I continue from last week, where I was running through my own creative process in developing the characters, and along the way the worlds, which make up my series, The Arbiter Chronicles. As explain last week, I work by asking myself a lot of questions, and answering them allows me to develop my story.
Question: What kind of society makes it strange to have a relationship with your parents?
With this question, framed about the character Kaya, I move off earth and create the character that’s going to be both a romantic interest and a different kind of foil for my hero. This is a very smart, capable woman for whom Terry Metcalfe will fall hard. And, because I wanted that element of old, pulpy space-opera, she’s going to be the Captain’s daughter. But she has to be a misfit to be part of my team. She’s smart, she’s rich, she’s beautiful. What’s wrong with her? Her people think she’s weird because she has a man she recognizes as her father.
Wait, every human has a father and a mother. What kind of world is she from that it’s weird that she knows hers?
Well, this was pretty easy, since I’d already established that genetic engineering was integral to the colonization of space in my universe. If you’re brewed from a cocktail of the genes of a dozen or more people, you can’t really claim two parents. So who decides what genetic material you get? A government genetic council, obviously, or a corporation with deep pockets. It struck me as amusing to have a world where even human beings are projects planned and executed by committees.
Who’s planning the genetic designing that’s happening in the world now? Monsanto, and other large companies. What if that extended all the way into human engineering? Large companies would design the people they needed to best serve their interests. They wouldn’t conduct worlds-wide talent searches for their next CEO, they’d build their next CEO! And all the other employees, too.
If a family now is a group based largely around the creation and training of children (there are other types of families, equally valid, but this is the most common), in this new world, a “family” would be a company and all the people it designed to work for it. Your “mother” or “father” would be the CEO or the Project Manager who supervised your production. In such an environment, it would be downright weird to have a close relationship with a parent. Who trains employees after all? Not the CEO. The division of Education and Training does that.
To illustrate this, I’d have a character who had never met his father (in this case, Kaya’s father, Captain Jan Atal), and then I’d have the exception that proves the rule. Kaya is the “daughter” who is close to the man who paid for her design. She was created to be the third generation CEO of her company, and her father was the PM on that project. But he manipulated that project to give him the child he wanted, and he loves her and has raised her himself. In short, Kaya is the daughter of a man considered by his fellows to be a dangerous pervert. But he’s rich and he’s a war hero, so he gets away with it.
Kaya’s world takes the ethic “it takes a village to raise a child” to ridiculous extremes. And hey, I can couple that with genetic engineering, already a key part of Earth history for Metcalfe and Carson. On Kaya’s world, we see genetic engineering fully developed into a lynchpin of society, and get a glimpse of what humanity might look like if we could control at every level what kind of people we are.
Kaya is more than a romantic foil for Metcalfe. He entire world is literally against him. It objects to his existence, because he’s unplanned. Her people distrust anything that isn’t planned. So naturally he’s going to become someone they desperately need. That’s a Mary-Shelley-esque stab at human hubris, thinking that we can control everything through planning. Such an attitude doesn’t take into account the fact that we can’t plan everything because our vision is simply too limited. Geniuses and heroes are often accidents that aren’t planned for. They’re often misfits.
In what kind of world is Aer’La living that she can’t chose her lover, and that she’s not allowed to fall in love?
We’ve already established it’s a slave world. So it has two classes–Masters and Slaves. The slaves are bred, bought, sold, and trained to serve the needs of their masters. Wait, training is work! The masters are going after instant gratification, and they want slaves, which means they expect all work to be done for them. They’re like dog owners who want someone else to do the messy work of training their dogs. So we’re going to have three classes: Masters, Slaves and Trainers. Trainers will be the paid working class.
I want my characters all to be pretty kick-ass, so Aer’La’s going to be very strong. She’s not very educated, of course, because she’s a slave. She’s not stupid, because I don’t write about stupid people. They make me despair. So I need the slaves to be very strong, held in check by the masters, who fear them. Slavery in the United States was demarcated along racial lines, so Aer’La and her brothers and sisters could belong to a different race than their masters, a race which is strong and dangerous.
How do you keep such a race in check? Drugs and mind control.
Masters must be very rich, to be able to furnish the needs of themselves and a household full of slaves. Trainers must be pretty poor, or they wouldn’t take the miserable, difficult, dangerous job of training slaves.
Why would you want to control who loves whom and who has sex with whom? That’s human nature, for one. People like to feel in control. If you’re in control of your surroundings, you’re less afraid of the bigger threats out there. If your house is in order, it’s irrational, but you feel less like someone could break in. Control brings us comfort. Why do so many people in 21st Century America want to dictate who can love whom, and who can marry whom? Because being out of control is scary.
And let’s not forget that breeding slaves is, for slavers, like breeding animals. The last thing you allow in thoroughbreds is for them to pick their partners. Your prized poodle might mate with a mutt. Ick. The puppies would be worthless.
So, around this one character, I’ve built a world with class structure, racial divides and an economy based largely on sentient trafficking. And, like Kaya’s people, they’re planners. Although they do it more crudely, they still breed for certain qualities, a primitive method of genetic selection. A reminder to those who fear all genetic engineering that the human race has been practicing it for millennia.
Also, a theme is starting to build: humanity in this universe is bending and twisting traditional relationships–you can’t fall in love, you can’t know your kids—the way some people today are trying to bend and twist relationships they don’t understand.
Question: What does a world where intellect is all look like? How do you even begin to build such a world?
Cernaq is the last member of my proposed quintet. I have the young hero (Metcalfe), the mystery man (Carson), the femme fatale (Kaya) and the tough bruiser (Aer’La). I wanted someone with supernatural power as well. Or at least power beyond the nature usually understood by humanity. So Cernaq is a telepath, and he’s from a world of intellectuals who put aside emotion and physicality. As Ayn Rand advocated, Reason is their all. What would that world look like? It’s been sort of envisioned as Shangri La, and Vulcan. A lot of SF writers have dealt with the subject of mortals who become mind alone. Arthur C. Clarke describes this process in the early chapters of 2001: an alien race developed their minds, then became robots, then became spaceships, then became completely bodiless. Star Trek had lots of bodiless aliens glimmering around the cosmos.
But to address the issue of intellectual detachment, and the dangers of denying emotion, I needed a world of people in transition, still recognizably human. I named their planet Phaeton because I felt they were moving too close to the light of Reason too fast, and were going to get burned.
I needed Cernaq to not understand love, sex or friendship. I needed him to be the most outside of the outsiders, observing and commenting on everything around him. So how to make him that way? What’s his background?
He comes from a world even more rigorously devoted to genetic engineering than Kaya’s. They not only plan their children and don’t allow traditional parenting, they grow their children in a lab. No one ever has sex, because it’s not an intellectual activity. It’s base and physical, and thus to be shunned. Largely, Phaetonians stay away from each other. They’ve developed telepathy to the point that speech is considered vulgar, an inefficient method of communication.
My friend Daniel Patrick Corcoran threw yet another wrinkle into that when we developed Cernaq for audio dramas–he gave him a slow, stilted voice, because the poor boy would not have learned to speak the way a “normal” person would have, and speech is foreign to him.
Just as there are people in our society who are in various stages of physical and spiritual activity, of different educational backgrounds, etc, I figured some Phaetonians would be somewhat physically active, and some would be not at all.
What is the ultimate in non-physicality for a recognizable human? Probably being on life support. So I came up with the idea that there are Phaetonians–probably their elders and leaders–who are literally living in coffins.
Ironically, though, I decided that the Phaetonians who are physically active, perhaps the younger, less mature ones, would be experts at body control. It only makes sense. You understand every piece of your brain and how it works, so you understand all your voluntary and involuntary reflexes. Cernaq can regulate his own body temperature, his pulse, his blood pressure. By extension, since he can also reach into the minds of others, as he spends more time away from his homeworld, he’ll learn to not only telepathically communicate with those he calls “Psi-Blind,” he’ll learn to control their bodies as well.
What makes the difference between a Phaetonian who is physical and one who isn’t? Do they decide themselves? Is there friction between the castes that result? I dunno. I’ve only written a couple dozen stories in this universe, and it hasn’t come up yet.
And that’s my creative process, and a bit of a long-winded tour of my world-building factory. I’ll leave you with something succinct, my…
Rules of World Building
Fiction is Folks – Start with one character and keep it personal
Know the Shortcuts – There are a lot of familiar tropes that no one will condemn you for playing with. Grab them and make them your own.
Know your history – The most gripping stories have already happened in real life. Learn them, and let them inform you on how your new stories would logically develop.
Rule of world building: Look around you! – Even the most fantastic, imaginary world is based on your personal reality. You may have a mutated, purple gnoff as your central character, but you’re human, and it’s a safe bet your readers are too. You story is about people, even if they’re disguised as mutated, purple gnoffs.
Rule of World-Building: Think things through to their logical conclusions. -Play lots of games of “what if” with yourself. Great story possibilities can be found through question-and-answer, thought experiments and old-fashioned day-dreaming.
Rule of World Building: It’s okay if you haven’t fully explored your own universe yet. – Let there be mystery. Nothing is more boring–or turns a reader off faster–than a world about which too much is known. Similarly, explaining a miracle dulls its sheen. Do I even need to use the word “Midichlorians?”
Most of all, have fun.