Populating a Universe is Hard . . . by C.T. Phipps (#scifi #guestpost)

Populating a Universe is Hard ...
By C.T. Phipps

This is, of course, something every writer of fantasy or science fiction will agree on. Urban fantasy has the benefit of usually taking place in "our" world but other types of settings often require the author to do massive info-dumps in order to give us a sense of who is what, where, why and who. Star Wars: A New Hope is probably the most famous for the fact it managed to make an opening crawl epic enough no one complains it's explaining an entire setting's worth of details and recent history. Rebellion, Empire, Death Star, plans, Princess Leia, etcetera-etcetera.

When I set down to do Lucifer's Star, I had my own severe challenge ahead as I was faced with filling up not only one world but an entire arm of the galaxy as well as the history of humanity which has stretched so far into the future they wouldn't know anything about the present day. Modern 21st century Earth is ancient history there and I couldn't throw in my usual pop culture quips or references. I might as well have been doing a fantasy setting.

It was also complicated by the fact I was writing with the decision I wanted to do a more complicated and darker universe than your typical space opera. I couldn't just point, "Commonwealth good", "Archduchy bad", "Go!" Instead, I envisioned a whole complicated universe of imperialist democracies, traditionalist dictatorships, corporate states, and so on. I made a whole notebook full of information ranging from how faster-than-light travel worked to the history for the past thousand years. Then I realized I couldn't use most of it.

I was glad to have the information in the back of my head but I realized I couldn't do anything with it. It would be boring as hell to just pour out all of that information onto the reader. They came here for a rocking space adventure of pew-pew, starfighters, and energy swords. They might stay for the politics, moral ambiguity, and complicated world-building but that was a side-dish on the menu. No, I had to figure out how to introduce them to my world as a complete stranger without overwhelming them.

In the end, I had to keep in mind the universe isn't the adventure but the place the adventure takes place. I wasn't going to go the A New Hope route of viewing the universe through a naive everyman, no; I wanted it through the viewpoint of someone who was already heavily invested in the situation and the world around them. It would be harder, maybe even impossible, but I had faith in my readers' intelligence. Also, I believe there's merit to the idea that if a story is good that it'll illustrate any details about a universe better than stopping to explain.

For me, everything which occurs in my book is in service to the plot. When two sides are fighting it out, I give enough information to let the readers know about the characters feel about them rather than try to give an objective lesson about who is what. By carefully dispensing such knowledge only from an in-character perspective, I can also pull the rug out from under the readers as well as the characters in-universe by revealing things which the main characters don't know about the universe.

Even so, I still had the process of trying to figure out how to make the universe sufficiently rich even with all the notes I had. One of the things which separated Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and even Star Wars all benefited from there being a story behind it all. For me, it occurred to me there were several "cheats" I could use which I think other authors can and should benefit from.

The first of these was "stereotyping in-universe." Basically, if I was to meet a guy from one of my fantasy/sci-fi cultures then what would be what other people would think of him? Do they have any kind of reputation? Is it true? Klingons certainly come with some cultural baggage. How about elves? Knowing what these stereotypes are and whether they're true or not adds a layer of authenticity, even if I'm essentially just making my characters a wee bit racist.

Next is, oddly enough, what does the universe tastes like. I mean this in a literal sense as I sat down to imagine what kind of food they ate in the 3rd millennium. Establishing oddball combinations of pasta, Chinese food, and weird alien fish gave a sense of relevancy to the place. It also made me imagine what things smelled like and felt like. Describing things like a planet's humidity and the stench of bad air filters brings to life a location which might normally feel antiseptic or just dry.

Finally, this is something I enjoy doing as a matter of habit but it's important to give your character opinions on other characters and their quirks. This, of course, means making characters which have quirks. Does X race hate Y? Is there a habit of C race wearing gaudy jewelry? Does the lead really-really hate the current style of music on this world? Throwing these little details into the planet can make everything jump off the page. It can also turn a meeting with a merchant in a kiosk for fuel into an encounter with a six-armed alien who talks at length about how all Xerxes are thieves despite the protagonist being one.

After all, the Earth is a weird-weird place, why shouldn't space or another world be the same way?


About the Author

C.T Phipps is a lifelong student of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. An avid tabletop gamer, he discovered this passion led him to write and turned him into a lifelong geek. He is a regular blogger on "The United Federation of Charles" (http://unitedfederationofcharles.blogspot.com/).

He's the author of The Supervillainy Saga, Cthulhu Armageddon, Straight Outta Fangton, and Esoterrorism.


About the Book

Lucifer's Star 
by C. T. Phipps & Michael Suttkus

From the bestselling author of The Rules of Supervillainy:

Cassius Mass was the greatest star pilot of the Crius Archduchy. He fought fiercely for his cause, only to watch his nation fall to the Interstellar Commonwealth. It was only after that he realized the side he'd been fighting for was the wrong one. Now a semi-functional navigator on an interstellar freight hauler, he tries to hide who he was and escape his past. Unfortunately, some things refuse to stay buried and he ends up conscripted by the very people who destroyed his homeland.

LUCIFER'S STAR is the first novel of the Lucifer's Star series, a dark science fiction space opera set in a world of aliens, war, politics, and slavery.


  1. I enjoyed reading your approach to creating your worlds and characters. Sounds like you make it a "real" (as in believable) world. Thanks for sharing a bit of your process.


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