On Monday I wrote a short tango between two spaceships above some nameless desert planet (there are a lot of desert planets in sci-fi, aren't there?). Today, I'm gonna show how I design the ships that show up in the stories I write.
First, there's one principle that overrides everything else:
The ships have to be fun.
There. That's it. The most important quality, and one that gets even more attention if we're talking novels centered around the craft.
In Mercenaries, the Wild Nines fly a ship called The Whiskey Jumper. It's packing a fighter bay, a cabin's suite, and a really crappy crew mess. There's space grappling hooks, an elevator between levels that nobody seems to use because zero-G jumping is faster. All of these bits have story relevance, sure, but they also give the Jumper flavor. Story gets to happen in these pieces, like the shootout near the engines, or the dance with the android in the main chamber in Rogue Bet.
I didn't map out the Jumper in whole before I started writing Wild Nines, but I knew its primary function–transporting goods–and used that as a springboard for what else might make sense for a mercenary crew to add on to a freighter. I kept my options open, which made it easier to roll with inspiration whenever the Muse decided to give me some.
Second, the ships have to be, in some sense, practical.
This is a weird thing in sci-fi, especially the more fantastical stuff (and I count at least some of my books at that end), but I'm saying here that I like my ships to feel like plausible products some species or factory would put together. In other words, they've got engines, they're shielded from radiation and vacuum, and there's places for stuff like food, beds, and bathrooms.
There are nitpicky questions, like fuel and faster-than-light travel, that often gum up the works with sci-fi, but I tend to like the challenges they represent. Again in Mercenaries, food comes freeze-dried and manufactured. Flavorless goop meant to sustain people over long journeys. That the Wild Nines have to subsist on such crap tells you a bit about them, their financial situation, but also what they're willing to endure.
Third, the ship needs to serve the story.
I take a shopping cart attitude to physics with regard to spaceships too, employing things like aerodynamics to influence smooth designs on one hand while disregarding it with the other. Things like gravity shifts, space-time distortions, and how a ship survives micrometeors at high speeds and so on are problems that I choose not to tackle because it distracts and detracts from the adventure I'm telling. Hard sci-fi exists for folks who want the technical breakdowns, after all.
So my ships get my people where they need to go. They blitz around each other in the stars, blasting away or trying to avoid crashing into the dirt. The ships have enough size to get boarded, are small enough to push the characters together for easy conflict on long journeys.
After those three guidelines, I let the imagination run wild. Do the Sevora in The Skyward Saga need ring-like craft to launch their seedships across the galaxy? Probably not. Is it more fun than a big metal brick drifting through the stars? I thought so.
But if I had to pick my favorite, it would probably be the somewhat bland-named Starship in The Farthest Star. Coming up with all the ways humans might design something to fly for millennia was and continues to be a delight. A vast metal canvas to play with.
So, if you're suffering from starship malaise as you get into your next sci-fi story, consider injecting a little fun into the ships you make. Maybe they're flying hockey pucks or giant pick-axes with a single monstrous cannon at the handle's end. A swarm of pods, each with its own pilot, that Voltron together when a threat nears.
Fantasy has its dragons and its magic. We have our spaceships, and I love'em.