Let’s say it out loud, the real deal in this genre is the new world. It has to be exotic, flashy, vivid and colorful, always a step further the expectations of the reader. Here we will find something that starts from the heroic fantasy and land somewhere between space opera and burlesque. Characters have to be excessive, any tree or animal ready and willing to attack humans, buildings and technologies have to be all over the top. In the classic version of the planetary romance, logic is something that has been swept under the carpet. So, time for something different. The new world has to be realistic, its ecology coherent, the biome should make sense.
This will not mean that the new planet will be boring. The exotic element can still be portrayed, not to mention exalted, by a competent description. For instance, think about the proportion between the highest mountain on Earth (Mount Everest, 8.848 meters / 29,029 feet) and the highest mountain on Mars (Olympus Mons, 21.230 meters / 69,650 feet). The key is thinking big, isn’t it? The same can be applied to the biome or to natural satellites. A classic is figuring three or more moons, waiting for their combined effect to raise giant waves at the convenient moment in the plot. It’s tricky, it requires a lot of thinking to be really coherent but it’s so rewarding once set in place!
As on Earth, the new planet will be somewhat shaped by the presence of the local civilization. Giant statues, enormous craters, pyramids half buried by the sand or by the jungle, submerged wonders of long-forgotten origin… almost everything can be made epic respecting the basics of science. Push the limit onward, be bold in your imagination effort. Do you like Mount Rushmore and the portrait of the presidents? Good, go ahead! What about a ninety thousand feet high mountain dedicated to a local celebrity? With people that live in its eye sockets, in the ears, in the nostrils, and in the mouth? The sky is the limit, so they say.
Earth changes every day. By quakes, erosion, floods, and many more phenomena. The same should happen to our new planet. Local lifeforms will evolve, disappear, change. The biome is important in your brave new world and you can easily build something to keep it differenced. Think about the equatorial ridge on Iapetus, for instance. Imagine a 20.000 meters / 12 miles high barrier that cuts in half your planet following the equator line, forcing whatever is not able to climb it to stay confined in one of the hemispheres. You can also have maelstroms, deep rifts that are dangerously close to exposing the lava beneath, the iceberg of epic proportions at large in the seas. On a planet like that, local populations have to stand out too. This is not about costumes or strange outfits, this is about local traditions and culture.
Locals have to be strong stuff, not cardboard-made NPC from a lame RPG scenario. They are supposed to be interesting as a population, remember that the key figures (the antagonist, the partner or lover, secondary enemies and allies) have to be locals. The most difficult part of a good world building is here, between the crowded streets of the capital and the huts in the tundra. Our hero has to be challenged, amazed, shocked and scared; his sense of wonder has to be tackled and kicked in the ass on daily basis. Because the hero is the entry point of the readers and they deserve to be pleased by your world (and by your book, of course). Once you have the basics of your world set, pick up the equivalent places on Earth and look at the history of the people that live there. Then, once again, be bold and change some important factor. For instance, you have to create a nomad population similar to the Mongols; on Earth they live raising horses and small herds of cattle, their civilization shaped around the use of said horses to move, fight and trade. All right, take away the horses from this situation. Now, think about an American Bison. What about a bison taller, faster and bigger? What about a population that uses such bison to do everything? Can you imagine a bison charge, with a front of a thousand giant beasts? To tame such big fellas, how hard should be our local nomad? Since ecology is about balancing predator and prey, what kind of creature can prey upon this super-bison? That’s the way to build a great world, a place where anything could be accomplished by our hero.
Next time, for this series, it will be about the journey of our hero. How he/she could reach the new world?