August 10 to October 12 (9 weeks)
Facts-based Fictional Worldbuilding
with Moiya McTier of Columbia University
From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass to Star Trek to Legend of Zelda, fictional worlds have entertained, educated, and comforted us for centuries. A fictional world might be a universe that obviously differs from our reality because it has magic or advanced technology. It might also be a world where the differences are more subtle. Maybe a particular historical event, like the sinking of the Titanic, never happened. Or maybe the world zooms in on a real historical time period, like ancient Greece, but takes some creative liberties to flesh out the details. No matter how different a fictional world is from our reality, they all take time and effort to build. The people who create these worlds aren’t natural-born geniuses; they learned the skills necessary to make an imaginary world feel real. This course will teach you those skills.
There isn’t just one way to build a fictional world. Some creators build a world with a specific story in mind and craft the rules of their world to drive that story forward. Others start with an interesting question – ”What if we couldn’t see the color blue?” – and craft a story that answers it. Above all else, skilled worldbuilders adhere to the logical and physical laws of their worlds, even if those laws are different from the ones that we follow here on Earth.
Facts-based fictional worldbuilding relies heavily on scientific research to motivate the creation of imaginary worlds. It starts by creating the environment of a world, the physical setting where a story takes place. The next step is to think about biology, which depends on environment and also a lot of randomness, so there’s plenty of room for imagination. The final step is to think about culture, a huuuuuge umbrella term that encompasses every aspect of life from what we eat to the stories we tell our children when we tuck them into bed (if we even have children or beds to tuck them into). Culture depends on both biology and environment, so it’s important to decide things in this order, but also recognize that all three can inform each other. For example, humans have grown taller as we develop ways to access nutritional foods year-round, and the pollution we put into the air has influenced which diseases are most common.
Over nine weeks, you’ll learn the steps of this particular approach to worldbuilding while also gaining factual knowledge from subject-matter experts. Through this interdisciplinary course, you’ll not only build your own fictional world, but also gain an appreciation for ththiere inner workings of our reality.
About the Instructor
Moiya McTier (email@example.com, @goastromo on twitter) is an astrophysicist and folklorist who specializes in facts-based fictional worldbuilding. She studied both astrophysics and folklore mythology at Harvard University and is in her last year of a PhD program in astronomy at Columbia University. In her astronomy research, Moiya studies how the motion of the Milky Way affects populations of planets throughout the Galaxy. She recently started a podcast called Exolore, where she invites experts to help her imagine life on alien planets.
Moiya’s first experience with facts-based worldbuilding was her undergraduate senior thesis, a science fiction novel set on an exoplanet she studied. She wanted the world to be as motivated by her research as possible, and soon found that it didn’t make sense to stop at accurate planetary science, so she talked to biologists and psychologists to make her fictional world seem more realistic. The planet orbited an M type star, a kind that’s much more magnetically active than our own Sun. Moiya knew that water was an effective protection against stellar magnetic activity, so she created creatures who spent most of their evolutionary history underwater. This meant that their biology was inspired by marine life here on Earth. Over time, as the star became less active, the creatures left the water but weren’t used to the exposure to their star, so they burrowed underground. You can read the novel here.
There will be one instructor-led session each week, running for 2 hours with a break at the midpoint and an optional additional hour of instructor Q&A. Each session will start with a quick ice breaker/brainstorming exercise. We’ll then move on to a discussion of the assigned reading/viewing material. Next I’ll give a lecture (often with an invited expert guest) about the week’s topic. The session will end after a discussion of how you plan to incorporate information from the lecture into your fictional world.
In addition, students will meet in smaller groups several times a week for further discussion and collaboration. Each student will build a facts-based fictional world of their own as the final project (details in the Final Project section below).
The course will admit around 20 students. It will cost $750/student, but there are slots reserved for students without the financial means to pay, so don’t let the cost dissuade you from applying. If you would like to be considered for a fee waiver, please select that option on your application.
Note that the Silver Beach Institute is not affiliated with Columbia or any other university, and students will not receive any credential, degree, or official certificate at the end of the course.
At the end of this course, students will…
have a basic understanding of fundamental concepts from a wide range of academic disciplines
understand how to manipulate environment, biology, and culture in coherent ways to build a world that feels real
be comfortable brainstorming and sharing creative pieces
be comfortable providing and taking feedback from peers
Throughout this seminar, you’ll be building your own fictional world piece by piece. At the end of the seminar, you will submit
a description of your world (I’ll provide an example of this)
a creative piece that represents your world or is set in it. This could take the form of a short story, a painting, a short video (animated or live action), a sculpture, etc.
I will meet with each of you individually halfway through the course to discuss your plans for your final project and suggest any necessary adjustments.
Week 1: Introduction to Worldbuilding
Week 2: Building the Solar System (Astronomy & Astrophysics)
Week 3: Building the Planet (Geology & climate science)
Week 4: Building Life (Evolutionary biology, ecology & evolutionary psychology)
Week 5: Introduction to Culture (Anthropology & Sociology)
Week 6: Building Myths and Religion (Folklore & mythology)
Week 7: Building Technology (History of Science & Technology)
Week 8: Building Politics (History & Political Science)
Week 9: Peer Feedback
Each student will share details of their world and creative project and receive constructive feedback from the rest of the group.
Equity, Inclusion, & Accessibility Statement
When we discuss biology and culture in the context of other worlds, it reveals our own experiences and the biases we have about our own world. And when we start sharing and critiquing each other’s worlds, it can feel incredibly personal. To facilitate the most effective and inclusive learning environment possible, here are a couple of guidelines we’ll use in our discussions:
When providing feedback, use “I” and “we” statements instead of “you” statements. In other words, talk about your reactions to a piece instead of the person who created the piece.
Please resist acting surprised when people say they don’t know something. Feigning surprise has no social or educational benefit. An example of this is, “Wow, you got #4 wrong? But it was so easy!”
Avoid subtle (and, of course, overt) racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other kinds of bias. These “-isms” can make others feel uncomfortable and affect their ability to do work.
If you find yourself breaking one of these rules, please apologize, use it as a learning experience, and then move on. If you notice someone else breaking one of these rules (especially me!), you can point it out to the relevant person, either publicly or privately, or you can ask me to say something. Please don’t hold it against someone if they make an honest mistake, as long as they apologize and learn from it. After all, this class is a learning environment.
If it comes to my attention that you have made repeated egregious offenses in our discussion, you will be barred from future sessions.
I have done and will do my best to make this class accessible to all students, but if I have overlooked something, or if there is anything I can do to better accommodate you without sacrificing the integrity of the lesson, please let me know.