18

I come from worldbuilding.stackexchange because people suggested I post my question here:

My story shall take place on Earth with the human race as the dominant species. I imagine the technological and scientific progress to be 10 to 20 years in the future from now (our current real life state) but basically I want to build a world environment which is pretty much like ours.

However, I am struggling with the question whether or not I should use our real world cities and countries (e.g., US, UK, Russia, China, etc.) and their political situations, historical backgrounds and cultures.

Doing that would require me to stick to real historical facts which i want to avoid. I am aware that i need to develop my own politics, history and culture for the countries but i want to take our world just as an inspiration and create something new from it.

But now I can't think of a good way to convey that "alternative reality of humankind" to the readers without confusing them. For example, I feel like when writing about inventions, that happened in the near past, I shouldn't let these inventions happen in a totally different world with different city and country names.

Very basic example:

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and was a US citizen. (true or not doesn't matter)

For me, it feels odd if I would say:

Keith Coleman, the inventor of the light bulb, was a citizen of the united nations of Quimbleton (names I just came up with)

In my opinion, this would confuse the reader.

I know that other writers have built these human worlds without referring to our 'real' Earth directly (especially in fantasy, e.g., Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). But I can only think of examples where the 'potential time gap' between our time and the time in the book is very large. For example, Lord of the Rings plays in medieval times.

Another thing is that I cannot limit the geographical area of the story (like Tolkien with Middle earth) because I will definitely address space travel at some point, which requires even more than a planet-sized area.

To bring it to a point, I want the technological progress, the state of science, the environment, and probably the cultural habits to be pretty much like ours nowadays. But I want to use different names for cities, countries, persons, etc., so that there is no real world connection via names.

My question is: What is a good way to convey the following to the reader:

"Yes this is Earth, this is pretty much your time and there are a lot things you already know about. But no, you don't know any of the countries, cities or persons and you know nothing about their politics, history and culture. I will explain this to you part by part."

EDIT:

I noticed that people are getting me wrong and think that i don't want to do any research on history and cultures in our real world, trying to go for a simple way. It's really just that i don't want to necessarily stick to our real world political systems and historical events. My world building would of course be highly affected (or call it inspired) by our real world events and systems but i just want the freedom to create something new from it. I am not trying to go the "easy" way.

EDIT 2:

Thank you very much for your comments, i read all of them. There are many good advices which will definitly help me with this issue, so thanks a lot.

  • 30
    I think it would not confuse me at all to read a sentence like "Keith Coleman, a Quimbletonian inventor, invented the light bulb in 1804." Quite the opposite, sentences like this early in the book will make it very obvious that things are going to be different. In my opinion, this is a good approach. – PoorYorick Jun 24 at 14:33
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    Two questions: a) how much your story is related to the politics and history of your world? b) is it a short story or a novel? For a short story without focus on politics you can skip naming places, setting your characters into a generic unnamed country (maybe with a generic city name as "Metropolis") and focusing only on technological and cultural aspects (which in a globalized world, as near-future will supposedly be, can be generic for most urbanized areas). – Brian Hellekin Jun 24 at 21:19
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    How important is it that your world actually be Earth, just with different history? If it is important, you might want to look at examples from the alternate history genre where the author defines a time/event in which the story branches from real history (though alternate history is about exploring the consequences of that break, which might not be what you are going for). If your world is just Earth for convenience or familiarity of the reader, then maybe you don't need it to be Earth after all; calling your world something else might actually help the reader get over these differences. – asgallant Jun 24 at 23:33
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    This questions seems a bit odd to me. Do you know the TV series "Midsomer Murders"? Where, the heck, is Midsomer? Do you know the movie "The Saint" (1997), who is this Russian president (and what about cold fusion, anyway)? It is quite common across all genres. – rexkogitans Jun 25 at 6:30
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    Think about Superman/Batman movies and the related media - They've been using Metropolis and Gotham City for such a long time that some people even think they are real places. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Jun 25 at 15:13
29

This is not uncommon. When writers want to refer to real people, places or events, but they don't want to stick to the facts, they just rename them. Most readers adjust pretty easily. This is particularly true if the genre is Science Fiction, where it's easy enough to assume an Earthlike planet, or an alternate reality, even when that isn't spelled out. In effect, the genre is doing a lot of the heavy lifting for you --anyone who is widely read in SF will have encountered this technique before.

However, you're headed for trouble if you think this is the easy way out. If you're not putting the prep time in doing research on the real locations, you had better be doing some equivalent world-building work to fill in those same kinds of details. Otherwise your settings will seem thin and unconvincing.

  • 4
    A third way, which appears to be commonly used by DC comics: Use "real" locations, but change their names and some of their more obvious properties (e.g. replace a real-life dictator with a supervillain). Then you can get away with a rather lackadaisical approach to research, because any differences can be blamed on "it's fictional," but you still have to avoid stereotyping the place or people might get offended. – Kevin Jun 25 at 3:45
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    Fantasy author Gene Wolfe wrote about ancient history set in what is now Greece and round about. He renamed places and personalities in a very interesting way: He translated the Ancient Greek literally. So Sparta became "Rope" and Athens became "Thought", Xanthippe became "Yellow horse", etc. – RedSonja Jun 25 at 8:15
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    @RedSonja Wait... are you a character in one of Gene Wolfe's novels? What was your name in Ancient Greek? 😀 – David Richerby Jun 26 at 14:38
  • @DavidRicherby, no, created by Marvel comics based loosely on books by Robert E. Howard (he of Conan fame). – RedSonja Jun 27 at 10:52
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    @DavidRicherby Ταινίες σειρες in modern Greek – RedSonja Jun 27 at 10:57
8

Creating a world is a lot of work.

It doesn't matter if your world is a single town over the course of a year or an intercontinental saga over several generations. Either way, you need to map out the geography, features, characters and their genealogies, and history.

How detailed you get depends both on your approach to writing and the requirements of the story. I'm one who researches and plots out these things in detail, even when I don't have to. Because I do better having a foundation in place which I can draw on. You might do better with a minimum of this type of research.

Worldbuilding for a fully fictional world vs a partially fictional one vs a real one is still worldbuilding. It still requires research and thinking and writing stuff down. There are pros and cons to each of these and one is not easier than the other. They're just different.

If it feels right for you to set your story on Earth, but one that is completely different from our actual Earth in terms of how countries and technology developed, go for it. Only you can know which approach is the right one for you.

It will be odd though if you keep everything the same except for the names of countries and prominent people and some details about political and other history. Do this only if it makes the most sense for the story. Don't do this if you are trying to save yourself research time. Sometimes it's easier to draw on established histories (which you can find online in simplified form) than to create your own from scratch. You're not going to save yourself any work by choosing not to look up things like who invented such in such in what year and place.

But, if your goal is to build a world from scratch because it's "more fun" then give it a go. You might find the world exhilarating or you might abandon it after a while. But it's worth trying. There's nothing wrong with trying different approaches as a writer to see what works best for you. Ultimately though, choose the approach that works best for the book. That's the determining factor.

8

As Chris Sunami says, this isn't all that uncommon.

If you're story centers on events in one country that is not supposed to be a major world power, you can just invent a country, throw in some vague geography like, "in central Europe", and tell your story. Lots of stories are set in fictional small countries. Then you just invent whatever culture or politics or whatever you need for the story. You might have a brief mention of "the prime minister visited America" or whatever, but what happens in other countries is not important to the story, so you just brush them off.

If the story involves world politics -- as I think you're saying -- different case. If you want to create fictional world powers so that the geography and culture and politics can be whatever you need to make your story work, okay cool, do that. I think the trick is just to avoid confusing the reader by having the story start out with something that clearly puts it on another planet or in an alternate history. Like if you begin the story by saying, for example, "After the United States was conquered by the Muslim Caliphate in 1925 ...", any reader who knows anything at all about history will surely grasp that this is an alternate history story.

Or if you want no reference to real history, something like, "The world was divided into two armed camps that stood on the brink of war. In the west was the Fwacbar Alliance, and in the east was the Bramnatz Confederation. Fwacbar had the advantage of the stronger fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and battleships, while Bramnatz had the greater strength on land, with huge armies of tanks and rocket artillery ..." I think that if you don't want any connection to real history, you need to quickly establish the level of technology, or give some indication whether this world is ancient or medieval or modern, so the reader can picture it in his mind.

As a side note, there are pros and cons to both sides of real vs fictional nations and politics.

If you try to use real nations, then you create the problem that you have to make sure you don't mess up an important point. I've read stories and seen movies set in real places that I knew something about, and where I found it very disconcerting when the story get essential things about that place wrong. I recall a book I read years ago set in medieval England in which the people talk about "the gods" and pagan worship, which was rather bizarre considering that in real life medieval England was overwhelmingly Christian. I once saw a documentary set in a town in the desert in Nevada in which they're re-enactments of various events took place in places surrounded by thick forest. Such things can just be jarring.

But if you use made-up countries, you have to invent the whole culture, economy, technology, politics, etc. And even if you have it all worked out and coherent, you have to explain it to the reader. Research is a lot of work, but invention is a lot of work too.

  • 1
    Best answer in my eyes with the best exemples. OP can draw inspiration from "Tintin" comic for mimicking small countries (Syldavia, San Theodoros). Also, the book "Ender's Shadow" (spin-off from Strategy Ender) is all about world politics and war, albeit a bit farther in the future in a world changed by a repelled alien invasion. The technology used in the war is still very close to ours, though, and all countries are real but changed. – Echox Jun 25 at 9:08
  • The Duchy of Grand Fenwick. – RonJohn Jun 25 at 19:37
  • @RonJohn Certainly one that occurred to me. Ruritania (from the Prisoner of Zenda) was another that I was thinking of. – Jay Jun 25 at 19:55
7

You have two options:

1. Create an Earth-like world. (Earth is opt-in)

The idea is you start with starfish aliens, and then you “opt-in” to the things you want to be the same as in our world. Here you have the most freedom, but this can also be one of the harder things to get right. You also have a good deal of latitude to introduce some elements of magical realism, and just have that limited magic “built-in” to the natural physics of that world. As you already guessed however, this can take quite a lot of thought and consideration.

Two popular works that did this well include:

  • Avatar the Last Airbender
  • Game of Thrones

What those examples did well that distinguishes them from other “convergent culture” worlds (like Battlestar Galactica) is that there’s no obvious link to anything we might think is specific to our timeline (like names of famous historical figures, religious idioms, alphabets and acronyms, parliamentary procedures, units of measurement, etc.), rather we can imagine the story as being in a world with a completely different path of human development, so that the reader doesn’t get distracted by any “what-if” alternate history questions.

Instead of asking yourself what is different about your world, assume everything is different by default, except for the biology of humans (and possibly livestock), and then ask yourself what would still be the same. For example:

  • Is nationalism universal? (“Do countries exist?” vs “Do Britain and France exist?”)
  • Is social hierarchy universal? (“Does one race dominate?” vs “Do Europeans dominate?”)
  • Are gender roles universal? (“Are there boy/girl-colors?” vs “Is blue masculine and pink feminine?”)
  • Are certain types of religions universal? (“Is there a monotheistic religion?” vs “Is there Christianity?”)
  • Do all worlds reach a state of bi/tri/quadripolar cold war? (“Do military alliance systems reach a duopolistic equilibrium?” vs “Do NATO and the Warsaw Pact exist?”)

Perhaps even more important than the big stuff, is the small stuff:

  • What food conventions are universal? (“Are donuts round?” vs “Does Dunkin exist?”)
  • What advertising conventions are universal?” (“Do all logos evolve towards simple iconographic shapes?” vs “Does the Nike swoosh exist?”)
  • What rituals are universal? (“Do they celebrate birthdays?” vs “Do people wear a sash and tiara on their birthday?”)
  • What media conventions are universal? (“Do they watch TV in the landscape or portrait orientation?” vs “Does CNN exist?”)
  • What graphical conventions are universal? (“Do they make currency symbols by putting a slash through a letter?” vs “Does the $ exist?”)

2. Set it on Earth, but make it a surreal Earth. (Earth is opt-out)

This is the approach where you take our reality, and instead of trying to change it, you change the lens through which you view it. The idea is, you start with humans on planet Earth, and then you “opt-out” of the things you want to be different.

A series that did this well is Mr. Robot, which clearly takes place in the U.S.A. in 2019, yet features all the large firms of the country, and the government, amalgamated into the cabal “E-Corp”.

The key theme here is that these settings consider things like names and labels to be superficial, like tone, and therefore subject to artistic license. So in this framework, you can do stuff like change the name of “Bank of America” to “Evil Corp”, and still claim you haven’t disturbed the underlying reality, since the name “Bank of America” is nothing more than a label with an association inside peoples’ heads. Instead, what’s important is the perspective that’s being emphasized, and what is portrayed as important. In Mr. Robot’s case, the focus is on power inequality (“if you think about it, a few thousand people exert almost all the influence in our society”).

4

Without the same countries, people, and history, it is simply not our Earth. Even with geographical and technology similarities, it's an entirely different world.

For example, superhero stories often take place on a parallel earth. But Gotham City and Smallville don't feel like they're in our America. They're American themed, sure, and that's the closest to it. There is no Arnold Schwarzenegger, no Donald Trump. Even characters like The Simpsons, which have interaction with real people, don't feel like they're in this world because they don't actually interact with anyone in this world.

But if you're talking about narrative, you can use an audience surrogate to explain things. This might be a curious child who asks questions, or someone new in town.

Another option is to add characters whose purpose is to explain things. It could be a historian trying to take notes, a teacher explaining things, or a character who says really obvious things that everyone knows. Maybe even one who explains things they just found out (children's shows like Peppa Pig are good at this).

If your goal is to really make it feel like an alternate Earth, expect to spend a lot of energy on this, to the point that it's becomes a major part of the story, like Sliders and Black Mirror.

3

+1 to Chris Sunami. Agree 100%. Poor Yorick's comment agrees, and so do I. (Look up the multiverse trope on TVTropes.)

There are a few ways to go about it, but essentially do so straight away in some way or other.

I might play with an epigraph at beginning:

The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space. -Carl Sagan

or

Inflation is continuous and eternal, with big bangs happening all the time, with universes sprouting from other universes. -Michio Kaku

And let the reader enter the story with that sort of frame.

3

How specifically do you need this to be Earth?

If you just want human-like people on an Earth-like planet, then just make it up. Of course you need to make up all the history, as far back as is relevant. If you think "relevant" stops a hundred years or so back, consider that language groupings over most of Europe have around 3000 years of tribal conflict behind them, and place names across the continent reflect the waves of that conflict, settlement and resettlement. Europe also has around 600-800 years of "dead time" socially and technologically after the fall of the Roman Empire, whereas China had no such "dead time" but imposed such stringent barriers on new technological developments that they were very quickly left behind when Europe got it together. In the meantime various other cultures round the world hit barriers with lack of resources and other issues. So "10-20 years in the future" is a measurement of technology level, not a measurement of time.

This need not be a world with cultural mores derived from Christianity, Islam or any religion from our Earth. So it's up to you how you want the culture to treat men and women (married, unmarried, working or not), gay people, different skin colours, and so on. Also whether you have hereditary castes. or anything like that.

If you do need this to literally be Earth, you need a reason why this is not our Earth. Typically this ends up with some kind of "parallel world" multiverse - consider reading Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series, Wildbow's epic Worm (and its sequel), Neal Stephenson's Anathem, or many other options. The reasons for having parallel worlds must then be relevant to the plot, because otherwise there's no reason to limit it to being the same Earth.

3

Don't mention it

Show it

Suspension of disbelief is a powerful drug. It clouds the mind and prevent the reader from realizing that Quimbonia is not a real country. It's true that it looks and feels like the United Kingdom. Its inhabitants even speak British English, and each carry an umbrella. Fact is, it is called Quimbonia and has no coastline.

To achieve this result, you need to be the first to suspend your disbelief. Convince yourself that your world is real, and write your story in it with the same tone and ease as if you were writing about our Earth. If you are the first to find it hard to believe in your world, there is no reader that will fall for it.

The other important element is that you need to give the reader the cues of what they are seeing and feeling. Even the real world would feel fake if you don't show it to the reader. For instance, saying "they were in Paris" is not the same as describing the current season in Paris, how heavy their clothes are, how the wool scarf in pinching on the neck, and whether it is a murky day, with smog low over the city, and the Eiffel Tower piercing right through the grey clouds. Even a well known landmark like the Eiffel Tower could be left as a name, or showed to the reader as a slender elephant of steel, built for the vanity of mankind.

What if my world is like Earth, but different?

That's the easier thing to do. You won't need to give names to seasons, or show that the sky was neon green. You can directly use common things from our world to make your fantasy become believable. For instance:

Keith Coleman held his first prototype for a light bulb in his hand. It had been ten years now since Quimbleton had been the first town to fend off the darkness that creeps at night. The whole world envied them both, they envied the inventor for his skills, and they envied every single red brick of the small, industrial, greasy town for deserving one such great man.

The difference from your text is that I have tried to show you the man and the town, and place them in relation to their world. Now you have a mental image of it. On the contrary, recording some fact, which you may expect the reader to care about and perhaps even remember, is less likely to leave a trace. If you need to give a fact, do so in a dialogue

"Keith Coleman from Quimbleton! The world owes you, and not just for the invention of the light-bulb." cheered UnimportantCharacter

2

I can think of several ways I have encountered as reader of such literature

  • Draw a political map of your Earth and put it in an appendix of your book, or its inside cover, some prominent place like that. Granted, this is a blunt way to do it, but it worked well for me when I read Tolkien and watched Game of Thrones.

  • Refer to geographical features that don't depend on politics. On your fictional Earth as on the real one, there will be six continents, two fairly large islands to the West of the biggest one, and a long river flowing West to East on the bigger one of these islands. The names of these features are are arbitrary. but if your characters speak English anyway, you might as well call them "Eurasia", "Britain", and "The Thames". Once you have your Earth thought out, you might invent a character who travels your Earth, and the narrator could explore it place by place looking over the traveler's shoulder. As an earlier answer said: Show your world to your readers, don't just tell them about it.

  • In a similar vein, you could refer to astronomical entities, which looks different from Earth than from other solar systems. For example, you might have a pair of lovers gaze at the night sky and talk about the Polar Star, Cancer and other star formations, and the Moon. ("The" Moon, because this is Earth, not Mars, so there is only one.) You get the idea.

Good luck with your project!

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