World Building, Intro

The long-anticipated post about world-building is here!

This part was going to be short and simple, just some thoughts about what it can entail, what I think is almost essential for it to entail, and some general examples. (Short is… a relative term. Shorter than it could be?) I’ll refer to the book I discussed in one of my earlier posts, “A Short History of Myth.”

There are guides out there on the net that talk about world building, “conworlds,” you name it. They’ll tell you that you want to have these basics:

– A name

– A map

(Random website about ‘conworlds’: “Here, use our map-maker!”)

This map should include landforms and region types – where are the forests? Where are the tundras? Grasslands? Where are the transition zones? – as well as any man-made regional or country dividing lines.

– Life

Most worlds will have this, unless you’re going for a barren planet discovered by some space colony in a sci-fi novel that tries to terraform it or something. I’ll let others discuss that possibility.

Or maybe you have a planet with aliens. And no humans. Humanoid or not. Or you can have other non-Earthly creatures. Humans can be the dominant race, if they are on the planet. Or maybe another race is. Maybe humans are their slaves.

If you’ve ever read the Pendragon series you’ll get a glimpse at the variety of your possibilities. (That ten book series has ten worlds, I believe, although three of them are Earth. They all have humans, but one of them is of the type I just described. Not on the “literature” shelf, but definitely one of the more fun young adult series. Haven’t read the last two books yet though, can’t say anything about them!)

It is difficult to write worlds without sentient inhabitants, though. At that point your story would be all about the world, and if you’re not careful or especially creative, it may sound like a grandiose scientific experiment. Sure, all of our stories are experiments – if we had girl A from an ostracized royal family and girl B who’s an escaped slave halfway from her starting point to her home country and had them meet at an abandoned orphanage, what do we get? What would be the result if these countries had this history, if this war had happened or didn’t happen, what attitudes people have at the time towards slavery, how much food is available or whether people are steal from you the first second they get a chance, an article one of them had read or a person one of them had met…

The difference between this kind of experiment and a purely scientific experiment is that readers might discover things that arouse strong feelings in themselves, make them think about life differently than before, and at the most, even change the way they see people on the street, read the news, and make choices in their lives. These are the kinds of things that “A Short History of Myth” claimed was the role of myths, especially before the 1500s, after when there were movements of both the thought “myths (outside of this organized religion) are blasphemy” and of skepticism. Since we lived in caves and hunted mammoths and the rest, we told and listened to stories that could not quite take place on our planet according to the rules as we know them. We used the lessons these stories to guide us through each stage of life, including death. For this reason I’ll focus on the human (or humanoid, or sentient-creature-based) worlds.

I want to note that worlds based on animals besides humans, that show a complexity and depth to their lives and interactions that our society doesn’t believe in, sound amazing – I want to read some. I’d even read stories where animals are in the foreground. Wind in the Willows, White Fang, Black Beauty… But I’m very interested in animal-human interaction, and addressing society’s conventions of species superiority (is this black and white?), racial superiority, etc. Then again each writer can choose what they want to explore, and perhaps focus mostly on just the human condition, as most of their predecessors have done. But world-builders, practically by definition, tend to be ambitious writers; they want to have stories that cover a large scope. Touch issues all across the spectrum.

Maybe animals won’t be a central point of your story, but how about how people generally see or treat animals? Feared, hunted out of necessity, hunted for fun, all controlled in farms to feed or serve society? You don’t have to provide any commentary on this. You shouldn’t. You should let the story – the situation, the events – speak for itself.

But this is one of those small, almost behind-the-scenes components that will complete your picture. When you’re making a society/group of people from scratch you need to define EVERYTHING about it for it to be real. How much makeup do women (and/or men) wear, and what kind? Is it more dangerous to go into a back alley or a rural country road back home at night? These are just examples – if you can’t answer these kinds of questions, your society/societies (or whatever they are) – your world – isn’t real yet.

I want to emphasize the importance of this element in building worlds:


What society/people are you focusing on? Please don’t do ten, at least not to start. Maybe over a series. (Which is THE cliche for the fantasy/sci-fi genre if there ever was one.)

If you want to get into this group of people in depth, you need to know what they’re thinking on a day to day basis. What are their ambitions, their career goals, their concerns? What do they believe in? How many kids do they want?

Maybe you are going to design some sort of government and stage an experiment. (I am shamelessly promoting distopian universes here.) How much political and social freedom is there? How are the people responding? What’s the diversity in opinions on religion, warfare, economy, etc.?

To do this well, you need to have a history. And if you want to get really crazy about this? I’d recommend reading “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond, as a starting point. And then other books like it that help sharpen the edges or make some more accurate refinements. What “Guns, Germs, and Steel” does in a nutshell is show how societies developed differently almost totally due to geography. Geography influenced what types of food were available (and whether it was food that was more amenable to agricultural societies or hunter-gatherer living), the incidence of deadly diseases, how isolated a country was which meant developing in safety and autonomy (China) or not due to other reasons, how writing rarely originated organically and how most of it was copied from other societies nearby…

Well, these are a lot of thoughts to throw at you. I’ll just end with an outline of other essentials, within the context of history, that you’ll need for your world to be successful. At this point you might just want to work off of a very close copy of Earth, or an Earth at another time (making different planets the “right way” involves planetary science, deciding how old your planet will be, how evolution or colonization occurred… not getting into THAT here, and there IS such a thing as a creative license that we can use when we want to be just kinda approximate, right?)

– Stories/books – what do the people in your society read, or what stories do they tell? What did that six year old (or six winters old, or fifteen winters old, or whatever) girl get as a bedtime story? Who was her Cinderella? What’s gone out of fashion/repute? Who are the Odysseuses or Harry Potters of your people?

Exercise: Write a ‘fairy tale’ from your world!

– Religion – I want to know when people practice, what they do at practice, if they have ceremonies and dances or churches, how religion fits in with society, connections and clashes… everything.

Exercise: Write out tenets, expectations, and guidelines based on the religion for the people in general, for children, for men, for women, (for slaves?)… just make separate guidelines for these groups or others if it makes sense to. And an origin story, and list of most important stories/events recounted in religious texts. You don’t have to write them, but you should know them. Did humans lose their innocence, like in the Garden of Eden story?

– Leadership/Monarch Timeline – who ruled when, and what happened when they ruled?

Exercise: Make one! You should get enough material down to teach a course on the history of your society, of your planet. And you can choose whether to test your students on dates.

I haven’t even gotten to MAGIC, or designing new species yet…let’s save those topics for next time.

One more thing: I strongly advise world-builders to avoid using the medieval age/Middle Earth cookie formula. Tolkien based his world on European tales, Celtic culture and mythology. Do take a look at his appendices to see how much work HE put into writing the history (and future!) of his own world. You can make a rich story that is inspired by an existing culture or mythology – but why linger in Europe? Explore Asia, the Middle East, African tales, Latin America, stories and histories from the Pacific islands, immigrants and their stories for characters and more stories, you name it! There is so much diversity in world cultures, so much material to dig into.

That’s all for now! Be sure to check out the Dune series as well! (For world-building, I am not as much of a fan of the way the story progresses – not that that should stop you from reading or loving it!)

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