Creating the world in which your science-fiction or fantasy story exists can be daunting and time consuming, but it can’t be ignored. The moment you set your story in a world different than what is or what was, you need to expend resources to define and explain it. It does not mean that you need to write a prologue that takes two minutes to read on screen; nor does it mean that you should have a character speechify all the differences between your world and the viewers’ in a twelve page scene. But you must demonstrate a thorough understanding of all of the oddities that pervade the universe in which your story resides, or you risk confusion and distraction from the plot. Below are 5 essential rules to follow when creating a fantasy universe. (P.S. – there are a lot of potential spoilers from long-established stories):
Cohesion is Key
Whether it lies in exceptional planning or leaving enough room for the story to breathe downwind, having a united plot across all media is critical. One of the principle successes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the world is broader than the isolated cinematic comic book worlds of the past. While the movies can stand alone to the uninitiated (with the possible exception of “The Avengers”), they work amazingly well together, and that requires a strong, central vision.
Now that the MCU has expanded across 4 principal characters and a few television shows, there needs to be someone that controls the stories to ensure that they all work together, and that they don’t violate the rules already established in that world (see below). One can watch every MCU property plus “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Daredevil” and understand how they exist in the same world. They have done this exceptionally well and built out an empire with a strong enough base to launch some weaker source material to huge success (see “Guardians of the Galaxy”). Even Sony has acceded to Marvel’s request to “borrow” Spiderman for a key part in “Captain America 3.” Studios don’t work together on cash cows like superhero properties unless they both can benefit immensely, and the story will be stronger for it when Spidey swings with Cap and Iron Man. Warner Brothers/DC appears to be passing on a huge opportunity by not merging their CW series “The Flash” and “Arrow” with their upcoming Justice League movies. The boost to those marginally successful shows would be enormous if those characters just received cameos in the movies, but WB is squandering the chance.
Establish the Rules and Stick to Them
For futuristic or fantastic stories, there are always differences between the world we know outside of your story and the world within. These differences are usually what makes your story unique and also can provide key fulcrums on which your plot swings. In the “Harry Potter,” series, J.K. Rowling allows magic to solve almost any problem, but not everything. In an interview with The Herald, she stated “I have to know in detail what magic can and cannot do in order to set the parameters and establish the stories’ internal logic.” One of her rules of magic is that food cannot be created out of nothing. This tenet plays a valuable part in the final book when the protagonists are on the run and have to scrounge up a meager diet.
When you never set forth the powers in play or break the rules, you ruin the dramatic tension. Take “Superman,” “Superman II,” and “Superman Returns,” which Bryan Singer intended as a replacement for the third and fourth installments of the series. We find out at the end of each of the movies that Superman can apparently turn back time, regain his powers after sacrificing them, and survive kryptonite poisoning. What can stop Superman at this point? Without the possibility of failure, the story becomes uninteresting. Perfection in a character is very boring. Deus ex machina must be utilized with care. If you can’t write yourself out of the predicament, change the predicament. Agatha Christie-style endings are infuriating and senseless.
Minor Character Depth is Important
A rich, believable universe is filled with all sorts of interesting characters. There is a delicate balance between dedicating time to the people who ultimately don’t matter and ignoring them altogether. The perfect example of how to infuse your story with compelling minor characters is “The Simpsons.” Think of how many great characters have been created to inhabit Springfield. I can’t imagine the show without Krusty, Moe, Barney, Mrs. Krabappel, Groundskeeper Willie, and so many others. We know so much about them now, but they each started as a small background character. What was critical was how the writers got them up to speed: they created them as archetypes. Reverend Lovejoy played the jaded preacher. Seymour Skinner was the controlling principal. Ralph Wiggum was the weird kid who spouts non-sequiturs. Your mind filled in the blanks off of these one-note characters because of their familiarity. The writers then were able to take their time until they were ready to flesh out the characters.
Things Matter… a Lot
When you integrate technology, magic, or the mystical into your story, those devices intrigue the imagination and enable your characters to break free from the mundane. They also provide specific items that populate your world and give the characters tools to accomplish their tasks – they must have functionality on a technical or spiritual level. Artists in fields such as visual effects, costuming, and art design can be inspired by and build upon your creation. “Star Trek” was terrific in taking phasers, warp engines, transporters, and holodecks and playing them off human philosophy. Setting phasers to stun reinforced the notion that they were inherently explorers, not military. The android Data (as an item and a character) creates a perspective of humanity by eliminating much of what we take for granted as humans to examine our culture and our frailties. The same was accomplished by “WALL-E” and “AI: Artificial Intelligence.” We are able to learn more about ourselves by perceiving the world through a non-human’s optical sensors. Where these visionary movies succeed, the Joel Schumacher Batman movies fail. Their world exists as a funhouse circus-laden nightmare only to paint a scary picture with no functionality or purpose. Batman always has the answer in some piece of technology similar to the campy 1960s TV show. These things making the world inaccessible, and if your viewers can’t relate, they won’t be around very long.
The Tiniest Details Can Create the Biggest Fans
This is not a nod to getting every hair on an actor’s head perfect or making sure that each edit is perfectly executed; rather, it means creating a world where mysteries and connections exist and can create connections to the extended story. Symbols and allusions can feed your future story arcs while rewarding repeat viewings or readings from your superfans. “LOST” bombarded viewers with riddles and anomalies that served as means of plot movement in later episodes – think the polar bear, the statue, the numbers. Pixar has dropped in enough self-referential material such as images from its next release and “A113” that a fan created a theory of everything. Allowing fans to be in on the reference or joke makes them feel like you know them and acknowledge their dedication to your material. When “X-Men” mentions a “girl who can walk through walls,” the comic book readers know they are referring to Kitty Pryde, even though she doesn’t appear in the movie. “Man of Steel” references Wayne Enterprises and Lexcorp, both companies run by characters that aren’t featured in the movie but are part of the greater DC universe. If a rising tide raises all ships, prolific Easter eggs expand all viewership. Not all crossovers are golden, however. I seem to recall “The Love Boat” and “Charlie’s Angels” merging for a night or two…
If you combine these principles with a great story, you can create an evergreen universe with compelling tales that can entertain for generations and inspire others to play in your sandbox. Happy creating!