Image Credit:Cyrus McCrimmonDenver Post.

Check out the final project worlds students built!

Check out World #2!!!

Deep Space, Tychus Morgana,

Check out World #1!!!

Post-apocalyptic Columbus, NE

Rochester Institute of Technology

MoWeFr 3:00PM - 3:50PM | Eastman (EAS) 3367

Instructor: Prof. Trent Hergenrader
Office: Liberal Arts 06-.2317
Office hours: 1:00-2:00 Mon & Wed, preferably other times by appointment

Course Description

This course focuses on the collaboration construction of fictional worlds. Students will learn to think critically about features of fictional worlds, such as the social, political, and economic structures that influence daily life for the characters who inhabit that world. Students will also participate in extensive character development exercises, and then write short fiction from these characters’ perspectives describing the challenges they face in these worlds. Students will critique each other’s fiction and submit revised work.

Required Texts

  • Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. Edited by John Joseph Adams. Nightshade Books, 2008. (make sure you get the original collection and not Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse.)
  • For rent or purchase - Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Other texts will be provided; students may be required to make minimal purchases


<<You can find a week-by-week course schedule here.>>

The instructor reserves the right to adjust the schedule based on the needs of the class.

Course Concept

The space of a fictional world is a construct, just as the characters and objects that occupy it are, or the actions that unfold within it.
Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (45)

This course proceeds from the notion that the descriptions of worlds, characters, and plot that appear in works of fiction are authorial constructs, not faithful reconstructions of "reality" or glimpses into "how life actually works." Fiction writers---particularly beginning fiction writers---often struggle to account for their own subjective experience of the world when they represent fictional people, places, and things in their work. The novice writer often obsesses over finding a clever plot to hook readers and spends too little time thinking about the characters who will enact that plot and where the story will take place. This is a problem because complex characters drive compelling, surprising fiction. For the purposes of this class, we will be keeping this formula in the front of our minds:


While this is a simplified view of how stories work, it's a good place for rethinking our point of departure for original fiction. A unique character interacting with his/her environment---making decisions, struggling with situations, overcoming obstacles---will generate a good plot, not the other way around. In order for characters' decisions to matter for readers, we need to understand the characters' motivations, skills, attributes, fears, goals, and more. On top of this, a rich setting serves as more than a mere backdrop; it incorporates not only the physical location but also includes the social, political, and cultural forces of a given place at a given time. When we add speculative elements from the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural horror, it adds yet another layer of complexity as writer must be cognizant of how the world differs from our notions of our consensus reality operates.

What We Will Do in this Class
Good storytelling is thus an extremely complicated---you must have a well-rounded character struggling with situations that are derived from a unique mix of that character's traits and the social forces of the fictional world. This is a BIG ask, so in order to be efficient with our time, we will be doing collaboratively build large speculative worlds and procedurally generate categories of people, places, and things---skeletons to flesh out rather than starting from scratch. Specifically, we will:

  • Examine narratives across media to see how other artists have represented speculative worlds, the places therein, and the characters that inhabit them.
  • Assess the economic, political, social, and cultural conditions of each world in a structured, regimented fashion using a survey tool.
  • Isolate key features of speculative worlds, studying the aspects that make them unique.
  • In small rotating groups, we will collaboratively build a world using a random generation tool, then we will write a metanarrative that describes its salient features and social forces. We then populate it with people, places, and things. These will be the building blocks for your own original, scene-based, vignette-length fiction, which we will critique.
  • We will build FOUR speculative worlds, beginning with World #1 that will be a post-apocalyptic setting. The class will then vote on the genres for the speculative Worlds #2 and World #3 with the most popular candidates being the setting. In the final stage of the class, you will form groups and build your own World #4 in the genre of your choice as your final project.

In this class we will not to critique a world you have been working on since you were 12. You will not be allowed to work in isolation on a pet project. You will not be able to draw from a previous project or from preexisting/fanfiction worlds. If you follow the instructions and complete the assigned work, this course will sharpen your fictional world building and character building skills that you can use for the rest of your writing life. In the context of this course, you will work creatively in groups and write within given constraints. It is designed to be collaborative, cooperative, and participatory, This is not a flaw; it is a feature.


  • This course will be a steady stream of (hopefully gratifying and stimulating) work with few ebbs and flows. You need to be fully prepared to talk a lot and write a lot and keep pace with the assignments. Get into a habit of finding pockets of time to attend to this class.
  • Because of the emphasis on participation, regular attendance in mandatory. Three absences is the equivalent of a week's worth of material--that's too much. Some absences might be unavoidable, but that requires that you're actively trying hard to avoid them the rest of the time.
  • Be civil and courteous and generous, but don't be a pushover---argue (tactfully) for ideas you think have legs. Let the instructor be the tie breaker if there's a difference of opinion, then move on.
  • Bring a laptop or tablet or a mobile device you're comfortable working on to class when we're working on world building in class. You won't need them---and indeed should have them off and/or stowed away---during class discussions.
  • Keep your user profile updated. This is where you provide links to the work you've done in the class. If you don't add it to your profile, you don't get credit for it, even if you completed the assignment. The wiki gets very large very quickly and I need to be able to find your work without going hunting for it.

Course Components and Grades



Total pts
















Fiction vignettes



Critiques sets



Final project



Participation and profile






  • Surveys - For each world, we will read stories that exhibit characteristics of that genre (post-apocalypse, cyberpunk, high fantasy, etc.). For each story you will need to pay careful attention to the reading and complete a survey linked in the schedule. The survey asks you to break down 14 categories for the given world and to justify your answers by describing the features of the world that support your position.

  • Metanarrative - The first steps in building a new world will be assigning randomized values to the 14 categories and then writing a metanarrative, or a story that explains how the world works and how it got that way. You will work on the metanarrative in groups that attend to four broad categories: politics, economy, social structures, and culture. You are assigned to these groups, which will rotate with each new world. You will need to indicate which aspects of the metanarrative you worked on in your user profile.

Wiki Entries that include:
  • Items - Think about Items as something meaningful and unique that the character could potentially interact with. We don't need a ton of custom weapons when there are so many other types of Items that would be more interesting in a variety of contexts---foods, drinks, spices, armor, books, silks, tapestries, pieces of clothing, jewelry, sculptures, you name it.

    Items need a name, a category (weapon, tool, food, drug, etc.), approximate size and weight, rarity (how common it is), value (how much it would cost to acquire), some basic uses, and finally a description of at least 100 words and roughly 250x250 px image. If you can't write 100 words for an Item, that probably means it's too mundane. You will make 2 x Items per world, or 6 total.

  • Locations - Locations are very important as dramatic events always have to happen somewhere. Evocative settings---whether its a dank dungeon, a decadent inn, or an austere place of worship---add depth to stories and inspire writers to include all manner of interesting details. Locations can be all manner of things, ranging from natural features (woods, mountains, bogs) to large constructions (bridges, manors, castles, temples) to the very personal (an inn, a merchant's stall, a person's home). The key in writing a good location is to include as many of the senses as you can. What's it smell like? What details would grab the eye? What ambient sounds might there be? Is it generally hot or cold, damp or dry? Ancient or brand new?

    Locations need a name, a type (mercantile, geographic feature, dwelling, etc.), a size (a city block, or confined quarters, etc.), condition (squalid, refined, tidy, etc.) and then include inhabitants---either a general category like "beggars" or "guards" or links to specific characters (see below)---and then a description of at least 150 words, roughly 250x250 px image, and a marker on the map. Most Locations will be longer once you include descriptions of the interior, exterior, and history. You will make 2 x Locations per world, or 6 total.

  • Characters - Characters breath life into the fictional world. Characters usually start with a broad archetype that has something to do with their livelihood---a knight, noble, banker, lady-in-waiting, merchant, septon, heir, steward, servant, scholar, pirate, or whatever. A good Character will have some defined attitude or personality trait that encapsulates their normal behavior or reaction to situations. Is the character naturally suspicious or naive? Cowardly or recklessly brave? Stern or silly? The key to writing good Characters is to remember that they are complete human beings full of emotion, desire, motivations, fears, skills, and more. Everyone is the protagonist of the story of his/her own life. Give your Characters interesting details to make them more complex. We've all seen the "greedy banker" before, but what about a greedy banker who dotes over his sick child at home? Or the fearless knight who is deathly afraid of water?

    Characters need a full name, a profession, personality and physical traits, location (linked to a wiki location or map), motivations, and any affiliations or relationships that would contribute to their decision making. Characters should be at least 150 words, roughly 250x250 px image
    and be linked to a location, either a Location entry or a map marker. You will make 3 x Characters per world, or 9 total.

  • Fiction vignettes - The fiction you write in this class will be limited to vignette-length stories of around 1000 words. (Note: 2000 words is not "around" 1000 words; it's two times too long.) Vignettes should be a snippet of time where you're focusing on character and scene setting, less so plot. Good vignettes often center on difficult decisions a character needs to make. We will talk more about the vignettes when we get closer to writing them. You will write 1 x vignette per world, or 3 total.

  • Critique sets - For every world, you will be responsible for critiquing two vignettes written by your classmates, or 2 sets of critiques per world, and 3 sets total. Critiques need to be at least 200 words and focus on a) things that are working, and b) things you feel need work in the vignette, including sensory details, active verbs, interesting word choices, characterization, and more.

  • Final project - Your final project is to build a world in the genre of your own choosing working in a group as few as 3 people or as many as 20. The minimum requirements will be writing a metanarrative that covers all 14 categories, contains at least 25 wiki entries covering Items, Locations, and Characters, and features at least 3 vignettes. We will discuss final projects when we get closer to the end of the semester.

  • Class participation and profile - We will be having in-depth discussions and completing collaborative activities every class session. Participation is essential and required; if you like to sit in the back row and never say a word, this is not the class for you. Participation means that you are rarely absent and always add to the discussion; neither a) being absent often but talking a lot when you're here, or b) attending every class and never saying a word, are good options. You are also required to keep your User Profile updated with the work you've done.

Anonymous User Names, Notice of Public Writing and Creative Commons Licensing

If you hadn't noticed, this is a wiki site that is open to public viewing.To preserve author anonymity on this public site, you will create a unique username that does not contain your initials, portions of your first or last name, nickname, or any other feature that otherwise allows for easy identification. You will need to disclose your username to the instructor for assessment/grading purposes; you may choose to disclose your username to your classmates, or you may retain (relative) anonymity within the classroom space. I may ask you to choose a new username if I feel you can be easily identified. (My wikispaces username, thergenrader, is an example of what you should not use.)

In the spirit of participatory culture, this site is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license, which allows others to share and adapt the material created here. If you wish to retain the copyright for your work, please discuss this with me at the start of class and we can make an accommodation.

Voluntary Participation in Research

This course is an extension of the instructor's research on using games and role-playing to teach creative writing. Near the end of the semester, you will be asked to complete a survey where you can reflect on the benefits and drawbacks of this methodology. This survey is not required as a part of coursework and will not impact your grade, positively or negatively.

Email Policy

You are required to check your RIT-issued email at least every 48 hours during the course of the semester for assignments and course updates. I will return email with 48 hours, usually much quicker, except in rare cases over weekends and holidays. You will be responsible for information emailed to you pertaining to this class.

Policy on Electronic Devices

In this class, you will usually be strongly encouraged to bring a laptop or notebook computer to use on class projects. However, during discussion and critique sessions, you are expected to have your computers off and participating in discussion. Tablets and mobile phones tend not to play nice with the wiki, where you will do most of your writing, so try to bring a computer. The Wallace Library has loaner laptops you can check out for the duration of class.

Class Conduct

Though it should go without saying, you are expected to treat your classmates with respect. This includes thoughtfully listening, cooperating, and collaborating on problem solving. If you ever feel disrespected or threatened by a classmate, you should contact the instructor immediately. I will handle the situation as quickly and discretely as possible.

On a less serious note, if you bring food or drink to class be courteous; don't slurp and chomp or crinkle wrappers, especially when another student or the instructor is speaking. Don't make a mess, be mindful of crumbs and dropped food, and throw your garbage and recyclables away at the door.

Academic Integrity

As an institution of higher learning, RIT expects students to behave honestly and ethically at all times, especially when submitting work for evaluation in conjunction with any course or degree requirement. The Department of [NAME] encourages all students to become familiar with the RIT Honor Code and with RIT's Academic Integrity Policy.

Statement on Reasonable Accommodations

The Statement on Reasonable Accommodations is required in your syllabus according to this memo. The required text is:
RIT is committed to providing reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities. If you would like to request accommodations such as special seating or testing modifications due to a disability, please contact the Disability Services Office. It is located in the Student Alumni Union, Room 1150; the Web site is After you receive accommodation approval, it is imperative that you see me during office hours so that we can work out whatever