Category Archives: world building

Film Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets



When I went to the cinema to see this film I was left deeply uncertain as to whether I had liked the film or not. I tried a couple of times to write a review back then, but I just couldn’t put into words what had bothered me about the film. When I re-watched it the other week I figured out what it was I don’t like.

I don’t like the title.

It’s a strange thing to have bothered me, but the reason is very much because the title places emphasis on Valerian, when the film itself is centred around both Valerian and Laureline. And why does the film centre on two protagonists? Because the comic book ‘Valerian and Laureline’, which the film has been adapted from, does so.

My problem stems from the fact that Laureline is likeable, whereas Valerian, while he certainly has his heart in the right place, is a bit dubious in his attitude at times. I don’t think it helps that there is no chemistry at all between these two characters; the actors didn’t make me believe that these are two people in love. In lust, on Valerian’s part certainly, but not in love. Skewing the emphasis from one character when it was really about two bugs me, especially because it is skewed towards the man, when in truth I much prefer Laureline.

That little quibble aside though, it is actually a really good film. The story slows down in places and goes off tangent from the main plot, but it does keep going, and it does get to a satisfying conclusion in the end. Generally as a writer I judge a film on the plot and the characters, and while they could have been better in this film, the film makes up for it because of another important factor that is crucial for science fiction to work properly. The storyworld.

The settings in this film from a lost paradise, to the market in another dimension to the City of a Thousand Planets which itself gave a multitude of different environments kept my attention on the screen. It is an imaginative extravaganza and I love this film for doing that.

Admittedly, saying that makes me a hypocrite. Generally I bash films for using their special effects to wow me. However, because they did have a decent and fairly original story to entice me in as well (makers of Avatar take note), it sits better with me that they used green screen to create a very different world from many I have seen on screen before. In many cases the setting was relevant to the plot as well, so it wasn’t like the filmmakers were boosting ‘look what we can do’ without reason.

The plot might slow down in places and the title is a bit deceiving in who the main character is, but this is a fun action packed science fiction film set in a very futuristic world, and in terms of utilising imagination, it definitely wins points for that. The overall message from the plot is certainly to be commended. (Slight spoiler – it is about forgiveness.)

Book Review – Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe’ by Gaston Dorren



I fell in love with linguistics when I was studying for my A-levels. I might have ended up as a historian but I still love reading up on linguistics and exploring the topic every now and then. When Gaston Dorren’s ‘Lingo – A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe’ came out I was over the moon as it is the perfect little book for anyone who loves languages but has little time to dedicate themselves to the subject properly.

The premise of the book is an exploration of the majority of the languages used in Europe and exploring an interesting little quirk of each. The book is absolutely jam-packed with fascinating information. The book is great for dipping in and out or sitting with for a long period of time completely engrossed. I certainly enjoyed continuing the reading from my commute to my sofa with a good cup of tea.

The thing I learnt from this book overall is the sheer diversity of languages spoken on our small continent. I loved this as a writer, especially a one who creates fantasy worlds, because I hadn’t realised until I read this book just how limiting I had been in creating languages for my world. While I don’t dig deep into the nitty gritty and actually create words and grammar, I do generally hint at the different languages and their names. I’d already grasped the idea that in the majority what is referred to is the standardised language and that there are regional differences that most are un-aware of, what I hadn’t clued up on is that for the size of the world I am planning on creating I hadn’t created anywhere near enough diversity.

This is a lovely little book full of fascinating facts about Europe’s languages which will interest even complete novices and is a vital resource for writer’s planning on building fantasy story-worlds.

The Key to a Great Story – Micro/Macro World Interaction



One of the critical things to understand with my Micro/Macro theory is to understand how the Micro world of your characters interacts with the Macro world, but also how it interacts with other micro-worlds.

I said that that a micro-world belongs to one specific character; each and everyone of your characters has their own micro world. You need to understand each of the your different characters micro-worlds interact with other characters.

Are they a couple that live together, therefore influencing each other’s spaces? Are they colleagues that share a communal kitchen and one is cleaner than another? Are they brother and sister with separate spaces within the house that is there own territory that gets invaded by their sibling? Are they visiting a friend’s home for the first time and have been invited into a new environment that they have never encountered before?

All of these are examples of how various characters own micro-worlds overlap and interact, and potentially cause tension or create stronger bonds. These are just examples of common interactions that happen in everyday life.

All micro-worlds though are subject to potential change from the macro-world. Many great stories come from aspects of the macro world having a sudden effect on the micro-world of your characters.


  • Katniss Everdeen is surviving in District 12 until she is taken from her home to the Capital to compete in the Hunger Games. Her interactions with Effie Trinket create great contrast between two characters whose micro-worlds and the attitude to the macro-world are different. With Cinna though, who has the same upbringing as Effie, but has more sympathy with Katniss, the interactions are completely different because he doesn’t conform to the cultural normality of the Hunger Games.
  • The discovery by the Rebel Alliance of the the building of the Death Star, leads to a series of events that destroys Luke Skywalker’s home and family and prompts him on his journey to beginning a Jedi.

In TV series like Doctor Who and Star Trek, the micro world of the characters remains fairly consistent, but the wider macro-world changes in each story, which is where the interest is generated from.

  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation the micro-world of the USS Enterprise D remains consistent throughout the majority of the series. In one episode, ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, after an encounter with a time travel anomaly the macro-world of the Star Trek universe changes; they are still at war with the Klingons. The ship of exploration transforms around the characters, into a fully armed battleship. The episode is one of the most compelling ever made and is a great example of how the change within the macro world has an effect on the normal micro-world your characters inhabit.


  • In Doctor Who, the TARDIS is one of the consistent sets (subject to the occasional redecoration) and the homes the companions leave behind. This was especially true of Rose Tyler in Series 1 and 2 of the reboots. Her world consisted of just her and her Mum in their little council flat. For Clara Oswald, her micro-worlds have included the imagined world inside a Dalek’s head, a Victorian Public House and Upper Class home, and the modern day London she lives him which changes from being a lodger, to a teacher. Some of the stories in Doctor Who are set in these micro-worlds, but in the majority the characters are taken from what they know into the unknown.

These are just a few well known examples about Micro/Macro interaction, but one of the best ways to learn how to build a world around your characters is to look at your own life, but also to look at all the great examples you have out there that you can learn from in order to start thinking about your own. When you do, the only limit you have is your own imagination.

The Key to a Great Story – Building a Macro World


Earth from space

In contrast to the micro-world, the macro-world is a lot harder to construct especially if you build a new world from scratch. This is because you have to make choices about how your world works that you might not have realised you need to consider.

If you are writing a story based in the real world, then the macro world is already in place for you. All of our religions, cultures, governments, emergency services, transport connections and a million other things that make up our world are already in place for you. All you need to do is research and make sure that the larger wider world of your story is accurate to the extent that you need it to be mentioned.

If you build a fantasy, parallel, alternative or futuristic work, then you need to understand how your world works. You don’t need to know everything, but you do need to know what is relevant to your story. For example:

  • How does religion/mythology have an effect on your characters: In Game of Thrones there are several prominent religions that have an influence on the characters. Some at different times pray to different aspects of the Seven. The Red Priestess burns non-believers alive. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there are many references to the Valar; in the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings though these are just part of myth to the majority of people, even though they are real.
  • How do your characters get from point A to point B: do they have cars, do they use horses, do they have to hitch a lift in a space ship?
  • How to various cultural attitudes effect your characters? Do your characters agree with the majority or do they felt like outsiders looking in. A good example of cultural attitude is towards women and how they are viewed; is it expected that all women are merely there to marry a man and raise children for him, without any consideration for that women’s own dreams and desires.

When yo have considered the basics then you need to consider the variations; are there differences in how people worship the gods; are there social differences in terms of transport, can the rich afford horses whereas the rest have to walk. Are their movements in your world trying to change the cultural norm.

In many ways building a macro-world from scratch can be very complicated. My best advice for you is to not panic. You need to have a very good idea of what your story is about, the basic plot, the basics characteristics of your characters, and an understanding of how the wider world might have an effect on your characters micro-world.

In terms of the logistics of building your macro-world don’t be frightened to spend a little bit of time building it, even if you don’t end up using it, if you have it there ready then you can easily add some depth to your story. Just don’t spend so long building a great world, that you don’t have a good plot and characters to interact with it.

The Key to a Great Story – Building a Micro-World



I have a theory about creating story worlds, especially when you are like me and you create world from scratch, which I call the Micro/Macro theory. I’ve essentially based it loosely on the micro/macro economics theories, where I have borrowed the name of it from. There are two theories, the Micro-World and the Macro-World. In this post I will talk about building a Micro-World, and in the next the Macro-World. Then I will discuss the interaction between the two.

So basically, a micro-world belongs to one specific character and it includes all the settings that they interact with throughout your story. Starting very small this includes specific rooms, then the specific buildings that these rooms are located in and then the location of these buildings. Then the micro world also includes the connections between those specific buildings.

For example, on a typical weekday in my recent life I have been at my flat, I have been to work, I have visited my parents, and I have also been going to to a night class in a local library. My very recent micro world has essentially been my home, the office I work in, my parents home and the room in the library where my night class was held. And on top of that, my world also includes the train route from my home to work, the paths from my work to my night class, and the paths between my home and my parents’ home. If I was writing a story about all the main places that I was going to as a character, then those would be the small settings and the interconnections that I use to get from one to another.


However, this is an incredibly simplistic model, because while this is a typical day, not everyday is the same. Some days I need to walk into the city centre to go to my favourite bookshop; some days I go to a large supermarket to get groceries and other days I’m in a smaller local convenience store picking up the odd item I need. Every now and then my world expands a little bit because I go to a new restaurant that I have never experienced before. Other days I’m in my usual cinema, but sometimes I go to the independent cinema because they show films multiplex’s don’t.

The individual micro-world of one specific character can be infinitely complex, it can change day on day. The thing is though, as an author you have control over your character’s micro-world. You chose for your character where the story is taking place. To make sure that your character’s micro-world doesn’t spiral out of control just involves a little bit of planning. When you write prose you have freedom to make your micro-world as complex as you like, just be aware that when you are building a world from scratch you are going to have to describe it to your audience. When you write scripts with the intention of them being made, then you might need to limit the number of locations you have just for costing reasons.

You also have to consider the amount of description of your settings that you need to give to the audience. When you use the real world most people would know what a 21st Century Coffee Shop looks like; most people could imagine a run-down little cafe out by the side of a motorway. You create a new world though, say like Hogwarts, then you are going to have to help your audience’s imagination a little bit. When you use historical settings, I always think accuracy is the best idea; they wouldn’t have an espresso machine in a medieval castle.


So when plotting your story and dropping your characters into it, just remember what their little micro-world is like, and remember in most stories, most characters need to go to new places, so how does their micro-world expand beyond their normal lives.

The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Alternative

The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Alternative

Alternative world types are loosely based on the real world, but aren’t the real world. Something about the alternative world is different from the real world. Steampunk fiction set in Victorian England is alternative. Kate Elliot’s Cold Magic is a good example of how the real world can be different with the inclusion of magic as normal in everyday life and how that has changed history.

The example above is a good one of how you can radically change the real world, by changing history but not changing it so much at it is unrecognisable as based on the real world. Her books are have elements of the history of the Napoleonic Wars, just with magic as part of everyday life and none of the famous people from history like Napoleon being involved. Her work is quite an extreme example of just how alternative you can go.

Most alternative world types simply simply have a few added elements that change the real world; this can be supernatural or it can be scientific.


The addition of a supernatural element that isn’t myth, but is in fact reality is a really great way of creating an alternative world. The Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris and the TV series ‘True Blood’ shows a world where vampires, werewolves and fae exist, and the resulting changes and adaptations that humans make as they come to terms with this sudden change of myth to reality. Introducing just one of these elements can create an alternative world. Please, please I am begging, don’t make your vampires glittery.


Changing some scientific elements though, can also create great alternative realities. One of my particular favourites is Stargate SG-1, which was based in the contemporary world but a one where interplanetary and even intergalactic travel was made easy with the discovery of ancient alien technology that spread human culture across the galaxy and opened up earth to the risk of being destroyed by powerful aliens who had once posed as various gods from across human history.


Neither ‘True Blood’ or ‘Stargate SG-1’ were what I would call subtle in the changes. You can make one small change to history and have a massive impact on the world. One of the very best examples of a very subtle change to the real world is ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. The development of cloning humans doesn’t have much of an effect on the world, apart from to improve health and to create a steady supply of organs. It does however have a devastating effect on the clones themselves who are as human as us but are only seen as donors and can’t have a normal human life. This one subtle change to the world is sublime.

When creating an alternative world you can do as much or as little as you like to change the real world, the thing I think you need to remember is to do it well.

The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Futuristic



There are two ways in which you can approach a Futuristic world type; you can base it on the real world but set in the future, or you can base it on a fantasy world, but incorporate futuristic elements into it that you don’t normally see in more traditional fantasy fictions.

Tackling the latter of those two first, you have got to be careful to distinguish between alternative world types and futuristic fantasy. Steampunk is usually alternative rather than futuristic because it is based on the real world but with changes. Take out the basis in reality entirely and you end up with a futuristic fantasy world. Essentially it is a fantasy type where you haven’t based it on history like Tolkien did, but more on science fiction elements and technology, like Star Wars. An example of mixing technology and magic can be found in the Rojan Dizon novels by Francis Knight, where the power source for technology is magic.

Then of course there are futuristic world types based on reality. From my experience, these usually fall into one of two categories; utopian or dystopian. Utopian creations where technology has bettered mankind and the world as we know it hasn’t been destroyed, but has been build upon and developed further can be found in creations like Star Trek. My favourite has to be the Robin Williams film ‘Bicentennial Man’. You get to see the world develop and grow for two hundred years, as a backdrop to a love story. It’s fantastic to see develop.

The Hunger Games: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion

Dystopian on the other hand is usually more common to see in fiction, especially at the minute in YA Fantasy books like The Hunger Games and Divergent. This are stories set in our real world, but in a future where not very much of what we would recognise as our world still exists and the world is imperfect. There is usually some form of corrupt power exploiting the masses that needs to be brought down via a rebellion.


Science Fictions films and TV series use dystopian this a lot as well; a notable example that I enjoyed watching was the TV series ‘Defiance’. The town of Defiance is where St. Louis once was, as seen by the still standing St. Louis arch. The landscape of Earth though as been terra-formed a great deal by the arrival of the various Votan races who have settled on a now unrecognisable earth alongside the humans. What i liked about Defiance was the power play between the various factions as everyone struggles to survive. It wasn’t really about a revolution, it was about building a better world in cooperation with each other.

So when building a Futuristic world type, you do have a lot of options. You can make it based on reality or fantasy, and you can make it as perfect or as imperfect as you like. It depends on what you need for your story.

The Key to a Great Story – World Type : Parallel



A parallel world type is a mixture of reality and fantasy. The real world exists, but there is a parallel fantasy world that exists as well. The most famous example as got to be Harry Potter. While urban fantasy can be entirely fantasy, a lot of examples of having a fantasy world parallel to the real world can be found in books such as Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Benedict Jacka’s ‘Alex Verus’ Series and Ben Aaronovitch’s crime/fantasy series involving PC/Wizard Apprentice Peter Grant.

In all of the examples above there is a parallel magical world that exists, usually concealed from the majority in the real world, but that does have an effect on the real world. Think about the opening chapter of ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ where Vernon Dursley see lots of people in cloaks, gets called a muggle and the new reports in the evening talk about unusual owl activity. All because Harry lived and Voldemort ‘died’, the wizarding world was active enough to be noticeable to the muggle world. Normally, unless they knew, most muggles don’t know about the wizarding world.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) (Screengrab)

The trick with building a fantasy world and running it parallel to the real world is having a very good understanding of both the reality you’re using and the fantasy you are building, and then also how they are integrated and separated from each other. J.K. Rowling was particularly imaginative in creating places like Diagon Alley and Platform 9 3/4s, which are based in London but are also separated from the real world entirely.

In ‘Neverwhere’ by Neil Gaiman, the magical almost sub-world of London, has wonderful dark twists of wordplay and imaginative creation for Richard Mayhew to explore as he tries to find a way to be part of the real world again.


Creating a parallel world type is in the most part not that much different than building a fantasy world, but you do also have to take into considerations of the real world, whether in the past or the present. You can also build a parallel world into a Future Reality world type as well, which I will talk about more in the post dedicated to that world type. The main thing to remember to know the boundaries between the worlds and where those boundaries are sometimes broken or even if they get broken at all.

The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Fantasy



In complete contrast to the ‘Reality’ world type, a fantasy world type, is created entirely from scratch by the author. The fantasy and science fiction genres do this all the time. Famous examples include Middle Earth, Discworld and the Star Wars Galaxy.

The real trick is with building a fantasy world is having a very good understanding of what you need from your fantasy world in order for the story to function. You need to have a clear idea of the main settings that your characters will be interacting with, and then start to build the picture up from there.


For example Tolkien starts out in ‘The Hobbit’ with a very simple setting. He describes Bag-End. He then slowly moves the story throughout Middle Earth describing Elrond’s House, Gollum’s Cave, Mirkwood, Lake Town and the Lonely Mountain. The settings used in ‘The Hobbit’ are comparatively small compared the the more extended world of ‘Lord of the Ring’s’ which takes in the Mines of Moira, Lothlorien, Rohan, Gondor and Mordor to name just a few. Those aren’t just the only places you see on the map though; Middle Earth is a lot bigger than that. The place called Middle Earth is still only part of Tolkien’s world as well. The Undying Lands in the West are also prominently featured in his works and in the consciousness of some of his Middle Earth characters.

Tolkien is a great example of world building; his world is quite small though compared to the entire galaxies of diverse civilisations and worlds that you see in creations like Star Wars and Star Trek. The infinite space of the universe does make for the possibility of greater extensions of the imagination. It is this infinite possibility that can make building your fantasy world from scratch incredibly daunting, especially when you start to consider all of the little details that you might need to know such as the religions of the world, the names of all the different countries and regions, how justice works, where food comes from, how the different and diverse peoples of your world interact with each other.


If you have confidence with your imagination great, use it. However, like I recommended in my post about building a world based on reality, using the world we live in as inspiration is just as limitless as creating an entire galaxy from scratch. Use history and our world as inspiration. It can be as small as being inspired to transform Hadrian’s Wall into The Wall, like George R.R. Martin does in Game of Thrones, or it can be a more intricately complicated use of an existing culture. Lian Hearn’s trilogy ‘The Tales of the Otori’, uses the culture of Feudal Japan as an inspiration for the type of world the characters live in.

What you need from your fantasy world though only you can truly know; all I can suggest is start small and expand from what you need for the story to what you need just to add a little bit more depth. A lot of the world-building series will be looking at the extra details you can consider when building a new world, but for now just remember don’t panic, don’t lose yourself in building the world so much you forget your story, and don’t forget while you have your imagination we do have limitless amounts of inspiration from our world as well that you can use as a part of your building blocks.

The Key to a Great Story – World Type: Reality


cambridge hot summer's evening

This post is about the world type I know as reality. Essentially it is a world type where the story is set in our world that has or does exist.

Based in book in reality isn’t simplistic as just saying it is set in modern day New York or Tudor London. You do have to do your research as well in order to make it authentic. This is where looking at maps, sites like Pinterest, using the search function on your web browser and even travelling to where you’re writing about comes in very handy.

A lot of the world building that you do can be based on your own experiences as well, especially if you are setting them in modern times. For example, I’m working on a script at the minute called ‘Let in the Sun’ which is partially based at Cambridge University. One of the things my main characters do is punt down the River Cam on a hot summer’s evening. I’ve written that into the story because I’ve done it and my trip there made me fall in love with the place. I have spent the grand total of a day there, but it made such an impression on me I’ve written about it since. Except of course I’ve had to research it more as well. I got a feeling for the atmosphere, but I got the details from the University and College websites.

Now that is a modern day setting. The reality world type can also include historical settings, and this where the accuracy of your research becomes all the more important. I get asked all the time whether as I writer I studied English at university; it’s nearly everybody’s assumption. They are surprised when I say that I trained as a historian; their next assumption is that I must write historical fiction. Nope, but as a trained historian I do know how to you have to do research in order to build up a picture of a by gone world; that is after all what historians do when they write history.

Constructing a world for a historical fiction, is in truth very similar to building a world up from scratch like you would for fantasy worlds which I will discuss in the next post. The problem with building an historical reality is that you do have to include some element of historical accuracy, and here in lies the problem with historical accuracy. Historians have to reconstruct the past using incomplete evidence; it is an unfortunate truth that not everything from the past survives in its entirety.

History is based on the bits that are left and the interpretation that experts have made about what those pieces can tell us. Very little of history is actually factual, it is mostly interpretative. There can be consensus’ on what happened, but a lot of what historians do is argue their case using evidence to support their interpretations. Deliberately missing out evidence in order to support their views emerged from the post-modernist movement that moved away from more structured argument building and pretty much ended when Holocaust Deniers emerged. In other words be respectful of the past, but also use more than one source of information to base your world on.

time traveller's guide to m england

The elements of creative licenses that you get though come from the fact that history is incomplete. You can use brilliant books like ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’ by Ian Mortimer (and his companion book ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England) as a basis for describing the physical locations of your story, but you fill it with fictional characters. Equally you can also use the events and famous figures of history to write a work of fiction with some basis on reality and some creative license. Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel both use the dramas surrounding the Tutor Dynasty to write great books.

wolf hall

Writing fiction set in reality is technically limitless, because you have the entire world and its history at your fingertips. I’ve been very Eurocentric in my post, but then again I am a trained historian in European History who mostly travels about Britain. In my experience of writing fiction set in reality, which admittedly I don’t do often, I do limit myself to what I know. However, the world is an endlessly fascinating place, whether in the news or in the new interpretation history. You have plenty to use to base your story in reality.