In my novel Everscape, I needed the planet of Embra to feel real, vibrant, and fresh enough that it could stand apart from Earth and still be a place you would want to escape to. Here are my tips for creating a fictional planet that feels real for the reader.
Today, it feels like there are more fictional planets than real ones. Or at least we know more about the ones that don’t exist, because they’re places we would want to visit. In this blog post, I will talk about how I designed my own fictional planet, Embra, from my novel Everscape: The Wings of Embra.
Not only will I show you how I do it, but I’ll talk you through the methods. So this post is perfect for anyone who loves science fiction, fantasy, or both. Perfect for writers looking to create their own fictional worlds and planets. And perfect if you’re just plain old curious. All aboard the spaceship!
Steps to design a fictional but beleivable planet
- Choose a real world location as inspiration.
- Limit your inspiration to just one place for now.
- Alter reality and tailor it to your vision and style.
- Consider your target audience and those likely to visit your planet.
- Enjoy world building, but don’t forget your characters’ journeys.
1. Design Your Planet Around Real Places
When I wrote Everscape, the planet of Embra in which the story takes place, needed to feel real to me. I love geography and studying formations, habitats, and sociology. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a huge fan of David Attenborough and the Planet Earth documentaries. Even the most fictitious planets and worlds are based around cultures and environments we are already familiar with.
Pandora from Avatar (rainforest), Arrakis from Dune (desert). Though they are fantastical, they are based on familiarity. With Star Wars, it makes sense to categorise the planets based on specific terrains we have on Earth. Alderaan is mountainous, Coruscant is a city, Hoth is an arctic wasteland, Naboo is the Mediterranean. And this leads me to my second tip.
2. Base Your Story on Just One or Two Places
Think specifically where on your fictional planet you intend to set your story. In Everscape, I set the first novel in just one place, The Emperian State, which is a futuristic city I based on ancient Athens. Whilst my creativity tempted me to have my protagonist Ethan run off and explore the planet, I knew I had to rein it in and start in just one place.
I hinted to the reader of the vast world that lies beyond the borders of the State, but to avoid overwhelming them, I kept the first story central to one environment. I did this because it is easier to research one particular culture to base it on when you start out. Otherwise you’re giving yourself more work than might be needed. That is, unless, your intention is to world-build from pole to pole.
In my second novel, which I am currently writing, I intend to base much of the story on the real world of Morocco. I have never been to Morocco, but its culture and aesthetic interest me enough that I will happily research it thoroughly to inject the novel with a realism people are familiar with. And that leads me to me next tip.
3. Alter Reality Just Enough to Suit You
Some of you might think, ‘Chris, why am I limiting myself to what’s real. I want to create a fictional planet.’ Yes, that’s perfectly fair. If, however, like me, you want to create a place that’s believable, it never hurts to use reality as a stencil or guideline. It never hurts to research. If there is one thing fantasy novels can often suffer from, it’s a lack of relatability.
By studying reality and knowing the rules, you will always translate better on the page when breaking the rules. For example, if you want to set your story on a planet or a world that’s like the culture in Japan (always a popular favourite) it’s always worth knowing as much as you can about Japan itself. What is the climate like? How do people dress? What do they eat? Who they worship? Why and how do they live the way they do?
Once you know enough, then you can start altering to your own aesthetic. Want everyone to wear kimonos but love the the idea of armour? Armoured kimonos, of course. That’s a simple example. But let’s say you have discovered a Japanse story about dragons or samurai? Use the source material, breathe new life into it, and make it your own in your own vision. It’s about discovering and immersing yourself in reality, and only then injecting your spin. After all, you’re looking to create realism and immersion in your world-building, and building upon the familiar and recognisable is an excellent method.
4. Tailor Your Research to Your Genre and Audience
I was young when I wrote my first draft of Everscape. As a result, I was keen to share my story with readers my age. As a result, I wanted to write a science fiction fantasy novel for young adults and older kids. This meant I wanted to write something with emotion, vibrancy, mood, and angst. The characters needed to adapt and interact with a world that was suitable to the audience for which I intended the story for.
Another useful tip is building as you go along. I know some writers would disagree with me here. Again, each to their own. For me, though, it helped to have a sound idea of where to base my story and the world it’s set in, and then to build much of the world as I went along. When it comes down to it, world-building is more for us writers than for readers. Writers don’t have to know everything about their world before they put pen to paper. Or better yet, writers can know far more than they will ever tell, but it’s the knowing that translates well into your prose. Readers just know when a writer knows their world.
5. Whatever World or Planet You Create, Your Characters Come First
World-building is a wonderful tool and an even more wonderful exercise in imagination and creativity. Frankly, it’s one of my most favourite things to do when writing. When else can you be this imaginative? You are literally playing god. Yes, I wanted to world-build when I wrote Everscape. But more to the point, I wanted to tell a story about a boy who escapes his life to become an explorer.
Stories like Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother, about a boy living in a forest during the stone age. I love this story, and it has always inspired me. And Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle about a boy becoming a fierce dragon rider. Even video games like Zelda, Uncharted, Final Fantasy, and Tomb Raider, all played their part in inspiring both character and world. They were always about people with human stories first, and entering, interacting, and adapting to a new world second.
I would never consider myself an expert in world building, but I know what works for me, and most crucially, I know I have fun doing it. If you fancy taking inspiration from my method, please do by all means. If, however, it does not work for you, that’s okay too. Just have fun with it, be as true to your vision as you can, and remember there is no planetary limit, than what you can imagine.
I hope you have enjoyed this post. If you like to see more, please consider signing up to my newsletter, or even treating yourself to the story of Everscape. Come read the adventure of Ethan as he navigates the planet of Embra, running into aliens, robots, ancient temples and futuristic landscapes.
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