I found a possible answer in an independent but much loved role-playing game from Joshua A.C. Newman – Shock: Social Science Fiction. I realized that a similar method to the one developed by Newman for creating science fiction settings with meaning could be adjusted to world-build better issues and characters into my SFR. Even better, it was generic enough that Fantasy and Paranormal Romance writers could also employ it.Step 1: Define your “shocks”
Shocks are the “key concepts” that make your setting different from the modern world; Colonies on Mars, Vampires exist, Faster-than-light travel. You don’t have to think about how these pieces work right now. Indeed, your characters might not have any idea how they work, because the shocks are inherent to the world. Like a car, or the Internet, they are omnipresent. Because of this, they are also your “Free Pass” items. You don’t have to explain them, they just work. While there’s no limit, two or three shocks work well, and more than five stretches the reader’s belief. Write your shocks down across the top of a piece of paper, making each shock a column:
Step 2: Choose your “issues”
Here’s the part where we inject meaning into our setting. Come up with two or three issues you want to address (directly or indirectly) in your story. Issues are the hard questions – the things we can’t easily answer that directly impact your characters’ stories. These can be philosophical issues, such as ‘what makes us human?’ or they can be specific social issues from today (just looking at the news for 60 seconds gives us ‘is the Nobility relevant?’, ‘Are stand-your-ground laws moral?’, and ‘Is it acceptable to reveal government secrets?’) Note that these are always worded as questions, and while you are likely to have an opinion, they shouldn’t be something that is easy to answer. Write your issues down the side of your piece of paper, creating rows that intersect with the columns:
Step 3: Place your characters
The real key to this method takes place here – pick an intersection between an issue and a shock. Your character exists where these two pieces interact. In the sample, I’ve put our hero, Navigator James Wellington, at the intersection of FTL Travel and What makes us human? This already sets up conflicts for him as a character – navigating at faster-than-light means being modified to be more than human, but is the gift worth what it has cost him? Other characters will view him as different from human, either greater or lesser, and his character arc is shaped by that interaction.
For another example, in the film “Blade Runner” Rick Deckard exists at the intersection between “Human replicants are nearly indistinguishable from humans” (a shock) and “what defines us as human?” (an issue). The arc of Deckard’s story explore both sides of the argument, contrasted between the two (other) replicant characters Roy Batty and Rachael. Think about how the issue and the shock interact, and about your character’s relationship to both. This gives them an underlying connection to the world, and makes the issues meaningful to the story.
Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Paranormal Romance all deal with worlds that are different from the ones our readers inhabit. By tying our characters firmly into the underpinnings of our stories, we can increase the depth of our characters and make the world we’ve created for them more real to our readers. We increase our ability to add meaning, and give our stories the kind of impact that brings readers back again and again.