John Connolly's top tips for creating sci-fi settings

John Connolly is the co-author of Chronicles of Invasion, a brand new sci-fi series for teens. Inspired by John Wyndham and a passion for classic sci-fi movies like Alien and The Thing, John is an expert at creating new worlds. Here are his top tips for weaving together fictional worlds!

Keep it (a little bit) real

For me, the best fictional worlds are those that bear some resemblance to our own.  Terry Pratchett’s Discworld springs to mind: it may be populated by dwarfs, trolls and vampires, but they all behave pretty much like we do, and have a lot of the same concerns.  Because of that, Pratchett has been able to deal with serious issues such as war, racism and sexism under the guise of writing amusing stories set in on a flat world mounted on top of four elephants, who are in turn moving through space on the shell of a giant turtle.  

Similarly, although Conquest deals with the aftermath of an alien invasion, we used the book to explore issues such as terrorism, capital punishment, and the conflict between loyalty to a people or a cause and your duty towards what is right. 

Keep your characters human - even the aliens

It’s very easy to paint people – or aliens – in simple shades of black and white, so that the aliens are bad and the humans are good, or vice versa.  But to create a believable world you have to recognize that a) very few people are all good or bad; and b) even when people do bad things, they often do so because they believe themselves to be right or, at the very least, they find a way to justify to themselves why they’re doing these things.  So, in Conquest, the aliens – known as the Illyri – resort to harsh tactics to deal with the human Resistance, but they do so because they feel that they’re under threat, and they can’t allow that level of violence to continue.  The Illyri also can’t quite understand why the humans hate them so much, even though they’ve improved the environment, and brought advances in medicine and technology.  But the simple fact is that nobody wants to be ruled by an outside power. Most people would rather have one of their own rule them badly than have someone else rule them well.

Balance fact and fiction

Jennifer (my co-writer) and I perhaps disagree on this a little, but I like my fictional worlds to have a firm basis in scientific or biological reality.  For the writing of Conquest, I spent a lot of time researching the future of medicine, artificial intelligence, rocket propulsion engines, the nature of wormholes, and the biology of parasites, among other things, because I think I was very aware of the “science” in “science fiction”.  On the other hand, it’s also important not to stifle the imagination when creating new worlds.  It’s a balancing act.

Keep your eyes and ears open

All writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers are influenced by other writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers.  We’re all the products of the people who have gone before us, and we can only try to add a little of ourselves to the mix, and thus move the whole process forward a little. 

It’s a good idea to read, view and listen widely, and not just in the genre in which you’re working.  Steampunk, for example, which is a subgenre of science-fiction and fantasy, is very influenced by the mechanics and fashions of the Victorian era, so it’s a combination of the historical and the fantastical.  In the same way, new musical forms are often created by mixing two types of music that had not previously been put together before.  All artists should be like magpies, looking out for shiny things that they can pick up and add to their creations in order to make them different and interesting.  Even if you’re trying to create a future world, there’s no rule to say that you can’t include elements of ancient Rome, Persia or the Nazis.  As long as the inclusions make sense within the reality that you’re trying to create, then they’re fine.

Check out some more tips for creating sci-fi worlds in this blog by Jennifer Ridyard, co-author of Conquest. 

For more inspiration read about exploring writing through science or visit our writing section for tips, support and resources.

John Connolly

John Connolly is the bestselling author of eighteen books, including the Charlie Parker series, The Book of Lost Things, and an editor of the prizewinning non-fiction anthology Books to Die For

His latest novel, Conquest, is the first of Chronicles of the Invaders, his new series for teens. The novel was co-written by Jennifer Ridyard.