"Building a Universe" began as a series of short articles written back in 2013 and revised in 2014. I've decided to revise them further and combine them into a single article that I may add to more in the future. In "Building a Universe" I discuss the various aspects that go into creating my creative universe. Hopefully, some of these concepts will spark your own creative works!
It’s so hard to create your own universe.... at least you would think so. But we create our own universe everyday. To an extent, we create our own universe through our own senses and perceptions. So when you sit down and try to draw out your own imagined universe, you’ll find that a lot of it is drawn from real-life experiences and adaptations from our own knowledge of things. We may mix and match quite a few things here and there, but everything we might imagine came from somewhere somehow.
It’s funny where inspiration comes from, sometimes. It’s really a lot easier than you might think to get inspired. Sometimes you just don’t even realize the source of your inspiration. There’s so much going on in the human mind at all times. For some of us, many seemingly irrelevant thoughts float about and get pushed aside. But some of those are probably better off written down… Those stray little thoughts can become the cornerstones for a creative masterpiece!
I've had many theories over the years on how best to construct a vibrant and beautiful universe. Those two things, vibrancy and beauty, are incredibly key to my creation process. Without those two things, nothing holds together. It is why I have this constant need to create beautiful characters, outrageously so beautiful that you can’t help but behold their absolutely epic sexiness and cuteness. Even my villains are sexy!
I find myself so entranced with my darker characters. In some ways, the less virtuous that a character you create is, the more fascinating that character is. There have been stories that I have conceived that the protagonist in the beginning by the end became the antagonist. But in the process, she became even more seductive and attractive in her darker form.
I’ve always believed there’s a fine line between good and evil that many walk along. Sometimes, you have to have an extremely virtuous character to be a true contrast to a true villain, too. But those virtuous characters are so hard to write and not make them sound cheesy. I’ve always found villains easier to write, which may or may not be a good thing.
I’ve never had a problem with creating characters. In fact, I’ve created far more than I’ll ever use! And believe it or not, I still have far more heroes than villains, and yet most of my favorite characters that I’ve created are my villains! I’ve considered simply writing stories exclusively from the “bad guy” point of view, because I think it’s just easier than writing from a hero’s perspective. A story written from the perspective of one of my villains would make an interesting novel!
It’s far too easy and boring to create a squeaky clean character. Character flaws and what consequentially comes out of them are what give you the best stories after all! The more flawed a character is, the more incredible it is when suddenly a strength of character is revealed, or from previous weaknesses, something is clearly learned and behold, character growth!
And it is around such characters that a universe is built. In some ways, an imagined universe is built as much around its villains as it is its heroes. Without the villains, after all, you have no central conflict, at least not one that is widely appealing. There are experts of literature that say there are only so many true sorts of conflicts, and perhaps that is true.
But the evolution (or devolution) of characters is what brings readers back for more. What will come of those that we read about? Who should we hate? Who should we love? And why is it that we could possibly hate those we should love and love those we should hate? If those questions need to be asked, especially those latter ones, then clearly a great universe has been built!
A Sort of Consistency
When constructing a universe in which to set your stories, it is often the case that your universe will go through a great many incarnations. Much of these incarnations will either disappear or merge into one another before you actually get around to completing anything, never mind publishing anything. Some writers create multiple universes. But in my mind, these universes all exist in a sort of multi-verse that a creator must create in the mind. All of these universes must run parallel to one another in some way, as they were created by the same mind. Therefore. they must exist in the same general vicinity of one another.
Existential arguments and quantum theories aside, it’s sometimes extremely hard to find a sort of consistency in creating with specific goals in mind. That said lack of consistency can greatly interfere with writing properly with solid plots and character development. Therefore, it is important to then have “franchise” cornerstones that you can build around. Even if you have multiple franchises, it’s important to have certain things to lean on, whether they are settings, lore, or characters that carry over from one story to another.
Characters are the easiest for me to lean on, and settings are another device that creative writers use. Sometimes lore is incredibly important for tying a series together, as timeless legends and artifacts can spawn numerous story lines.
Whatever the case, just don’t set all of your stories in Maine. That’s been done already. Well, you can, but Stephen King might not be too thrilled.
(P.S. Okay, not ALL of King’s stories were set in Maine. But a LOT of them were!)
Creating the Franchise Character or Characters
As someone who designs characters in his sleep (literally), I must say that choosing a franchise character is extremely hard. There are many mornings that I wake up and I just want to figure out what to do with some character from some wacky dream that I had the night before. Other times, I’m just sitting around and an idea for a character pops up in my head. At least half of my characters have come to me out of nowhere, and many of them become integral parts of my creative work.
Choosing that franchise character is extremely hard. For some people, an alter ego seems to be a good choice. I did this myself for a while, and that character has gone through various incarnations. But I eventually decided I wanted my franchise character to represent far more than myself. I was seeking a sort of ideal hero, and this is where Luna Starlight came from!
Luna Starlight has actually long been a character, but originally the name began to a magical guitar that I often referred to in my school-age poetry. The guitar actually still exists in my universe, but it belongs to a lovely feline girl named Danika Doby. Eventually, though, Danika comes to own the name of the guitar as her own, thus becoming Luna Starlight. There’s a lot more involved in that name change, but to go into more detail would be giving away an important part of the story! Suffice it to say, Luna Starlight is my franchise character. She’s beautiful, cunning, and witty (although not always the brightest bulb) and she has plenty of endearing faults.
The franchise character, in my opinion, still has to be fallible to be relate-able, but strong and heroic (or villainous!) enough to be a fascinating character study worthy of literary praise and scrutiny. Finding that balance is extremely tricky, and having a supporting cast is sometimes the best way to help build up your main character’s strengths and cover for his/her/its weaknesses. But the supporting cast is another story altogether! Just make sure that the franchise character rises above and beyond those that support him/her/it, or otherwise that character isn’t fit to lead a franchise!
I am proud to say that I’m happy with my choice of franchise character. Now, to actually build that franchise around her!
Designing the Central Conflict
Now, we take a look at the most important aspect of building a vibrant and living creative universe: how to build the central conflict.
Years ago, I had the idea of pitting two major forces against one another in a massive epic. These two forces were known as the Preservers and the Predator. Those names are meant to mean exactly what they represent. They are polar opposites of one another. One force looks to preserve all Life in the universe, where as the Predator is out to extinguish all of it, including the Preservers. It all set a very grand stage. The problem is, I had a very hard time creating characters through which you could actually get invested in this central conflict. The concept was too broad and too vague to truly build a great story around and it fell apart.
In October of 2012, I suddenly had an epiphany. After a particularly vivid dream one Friday night, I woke up on Saturday morning and created the basis for what would eventually become the most ambitious project that I have ever worked on: Team Luna and the Legend of CRONOKAI. It actually integrated many pieces from the epic that had failed so miserably.
Over time, all of the creative projects I have ever worked on building sort of coalesced into this new and much more interesting universe. The reason it all worked is that I had created a new concept for a central conflict. It took me about a year to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what would stick. Many things came together and I outlined it a bit.
Complications of plot and certain character elements will often still need to be sorted out, but the basis for an extremely strong universe has been established. Now you just have to get writing it!
Defining the Themes
One of the most important things to set up in a creative universe is the broad and specific themes that stories set in this universe will cover. While it is not necessarily the case that you have to adhere strictly to these themes, it’s important to have some idea of what you’re going into this universe to write. You can create beautiful settings, fascinating character profiles, and design vast worlds to explore. But if you don’t have some themes that you plan on exploring, then you’re going to have some very bored readers. If it’s a movie or other visual media in which you're creating your universe, maybe you can get away with it a bit more. But if you’re going to try to build something for a full-fledged novel or some sort of long-term series, you have to have clear themes.
For example, some themes that I often deal with in my projects are self-confidence and self-discovery. Honestly, I feel that self-discovery should be an integral aspect to writing any protagonist character. Self-confidence is another theme that I deal with on many occasions, and my primary protagonist in one new story is not very self-confident. However, he is determined and is driven towards solving a mystery that has been haunting him and his family for over a decade, the disappearance of his father. Along the way, though, he will run into a few characters that appear very self-confident. As it turns out later, two of these characters will prove to be putting on an act. One of them is actually incredibly insecure and scared of showing any sort of weakness at all, whereas the other is a VIP who doesn’t want to let her feminine side take away from her flawless image as a bad-ass hero.
These are only two broad themes that you can explore in your project. More specific themes that I’ve also dealt with would include dealing with sexism in the workplace, how to deal with someone who’s never known what a friend truly is, and how to deal with corruption and betrayal in your own family.
What sort of themes would you like to see a story written about that you feel haven’t been dealt with enough?
Getting organized is one of the most important things for someone to do no matter what it is that one wants to accomplish. With writing, staying organized is an absolute must. Unfortunately, I am an extremely disorganized sort of person. While many of my writings are archived in directories that give some idea as to what they are, within said directories are many ideas that simply do not work in the context of whatever it is that I came up with next. I end up with directories set up for stories that contain several different plot directions and some drafts that are based off of drafts that I entirely abandoned because they didn’t end up working logically.
Even now, I still endeavor to collect all of the other stuff that I’ve written over the years to try and make something from it. I have lots of story ideas that were good in concept, but I simply never figured out how to get started or how to develop. The trouble is that I’m so disorganized that it’s hard to know if all of my ideas around a specific concept are all in one place. I find scraps and bits of story ideas in one place and another related story idea that went in an entirely different direction in another place! It’s very frustrating! So I must now endeavor to corral all of these similar ideas.
Perhaps when I’m really stuck for something to write I’ll just talk about one of these. I’ve done this before with publishing the outline of my original novel idea for Empty Promises. But I have a lot more ideas that I just never even developed enough to really write anything substantial about!
As any writer, creative or not, organization is absolutely key. If you’re not organized, you’ll find that the mess compounds itself until you are so stressed out that you feel like you have nothing to write even though you have so many undeveloped ideas! Organize, organize, organize, I have to say. It’s something I’m working so hard at right now.
Making a Human Connection in a Story
Once you have yourself organized and have established your characters, setting, and themes, the most important thing to do next is to establish a human connection with your readers. This sounds incredibly obvious, but there have been writers in the past that have great plots and ideas but their characters simply are not likable or relatable. The protagonist can be a little flamboyant or more than a little distant, but you have to make sure that your readers can relate to the character’s perspective and situation. Otherwise, readers won’t be invested and might get bored.
One thing I’ve always done in my stories is to use anthropomorphic characters. I’m always very careful to give each of them distinctly human characteristics, however. For some reason, I find that simply using plain human characters bores me. I also like to use human-like characters, such as humanoid beings with animal-like characteristics, or winged humanoids like fairies or harpies. I like my characters to be unique, but sometimes it’s hard to have people visualize them, and it’s something I’m working very hard on myself.
Whatever it is you decide to do with your story, you have to have your characters be relatable whether in form or in substance to actual human beings. There is, of course, using actual humans, but that would be boring, wouldn’t it?
I hope that Building a Universe has given you some insight into the steps that it takes to create and develop your own creative universe. If you have any specific questions or concerns, feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to address it in a future article of Building a Universe.