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It’s Your Universe – Treat It With Respect

One of the fun things about writing about comic books, while writing them too, is that you get the chance to read them. Lots of them. Way too freaking many of them sometimes. There is one constant among them all, however, and I’d like to address that today. Simply put each one has a universe created for its characters to live in.
Their home, if you will.
And, sadly, often times, their home is in complete disarray.
I’m going to stick to generalities here since flaming individual creators accomplishes nothing. That’s a rule in my universe.

And that’s the thing. Far too often creators don’t think about the rules. I’m not talking about Strunk and White, although many authors would benefit greatly from brushing up on that minimal tome, but the rules that apply to the characters. I’ve seen magic randomly mixed with science, biting social commentary mixed with children’s stories, and so on.
Can those things be blended? Certainly. If, and only if, the creator sets some clear rules. And adheres to them. Just as the universe we live in has the “Laws of Physics” and not the “Suggestions of Physics,” which is why we can’t fly, or walk from galaxy to galaxy, your universe needs to set boundaries the readers understand and that never, not even a little bit, change.
Yes, I know that’s hard. You get to a point in your story where suddenly this or that would be cool as hell.
Don’t do it. Or do it in a different title. A different universe. But don’t do it here. You’ll kill any continuity you’ve developed and readers will go away quickly.

Hold on. I can see you firing up an ALL CAPS email to me about the “Big 2” and how they mix stuff up all the time. They do. They also have almost one hundred years each of developing the individual universes and then were able to put, most of the time, a lot of thought into how to blend them. You have not had that kind of lead in. And you don’t have that level of cache with your readers.

So how do you set the rules? The most boring way possible. Research. Just as you need to research a memorandum you have to write for your boss, you need to sit down and think about what kind of world you’re creating.

Fear not, I didn’t make you read all this without having some helpful tips to share. These are, again, generalities but, hopefully, they’ll give you a starting point.

  1. Is your world magical?
    We’ll start with an easy one. Do you have a wizard or something similar? Then you have to define the rules. Fans of magical books tend to love the minutiae that goes into the rules of magic. So go ahead, create them. What does magic cost the character when it’s used? Most magical universes have some sort of quid pro quo. To give a life one must be taken. That sort of thing. No matter what, you can’t just have a character who can span the universe with its mind without justifying it. A good place to start is Dungeons and Dragons. They have detailed rules for every type of character and you can use those to lay your foundation.
  2. Is your world populated by gods?
    This one tends to drive me nuts. Too many creators use godhood as a way to avoid the rules. It’s a deity, they posit, of course it can bend space time while inventing the bagel. Maybe even score a little worship nookie on the side. Your gods, just like the halcyon gods of mythological yore, need rules too. If they have no limits then you’re just reinventing the Bible. Good luck with that. People who are fans of the current versions aren’t good candidates for a new one, and those who aren’t probably aren’t looking for a new one in any case. So, ask yourself, are there penalties for interfering with lesser beings? Rewards for developing them? Do different gods have different strengths? Weaknesses? All of these things can be put into the rich tapestry you’re weaving for your readers. Check out the histories of Egyptian, Norse, and Hindu gods to get a solid baseline.

3. Is your universe dependent on future tech?
This one gets tricky. As has been noted by those better and smarter than me, any science sufficiently advanced enough would appear to be magic to lesser beings. But, again, you’re creating the rules. Does your Zorbulator violate every known law of physics? If so, how? Be clear and use common words. To keep readers interested I would suggest you extrapolate from known science. Just as Star Trek’s communicators were simply radios writ large, you can give your characters abilities unheard of without turning them into Lovecraft’s elder gods. There are numerous science magazines, books, and web based articles you can read to get an idea of what’s being considered now. A quick tip, read the synopsis of any research paper a few times before diving into the hard science. It will give you a better idea of how to present complex topics in a manner your readers can follow.
4. Is your civilization spanning the galaxy?
Okay, you really need to think about this one. If you’re going to have any interaction between planet “A” and planet “Z” on opposite sides of the galaxy you’re going to have to toss Einstein’s Theory of Relativity out the window. Maybe not far, but out. If you’re going to use quantum entanglements for communication, for example, then how did those molecules become entangled in the first place? If you’re going to use faster than light travel, have you researched the Alcubierre drive? And, if so, how do you account for the energy requirements? Keeping in mind that the original theory would require the demise of about a third of our solar system to work. That would be bad for those living there, in case you missed reading a memo or having a soul. A subset of this would be dealing with the Kardashev scale. Currently, of the five possible levels of technological advancement postulated, humans are at zero. A level two civilization might not even realize we’re sapient. Or might consider us merely sentient at best; the same as dogs, crows, horses, and elephants, to name a few. The rules you set for interaction in a universe like this are the rules that will define all other aspects of your universe. If that seems simplistic think about how you communicate, and travel, and then what limitations are, and are not, inherent.
5. Is your world “near future?”
Television shows such as CSI, NCIS, and others use ‘near future’ tech to drive their plots. There is, currently, no way to see the object four hundred feet away in a low resolution image, no matter how much you enlarge it. We don’t have the capability to do DNA tests in under an hour. We can’t pull out a box and talk to anyone, anywhere, no matter their language. But the beginnings of such tech, except for the image enhancement, are in development. For images, work is being done to store much higher resolution images which could be searched. As a point of reference, a computer screen shows images at seventy-two dots per inch. Printed material is created at three hundred dots per inch. But the ability to capture images at twelve hundred dots per inch, or greater, already exists. Your issue here is file size. Which means it’s out of the hands of scientists and into the hands of engineers. And you need to think about that. Is your tech capable of being created by just dumping money on, the oft dismissed, engineers among us? Then be clear how that happens or what the results are.

I could go on, and on and on and on and on according to my girlfriend, but this is a solid place to start.

Okay, cool, so now you’re all proud and happy and have a universe for your characters to play in. Congratulations. Now, how do they talk to each other? If you’re going to invent an entirely new language I can give you a quick tip to save your sanity. A basic minimum is the one thousand word rule. If you know a thousand words you may not know the word for asparagus in a language but you would be able to ask “What is that green vegetable?” So you need, at least, a thousand words to start. Pro tip, make half, at least, verbs. That sounds like a lot but you’re going to need the base verb, the past simple, and the past participle. Be, was, been, respectively. And then you have the necessary variants of any complex language. Am/are, were, and … been. Good old been. But, as you can see, the word totals add up fast. And if the speaker can’t do anything, linguistically, with your Zorbulator, then it’s just a thing sitting somewhere. Which does not make an interesting read. Even the concept of sitting requires a verb. Without them you can’t even describe that.

So verb away good buddy.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by ESO/T. Preibisch / Rex Features (1893081r) ESO

By the way that basic rule applies whether your base language, the one you write in, is English, German, Japanese, Hindi, Chinese (all dialects), Russian and so on. They are all complex languages based on variants.
Then you get allegories, social norms, similes ….. sorry. Just get the words for now. You can worry about the rest later.

Of course you can always take the popular work around and use brackets.

“Orzok, would you like a beer?”
“[Your human predilection for mild intoxicants is entertaining. Yes, please.]”
My Kilzakian wasn’t fluent, but I got the idea and then got it a beer. I watched in horror as it ate the bottle and looked, longingly, for another.

The reader now understands an alien language is being spoken without having to take the time to learn it and that the Kilzakians might be a little odd. Bonus? You get the benefit of moving your story along quickly.

In essence what you’re looking for is consistency. The beginning of your world needs to fit with the end. Oh, I hear you meme fanatics: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The difference between a meme and me is that I read Emerson’s “Self Reliance” and know the quote is actually “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” I ask not for any foolish thing of you. You need not repeat something merely because it was repeated before.
In fact, I ask the opposite. Go, think, create, build something amazing, and then make sure we can all follow along with you on your journey into greatness. That’s not limitations of a hobgoblin, that’s the power of a god.

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I write sci fi. Sometimes people read it.

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