Hello, my darklings!
To earth or not to earth — that is the question. And every fiction writer, in some shape or form, has had to answer it. I don’t care if you’re writing about a serial killer in the suburbs of Chicago or a clumsy alien zookeeper on planet Froofus, your story’s locale crossed your mind, if only briefly. And this throws us smack into the arena of world building.
If you’re writing about the Chicago slasher mentioned above, your thoughts may not have strayed much beyond what you know about the Windy City. After all, it’s a real location. You may need to research its history a bit, get familiar with the city and the people who live there, but you don’t need to figure out how gravity works or where the planet fits in its solar system — science already did that.
To a point, this holds true even in Urban Fantasy, in which the writer injects a few fantastical elements. But what if you want something altogether different? A planet in another solar system or even another dimension? Each of these choices has its own set of questions that must be answered. In this post, we’ll take a look at what you need to consider when developing an alternate Earth.
Earth with a Twist — Why?
Although I just said this (it’s literally the second sentence in the above paragraph), if you’re writing something like an Urban Fantasy, you’re obviously going to be setting your story in some location on Earth. There are some very practical benefits for going this route because, quite frankly, it gives you a ready-made starting point.
To start with, you already know how the planet came into being. You know how the weather works, what the laws of nature are, etc.. You don’t have to worry about developing all of these things because they’re already in place for you.
In addition, landmasses, oceans, lakes, and rivers are already in place. The same goes for systems of government, politics, languages, cultures, or any of the other things that we are surrounded with on a daily basis and take for granted because they are simply there — unless you’re inserting a new one into what is already here.
Even if you’re setting this in a different time period, that information is already put together for you. If you choose to set the story 250 million years in the past, you can google a world map for that as well as find information on what the atmosphere was like, what animals were in existence, and more. The same is true if you want something a little more recent than the Permian Era. The Steampunk subgenre is a good example of this, taking the Victorian Era of 1837–1901 and twisting it into something new.
Considerations for an Alternate Earth
This is still fantasy so even though the world is laid out for you, there will be things you’ve got to work out on your own. On the real Earth, Medusa and Hades aren’t hanging around in some fancy digs somewhere waiting for teenage demi-gods to come see them a-la Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.
Well, I suppose they could be but as far as I know, they aren’t. Your job then becomes figuring out how the fantasy elements of your story operate in the real world and what effect they would have had on history. For example, if your alternate Earth contains magic, how would that have affected historical events? Would things have happened the same or does your world’s history look totally different? Has religion changed? What about politics? Cultural behaviors?
The same goes for the inclusion of other races. Fairy lore, for example, has long been a part of human history. If in your world all of those creatures are real and present, how does that affect the average person on the street? How does their presence make your world different from this one?
In short, you are developing an alternate reality — your own version of the Earth we know and love. By reviewing things like real-world history, science, current events, and more and then asking what-if questions, you’ll develop your world. Some examples might be what if dragons really did live only in China (something that my nephew resolutely believed was the case between the ages of 5–7) or what if Atlantis was found buried in the Peruvian jungle, empty but with all its legendary technology intact. It is the answers to those questions that will guide and influence your story and your characters. Don’t forget — the world will have a direct impact on what your characters experience as well as their reactions, beliefs, and choices.
Suspension of Disbelief
When creating an alternate Earth, you’ve got a lot of things going for you already while still having plenty of freedom to invent and shape the world according to your own vision. Don’t forget, however, that the reader still lives on Earth themselves — just not your version of it. You’ll need to make sure the differences you create are believable or that you can explain them in a believable way. In other words, they still have to fit in somehow with how your reader expects the world to work.
Do Your Research
Developing an alternate Earth definitely gives you an advantage over creating a world from scratch but as I’ve pointed out, it’s not without its fair share of work. You’ll still need to do your research. There’s no limit to the places you could look for information and inspiration. Everything, from physics to biology to world politics and more, is at your fingertips, either at your local library or online. For example, if you aren’t sure how the American government works and your book is set in America, look it up. Once you understand how it works in the real world, you can then make changes as necessary to fit your world.
World building is a pretty big topic. What I’ve written so far on this aspect alone is just scratching the surface. To be honest, I could go on for several more pages on how to develop an alternate Earth and I may even do so in a later post. For now, though, let’s move on and in the next post, we’ll discuss creating a fictional world from the ground up.