Melbourne Writers Festival when I was in high school. I particularly adored listening to Isobelle Carmody speak – I was lucky enough to attend her sessions two years in a row. What she told us about how she wrote stories was revolutionary to 12-year-old me:
Ask yourself: ‘What if?’
37-year-old me now does exactly that, except I come at it with a wealth of knowledge, anger, frustration and black-comedy amusement about how society works.
For my first novel, Maternal Instinct, I started with this premise:
What if parenting was really, truly valued in our society?
Step 2: Interrogate the premise
I like to write about worlds which very closely mirror our own world, so Maternal Instinct is set in Melbourne. The time period is twenty years from now – around 2040. There are few fairly significant medical advances which wouldn’t have made sense if they were set in current-day Melbourne.
When I started to interrogate my premise I used the world I knew and just changed a few things. Here’s a bit of what my Q&A looked like:
- Q: What does ‘really, truly valued’ mean to our society?
A: We live in a capitalist society, so in order to be really, truly valued, something has to be part of the economy. Basically, it needs a dollar value attached to it. So what would it look like if parenting were really, truly valued? It would be paid.
- Q: What would happen if child-rearing was a paid profession?
A: It’s regulated. Just look at childcare. First it was seen as just babysitting when most mothers stayed at home. Now childcare is a full career with educational requirements and multiple regulations about how the children should be cared for. Of course, it’s still very poorly paid – a sign that we don’t really value it very highly at all.
- Q: But what if we really valued parenting?
A: It would be better paid. Men would probably aspire to do it too. It would be a respected career path that had greater prominence in society. It would mean that we valued children.
- Q: So you’re saying if we valued parenting it would mean we valued children too?
A: Yup. And childhood.
- Q: And what happens to something if our society really values it and wants to pay lots of money for it and gives it greater prominence?
It gets organised on a mass scale, and regulated for standardisation and accountability. Plus if there’s lots of money involved, we expect the service to be as efficient as possible and achieve the best outcomes possible.
And then I went down the rabbit hole and asked more and more questions. Which is how I ended up with a world which has:
- a fully regulated child-rearing system with professional Maters and Paters who are solely in charge of the kids for 95% of the time from the age of 6 months to 18 years.
- full government funding for the system – paid for by higher taxes for everyone.
- eventually – a fully regulated conception and birthing system. Because if we really valued childhood and wanted the best outcomes, it would make sense to give kids the best genetic start possible as well as the best environment for them to be raised in.
- death penalty for paedophiles – for fairly obvious reasons.
Disclaimer: To be clear, I’m in no way advocating for the above – this is a fictional world. The idea of not being allowed to raise my own kids is just awful.
Step 3: Imagine what life is like for a few individuals in your world
This is where my online writing training came in handy. I used personas – I basically wrote a timeline of what I imagined life would be like for the various ‘types’ or ‘personas’ of people in my fictional world:
- a child growing up in a Home with a Mater and Pater
- a Mater or Pater – what does their career trajectory look like?
- a woman who is required to conceive and then relinquish her baby to be raised by professional parents – does she feel okay about it, given that’s what she’s know was expected all of her life, and society agrees that’s the best thing? Or is she shattered anyway?
Step 4: List all the things that could possibly go wrong in your world
No world is perfect. These rules you’ve written up for your world – what’s the worst that could happen? I listed everything I could think of, no matter how small or how unlikely.
Ultimately, I picked a couple of biggies for my main plot lines and drew on almost everything else as throwaway references or subplots.
Step 5: Make the rest up as you go along
Well, that’s what I do, anyway. I’m a pantser. I don’t like to plan absolutely every detail out before I start. Mostly because this results in me spending all my time building a world and no time writing an actual story – which is fine if you’re Thomas More writing Utopia in 1516, but 21st-century audiences tend to expect there to be actual characters who do things and face challenges and overcome them and stuff. I know, we’re so demanding, right?
Following these steps helped me to nut out characters and gave my story a starting point and a general trajectory. It also helped me when I came to the end of each scene and scratched my head, thinking ‘What happens next?’. I went back to basics and asked myself – within the confines of the world I’d built – what would happen next? What expectations would society have? What social norms would my characters be fighting against? Which parts of the official messaging would they have fully absorbed and which bits would they likely still harbour some suspicion about?
Getting started is sometimes the hardest part. For me, it was also the most exciting and fun part – sort of like when you’re a kid and anything is possible and the reality of adult life / actually sitting down to write 80,000 words hasn’t quite sunk in yet.