Science Fiction & Fantasy: Creating Unique and Powerful Worlds | Lincoln Michel | Skillshare

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Science Fiction & Fantasy: Creating Unique and Powerful Worlds

teacher avatar Lincoln Michel, Fiction Writer and Professor

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Class Overview


    • 3.

      Ripple Effects


    • 4.

      Focused Worldbuilding


    • 5.

      Thematic Worldbuilding


    • 6.

      Worldbuilding Granularity


    • 7.

      Discovering Unexplored Ground


    • 8.

      Portals into Your Characters


    • 9.

      SFF without Worlds


    • 10.

      Finding New Story Angles


    • 11.

      Putting It All Together


    • 12.



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About This Class

The great thing about writing science fiction and fantasy is that anything can happen. The hard part is that, well, anything can happen.

This Skillshare class will go over principles and guidelines that will help you shape your fantastic worlds and wondrous characters into memorable—and uniquestories. We’ll look at some classic SF/F works like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones, as well as stories that might be new to you, in order to figure out what makes them tick and how we can apply their lessons to generating our own stories.

This class is geared toward introductory writers, however, the ideas and exercises we'll go over are useful at any level. 

Topics discussed include: 

  • Worldbuilding
  • The ripple effects of changes to reality
  • Finding new angles on classic tropes
  • Getting into the POV of characters in fantastic realities

Lincoln Michel is the author of the genre-bending collection Upright Beasts and the co-editor of the science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds and the forthcoming horror anthology Tiny Nightmares. His work appears in The Paris ReviewStrange HorizonsTerraformGranta, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction writing in the MFA programs at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. 


Meet Your Teacher

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Lincoln Michel

Fiction Writer and Professor


Lincoln Michel is a writer, editor, and fiction professor. He is the author of the science fiction noir novel The Body Scout (Orbit) and the genre-bending story collection Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press) and his work appears in The Paris Review, Granta, Strange Horizons, NOON, and elsewhere. His essays and criticism appear in journals like The New York Times, The Guardian, BOMB Magazine, and Lit Hub. 

He is the co-editor the science flash fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds (Gigantic Books), the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated flash noir anthology Tiny Crimes (Catapult), and the forthcoming flash horror anthology Tiny Nightmares (Catapult). These anthologies have includ... See full profile

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1. Introduction: Hi. My name is Dr. Professor Lincoln Michel MD. Most of you know me as a Short Story Social Media guru and a Flash Fiction Brand Consultants but I'm also a literary entrepreneur. Hello. My name is Lincoln Michel, and welcome to my Skillshare class on creating unique and powerful science fiction and fantasy stories. The great thing about writing science fiction and fantasy stories is that anything can happen. You can have aliens with four heads that bomb at different colors. You can have goblin pirates fighting wizards on the ocean, whatever you want. The hard thing about writing science fiction and fantasy is that anything can happen. I'm the author of the short story collection, Upright Beasts. I published fiction in Terraform and Strange Horizon as well as literary magazines like the Paris Review. I'm the co-editor of a series of anthology that look at different genres and try to do new ideas with them. One is called Tiny Crimes, which looks at crime fiction and war fiction, Gigantic Worlds, a science fiction anthology, and one that will be forthcoming this Halloween called Tiny Nightmares. I'm also a Professor of Fiction and Speculative Fiction MFA programs at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College. Now, the class is geared towards intermediate to beginning writers but the tactics that we'll go over useful for advanced writers too. Both creating new ideas and figuring out how to constrain them into digestible stories. Sensation and fantasy are exciting because they allow you to create totally impossible unique worlds. At the same time, those worlds reflect back on us and let us see our reality more clearly. I'm excited to teach this class and to talk about monsters, and wizards, and aliens, and ray guns, and all of those fun things so let's get started. 2. Class Overview: Before we dive into the main lessons, I just want to break down what we'll be going over in this class and the exercises we'll be doing. Also if I make this hand motions a lot, just pretend there's an invisible orb of power in my hands. The areas we'll go over in the class are, first, about what I call the ripple effect, which is at its core science fiction and fantasy is about changing something in reality, maybe changing a lot of things. Then, looking at what the ripple effects of that are, how would that change different aspects of society or life. That would segue into what we call world-building. World-building is a common term in science fiction and fantasy. You're probably familiar with it. If you're not, it's just a term for how we create our fictional realities. It may be a world and maybe an entire galaxy of worlds, or it may just be a city or a specific scenario. After we talk about world-building and the ripple effect, we'll go into talking about what area of the world will be useful for your story. Because when you create a whole world or a whole city or a whole galaxy, there's infinite things we can talk about. We have to figure out which ground will be interesting to look at for the story you want to tell. After we look at that, we'll go into the characters. Because when you're reading science fiction and fantasy stories, the characters live in a different reality than you do, at least somewhat. We have to figure out how we can get into their heads and understand what their lives would be like and how they can tell us their story. Throughout these different lesson areas, I'll be giving different exercises and different generative writing techniques that will hopefully be useful for creating new ideas or honing your existing ideas. The different areas we'll be going over in the different tactics should lead into each other. At the end of the class, I'll give an example of how you can go through them first, second, third, fourth, to create a new story idea. Now that you have an overview of what the class will be like, let's dive into the first lesson. 3. Ripple Effects: In this first lesson, we're going to be talking about what I call the ripple effect. Now, at their core, science fiction and fantasy stories tend to posit a what if question. What if wizards existed in society? What if aliens invaded? What if there was a new technology that allowed you to shrink people down to a tiny size. What if your shoe was haunted and tried to eat your feet? If Stephen King's watching copyright in that idea. Most basic idea of world-building and science fiction and fantasy stories tends to be taking our reality and knocking it off its access a little bit and then thinking through the consequences. If you have a fantasy city in which the rivers are made of Coca-Cola. What does that mean? If it's regular humans are their teeth rotting because they drink Coke all day long? Are vegetables exotic and only the rich people can afford them? That thing. Typically the most interesting science fiction and fantasy stories come from thinking through the changes that would be caused by that initial change so that ripple effect. Thinking of surprising things that your average person wouldn't just think of immediately. Let's say that you have a world in which people can turn invisible. Maybe a mad scientist has created some invisibility potion and now it's sold in stores. There has been plenty of stories about invisible people before. Lots of superhero comics involve invisible villains who go and rob banks. That's ground that's been covered. But if you're thinking through the ripple effects, you might think, okay, what would happen if invisibility potions are sold in stores? Would they be really expensive? There'll be a divide between the rich who can turn invisible on the poor who are constantly visible. Would religion change? Would maybe the Christian church say that we are made in God's image, we have to stay visible and invisibility is a sin? Would there be new art forms that involve invisible actors or invisible artist, so on and so forth. Thinking through those consequences will both help you create an interesting and real seeming reality, but also come up with your unique story angle. The amount of ripple effects you need to think through depends on the story. If you are creating a near future story that's set in our world, but there's a new technology such as that invisibility example. You just have that one change and think through those ripples. If you are creating an entirely different world, say a far future sci-fi story or an invented Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones style past, maybe you have a bunch of those ripples. A bunch of different ideas you have to think through. But the following technique I'll go over is useful no matter what type of story you're doing. At this stage of the process, you're not trying to come up with a completely original story. You're just trying to think through the logical consequences of the change you're making to reality. You can see the ripple effect at work and a lot of works of popular culture. The TV show Black Mirror is a great example. A lot of the episodes revolve around introducing a new technology and in thinking through what could happen. The TV show Westworld is a world in which advanced robots that are almost identical to humans exist. One of the ripple effects that comes up with is, well, would people use those in an amusement park in which they could go murder robots without actually committing murder and being thrown in jail? But it's true of these near future shows is also true of a fantasy show like Game of Thrones. On Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice and Fire books by George. R. R. Martin. George. R. R. Martin looks at a classic fantasy trope like dragons and then says, ''Well, if dragons were these fire-breathing creatures, they would be the equivalent of nuclear bombs in a medieval typesetting.'' In his world, dragons are this massive destructive force that can totally change the game of war and politics. If vampires are common, there's 10 percent of the population are vampires. This is a known fact. What would that do to dating? What would it do to economics? What would it do to religion? What would it do to philosophy? Those are just a couple of examples of how thinking through the ripple effects will help you come up with story ideas. So for your first exercise, what I would like you to do is think of one change you would like to make to our reality, write that at the top of your paper or type it at the top of your word document. The change can be whatever you want. It can be that climate change is accelerating and the sea levels are rising. It can be that dragons exist and fly around New York City. They nest in the skyscrapers, can be that a certain percentage of the population are wizards or vampires or werewolf, whatever you'd like. But the change should be something that's common in reality, not a secret. There's not one secret vampire, lots of vampires. Come up with as many changes as you can think of. Again, just an a bullet point list and write those down in your document for the next 10 minutes. At this stage of the world building process, you're just trying to think of everything, but when you get down to the more specific story you want to tell, this is when you want to think about what is something that you were really excited to both research and think through. 4. Focused Worldbuilding: In this lesson, we'll be talking a bit more about world-building. World-building is the term for how you create a fictional world. In the first lesson, we talked about the ripple effects of making a change to the world. Thinking through those ripple effects is how we come up with stories that feel real, that have verisimilitude to them. That they feel like the author has thought through the different elements of society and how these changes would work. World-building does not necessarily have to involve a world although it can. Something like Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created his entire world of Middle Earth and in Game of Thrones has an entire fantasy world with the continent of Westeros and Essos and different creatures. Then in something like Star Wars or Star Trek, there's an entire galaxy with many worlds. World-building also refers to creating just a different reality from our own. Whether that's our world, but there's one new technology or one fantasy element in it, or it's a city or a realm where something different is happening. World-building applies to all of those things not just worlds. World-building is a science fiction and fantasy term for constructing an imaginary world or a different reality on the page for the reader. The most effective world-building tends to involve thinking through, again, those ripple effects of all the different changes that could happen to society, whether it's culinary, economic, relationships, family life, so on and so forth. Most world-building guides that you'll read online will really focus on that, all the different things you can think up with your world-building and that's all true. At the same time, world-building is also all about constraint. Because you cannot put everything that you've come up with on the page. When you did that ripple effect exercise, I asked you to do it for about 10 minutes but you could probably do that for forever. One change to society can have massive consequences. We can even see that in our own lives if you're at least older than a teenager, you remember life before smartphones rather and social media existed and life was different in a lot of ways. Now, you have things like online dating and cyber warfare between countries involving Twitter trolls, and all of these things are just consequences of these changes to our life. If we have all these changes just from Twitter and Facebook, you can imagine all the changes that would happen if vampires or werewolves or aliens existed. If you go to the bookstore today and want to read a book on the history of the Roman Empire, you will find a ton of books all of delving into different aspects of the Roman Empire, and it's way more than can be fit into one book. If you're creating a science fiction or fantasy world that has a analog to the Roman Empire, that's mutant crayfish on a water planet or is a werewolf empire in some fantasy world, it's going to have just as much material. There's so much history and differences of culture that would have to be fit in so you can't fit it all in. On the one hand, world-building is about thinking through all these different possibilities, on the other hand, it's about limiting your world-building in the story you're creating to what is containable in the story. How do you decide what to limit your world-building to? The best way to do it is to limit it to what interests you the most, or rather to focus on what interests you the most. If you're someone who really loves cuisine and loves the history of food and loves cooking, you'll probably write a really great fantasy novel even if it's about goblin cooks and working for dwarves in the mines. Or if you're really interested in familial relationships and how families are formed or how your own family functions, you will probably create a great science fiction story of the things about the consequences of cloning, or some other new technology that would affect family life. Basically, when you look through that list of ripple effects, look and see what interests you about society. Is it art? Is it politics? Is it religion? If you look at that bullet point list you made in the first exercise, you'll hopefully have gone through and looked at how the one change you want to make to society effects different parts of society. If you look through it, hopefully one or two or three of those areas will stand out the most to you, and that you are just more interested in whether it's economics or politics or cuisine or family life or pets, whatever it is. When you're creating your own fantasy or science fiction story, you're looking for ways to make them stand out and be different. Think for example, the most famous fantasy worlds that exist in popular culture right now. You have Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, so on and so forth. All of these exists in a somewhat similar world in the sense that they're set in a Western society using Western mythological and fairytale tropes: Spells, and magicians, and witches, and dragons, so on and so forth. But they also feel very distinct. You don't confuse Harry Potter with Lord of the Rings. Why is that? I would suggest that the authors of those works, JK Rowling, JR Tolkien and George R R Martin found different areas to focus on. Harry Potter is obviously focused on a wizard school and education and teenage life of these teenage wizards is the core of the story especially in the early books. We get tons of information about the way classes function, defense against the dark arts, so on and so forth, but we get relatively little about maybe other aspects of a world in which wizards and magic exists. On the flip side, Game of Thrones is focused on the real politic maneuvers between different ethnic groups and different houses and different political interests of different groups. If you read The Game of Thrones books, the A Song of Ice and Fire books, you'll read pages and pages of descriptions of the history of different regions and different ruling families. But you get very little about the education of people in the world in the way that you do in Harry Potter. That's all about the different aspects of the world that the stories are focused on. The other thing to think about when you think about the focus of your world-building is just the size of the story you're telling. Harry Potter and the A Song of Ice and Fire books are multi-volume epic fantasy books. They contain a lot, even though there still is the different focuses. If you are writing a single novel, or you're writing a novella, or you're writing a short story, your focus will probably need to be much narrower. I sometimes tell my students to think about what the vessel can contain. By that I mean, if you're writing a short flash fiction piece 1-2 pages, there's just not that much world-building you can fit into it. In the same level, there's not that many characters and such you can fit into it. If you're writing a 10 volume fantasy epic, there's much more you can fit into it and much more that's expected from the reader. If you're a vessel is a kayak, maybe only one thing can fit into it, maybe one ripple effect can be explored. If your vessel is a cruise ship, a whole bunch can be put on. That's one thing to think about when you're focusing your world-building is the size of the story you're telling. For example, if I'm working on a near future sci-fi story that's focused on family dynamics, I may end up writing a lot of material that deals with economic implications and other aspects. Then when I go back and look at my draft, I almost always see those and realize they don't fit. Because if it's a short story, the family dynamics of some technological change is more than enough for a couple of pages of a short story. But if I'm working on a novel, I look to include a whole lot more ripple effects. A lot of it is about the size of the story. Focusing your world-building is one way to make your story unique and different and to stand out from other similar stories. In the next lesson, we'll talk about thematic world-building which is another way to do that. 5. Thematic Worldbuilding: One of the most common problems in science fiction and fantasy stories is writer's creating worlds that really don't feel that different from ones they've seen before. A lot of fantasy writers may end up with a story that feels like it's in the D&D universe, the Dungeons and Dragons universe, in which there's a similar set of wizards, and elves, and so on and so forth. When we think about the great science fiction and fantasy novels and movies and TV shows, they all have a different feel, right? They all stand out in some way. So one way to make your world stand out is what I talked about in the last lesson, which is focusing your world building, and that's something that you probably have to do no matter what. But another way to make your world stand out is what I would call theamtic world building. One common problem in science fiction and fantasy writing is not having a world that stands out from other similar worlds. So if you're writing a fantasy world and you like Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons, and you write a similar world, you may end up with just a similar world. So when you're writing, you need to figure out how to make your world stand out from other similar ones. How do you make a far future space empire field different than the empire in Star Wars? How do you make a fantasy world feel different than Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons? One way to do that is what we talked about in the last lesson, which is focusing your world-building. If you're focused a bit more on say, wizard education, as Harry Potter is, it feels different than Lord of the Rings. If you're focused on cuisine or economics or some area that's a little under explored, that's a great way to make your story feel a little different. But another way to make your world till different is what I would call thematic world building. So if you're writing a science fiction fantasy story that is in a kind of mode that has been done before, you want to think of some way to shake it up. That may be changing the setting so that it's not a kind of medieval style setting if you are writing a fantasy story, but it may be thinking of a different thematic organization for your work. N. K. Jemisin's broken earth trilogy is the first serious when the Hugo three times in a row, and it's a great example of thematic world building. Basically, N.K Jemisin created an entirely new world in the way that J. R.R. Tolkien did, or George R. R. Martin. She focused it around this theme of earth and geology. So it takes place on this planet in which earthquakes are ravaging it all the time, and there are magic users, but the magic users can control the earth and the ground, and there are creatures that are made of stone and so on and so forth. Basically all these different geological elements make it feel like this very distinct, unique world. So that is the kind of thing that you can do yourself. Think of something that interests you, some topic, some form of organization, and then use that to help create your world. Another example of this is the very good children's cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbendor, which takes place in a world in which it uses the four elements, what they call the four elements: fire, earth, water, and air, and there's different magic users that can use each of those different powers. Again, a kind of fanatic way to organize things. The great example of thematic world building is this novel I love called Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities is a book in which Italo Calvino creates 55 different imaginary cities, and they're all organized around different themes like memory and so on and so forth. But the whole book is just more or less descriptions of cities. Let me read one for you. So this is a chapter called "Cities and the dead four". What makes Argia different from other cities is that it has Earth instead of air. The streets are completely filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling, on every stair, another stairway is set in negative, over the roofs of the houses hang layers of rocky terrain like skies with clouds. We do not know if the inhabitants can move about the city, widening the worm tunnels and the crevices where roots twist. The dampness destroys people's bodies,and they have scant strength. Everyone is better off remaining still, prone; anyway, it is dark. From up here, nothing of Argia can be seen. Some say, "it's down below there," and we can only believe them. The place is deserted. At night, putting your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a door slam. So this is one of 55 of the cities in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. I put a couple more of them in the class resources page. I'd love for you to pause the video and take a look or read them after this lesson. You can see that he thematically organizes these around different ideas. But then he also still thinks through some of the world building, even though they're in more of what I'd call a poetic or fabulous mode rather than a realistic mode. Obviously, no one could actually live in a city where everything was packed with dirt, you would just die. But even in his poetic mode, Italo Calvino thinks through some of these ripple effects. He thinks about how the dampness of the Earth would affect people's skin, or how it's dark, so why would anyone even bother moving around if everything was packed with Earth? In your first exercise, I asked you to come up with one change you wanted to make to the world and think through the bullet point list. Now, I'm asking you to turn that into a kind of encyclopedia description of your world, of your city, your realm, or your planet. So pause the video here and write your own invisible city. Again, invisible city can mean a world or a realm or a planet. Welcome back. I've been paused in stasis for the past 20 minutes. I hope exercise went well. Like Invisible Cities, I'd like you to think about your world and not the characters. In that last description, there's no people, no characters. It's just a description of the world. That was an exercise and a kind of world building. But as you probably know, we're in an age in which post-apocalyptic stories are all the rage, the world seems to be coming apart, and so the next exercise I would like to do is one of world destroying. So you created your world, now I'm going to ask you to destroy it, but we're still talking about thematic world building. So what I would like you to think about is what is a thematic threat to the world you've created to the reality, right? Which perhaps is the opposite of the thing you created. If you have a planet of fire, some kind of water threat may be the answer. If you made a city of mattresses, maybe an army of toddlers is going to come and jump on them. If you made a realm of junk food, perhaps an army of vegan militants is coming to town. Think of something thematic that could destroy your world, and then I want you to write, again just a one to three page, encyclopedia style entry, describing the destruction of the world. It can be written from the future. The world of junk land was destroyed by the vegan army in this way and so forth. Just one to three pages, and again 10 to 20 minutes. Once you've completed these two exercises, we'll dump into a discussion of figuring out the granularity of your world building. 6. Worldbuilding Granularity: In the last couple of lessons, we've been talking about worldbuilding and how worldbuilding is both about thinking through all the different changes and possibilities of the world you're creating, but also about imposing limits on that world, and especially limits that suit the story you're telling. Now, part of that is figuring out a consistent granularity of the worldbuilding for your story, and sticking to that. Let me illustrate this with some works of art. Let me show you two paintings of faces. On the one hand, we have this one by Henri Matisse, on the other hand, a self portrait by Chuck Close. Obviously both of these are faces, but obviously they are very different in the level of detail. The Henri Matisse is just a handful, broad brushstrokes, and the Chuck Close is so realistic that it looks like a photo, and it actually is a painting, it's not a photo. Neither of these is better than the other. They're just different styles. But the point here is that the styles would probably not work together. If you have that Chuck Close face, and put the Henri Matisse hair on top of it, it would look very weird, and vice versa, if you put a very detailed nose and mouth on the Matisse painting, it would probably look extremely strange. There's a similar concern when we're looking at fiction. Let me give you an example of a fantasy story. Now, imagine I started a story like this. Once upon a time, there was a kingdom by the sea ruled by a cruel tyrant. The tyrant kept his daughter, a beautiful princess, trapped in a tower of glass. One day, a knight came to town. This is a standard fairy tale mode. If we're trying to compare it to art, it's more like the Matisse; broad brushstrokes, people just have terms like handsome knight and cruel tyrant. They're not specific characters with backstories exactly. They're fairy tale mode. Now, imagine the next paragraph. It went like this. Sir Gerald Trollslayer the Fourth of the Knights of Gold and Iron, an order of holy knights dedicated to Borg. The God of fortune among the river tribes, down in Basque Country, strutted into the Swill and Snort Inn on main street demanding a pint of dragon ale. My brushstrokes are clashing here. The second part feels more like maybe Game of Thrones style fantasy world in which there's detailed religions, and houses, and histories, and so on and so forth, which just doesn't mix with the fairy tale tone. When your worldbuilding, it is good to figure out the level of granularity you want and stick to it. If part of the world is extremely detailed and extremely realistic in terms of its world building and other parts are not, that's probably going to stand out to the reader. Once again, I'll say that the level of granularity often matches the size of the story. A very short story can probably not contain much detail, whereas the 10 volume fantasy epic wants a lot of detail. Pick the granularity that matches the type of story you're telling. This is just something to keep in mind when you're writing your story or when you're revising the story you're already working on. Now in the last few exercise, we've been talking about worldbuilding and creating this whole reality. In the next lesson, we'll talk about zooming into a more specific area where a specific story can be told. 7. Discovering Unexplored Ground: If you've been following on the lessons and doing the exercise, you probably have some world in reality you're creating here. Maybe it is a version of New York in which vampires or as common as hipsters and Williamsburg. Maybe it's a distant planet in which the humanoid or rather sentient life is giant jellyfish or living kelp. It can be anything, we're doing science fiction and fantasy. But a world is not a story. The next step to creating a science fiction or fantasy story is narrowing what you're looking at to a specific realm in which a story can take place. The writer Ben Marcus once talked about how the term plot can be thought of as, the story that in the traditional sense, but it's also interesting to think about plot as a plot of ground. What is the part of the garden that your magical flowers or alien herbs can grow in?On that level, this lesson is going to be about finding the ground to plant the seeds of your story. If you want to create a really unique science fiction and fantasy story, part of what you want to do is find unexplored or under explored territory to plant the seeds of your story. If you go back to the initial bullet point lists you made, look through that list and see if there is an area that you haven't heard written about using that change to your society. I'll give you an example from my own writing process. I have always been fascinated by cloning. I think It's interesting and maybe I'm just a narcissist who wants to live forever in multiple bodies even though it's not really how cloning would work. Anyway, I just find cloning interesting. But there's lots of cloning stories out there. There's lots of movies, lots of comics, lots of novels has been done a lot. When I was thinking up a cloning story, I started to think through some of these ripple effects and think about what would happen if cloning was commonplace in society. I started to think about divorces and I wondered, would it be possible if there was a future in which cloning was common and couples might clone a small child in a divorce like an infant. So they would each have their own child. That to me at least was a new idea that I hadn't seen written about. I wrote a story about that, about a father who's dealing with the weirdness of having a clone of his son from a divorce proceeding. That's just one example of how it can be done. I got much more excited writing a story once I felt that I had found an area that had been under explored. I think when you're writing science fiction and fantasy, it's really good to find that ground, especially if you're using any trope or scenario that has been used before. If you're writing another vampire story, you need to figure out something new to do with that, something that's going to make your story standout. Let me read you the opening of a fantasy fabulous short story that I really love called, "Who will greet you at home?" by the writer Lesley Nneka Arimah. "The yarn baby lasted a good month, emitting dry cotton-soft gurgles and pooping little balls of lint, before Ogechi snagged it's thigh on a nail and it unraveled as she continued walking, mistaking it's little huffs for the beginnings of hunger, not the cries of an infant being undone. By the time she noticed it was too late. The leg a tangle of fiber, and she pulled the string and the rest of the way to end it, rather than have the child grow up maimed." First off, I think this is a great example of efficient world-building and which we get the premise of the story idea very quickly, which is that there's this magical world, is magical reality in which children are created not from sex, but from physical materials that then are magically brought to life. Now, in a scenario in which children are created that way there's lots of areas that you could explore. In this story if you read the entire thing and it was published in The New Yorker a couple of years ago. You can find it on their website. In this story, Arimah really focuses on the idea of inequality in this world, and that some people can create these. Some rich people can create babies out of fine materials like porcelain and wrapping paper and they have these beautiful pampered babies. Then the poor are forced to create babies out of mud and sticks. This is the tension that drives the story. Arimah keeps her focus on this character and this question of inequality and motherhood. She doesn't get into say, the economics of this reality or how the children are educated after their babies. The story is focused and exploring this ground. Now her story is a pretty original premise. But as I've said, if you are using a classic trope, something like ghosts and haunted houses or invisibility, or any of these other things we've talked about that have been used before time machines, cloning, so on and so forth. You especially need to find some ground that hasn't been looked at before if you want your story, the standout. The previous exercises, I've asked you to do a bullet point list and then you create an encyclopedia entry without characters. Let's say you're writing about a fantasy world in which goblins and trolls have their own society. Maybe you're looking at your list and you're thinking about the food that goblins cook. Maybe that's a realm to look at, talk about the life of a goblin chef. Or if you're talking about a world with time travel and you think about the economics of time travel, maybe there's a time travel company that sends people back in time, and what's it's like for a worker who works at that time travel company. If you look back at your list and you feel like everything's done before and you need to think up something new. As I said before, what interests you the most in life, what you're the most captured with in your day-to-day life is often going to be what's the most interesting topic to explore, even in a sci-fi fantasy setting. Maybe you're really dating a lot of people right now. Dating is something you're thinking about. What's dating like in this sci-fi fantasy world? Maybe you really love video games or skateboarding, or cooking or talking to your parents and grandparents. Any of these things can be an interesting ground to explore in a science fiction or fantasy setting, the point is to find something, an area of life that is under explored in the genre you're working in. Now it's time to get into the kind of more human or inhuman if you're writing about elves or aliens world. I would like you to just free right from the perspective of a character in that realm that you feel is under explored. Once you're done with the free writing, we'll move on to talking about how to get into the head of a character that exists in a reality that's not yours. 8. Portals into Your Characters: If you've been following these lessons and doing the exercises, hopefully, you've got some ideas buzzing around in your head like nanobots injected there by a mad scientist. You hopefully have come up with a what-if scenario, a way to change reality. You've thought through the consequences of that change. Maybe you've found some unexplored or under-explored ground to set your story in. Now it's time to delve a little more into the characters' heads. The challenge of writing science fiction or fantasy characters is that they exist in a science fiction or fantasy world and thus don't exist in ours. If you've ever taken a writing class or read writing guides online, you've probably heard the cliche, "Write what you know. " But how can you write what you know if your character is a moisture farmer on a distant desert planet? Or they're a Goblin Wizard who serves a Tyrannical Troll Emperor? How do you get into that character's head? As writers of science fiction and fantasy, we have to find what I call portals into our characters' heads. One handy exercise I found to do this is to use a Venn diagram in which you have two overlapping circles. On one side, it's you, the author, and the other side, your character. Let's say there's you and there's Globo, the Goblin Wizard. In this part of the circle is the traits that you have, and here are the traits that Globo has and maybe they don't overlap. Perhaps you live in New York City. He lives in Troll Land. He's a wizard. You have no magic. Maybe you're a professor like me. But the main point is to look at this overlapping ground and which are the areas of your experience that overlap with his? Maybe one of those is that you both hate your job. Maybe another is you're both lonely and looking for a partner or something. Go through this Venn diagram and come up with at least five areas in which you and your character overlap even in their fantastic setting. Because if you have ever had a job you hate, even if it's not your current job, just any job you ever hated, you know what it's like to be frustrated, to feel undermined, so on and so forth, and you can use those to create a realistic feeling character, even in a completely fantastic setting, like a Goblin Wizard who works for a Troll Emperor. This is an exercise you can do right now. Try to find again, at least five overlapping qualities between yourself and your character. But it's also an exercise that you can do at any point in time for any of the characters in your book. An easy one to pull out, figure out what the overlap is. Once you complete the Venn diagram, portal into your character's head. We'll move on to a lesson about science fiction and fantasy stories that don't involve as much world-building and don't have as much ripple effect. 9. SFF without Worlds: So far we've been talking about science fiction and fantasy stories that involve a lot of world-building and create entirely new planets, or cities, really alternate realities. That is a lot of science fiction and fantasy. If you're thinking of science fiction and fantasy, you may think of Middle-earth, or Westeros from Game of Thrones, or Dune from Dune, and so on and so forth. But I do as a side lesson here, one would acknowledge that a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy doesn't involve world-building on that larger level, and it may just involve world-building for a very contained area. If you look at something like Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis in which a character wakes up as a bug. Kafka does not have to think about how a bug based world would change the economy or the artistic creations of that world. This is one character who turns into a bug. Now, when you're reading a story like that, you still could use a lot of the principles we've talked about in this course so far. For example, Kafka or anyone writing a story like that, it's still going to think about the ripple effects of what it would mean for that individual character to become a bug like how does he eat? How does he move around? But you don't have to think about the larger questions of society and the story can be much more contain. This science fiction and fantasy stories, especially common in a short story in which there's less page space to create entire world. In story like this, typically we exist in our world and a change is happening to one or perhaps a couple characters. That can be a really powerful way to create a story because first the reader can connect to the character is more easily because it's our reality to some extent. We can imagine what would happen if our life just changed suddenly, perhaps more easily than we can imagine being a dwarf warrior in some distant land. Let me read you the start of a short story that I really admire called The Remember by Aimee Bender. This will be put into the class resources page too. "My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.I tell him no one. I don't know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It's been a month, and now he's a sea turtle. I keep them on the counter, in a baking pan filled with salt water. "Ben," I say to his small protruding head, "can you understand me?" He stares with eyes like little droplets of tar and I drip tears into the pan, a sea of me." Feel free to pause here and read the entire story if you'd like. But you can probably see how this is a scenario that is certainly fantastic. This is not the real world, but it's not going to go beyond these two characters in their relationship and their specific circumstances. Aimee Bender is not having to worry about all of these other questions we've talked about. If you want to try writing a story of this variety, here's an exercise for you. Take a story in which one character is experienced in some sci-fi or fantasy transformation. Whether it's they're turning invisible, they're waking up as a bug. Perhaps you will want to have them wake up as a mythological creature; one's boyfriend or girlfriend, or husband, or wife, or father, or mother, whatever. Some intimate relationship though is normally useful as woken up a centaur or a suddenly a mermaid. If you have another idea, that's fine too. Again, one or three pages just to get into this mode, right from the perspective of the person not undergoing the transformation. The one who has to take care of that person, who has to deal with someone else's sci-fi fantasy transformation. Basically, referent from the perspective of the character who's the most like you, who's still a normal person, but we have to deal with the sci-fi element. Now that you've unpaused and unfrozen me from my time stasis. The next exercise is perhaps pretty obvious, which is to re-write what you just wrote, but from the other character's point of view, from the person who is experiencing the sci-fi fantasy mutation transformation. How do they see their situation different for the person who has to care from them? One person needs to figure out how to take care of someone. The other person needs to figure out what they want themselves and how to take care of themselves. It's a different scenario. So with this revision exercise, we're writing for the other character's point of view, think about how does that character feel turning into a sinter, or turning invisible, or whatever is happening to them. Is it going to affect their life goals? Or they want something different? How did they feel about their partner who is now taking care of them? They ashamed? Are they excited? Get and explore their feelings. Often switching the point of view in a story is what unlocks a story, and lets us see something new that we wouldn't have seen otherwise. Once you're done with this exercise, which again, can be one to three pages, take 10-20 minutes, we'll move on to talking about how switching, finding unique POVs can work for any science fiction, fantasy story. 10. Finding New Story Angles : Earlier in this course, we talked about finding under explored or unexplored ground in science fiction fantasy world to set your story, and to make it feel unique and original, and that's a great thing to do. But another way to come up with a fresh and original science fiction or fantasy story is to come up with a new angle on an existing story. Looking at classic tropes and familiar stories and finding either unexplored ground or new angles is not something just for emerging writers, it's definitely what tons of famous science fiction and fantasy and a lot writers do. For example, the writer Stephen King's novel Salem Lot was, he explained that his idea there was to take the story of Dracula and make it new by setting it in modern New England or modern when he wrote it and the writer George RR Martin from Game of Thrones explicitly talks about how he was pushing against some of the Lord of the Rings Tolkien tropes by making the world a little grittier and a little more realistic and taking some new angles on the story, so what we're talking about in this lesson is something that all writers think about. Finding a new angle on an existing trope or an existing world or setting is something that every writer who writes science fiction fantasy has to think about, if you're blocked in your story idea, often it's coming up with a new angle, a new POV. Something like that is what will unlock the story of you and make it interesting, so maybe you want to tell the story of Hansel and Gretel from the witches point of view or you want to tell a vampire story from the point of view of a regular bat who's just around these vampire bats that turn back and forth into vampires, something like that can really come up, give you a new idea for a story, one way to think about genre fiction is that genres are a conversation between authors, readers and texts throughout time, so if you were writing a time travel story, your story is in conversation with all of those movies and all of those authors and all of the readers who have read those books and you're adding to that conversation hopefully and to add to the conversation, you need to come up with something new to say, some new angle on that story. This is also why fan fiction is such an exciting part of genre writing, you can re-tell Harry Potter where Voldemort wins or you can tell the story of the death star from the point of view of a janitor who's just working there and gets killed. This is an exciting thing for readers to do and part of how they can engage in the conversation but it's still should be a concern of yours even if you're not writing fan fiction, because again, if you're writing stories about classic tropes like haunted houses or clones or whatever you're interested in, you still need to think of some new angle, something new to add to that conversation, one way to do this is to simply come up with a new point of view for a story, if you want to write a story about a spaceship, maybe you can write from the point of view of the spaceship itself if it's a sentient spaceship, a perfect example of this kind of story. This new angle on a story is from the late great Ursula K Le Guin and she has a story called The wife's story, which I've put in the class documents and I'll just summarize here, I'm afraid that I'm going to spoil the story a bit, so if you're one of those people, pause it and go, if you are not in the spirit of my spoilers, pause it and go read the story. The wife's story starts out with this woman who's talking about her husband and there's something off, it seems like their family is pretty happy, but she can tell something's wrong and as the story goes along, it becomes clear that actually the husband is a werewolf and the wife is a wolf, so you're getting the story from the point of view of the wolf, not a normal human. Again, a new point of view on a werewolf story, here's how the narrator, the wolf, describes seeing her husband turn into a man. "The hair began to come away all over his body, it was like his hair flied away in the sunlight and was gone, he was white all over them like a worm skin and he turned his face, it was changing while I look, it got flatter and flatter, the mouth flat and wide and the teeth grinning flat and dull and the nose just a knob of flesh with nostril holes and the ears gone and the eyes gone, blue with white rims around the blue staring at me out of that soft, flat white face, he stood up on two legs, I saw him, I had to see him, my own dear love turned into the hateful one. " There have been a million stories and movies and novels about werewolf and when Le Guin sat down to write this, I imagine she thought, well how can I come up with a new angle and she came up with this one of the wolf wife telling the story, thus the title of the wife story and you can see even from that passage I read how the new angle gives a fresh telling of the story, normally we get the horror of a werewolf transformation being the lengthening in the hair growing and all of that and here's the exact opposite, right here, it's the hair disappearing, that's horrifying to the character and here it's the facial features flattening and the teeth getting flattened, white and such that it terrifies her, a very fresh way to talk about a werewolf transformation. It also, I think, fits into what we talked about at the beginning of the class, which is the ripple effects, which is to say, if you have a world in which werewolves exist, logically some people might in there wolf form, mate with other wolves and so that's something Le Guin must have thought of when she was thinking through, what werewolves mean and that was the unexplored ground that she found to write the story. Now in our next lesson, I will talk about how all of these different things we've talked about can be put together from start to finish to come up with a story idea. 11. Putting It All Together : Throughout this class on building unique science fiction and fantasy world, I've talked about a handful of different principles. We talked about the what-if scenario, we talked about the ripple effects. We talked about world-building, and we talked about finding an under explored ground to write a story, and then also getting into the head of a character. Now, I want to show you how all of these principles work in tandem or can work in tandem to create a story. In the last lesson, I read you a passage from Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wife's Story which is a version of a werewolf story. Maybe I'll stick with the werewolf theme and show you how you could create a new werewolf story. I'm going to take the what-if scenario of what if werewolves existed. For my purposes I'll say, ''What if werewolves are common, maybe they're 10 percent of the population?'' It's not just one wolf in the woods of some hills; It's going to change all of society. I sit down and think about the ripple effects. What would that change to society? There are a lot of ways that werewolf existence would change society. I mean, if there are werewolves and there's that many of them are there political groups that advocate on their behalf? Are they oppressed by society? Are they, let's say restaurants that werewolves go to maybe there's just no seats or anything, it's just meat thrown on the floor and everyone runs around and so on and so forth. I think about all those, but as I've said in some previous lessons, I think it's very important to come up with under explored ground. I think the most commonly explored ground on werewolf stories is the blood and the violence and the death and the horror of the transformation. Maybe I would try to come up with something that doesn't deal with that. One idea that comes to mind is that, well, if there's that many people that are werewolves, then many people would have family members who were werewolves, and werewolves at some point would get old, so there would be werewolf retirement homes. That might be a fun place to set a story, just aging werewolves who can't really think much anymore and some people have to come and pet them and feed them medicine. I like that idea, but I also like the thematic world-building of just fur and hair. I like that idea of a werewolf retirement home, but I also think about the question of thematic world-building that I mentioned. To me so much of werewolfism and werewolf and literature is the fur and the hair. I mean, when you turn to werewolf hair grows all over your body that's such a central element of it. But again, I want to keep it peaceful. Try something a little different than killing. An idea that occurs to me is that maybe if there's that many werewolves, there would be werewolf barbershops. Maybe people want to have nice hairstyles, nice fur styles when they're werewolves. I'm going to pick that as my area to write about. The unexplored ground that I'm going to mine for this story is going to be fur styles and how the werewolf fashion goes. Next I'm going to think of a character who would fit into that, and maybe because I was talking before about the Aimee Bender story in which it's not the character undergoing the transformation, who's the narrator, but a different character. I'm going to stick with that idea. I'm going to have a werewolf barber who is himself not a werewolf. He's maybe ironically named Wolfgang now. His wolf gang, the werewolf barber. I then pull out my Venn diagram either literally or mentally in my head and think about what overlaps I have with him. I'm going to think about having jobs I don't really like that much. That's always a good go-to to connect you to a character. Have them not really be happy with their life, but maybe he's also an artist of some type. He takes pride in the werewolf fur styles that he creates in the same way that I hopefully take pride in the short stories I write. Now, I have this character. I have a kind of way into his head. I have my unexplored terrain and I have my world, I'm ready to sit down and write a story. But any story needs conflict, means that there needs to be a threat, probably to the order or to the characters. When thinking of the threat to the order of the world I'm creating on that thematic level like that thematic world-building lesson. Well, there's maybe an obvious one, Wolfgang in a werewolf barber is a barber, he cuts hair. What happens if his clients all get manged? They all start losing their fur and now he's out of work, he doesn't have money. There you go. I have the start of a story, maybe not the best idea, but it's at least an explanation of how these principles can all work together to create a new, fresh take on a science fiction of a fantasy story. As always, I think the type of story that's going to be the best that you write is going to be the one that excites you the most. For me, I like that idea of the werewolf retirement home that I came up with, at least in the abstract, but it didn't excite me as much as the idea of this werewolf barber. Go with the idea that just makes you the most excited; that makes you want to write. That's a general principle that is almost always true in writing. Whatever excites you is going to produce the most interesting material. Part of doing the ripple effects and figuring out how these changes the society would work is doing research. If I'm writing the story, I would go to some barber shops, I would read about barbershops, I would read up on wolves, how their fur works, do they have different coats in winter and summer? So on and so forth. The more research you do, the more ideas you will probably come up with in the same way that thinking through the ripple effects will come up with new ideas. These research and ripple effects work in tandem. Hopefully this silly wolf gang the werewolf barber example still shows you how you can use all of these different exercises and principles we've talked about to create a fresh and original story. If you now have an idea based on the exercises you've done that's bubbling up in you, now's a great time to jump into it. 12. Conclusion: Congrats on getting to the end of this course, on creating unique and original science fiction and fantasy stories. I hope that these principles and exercise that I've talked about are useful to you, and of course, there's infinite ways to create any type of fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, and you can change all of reality. The point is not necessarily you have to do all of these things we talked about, but hopefully some of the principles will be in your head when you're writing your wondrous, fantastic, bizarre stories. If you like one of the one to three pages exercises you did for the class, or you have a new idea from the end of this video that you want to work on, please upload it to the class page, and I'd love to take a look. If there's one thing that I hope you come away with from this class, is that the most exciting stories are the ones that are precious, that have new ideas, new grounds, new ripple effects that they're exploring. If you're working on a story that you feel like is not quite there yet, maybe you just need to push it a little further, or change your angle of attack a little bit. Thanks so much for taking the class. I hope you have some monstrous or magical ideas working around in your heads right now, and I hope you write them down, and I get to read them.