Tips To Write & Create Better & More Believable Futures
Looking to write about a future dystopia? Or are you planning a next generation RP based on one of your favorite works of fiction? Read on for some things to keep in mind for writing believable and dynamic future scenarios.
Table of Contents
- The past shouldn't stop existing because the future is here.
- Ask yourself if the shiny new goodies you plan to implement in your future world are actually practical and feasible.
- Not everyone is going to get the shiniest goodies at the same time.
- Handle social and political shifts with care.
- Make a step-by-step map of the progress from there to here.
- Beware and avoid bubble futures.
The past shouldn't stop existing because the future is here.
As obvious as this probably sounds when I say it here, a lot of SF futures fail to take this into consideration. In many SF works, the cities and towns are uniformly shiny and new. But in real cities and towns, you'll often find buildings and structures dating as far back as to whenever the town was first built. The only way you'd see a uniformly shiny and new city where all of the buildings matched in style and… future-yness is if the whole city was constructed at the same time. And even then, that would probably only be a temporary state, because as styles and trends in architecture changed and evolved, new and renovated buildings would start to deviate from the original style without some kind of legislation requiring that people only build in the original style.
You won't see people all wearing the same new fashions, either. Older people will often favor the clothes and hairstyle they grew fond of in their younger years, and not everyone can afford or feels inclined to follow the latest trends in fashion. Someone might have decorative items gifted or inherited from an older person that are very different in style from the latest in decorative design - compare trends in Christmas ornament design down through the decades, for example.
Ask yourself if the shiny new goodies you plan to implement in your future world are actually practical and feasible.
A lot of future tech looks great in theory, but in reality would be difficult, if not impossible to implement on a wide scale. For example, let's take the concept of flying/hovering cars. On the one hand, they sound pretty cool. On the other hand, there are reasons why they wouldn't be likely to catch on as a widespread means of transport.
First, rubber tires are relatively simple and cheap to make. If something goes wrong, they can be changed quite easily and with fairly simple tools. On the other hand, a flying or hover mechanism would almost certainly be far more complicated and expensive. A car with a broken engine can usually be towed fairly easily because the wheels will still roll, whereas a vehicle relying solely on hover power for getting around would have to be lifted and carried.
Barring changes in infrastructure and economics that would make hovercars as easy and cheap to maintain as cars with tires, hovercars would at most become novelties and status symbols for the wealthy. As a result, you'd see them only but very rarely on the road. If anything, they'd be most often seen on the covers of magazines (or in whatever equivalent the world to them) than anywhere else.
Remember Marty McFly's auto-drying coat and auto-adjusting shoes in Back To The Future II? Again, more novelty items - the mechanical components in these items would mean extra cost for very little return. (It isn't that hard to adjust one's own laces or find a decent pair of laceless shoes, and it's easier to make a jacket out of water-resistant materials than it is to insert a drying mechanism into it.)
And speaking of fashion, in some futuristic settings clothes make near no sense at all, especially in older science fiction works. Let's take, for example, the pocketless jumpsuit, an allegedly perfectly utilitarian piece of clothing. Trouble is, jumpsuits are a pain to get on and off (and you usually have to peel the whole ensemble off every time you want to use the toilet), and pockets are really pretty nice for putting things in. Sometimes you see people wandering around in clothes that are apparently made of vinyl (or something that looks like it) and metal, which… makes very little sense given that both of these materials are very uncomfortable and impractical to wear. Sure, your future folks might wear this stuff while out clubbing, but on a day-to-day basis at home, or while out getting groceries? Probably not.
Also, if your future doesn't include cotton jeans and t-shirts, you'd better have a really good reason for it - both of these clothing items have become and remained wardrobe staples of every social class ever, and neither one shows any sign of leaving us soon.
Not everyone is going to get the shiniest goodies at the same time.
In Fictionland, the latest and greatest technology is sometimes shown to be practically universally available. In reality, new technology trickles downward into the general populace depending on a number of factors.
The newest and most cutting-edge tech is typically used by the military. It takes several years before that tech becomes commercially available, and at first it's so expensive to produce that only those with a lot of money can afford it. It takes several more years before it becomes cheap enough to produce and sell to the common folks (usually because someone finds a cheaper way to produce it), and if you're especially poor, you might not be able to afford that same technology for a few more years. Schools (at least in the US) are usually on the tail-end of the technology trail, having to do with whatever they can afford on their meager budgets and/or what people are kind enough to donate. Some businesses still use fax machines and won't take credit cards - particularly in Japan, where businesses are frequently owned by older folks who are reluctant to upgrade to the latest technologies, or in places in general where the owners can't really afford to upgrade.
If you watch a lot of science fiction and fantasy television shows and movies, you've probably noticed that the special effects in television shows are never as good as the ones in the movies that come out around the same time. There's a reason for this - for a movie, you only have to spend your budget on approximately 90-120 minutes' worth of story. But in a TV show, you have to spend that same budget on 14+ episodes lasting approximately 40 minutes each - and this is why special effects on TV are invariably 10-20 years behind what you see on the big screen.
Handle social and political shifts with care.
Many futures where radical political and social shifts have taken place are very poorly thought-out, with everything that caused the shifts coming off as forced and contrived, rather than a natural and organic course of events that could actually happen.
One common problem with these futures is that many writers apparently think that the world's current orders and paradigms can be completely overturned in approximately ten years. In reality, any major political or social movement will take at least fifty years to run, and sometimes it only takes one person to majorly set back the movement's efforts. (And often as not, this one person comes from within the movement itself, inadvertently sabotaging the group's efforts by being an extremist jackass who ends up turning more people against the movement than toward it.)
One good example of forced change failing to take is ancient Egypt's brief stint with monotheism. King Akhenaten attempted to forcibly convert the Egyptians to the sole worship of Aten. After his death two decades later, the Egyptians went right back to their polytheistic traditions. And then consider Christianity - even with militant force to back it up, it's taken centuries to get it where it is today - and in most cases, it's been impossible to completely stamp out people's traditional beliefs and practices. (In many cases, old beliefs and traditions are simply reinterpreted and repurposed, rather than completely discarded.)
So yeah, that whole thing where a group or movement pretty much jumps out of nowhere as far as the public would be concerned, takes over just about everything, and pretty much instates the New World Order or whatever practically overnight (or in the space of a few months to a decade or so) is bunk.
While dramatic and sudden revolutions do take place, they invariably happen on much smaller scales, eg, a single government. The revolution itself is only the beginning of a long, long road of setting up and enforcing new systems and infrastructures, and the new order might never actually be implemented if there are enough people willing to fight back against it. And anything that fundamentally changes or confronts peoples' personal beliefs and values or puts them into a position of less comfort than they had before will meet heavy resistance from these people.
Make a step-by-step map of the progress from there to here.
In one example of a future gone horribly wrong from a writing/development perspective, twenty or so years into the future all of the setting's bad guys have been defeated and the world is at peace, despite the fact that the villains were shown to be plentiful and/or pretty good at avoiding total defeat before. This raises a lot of questions that can rarely be satisfactorily answered. When did the heroes suddenly become so powerful and competent? What did they suddenly start doing that enabled them to take these villains down with such finality? Or did all the villains they fought before just suddenly lose their nerve? And when and why did new threats just stop popping up?
Then there's the opposite problem: where in about the same space of time, some villain or other has taken over everything and has made it into a total dystopia. The same type of questions apply: When did the villain suddenly get so good? What did the villain suddenly start doing differently that was so much more effective? Or did everyone else just suddenly lose their nerve? Did every military force in the world just suddenly forget how to do anything? And why didn't anyone else make any real effort to take the villain on?
These aren't the only ways you can have this kind of problem, but they are some of the most egregious. Whatever you are considering, stop and work out step-by-step how your future came to be. What were the pivotal events that brought the world to to this state, and what made these pivotal events possible? And what about the people and events that would inevitably get in the way and create complications? If you can't find a way to make it have happened in a believable manner, then your future is itself unbelievable and needs to change.
Beware and avoid bubble futures.
Bubble futures are a feature unique to stories where a significant time jump has been taken between the start of the story or a previous installment, and when the story takes place now. In a bubble future, nothing will have happened that would upset the status quo as it was left in the past too much (except perhaps insofar as it produces a dystopian future, if that's what the author wants). Basically, the characters in the story live in a little static bubble, untouched by any outside interference.
For example, in many roleplays based on the MCU, the original Avengers team will still be chumming around fighting Loki years later, just as they were in The Avengers. It seems very unnatural and forced when you think about it - in reality, people come and go in a person's life, whether they're acquaintances, friends, or enemies. Sure, some can stay around for quite awhile, but for the same group of six people to remain active in each others' lives for ages on end, and for absolutely no one else to ever become relevant in their lives (especially when these people have responsibilities, interests, and ambitions that take them into other circles of people) defies belief. Then on top of that, factor in that their lifestyles could easily result in injuries that would all but force them to retire from the field or even get them killed, and even just aging could take the edge off their skills enough that replacements would be warranted. Also, that the characters would face absolutely no new challenges (eg, villains, shifts in politics, interpersonal difficulties) of any kind that would change or confront their status quo somehow is very difficult to believe. (If you've seen the films, you know that the status quo changes somehow with every movie - what are the odds that a universe like this would actually settle into some kind of routine for long?)
In many next gen RPs, the characters' children will be taking up their parents' mantles as superheroes and Avengers and facing the same enemies their parents faced (usually Loki). Despite the RP taking place approximately twenty years in the future, the world will be indistinguishable from the world at the time the original movies were set. Technology, music, clothes... they'll be pretty much the same as they were in the source material, and it's pretty strange when you think about it. Look back over the past few decades - when has anything stayed static for even ten years, let alone twenty?
It doesn't matter what universe you're writing for - the same principles still apply. In the real world, things that challenge and change the status quo are happening every day, and barring extraordinarily unusual circumstances, is what should reasonably happen in every fictional universe.
If you liked this, you might also be interested in:
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings
Creating Plausibly Functional & Useful Tools, Gadgets, & Weapons For Fiction
Spaceships, Airships, & Other Fantastic Crafts: Things To Think Out & Consider