Creating Worlds in Science Fiction: Building Settings

The worlds we create as writers are unlimited. Some settings are close and claustrophobic, limited to the character’s head, a room, or the loneliness of a planet. The world of fiction can be our own world embellished with magic so we go out in the world imagining there are unseen layers. Dystopian fiction magnifies or projects our current ills and gives us the ultimate conflict: protagonist vs. society. Science fiction and fantasy can be a window into entirely new worlds, often painted with a very detailed brush.


  1. Writers can limit their worlds on purpose, in order to portray the claustrophobia of their protagonists’ real psychological, internal, and personal struggles.
    • in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis to an unexpected change in his condition.
    • The claustrophobic and tiered setting of Hugh Howey’s Silo Series, is an entire society set in a silo. Protagonists must face their psychological limitations before overthrowing the world order..
    • The school and limited experience of the protagonists in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a life with no future.

  2. Writers can create a magical world hiding behind or within our own, just beyond our purview. Things in our world may seem ordinary to most people, but the extraordinary is there for those in the know.
  3. Writers can frighten us into looking more closely at our own society, establishing a not too distant dystopian future to serve as a cautionary tale.
  4. Writers can do world building from scratch. These architect build planets and universes that seem familiar but crafted into something completely new.
    • The sweeping world of Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, where power, politics, religion, and a little bit of magic trace a Machiavellian path to, well, the throne.
    • Frank Herbert’s Dune, a desert planet thousands of years in the future, complete with emperors, drug guilds, contrasting religions, and the rise of a messiah.
    • Dragonflight and Anne Mcaffrey’s Dragonriders, about the dragons and the people who communicate and ride them on a planet called Pern in some distant future.

  5. Writers can use time travel to put protagonists from our time into futuristic worlds or to visit history. Historical fiction takes on new meaning with the use of magical or technological intervention, and science fiction is easier to understand with a protagonist with our perspective.
    • The Outlander series is an intersection of historical fiction, romance, magic, and time travel. Diana Gabaldon’s protagonist circles the globe in space and time.
    • The Island of Eternal Love, by Daina Chaviano, a piece of epic fantastic fiction which traces the entwining history of three families over continents as well as time.
    • Timebound (from The Chronos Files) by Rysa Walker traces the protagonist’s repeated journeys into an ever-changing past.

We can focus our description of a setting down to one room or open it up to distant planets of the unknown universe. We can look at the past, present, or future.  What elements of the human experience each writer chooses to focus on is up to us.


For more information and ideas about Science Fiction settings, check out 25 different Sci-Fi Settings from SciFi Ideas. Kristin Twardowski also has a lot to say about World building on her blog.

Happy Writing! Happy Travels!


On Writer’s Circles and Criticism

This post is about why writers need to work with other writers to hone our craft.

I attended two local writer’s groups this week.

I was eager to find out in person how a general audience of adults, of other writers, would take my work. They had plenty to say, there were a few tiny moments of embarrassment over an awkward turn of phrase or a grammar discrepancy, but I gathered a real sense of how readers understood my characters and how the story was received. They saw what I could not see because I was too close, and I was grateful for the feedback.

We need to speak to each other. Authors shouldn’t cower in the face of truths that will ultimately help us to produce something better.


(Graphic Conversation by Marc Wathie,

Both writing circles had their strengths, but one was a “let’s share and pat each other on the back,” while the other was more about how the pieces were working or where they were not working. (I like the idea of talking about writing success because it means that something was communicated successfully.)

The more serious group had a prickly moment when one writer got offended by the lightest of criticisms (actually quite a positive set of remarks aimed at getting her to add to something she had done well).


She blustered, she lashed out, she whined, and we moved on.

Next time we’ll be more gentle with her, but we won’t be doing her any favors by softening the truth.

I have participated in several creative writing workshops over the years from at least four institutions. Inevitably there is always the one poet whose work is too personal for her to ever want to hear a reader’s perspective. Then there is the writer who attacks back whenever anyone dares question a comma. When these writers refuse to hear how an actual reader reacts to their work, they are dropping out of a conversation. They are doing themselves a disservice.


(photo by Dasha Bondareva)

It is not easy to subject our work to the general public, but writers need to begin to shape a relationship with readers.

If we want to move beyond diary entries, we need to be prepared to accept how a public readership receives our work.

When I taught college composition, I worked with former high school students who were expected to pursue a new level of academic writing.

(I would not call AP courses a “sham,” as John Tierney of The Atlantic did in 2012, but students who take AP English are required like everyone else to take composition at every postsecondary institution I’ve ever heard of with good reason.)



One of my students insisted that getting an “A” in AP English should exempt him. His AP teacher had told him he wrote beautifully, and he would hear nothing else. He was a good writer, sure, but he didn’t understand the conventions of college writing, and refused to take constructive criticism–even my gentle reader response style, even peer review. His worst enemy was his attitude toward criticism. I was trying to get him to produce something that would work in front of a college professor at a prestigious university, a new audience, and he fought me every step of the way. Not until he started receiving Cs on his papers in other courses did he come back with an open mind. He realized his audience had changed, and he needed to shift his writing to communicate with a new set of readers.


If we want to start a conversation with a reader, with readers, writers need to get to know their audience and be ready for a dialogue. After all, the first part of reader response is to get someone to decide to read what we have to offer.

Person, Men, Theater, Curtain, Stage, Human, Silhouette

We can’t be afraid to take criticism or advice along the way. What we do with the information, how we respond to that conversation, is up to us.


We artists might scoff at marketing, but, if we want to be published, we need to look at the business model sometime. So let’s think of our writing as the product. Our reader is our consumer. We’re going to have to find some balance between how much (or how little) we shape our product for a more general consumer or search out a niche market.


This post is about the why, an argument for seeking other writers for support and criticism.



For more about the how, read Brooke McIntyre on “How to Find the Right Critique Group or Partner for You.” The Quintessential Blogger also has a post about finding writing groups. May I also recommend Critique Circle, an online writer’s circle?


If you’re seeking advice on how to go gently, but not too gently, into that writer’s circle, here are “Tips for Critiquing Other Writer’s Work” from Melissa Donovan.


Thank you for reading about my writing journey, and happy writing!

**Please note a correction was made to credit Brooke McIntyre for “How to Find the Right Critique Group or Partner.”