Writing speculative fiction is – in part – about building a coherent world. Creating a (future) history, a polity, an environment that convinces and entrances. This is obvious enough if you’re creating a fantasy world or alien planet, but even a ‘normal’ Earth has its rules. Every step away from what we laughably call reality – every demon that haunts every corner – has its consequence. And you, as author, have to know what this means for the people who inhabit your world. Who knows about the monsters that lurk in the closet? Is there a conspiracy? Or are the powers-that-be as clueless as the rest of the world?
Recently I’ve been playing around with some character development for my sci-fi/crime novel using a set of questions recommended by a writing colleague. Most of it is fairly straightforwards: age, hair colour and the like. But then I got to ‘favourite food’ and that made me pause. What, in my world, do people eat? This is a near-future Earth that’s hugely overpopulated: what do the hoi polloi eat? And I realised, then, that I don’t just need to answer these questions for my characters – I need to ask them for the entire planet.
To some extent I have answers: before I wrote a single word I had to develop a political landscape, a context for the story to exist in. But I realise now that I don’t know enough detail – a problem magnified by numerous drafts, each of which has subtly altered the base-state of existence.
Most of this information will never be mentioned in the text. People don’t need to know a character’s favourite colour and people don’t need to know the precise hierarchy of a nation state (unless they do: we’re dealing in generalisations here, and another story might well need this information). But the author needs to know how things work. I’m always reminded of Terry Pratchett’s assertion that to create a city you have to start by knowing how water gets in and how waste gets out. The reader might never know this, but the author has to. It’s amazing how unreal a place can seem if the nuts and bolts aren’t properly tightened.
And the comparison with character building stands. It’s helpful to think of the environment as a character in itself, a neutral, unforgiving presence – or a warm, suffocating cocoon – with its own rules and regulations. How do the off-stage folk survive? What jobs must be done to get food on the table – or for there to be a table in the first place? You as an author need to know these things or nothing will seem real.
Of course, it’s a lot easier if you write fiction set on this plane of existence. Then you can just get on with the damn plot.