World-Building (Astronomical Processes)

February 21, 2011 By: Christopher D. Eldridge Category: World-Building, Writing Craft

My World From Space

Today I’m going to start a series of posts on world-building. They will by no means be exhaustive, and while some of the material may be advanced and never actually be seen on the page, that is to say in the story itself, the purpose is to develop the most fully realized world possible. After all, the vast majority of world-building is never spoken of in a novel, but exists in the mind of the creator.

In astronomy there is what is known as the Goldilocks Zone. This is a zone where a planet is at an optimal distance from its star for temperatures permitting liquid water, an essential for life, or at least life as we know it. While cosmologists have identified some potential Goldilocks planets within our galaxy, it is not yet known how common such planets may be. However, recent data has shown that the nearest of such identified planets is only some twenty light-years away. Extrapolating such data could mean that there might be millions of suitable planets for habitation within our galaxy. Good news if you want to build stories with a vast network of Earthlike planets.

However, you should expect little interaction between such worlds, unless you have technologically advanced societies capable of traveling near the speed of light, or through wormholes, or by some supernatural/godly power.

Of course your reader may never be aware of this Goldilocks zone, since as the writer, you won’t actually mention it. Although if you have a solar system where every planet has life on it, it will likely call to attention the lack of believability. So start by placing your world, or worlds, within this zone. Unless you want to build a world with creatures that do not need liquid water.

Perhaps you envision a world where creatures use liquid nitrogen, or maybe even liquid ammonia or methane, in place of water. Such a world would be strange indeed, incredibly cold and very alien to us.

You could build stranger worlds yet on the most common of planets, the gas giants. Many of these worlds have a “metallic” gas layer that makes up the bulk of the planet. Here the tremendous pressures turn gas into an electrical conductor. That means you might have plants that feed on lightning rather than sunlight and use gas to power their flight. Other creatures would likely use the available gas to fly as well and could feed on the floating plant life, or each other. Though gas giants may have a solid core of rock and/or molten metal, there is little chance of this core being used by a sentient race for materials to build any kind of structures, or cities, or probably solid objects in general. This could be a difficult thing to rectify in your world-building. Unless some advanced race traveled to your world from another planet and brought various raw materials and built sky-cities and such.

With sci-fi/fantasy, the options are limited only by your imagination and hopefully some good science, even if you bend the rules a bit.

But let’s assume you’re building a world with liquid water. You’ll want to discern the size and density of your planet, because this will decide its gravity. Gravity will affect all life on your world. In addition, it will affect geological processes and weather. It will affect how rain falls as well as the rates of erosion. Most importantly, it will determine the size and shape of your creatures, and how they are built to deal with the forces of gravity. Again, this is something you won’t actually mention in the story, but instead something as a world-builder that you will decide upon. Because if you have travel between worlds, you will need to consider the fact that creatures from one planet may not be able to survive on planets with disparate gravities (without some sort of technologically advanced spacesuit). Heavy gravity could crush an organism’s skeleton that has evolved in a world with much lighter gravity. The size of your planet will of course play a key role when you go to create your map, a very important step in world-building, which I will cover in my next post.

Lastly in today’s post, I want to cover the moon, which affects a planet’s tides, sea levels, volcanism, and even climate (to some degree–read more here). Let us not forget the cultural impact the moon also plays. Many societies revered, even worshiped the moon. My world has three moons, thus greater cultural impacts and stronger tidal forces than that of Earth.

11 Comments to “World-Building (Astronomical Processes)”

  1. I have to say, I do appreciate it when an author has thought through all the ramifications of the world they have built. It doesn’t all have to go on the page, but the rules of the universe (especially in sci-fi) need to apply to everything in the story. Even what’s implied. Nothing throws me out of a story faster than doubting if the world is plausible.

    • In a well thought out world, less than 10% percent of what the author has created will ever grace the page. And if an author hasn’t thought through all the ramifications in their world or universe, holes will show in the story. It’s best to plan out everything starting from the top down, and astronomical processes are especially important in crafting the plausibility of a sci-fi universe. Movies are notorious for faulty world-building in in which I find it simply impossible to suspend my disbelief. That’s why it’s key to have other fantasy and sci-fi fans, authors and readers, read my novels to help shore up any such problems.

  2. I’ve endeavored to keep my novels’ vampires entirely plausible in both folkloric terms and scientific terms.

    Thus, it’s ironic that I have my human vampires age for “realism” (albeit at a much slower rate than normal humans), when there are a few forms of life native to Earth that do not die from aging (ie: a species of deep-sea jellyfish), and modern science has come to a general consensus that human “immortality” is theoretically possible (by means of synthetic telomerase, DNA sequence modifications, etc.).

    Really, though, I have my human vampires age to avoid the “Twilight” problem of having them stuck in high school for a hundred-plus years…(which would make just about anyone as angst-filled as Edward Cullen!)

    • And it’s a most appreciated endeavor. I actually like the idea that your human vampires age slower rather than being immortal. I’m interested to know if you’ve worked out any of the science of how human vampire senescence is slowed in your world, or if you plan to delve into that. Your alien vampires are immortal though correct?

      • In a well thought out world, less than 10% percent of what the author has created will ever grace the page.
        I’ve sure found this out over the last two years. True words of wisdom, Chris.

        The possibilities of scientific plausibility expand immensely when one considering beings of non-terrestrial origin.
        (also the folkloric plausibility)
        The alien vampires evolved on a planet where all lifeforms are “immortal” (ie: the aging process encoded in their DNA ceases once adulthood is achieved). Of course, their planet is full of predators (even the vast fields of Venus Flytrap-style plants!), so in nature the population is kept in check.

        The slowed aging of the human vampires is due to the differences in DNA structure and encoding between species, otherwise the human vampires would turn into exact replicas of the alien vampires.

        I do plan to write a supplementary book (set on the alien’s home planet) after my main trilogy is completed.

        • Very cool, Daven. I’d like to see a prequel on the alien vampire’s world of how they came to Earth, or at least set the stage before they crash landed here. Prequels tend to work well after a completed trilogy. And an entire world of strange, immortal, predator-like creatures could be quite fun to both read and write. Maybe the “vampires” on the planet were physically much weaker compared to some of the other species there.

  3. Michelle Hoff says:

    I’m always astounded by the amount of thought you put into your story. Nice job, dude!

    • Thanks. Sometimes I wish I could step away from my Zenita books and just write something not involved with the world that I’m constantly tinkering with. But for some reason I can’t seem to write any fantasy without somehow making it part of the series. It’s a strange kind of obsession I guess.

      Now I can begin to understand Tolkien’s excessive world-building. Though I’m not sure I’ll ever go that far. I’m no linguist or historian, and the idea of completely creating three unique languages, while impressive and cool, is beyond my skill or desire to do so. Besides, it’s nearly impossible to write Tolkienesque fantasy as the genre has changed so much. Middle Earth is so fleshed out that the world-building bogs down the story at times.

      I’ve had to cut out tens of thousands of words in my story due to excessive description and world-building. That’s partly the idea of my website. It allows me to world-build in ways I simply can’t do in my novels.

  4. Mindy McIntyre says:

    Uh… Wow! I’m now 100% sure that my fictional world needs to remain on planet Earth. Specifically, in my own house.

    I take my hat off to you, and to everyone else with such an elaborate backdrop, because your creative abilities are enviously entertaining and jaw-droppingly fantastic!

    Keep up that meticulous ingenuity!

    • I would just love to see you write a fantasy comedy with out of control kids driving their mom crazy with their antics of witching and wizardry. Pranks involving mythical beasts instead of frogs and spiders. Now that would be a riot.

      And thanks for the compliments. We fantasy writers are thrilled to entertain, just as we are thrilled to be entertained by the creative abilities of a gut-busting comedic such as yourself.

  5. Wow! I’m now 100% sure that my fictional world needs to remain on planet Earth. Specifically, in my own house.
    This made me laugh so hard I almost fell out of my chair!

    My third book might be as “ROTFL” as Mindy’s stuff when the aliens find out the hard way that their UV radiation guns (lethal to any lifeforms on their planet) have no immediate effect on human vampires, except to give some of them instant suntans.


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