The Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Universe Part 4: Technology

This is a continuation of my multi-part listicle on world building. If you want to read the other parts, click here.

Technology is a subject of incredible depth in storytelling and world building. Technology, at any level of sophistication, is likely to play a role in your story, and it must be accounted for when planning events and arcs. Is your technology breaking any rules? Is it being used to its full potential? Have you ignored it when you shouldn’t have? Is it behaving realistically?

Take note that everything written here can and should be applied to magic systems, superpowers and a host of other such concepts. Magic is technology, too, just technology that isn’t fully understood.

I could spend all day going into specifics about what may be good to do when crafting technology in storytelling, but the scenarios are so diverse that it is at best, impractical, and at worst, impossible, to create an extensive and satisfying essay on the topic. Each type of technology (magic, gadgets, chemicals, etc) has its own implications and its own ramifications in a given world. Instead, here are just a few tips.First and foremost:

Know the rules.

Whether you’re dealing with invented technology or existing technology, you better know the rules. When inventing a technology, a good idea is to document, in no uncertain terms, what it looks like, what it does, and how it interacts with the world. Also, take notes on how it can be used. How it’s used will probably have an effect on how your characters live their lives and how society runs. A society with technology unlike ours will operate unlike our society. Your world should never just be our world but with people who can fly. Think of how people get to work, social imbalances between people with wings and those without, and just the simple safety and regulatory considerations.

Dealing with already existing technology is no easier. You have to understand what it is that you’re talking about. Avoid depicting existing technology in an unrealistic way. My favorite bad example of this is the time that the Hulk caused an earthquake that an orbiting technician said registered 123.2 on the Richter scale. Now, if you don’t know exactly how the Richter Scale works, that’s fine, just understand this: a magnitude 2 earthquake is not twice as strong as a magnitude 1; it’s ten times stronger. A magnitude 3 earthquake is not 3 times stronger than a magnitude 1; it’s 100 times stronger.

This means that a magnitude 123 earthquake has enough power to destroy the Earth something like 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times and cause the immediate death of the universe many times over as well.

Somebody didn’t do their research.

And that’s the fix. Do your research. If you want to be writer, you should have approximate knowledge of many things. When you approach a situation, second guess whether or not you know what you’re talking about and go learn something new. Understand why an astronaut doesn’t burp in space. Understand why there’s no sound in a vacuum. Understand what should happen if an 80 kg superhero punches an 80 kg enemy with 1000 tonnes of force.

Play by the rules.

Don’t do all that hard work to understand physical concepts and ramifications and then forget them—or worse, ignore them.

Don’t forget your technology exists.

If you introduce a technological concept, don’t let it disappear somewhere down the line, especially if it would be useful in the protagonist’s current situation. This just requires you to be mindful of all aspects of your world. At least provide a logical and well-established reason why your technology can’t be used. Expect complaints and comments about weak plot if you don’t mention it at all.

Know what technology exists

This applies to writing historical fiction. You must know what technology was common in the period you’re depicting, how it changed the world, and more importantly, what hasn’t been invented yet.

Don’t let technology be a convenient solve.

The center of storytelling is capturing the drama of the human existence, and to be human is to struggle, so you can imagine that it wouldn’t be very satisfying if a technology just showed up and solved everything for the heroes.

Bad Example: The Night King’s death – Game of Thrones
Arya Stark jumps the villain with a kryptonite dagger, and the confrontation is over in ten seconds, literally. The effect of the dagger, made of Valyrian steel, was set up early in the series, and the dagger went on quite a journey to get to Arya’s hands, but then it was used as a trump card. Over. Done. The failure to really capitalize on that moment and milk it for what is was truly worth was disappointing to a lot of fans. It trivialized the threat of the Night King.

Here’s another one: A.I.D.A.’s defeat – Agents of Shield
An artificial intelligence has created its own organic body and gifted itself with all the powers it could think of. It became a god, and there wasn’t a damn thing the agents could do about it. Luckily (!) the literal Ghost Rider just returned from a hell dimension and makes A.I.D.A. his next target. Again, the inclusion of the Ghost Rider in the season was well established, but to bring him back for one episode, right when the main cast needed him, and with little more than dialogue to explain his return, was lazy. And since the Ghost Rider is a cosmic entity (basically a force of nature) suddenly A.I.D.A. can do nothing but run. It trivialized the threat she represented.

I used that last sentence in both examples for a reason. The worst thing technology can do is trivialize the struggle. Learn from the masters. One rule for storytelling at PIXAR is that a coincidence can hinder the heroes, but never help them. If technology is what finally solves your heroes’ problems, do like Dan Harmon, and make it come at a cost, either material or spiritual.

Good Example: Demandred Outplayed – A Memory of Light
A normal sword is hardly a bit of convenient technology, but I bring this up because of its similarity to the confrontations between Arya Stark and the Night King. Both were confrontations between a lone hero and the supposedly unstoppable foe. Two incredible swordsmen had already snuck behind enemy lines and confronted this man, Demandred, only to be torn apart for their trouble, solidifying Demandred as a peerless fighter, and Lan Mandgragoran looked to be the third victim. The two swordsmen locked in combat, just like in the previous two scenarios, and just like before, Demandred was outclassing his opponent. The switch came when Lan realized he would have to do more. He allowed Demandred to strike at him, and the greater swordsman expected Lan to defend himself, but instead, Lan struck. Lan allowed Demandred to wound him fatally just to deliver a killing blow himself. This ending saw Demandred defeated, but without diminishing his threat.

Am I saying that Arya should have died in her attempt to defeat the Night King? No. I’m just saying that it could have, and should have, been little more than a shanking.

Good Example: I am Iron Man – Avengers: Endgame
It would be so easy to just put on the infinity gauntlet and snap Thanos out of existence—if it weren’t for one teeny tiny thing! The infinity gauntlet releases more radiation the greater the feat it is used to execute.  A normal human can’t possibly survive the power. So, when it became obvious that Thanos wasn’t just going to let someone take the gauntlet, Tony Stark made a hard decision. The infinity gauntlet solved the heroes’ problem without much of a struggle—ultimately—but it also came at an extreme cost. With that cost, the struggle isn’t trivialized.

I gave two extreme examples of technology not trivializing the struggle, but it doesn’t always have to come at the cost of a life. Think of your own ways to raise the stakes and keep them in mind when delivering the ultimate moment to your readers.

For one of the best examples of technological integration into a world, I must go back to The Witcher. Magical potions, especially health potions, are a mainstay in fantasy storytelling and gaming, and you may have wondered why, in a world where these potions seem pretty common, only the main character is using them. If they can be bought in a store, why is Eardwulf’s dad still nursing a broken leg? Andrzej Sapkowski’s elegant approach to this problem was to make his potions toxic. Only the titular Witcher ever takes these potions because his mutations allow him to metabolize the potion, and even then, taking them isn’t pleasant. A normal human consuming them will die. The reason for this is grounded in real science. Acidosis is when body fluids or tissues, namely blood, has too much acidity and the pH balance becomes unhealthy for a human body. Normally this occurs when kidneys or lungs fail to extricate the excess acid due to some kind of failure, but in this case, it would occur because a normal human ingested a Witcher potion. The extreme acidity of the potion could cause liver failure and brain damage in extreme cases because of a normal human’s inability to metabolize it.

Technology, even when invented, can be guided by natural law, and that guidance can make life easier for you. If you want to be a writer, you must also be a reader. So read, learn, and apply. It will make your technology, and the way your technology reads on a page, that much better.

Thanks for reading. As always, if you consider yourself a writer, or just want to start developing your talent, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of our monthly genre contests for a chance to win cash, a custom digital book cover, and an author spotlight interview.

And I started a Twitter! Follow @proseopiate for announcements about posts and contests. Maybe we can develop our own community. Spread the word so we can have more contestants and greater diversity of submissions.

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