Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Ships and spaceships are staples of historical fiction, fantasy, and sci-fi. It’s hard to think of Star Trek without picturing the crew on the famous bridge of the USS Enterprise, or Peter Pan and Captain Hook clashing swords without the Jolly Roger. More than just a means of transportation, the best-written ships are characters in their own right.
Creating something as unique and complex as a ship – for space or sea – can be a challenge for any creator, but even more so for non-visual mediums where you can’t rely on images as shorthand. Crafting the right vessel for interstellar or seafaring adventures means getting the right balance between functionality, practicality, personality, and believability.
A great ship is partway between setting and character, and that means you have to get yours right. That’s why, in this article, I’ll give you a basic overview of everything you need to know in order to boldly go where no-one has gone before.
A brief guide to ships
I’m sure you’ll know already that the difference between a boat and a ship is the size – and really, that’s the only difference. The general rule is that a boat should be able to fit into a ship, but not the other way around. Traditionally, during the ‘Age of Sail’ (1571–1872) a ship was defined as having three masts and a bowsprit (the long pole at the front).
Another common fact about ships that you’ll probably already know is that in English, they’re traditionally known as ‘she’ and ‘her’ rather than ‘it’. The origins of this strange practice have been lost to history, though some speculate it came from all-male crews yearning for the women they’d left ashore. It’s considered outdated today, and if your setting is completely otherworldly, you can ignore this tradition completely if you want. Seafaring ‘culture’ is built on lots of weird superstitions and customs like this, so transferring or making up your own adds grounded quirkiness.
The makeup of a traditional ship
Ships differ in their physical structure (especially when they’re fictional), but knowing a little about the typical ship will help you design something that sounds plausible. To this end, some important parts are:
- Masts/funnel (depending on how technologically advanced your world is)
- Stern (the back)
- Propeller and/or rudder (again, dependent on your setting; used to steer the ship)
- Portside (left)
- Starboard (right)
- Anchor (usually portside; metal device to stop the ship from drifting when stopped)
- Bulbous bow (a protrusion at the bottom of the front of the ship to help reduce drag and increase speed)
- Bow (opposite of the stern)
- Deck (horizontal area covering the hull and primary working surface for the crew)
- Superstructure (an extension above deck coming up from below)
Make sure you know the layout of your ship like the blueprint of your own home – even if not every detail is usable in the story. Sketching it will help, no matter how bad of an artist you think you are. Don’t worry too much about making sure the reader has the exact same image in their head as you – they just need a good enough impression of it. The rest they can imagine on their own.
A ship’s crew
A modern ship’s crew is divided into four departments – deck, engineering, steward’s, and an unnamed group that includes miscellaneous crew members like medical officers, pursers (someone in charge of the ship’s money) and sometimes pilots. For more historical roles, take a look at this list. For militarized ones, have a look at this list.
The deck is where all of the important decisions (in other words, the fun and drama) will be made. Headed up by the captain, the deck crew consists of first, second and sometimes third ‘mates’, who can oversee the other departments in place of the captain, and ‘ordinary’ and ‘able’ seamen/women who are less qualified.
The engineering crew are charged with the not-so-small task of keeping the entire ship running smoothly. They have the same hierarchy as the deck crew, with a chief engineer in charge, 2–3 officers serving directly underneath them, and under them more junior officers (with funny names like ‘motormen/women’, ‘oiler’, and ‘wiper’). Meanwhile, the steward’s crew are the ones in charge of cooking, cleaning and inventorying the stock.
A brief guide to spaceships
Anyone who is familiar with stories involving space travel – particularly those of the Star Trek ilk, in which characters spend most of their time living aboard spaceships – will recognize that much of the interior structures, hierarchy of the crew, and some seafaring customs (like ship names) have transferred over to spaceships.Nautical culture has had a huge influence on real and fictional space travel.Click To Tweet
In terms of crew, the main differences are size and titles – ‘captain’ becomes ‘commander’ or ‘pilot’, for instance. As you can see from this list, the makeup and job roles vary completely depending on country of origin and type of mission, giving you huge scope to invent your own ranks and roles.
Types of spaceship
Similarly to ship classes, the shape and form of your spaceship will fit its purpose, whether that’s observation, exploration, colonization, transporting humans or cargo, or war. This means that as well as studying other real and fictional spaceships for inspiration, you should take a look at some boats, submarines, and seafaring vessels, too. This way, you can get an accurate idea of what an airtight, confined space realistically looks like, without the risk of carbon copying someone else’s design.
In the real world, they either tend to take the form of capsules (for observation and orbit) or spaceplanes (for exploration and manned space flight). If you want to be rigidly plausible but still forward-thinking, a key design concept to consider is artificial ecosystems. “Other than jumping off the Enterprise to visit a lush planet to pick up some resources, there is no notion of biodiversity or ecology in Star Trek,” Professor Rachel Armstrong explained in an interview with the BBC on experimental architecture in spacecraft. “The idea that we’re going to spend any amount of time in space without any ecological fabric that will promote our survival, it’s a very challenging concept.”
So far, the functionality of a real spacecraft logically supersedes anything else, making them hugely visually inadequate compared to what sci-fi creators have dreamt up over the years. Professor Armstrong compared life aboard the International Space Station to, “like living inside a plastic box.” In other words, sacrificing some realism for creativity will go a long way, here. It is science (or speculative) fiction, after all.
Life on board
Once again, despite the environments and job roles being worlds apart, there’s a lot of psychological crossover between sailors and astronauts. Even if your space travelers have the luxury of hyperspace or wormholes to fling them to the corners of the galaxy, they’re still likely to be spending large amounts of time away from organic ground, and experience much of the same feelings sailors do.
Conditions will be cramped, dangerous, noisy, and sometimes isolated. Thinking romantically (and probably stereotypically) it takes a certain type of person to be attracted to this kind of untethered existence. Though the Enterprise might not account for biodiversity, its immense size – accommodating breakout spaces, bars, and the famed holodeck – resembles something close to a cruise liner, maximizing comfort and entertainment for deep-space exploration.Ships are cradles of life – is it any wonder crews (and readers) get attached?Click To Tweet
With this in mind, think about the kinds of activities that are going to happen on the ship, whether it’s sailing the ocean or drifting through the cosmos. If the crew really only use it to get from A to B, it probably doesn’t need to be that big or complicated. For example, Star Wars’ Millennium Falcon is small and zippy to help Han and Chewie perform their best Empire-evading maneuvers, with secret areas for smuggling. But, if the crew spend long periods of time living on your ship, you’ll need to factor in their comfort, basic survival needs and things to keep them occupied. Doctor Who has a running joke that the TARDIS – a deceptively vast spaceship built to traverse time and space – has everything from a walk-in wardrobe and a library to a pool.
If the ship is big enough, it’s also worth considering how different areas function as delineated spaces. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the character Yondu lives aboard his huge ship and decorates the cockpit with tchotchkes. This serves to characterize this area as a form of desk, suggesting that while he’s generally aboard the ship, he only considers certain areas his workplace. Ships used to transport and/or entertain guests often have an area of the ship (or even whole decks) which are the sole province of the crew, keeping them separate from paying customers in their down-time.
When deciding on the features of your own ship, begin from a place of practical need. Think about what it’ll be used for, and build out from there. Remember, also, that the ship is built for the priorities of its creators, not necessarily its crew. Alien’s USCSS Nostromo, for example, isn’t much of a living space, but that’s because its owners don’t really care about the comfort of their crew (a fact that also foreshadows later developments).
To get started, consider the following questions:
- How big is the crew?
- Do they all eat together in one place?
- Do they have their own sleeping quarters or share bunks?
- Is there somewhere they can exercise?
- Are there other, smaller ships on board?
- Does the ship need a lot of manual maintenance, or can it run automatically like a modern-day airplane?
- Does it need weapons?
- What are the key scenes taking place on the ship?
- What kind of layout would work best for these?
Give your ship some character (and a name)
Or, in other words, make it really cool. Serenity, from Joss Whedon’s Firefly, was often considered to be the tenth member of the crew, and that thinking is applicable in any medium. As well as the importance of functionality, purpose, and plausibility, you should imbue your ship with some history, quirks, and atmosphere that will create a sense of personality. In Pat Mills’ Nemesis the Warlock, Seth is a sentient, psychic, car/spacecraft hybrid that can shed its ‘star metal’ skin once a century. In Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Captain Harlock, the Arcadia looks like an extension of the immortal captain’s brooding and intimidating demeanor, and is powered by a cyborg computer attuned to his orders.The best-written ships are characters in their own right. Click To Tweet
Don’t forget how heavily romanticized real and fictional ships are, too. It’s because they are more than just homes or ways to get around. They are the life support of the crew – cradles of life. Therefore, attachments to them become more pronounced, and when failures happen, it’s literally a matter of life and death.
Your reader will care about the ship if the characters care about it. So, if you want to create one that will stand the test of time, your crew needs to have a demonstrated relationship with it. In Eiichiro Oda’s manga, One Piece, when the crew’s original pirate ship is damaged beyond repair, it receives a Viking-style funeral, and is mourned by characters and readers alike as though it were a dead main character. If you can achieve that level of attachment to your ship, then you might just have the next Enterprise on your hands.
The grammar of ships
I’ll finish up with a few tips on the grammar of writing ships. First, ship names are italicized and capitalized, but accompanying abbreviations, articles, and functions aren’t:
- the Cuckoo
- HMS Sparrow
- the Peacock Mars rover
Meanwhile, the titles of those on board should only be capitalized if they’re used as part of the person’s name or in place of it:
- This is the captain, George Davidson.
- This is Captain Davidson.
- What shall we do, Captain?
These are basic rules, but useful to keep in mind when your ship and crew are going to be in your story long-term.
Writing a great ship
Writing a great ship is all about borrowing just enough from reality to engage the reader and bowing just enough to fiction to tell the best story. It can be a difficult line to walk, but one that will reward the diligent author. Reading up on the realities of life at sea – the peculiar quirks and necessities of working aboard a ship – will reward you with all kinds of stories that you can work into your fiction, especially if you’re working with space.
Does your space-faring society have meaningful tattoos to denote light-years traveled or space ports visited? Do your engineers resent the privileged ‘upper-deckers’? Does being followed by a nebula-squid signal good fortune for all aboard? Make some decisions like this and you’ll be surprised how quickly your ship, and its crew, come alive.
What nautical details have helped you write believable ships and spaceships, and where did you find them? Let me know in the comments! If you ship’s heading for a battle, check out How To Write An Epic Battle Scene, or if you’re planning a long voyage, try Passing Time Is The Secret To Improving Your Story and How To Craft A Fascinating Quest Narrative for more great advice.