I don’t often offer advice or wisdom for aspiring writers, and please don’t think that I consider myself an expert. Consider this just my way of sharing my experiences as an aspiring writer myself.
I try to maintain a rich and diverse roster of books I’ve read or plan to read. I tend to focus on speculative fiction, but I enjoy straight fiction as well. Diversity is important, and I don’t think you can be a really skilled writer without a good foundation as a thoughtful and prolific reader. Fact: there are people that have done what you’re trying to do before you ever thought about thinking about doing it. Those writers and their works are your greatest assets – they encompass the entire gamut of success and failure, from engaging page-turners to yawn-inducing snail rides, and I believe it’s important to be able to immerse yourself in someone’s universe before you attempt to construct a universe of your own.
In light of that, here are some fictional universes that I think are excellent examples of well-constructed realms that go well beyond the story presented:
1. Dune – Herbert’s masterful weaving of this epic tale is set in a equally epic universe. This is how you build a universe. You know that you could never stump Herbert on his own universe. He had every base covered, from dawn of man to the ever-approaching end of all things. The first novel by itself is just an introduction to a theme that the rest of his series builds and builds and builds and builds on.
2. Asimov’s universe – It started with the Foundation Series, but eventually Asimov tied all his stories together. I think he proves that even when you set out to write a completely different range of stories from one attempt to the next, you unconsciously always are writing in the same universe of YOUR consciousness.
3. Vonnegut’s universe – Vonnegut didn’t so much create an epic entangled universe as continue to allow characters and events to bleed over into other stories. Example: Kilgore Trout. Sometimes that is all it takes to give your reader a sense of infinity behind the curtain – a sense of continuity beyond the scene. A reader feels that they are privy to a snippet of action in a bigger untold tale, but the unspoken universe behind that blink of an eye is what makes them stick around for another novel or two, or three, or twenty.
4. Xanth – Quirky, unrealistic, snarky, and fucking hilarious. Piers Anthony makes fantasy like Douglas Adams makes sci-fi. Anthony makes you feel like the world of Xanth is bustling on without you while you’re not reading it. I think that’s something to shoot for in an epic tale: perpetuity. Just like a good RPG in the video game realm, depth comes from the story beyond the main character(s) – otherwise, its just a puppet show.
5. Lord of the Rings – The prime example of world-building. Tolkien did everything short of forging his universe into reality, and he did it like a historian writing a text book. From creation to the present, Tolkien made you feel like there really was a time before men ruled the surface of this world, and in it were elves, dwarves, orcs, and evil. Middle Earth is the template by which all high fantasy has followed.
Now, you can’t expect to read the entirety of these voluminous worlds while you’re trying to write your own, but at least two books from each universe gives you a good course of world-building to start from. Now on to my advice:
1. Infinity isn’t big enough.
You can’t write anything too big, only too small. You may introduce your main character at any point in the total narrative, but you better at least have some idea of the genesis and termination of your universe. If you don’t know where you’re going and where you’ve been, then you create time boundaries that flatten the epic. Heck, make your universe perpetual – it doesn’t end, it begins again. Nothing does not exist. Focus on your story, but drop hints at the size of the universe when you can.
2. Your physics have to work.
Especially in the science fiction genre, but equally as important in fantasy, your world has to have a schematic that makes sense. If you’re going to go epic, you have to think epic. I don’t care if magic in your universe is derived from the feces of large galaxy-wading hippos that feed on the detritus of dying star systems, if it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny against the rest of your universe, it doesn’t fly. What I mean is that even if you’re never going to let your main, or any character in your story, interact directly with a force that permeates the entire existence of life in your created universe, you at least need to flesh out enough of the science for characters to debate its existence or at least spark the inner debate in the reader. One of the best ways to do that is to create the religion to spar against the science, or vice versa. You’ve got Gods? Then create a philosophy that attempts to disprove their existence. You’ve got infinite creative/destructive synergy? Make a deity of infinity for opposition. Just a mention will get the job done … but the more epic you go across centuries and realms, you’d better make sure you know the source of galactic hippo feces and how much it takes to conjure up a flame.
3. Everything dies … maybe.
Duncan Idaho died – several times – but his story stretches across the Dune universe. Immortality only really works if you have a believable mechanism (that typically and ironically probably involves death) that perpetuates the continued survival of that immortal. Invincibility is weak. “How come that guy didn’t die when that species harnessed the infinite power of universal destruction against him?” “He’s invincible.” Weak. At least give us a line about how the universe itself is entangled with the soul of Mr. Invincible so that any action against him is merely a derivative and manipulation of the forces that perpetuate his existence. One day, your hero has to die. You may never write his death, but you have to give the impression that while this day is won, tomorrow may carry with it an evil beyond the one vanquished, and in that tomorrow, your hero may not exist. It defeats the hero-always-wins ending – which is a bit thin. Fine, make your scruffy scoundrel of an antihero-cum-“chosen one” save the princess and defeat the ancient evil behind the dark machinations of a galaxy-spanning empire … but give us that after-credits scene where the hand comes up out of the rubble and makes a fist, or where that one dude’s eyes open again after you’re pretty sure the giant sword with the magical essence of a star pierced his black heart and shadowy soul and vanquished him eternally. Happy endings are for Golden Books, and tragic endings are for lazy, unimaginative sadists. Question marks rule.
You’ve got your creation story, your apocalypse, your pantheon, your hero, your ultimate evil, your epic quest. Great. So how come the Raxacoricofallapatorians speak like they grew up on a Yorkshire farm and the greedy merchant species at the other end of the galaxy talks like they’re doing a bad Jackie Chan impression? I get it. Not every one can invent a complete language for every race and only write their dialogue in their native tongue, but you have to at least suspend disbelief in the reader by writing in situations where language can become a barrier or obstacle, even if they’re just suggested and there’s never an issue. Again, just a mention works, but a clever way of explaining away the differences, or just presenting language differently in your dialogue goes a long way. Good examples: Chewbacca never even got subtitles. The TARDIS has a translation field or something around it so that every alien sounds British. Little yellow fish can be put in your ear that translate everything into your language. That being said, it doesn’t have to be Greek to the reader. It’s difficult to write a story without dialogue – I know I’ve tried. So at some point you’re going to have to consider, “Why does this race speak like they do?” Even if your entire realm speaks Common, though the individual races speak their own tongue to each other, you should introduce colloquialisms and regional dialects that give variation to dialogue even when its common. It’s simpler than you think. “That’s a donkey.” “No it’s not, you ass. It’s a fhumple”
5. No one likes a know-it-all … unless you’re the know-it-all.
Most likely, you’re going to tell your story in third-person and as an omniscient observer. While I’ve read good epic fiction in first person, I’ve rarely seen it done well. It’s a presentation style best left to psychological thrillers and unreliable narration leading to a big twist ending by that guy that got beat up and became a writer. It’s a great style, just not ideal for a twelve novel series. When the story involves more than just two or three people, there has to be a separation of action. Readers want to know what that villain is doing while the Galactic Federation is hunting for him. They want to know what that lonely spacefarer is thinking as he gets pulled into a black hole and has no one to talk to about the experience except his co-pilot. You are the creator, and your reader knows that. Don’t shy away from cutting away to the Fortress of Solitude where Superman (or Doc Savage anyone?!) ponders his existence in silence. We, as humans, speak to ourselves in our heads all the time – your writing should reflect those soliloquies when it furthers the story. At the same time, I’d steer away from characters that are omniscient. Outside of gods, who don’t always have to know everything, making a character with perfect prescience ruins the journey you want to lead your reader into. “Man, somebody totally just broke into the palace, stole the power gem, murdered the overlord, and escaped without leaving a single clue behind!” “It’s the Sandman! And he’s on Mars! I can feel it!” Eh. How do you know its the Sandman? The writer just told you. You have to have mystery. You have to challenge the reader, make them think down false paths, make them follow bad leads. Give them enough crumbs to leap to conclusions – it adds a new dimension to the story, and one you don’t even have to write. While you’re continuing the narrative, your reader is rolling an idea of who the culprit is around in their head. That’s depth you don’t even have to write, you just have to know how to spark it. HOWEVER, you still have to make the reader feel that you know absolutely everything that happened during the raid on Castle Betel, even if you never explain it. Your reader has to have confidence that you know where your story has gone, is and is going. They have to tread paths that seem like they’re blazing them, but at the same time they need to feel that you know where that path leads even if it doesn’t exist yet in the narrative itself.
Sounds like a lot to tackle. Well, of course it is. You’re a writer – not a advertising exec. You’re not outputting a four-color logo that will last two years before its revamped in favor of a more minimalistic design to depict maturity against the pastels of your competitor. You’re creating universes – freakin’ universes here, man. Do it with feeling, with gusto, with charisma, with evil intent. Even a thousand-word flash piece needs that field of stars behind it to give it depth and create the illusion of temporal and spatial progress.
You are your universe. Your readers are just visiting.