Universe Creating: Five Questions to Consider

by | April 5, 2019 |

If you write paranormal, fantasy or speculative fiction, you create universes. Universe creating is fun … and challenging. Title image: PBS Nova.

I’m about to start the second novel in my shapeshifter Buy Me Love trilogy, so world-building is on my mind.

I established the world of the trilogy in the short story, The Alpha’s Edge, which is set in London and introduces the Hanover clan of werewolves. Book One in the trilogy, Buy Me Love, is also set in London and necessarily follows the rules of the universe I already established.

Here are the questions I asked myself at the outset:

Universe Creating Question #1: Who?

My world contains not only werewolves but also other shapeshifters. Book Two involves werepanthers, while Book Three features werebears. The Alpha’s Edge mentions the existence of werecats, so the larger shapeshifter world is there from the beginning.

Further decisions I made about my shapeshifters:

they age at the same rate as humans;

they all come from earth’s mammalian lineage;

their human forms have the enhanced abilities of their animal counterparts. For werewolves it’s their sense of smell, for werepanthers it’s speed, and for werebears it’s brute strength.

In other words, my world does not contain fantastical creatures like vampires or dragons or zombies. Nor do they have fantastical abilities like disappearing or living forever or turning into a blob.

universe creating

The Blob (1958)

Now it’s up to you to decide. The Who? question could easily be recast as: How close are your creatures to others in Life-on-Earth’s carbon chain? Alternatively, how close are they to those in an Otherworld silicon chain? Or any other conceivable lineage?

Universe Creating Question #2: What?

As in: What do your characters do? What kinds of jobs do they have? And, most importantly, What do the various creatures in your world know about one another?

My werewolves provide high-level security to corporations and individuals around the globe. The werepanthers are involved in law enforcement. The werebears are tech guys.

Key thing: in my world the shapeshifters all know about one another but the humans do not know about the shapeshifters among them. The humans are aware of lore about the shapeshifters and may talk about the possibility of their existence. However, the large majority of humans do not believe in them.

universe creating

Telltale Games (2013)

When all creatures are aware of the others’ existence, shapeshifter stories sometimes more or less explicitly take on the topic of discrimination. They might represent urban areas as having ghettos or barrios or “the side of town” where the various species live segregated either by choice or by law. An interspecies love story might both spice things up and reveal prejudices in various communities.

So one of the early decisions you have to make is epistemological (big word!): the extent of the knowledge your characters have about each other.

Universe Creating Question #3: Where?

Clearly I’ve created – more like, accepted – a world that is mundane, literally ‘of this earth.’ My first story takes place in London, the second in Orlando, Florida and the third in Oakland, California.

But the sky’s not the limit, and the universe is big. You can set your story on Saturn. Or you can make up your own planet.

universe creating

Posted in r/MapPorn by u/expathyx. If you set your story on Krypton, you’re presumably writing Superman fan fiction

Because I like my settings to function as another character, I set stories in places I know well. I happen to travel a lot, so I tend to set stories (even my non-paranormal ones) in diverse locations.

With so many fictional places so well known these days, I think I would have a hard time creating a sufficiently original universe from scratch. That would be my challenge.

You, on the other hand, may not be so challenged!

Universe Creating Question #4: When?

You have four time choices: the past, the present, the future, and the mythic. The first three are self-explanatory.

By mythic time I mean “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

universe creating

Revisit the opening crawl of Star Wars (1977).

Stars Wars is outside of human time. We have no idea what counts as “a long time ago” in distant galaxies.

Universe Creating Question #5: Why?

I’m a romance writer. I’m more interested in creating relationships than I am in creating universes. Which is why I’ve kept my shapeshifter world so close to so-called reality here on Earth.

So, why write a shapeshifter trilogy at all?

Because I’m intrigued by the way the various shapeshifters express their animal natures. I want to explore how these natures affect the central love relationship, either with a human (The Alpha’s Edge, Buy Me Love) or with another of their kind (Book Two – no working title).

Why do you want to create your universe?

universe creating

Alex McDowell worldbuilds to create disruption. See his 2015 TED talk.


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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