World Building for Space Opera Writers

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By Merita King

[Merita King]Today I am pleased to offer this guest post from Merita King, a prolific author of science fiction and space opera novels. Today Merita talks about the joys and challenges of creating your own sci-fi universe in story.

As a writer of space opera novels, you are God. You are the creator of the universe and it is your hand that brings life to the void. This is a huge responsibility but it is also huge fun. It seems complicated but it doesn’t have to be. You must make your worlds and their inhabitants seem real enough so the reader can recognise them and identify with them on an emotional level but alien enough so readers will know they are in a different world.

You can go into as much or as little detail as is necessary for your story and it is the story that will determine how much depth is needed. You may simply need to create a realistic space ship environment if your story takes place there, or you might have to build entire galaxies or solar systems with several inhabited planets and races of beings. The bottom line is plausibility and this should be uppermost in your mind as you create. Much of it will need a little research but there will be just as much where you can let your imagination run free – within reason.

Let’s break it down into easy steps.

The Astronomical Facts
When building an entire solar system, a little knowledge will go a long way. So long as you stick to known facts, you can build around them creatively.

In every solar system there is an area called the goldilocks zone. This means that planets can only sustain life when they are a certain distance from the sun; not too close and not too far away. When placing your planets, be aware that the solar system will likely contain many planets, most of which will be uninhabitable due to their distance from the sun. Don’t have too many inhabited planets in your solar system or you’ll have all the astro nuts calling you out. What I do is name my planets in a numerical system. For instance, in my series The Lilean Chronicles, my protagonist Vincent comes from a solar system called Lilea. The only inhabited planet in the Lilean system is the fourth planet out from its sun, so I named it Lilea 4. I do this with all my solar systems; it’s simple, accurate and everyone can understand it.

All planets have Polar Regions but they don’t have to be icy. The same goes for equators, all planets have them but they don’t have to be fiercely hot. Polar Regions will be colder than the rest of the planet though and equators will be warmer. That’s simple physics so stick with it and build around it.

All planets must have water, so oceans are a necessity. The same goes for trees and plant life, without which there would be no air to breathe. Again, you must have them but you can design them as you see fit.

It would be wise, and more accurate, to have a range of environmental conditions on your planet. Dry hot areas, temperate zones, wet areas, etc. This will make your world more real to readers.

Remember that planets orbit their sun at different speeds, due to their distance from it so their days will be longer or shorter. You can be flexible with day length but I find it best to stick to a few hours either side of 24 to avoid complicating things too much. Every time your characters talk about time, you will have to remember and incorporate information to explain this, which is why I stick to between 24 to 28 or so.

It would be wise to give your inhabited worlds at least one moon. The reason for this is that the moon governs tides, keeps water flowing, gives light at night and many animals use it for navigating. Things are easier with a moon so make sure you have at least one. Moons are also useful as storage areas, mines, prisons and all manner of other interesting activities your aliens can do.

Space is big. Incredibly, vastly, hugely big and your descriptive writing must show this. Travel between planets and systems takes time, lots of time, so you can’t have your protagonist hopping across systems to visit Aunty Mary for afternoon tea. If your story involves travel between worlds you will have to either ensure something happens along the way to give subtle illustration to the fact that a long journey is taking place, or simply say something like “three months later Adam arrived at Planet Zog.” It may seem like you’re teaching readers to suck eggs but this stuff matters and they’ll notice if it’s missing.

The Aliens Themselves
When creating alien beings, you have two choices. You can either make them humanoid based or non-humanoid. At the end of the day, this comes down to personal preference. Personally, I have problems identifying with sentient, free thinking blobs of blue goo or many tentacled, five eyed slime creatures piloting space ships and operating complicated machinery. My aliens are always recognisable as humanoid. They have two arms, two legs, two eyes and genitals between their legs. Beyond that, I’m fairly creative and they are different colours, shapes and designs and have all manner of differing abilities and flaws. I do this because I believe that readers will identify more quickly and easily with a creature they can recognise than with one they can’t. I want to engage readers not challenge their beliefs.

Naming your aliens needs care. What I want is a name that is easy to say, fairly exotic sounding but one that doesn’t automatically make me think of a particular Earth race. For instance if I named an alien Cohen, readers would automatically think “Jewish.” Likewise with other names that are obviously from a particular known Earth race or culture. Your alien names must be free of such identifying features. In The Lilean Chronicles I had an alien character that needed a name so what I did was to first identify his social position. This character is royalty so I needed a name that sounded refined but bland and without particular identifying attributes. I chose the name Thomas and began with that. Now, Thomas isn’t really that exotic so I played with the spelling. I dropped the H and S and was left with Toma. This sounds refined, a little exotic but easy to say and remember. I always start with an ordinary name and play with it. Try it and see what you can come up with.

Remember that your aliens will come from cultures that might have a very different social structure to those we experience and will not always have a royal family, president or despot leader. They may be ruled by community agreement, by a race of elders with special powers or a myriad other governing systems. Be creative but also remember that royalty and presidents will be commonplace too, although they won’t necessarily be named as such.

Your aliens will have abilities, flaws, diseases and personality traits that will be unique to their own race. Some races may have a warrior mentality whilst others may be highly spiritual. Some will suffer from one particular ailment that no other race will experience. Make your aliens unique to their own race and they will have their own identity that readers will recognise. It makes them real and believable.

They will have all of the same social problems that we experience every day. They’ll argue about money, politics and religion. They will get horny and want a mate, they’ll suffer emotionally when loved ones die and they’ll want to be rich and successful. They fall in love, fall out of love, make war, sing, dance and get drunk. They’re just like us in so many ways; don’t make them too alien.

The Science Stuff
The best part of writing space opera is being able to invent lots of cool stuff. A word of warning here though – make sure everything you invent, whether it be a gadget or disease, is based on at least a thread of today’s known science fact. Again, this will make it more believable for the reader and the more believable it is, the more enjoyment they will get from it. When your readers enjoy your book, they’re more likely to tell their friends about it and you know where that might lead.

This is another place where a little research goes a long way. In all my books, my characters use laser firearms of various types. We already know that lasers can be used as weapons so I invented a whole range of laser firearms for my characters to use. I didn’t have to go into any details about the workings of the laser, but I was able to give them a basis in today’s known science to make them believable to the reader. I was able to then be as creative as I wanted and build upon that seed of known fact.

This brings me to another useful thing about the science stuff. You don’t have to go into detail about the gadgets beyond naming them if you really don’t want to do the research. For instance, in The Lilean Chronicles, one of my alien races have technologically advanced space ships. Now, I know zip about the workings of engines and I didn’t fancy doing weeks of research that I could then build on, when the space ship engine itself was only likely to get a paragraph or two mention. What I did was name the power source but leave it at that. I gave their energy source a name and a basic description of how super powerful it is but no more than that. Readers would quickly get bored with a ten page description of the detailed workings of my alien space ship engine anyway, so the old adage that less is more, works when something is just too complicated to go into.

It’s the same with the diseases and ailments your aliens will experience on their travels. Base them in today’s known medical knowledge and build from there. Know the difference between a virus and a germ, get to know basic anatomy and you’ll have a foundation of truth and plausibility that will make readers feel right at home in your universe.

To sum up, have fun inventing your universe but remember that readers need to be able to identify with your characters and their lives. People are simple, they need spoon feeding and at the end of the day, books are for entertainment not for a challenge. Base everything upon a seed of today’s known truth and your universe will come to life in an exciting but believable way.

I am the author of The Lilean Chronicles and The Sinclair V–Logs. Both of these series are available from all good online retailers in both paperback and e-book formats. My website is

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