Are you ready to build a world? Good!
The Magic Gateway, by jerry8448. This is what we want to do with worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is a complex process, because it is essentially creating the base of a different reality from our own. An author must pull together all the elements of a 'world', and capture that in text. This applies in any genre of writing. Even non-fiction has aspects of worldbuilding because it has setting and world details the same as fiction. In any genre, if the world is flat, the story will be flat and one of the best ways to build a fictional world is to know about one's own. Stories and readers both require an interesting and engaging place to go to, and our world, as well as any imagined one, can provide this! Because our world is the base of most human experiences, it is a great place to understand for both personal and writing reasons. If the author understands the setting, there is much less of a chance of the world having obvious holes in its workings. The stronger the base reality that is created, the stronger the story will be, and the more the author understands the world they are trying to capture, the richer and more believable the world will be!
Two of the most noticeable aspects of worldbuilding are Environment and Social Structures. The Environment is the actual biological environment or environments that the story is placed in, and Social Structures are the workings of the society or societies that the story deals with.
How does Environment contribute to good worldbuilding?
Environment is the stormy night, or the sunny day the story exists inside. It is the deciduous trees turning gold in the autumn, the stunted evergreens on the snowline of the mountains and the creatures emerging from the canvas of red ocean at sunset. It helps set tone, and characters can, in some cases, be dealing with it constantly. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road opens with a description of the book’s environment: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him” (1). The dark unknown of the woods is the first thing the reader sees, and it sets the tone for the entire novel. The characters interact with their environment constantly, and through the book nothing jumps out as out of place, or strange within the parameters of the story. Consideration of the story’s environment aims to make a strong world for the story to exist inside.
How do Social Structures contribute to good worldbuilding?
Social Structures are the bustling city, full of veiled men and tall ladies, or the little village with eyes peering out of mud brick huts. It is how the city treats the people in the mud brick huts, and how the people in either place are ranked from most to least important. It is the lattice on which the society grows, and knowing how it works makes navigating world details easier. China Mieville’s novel, The Scar creates multiple societies, all complex and interconnected. It leaves no glaring gaps, but instead leads the reader to the social marvel that is “Armada”, a pirate, flotsam-city on the ocean. Each culture has different values, ideas and levels of technology that when put together make an alternate earth that feels very real. Having a world that seems real to readers is one of the ultimate goals of worldbuilding as an exercise, and the consideration of social structures within a story can be one of the key elements that makes it so.
Constructing an Environment: Basic Biome Principals
A Biome is basically one system of plants, animals and the conditions they can live in. It is a specific ecosystem. One story may traverse many of these, or stay solely in one. If a story takes place in a specific location on earth, it is fairly easy to research the biome it is in. However, if the story is alternative earth, a non-earth, or a different planet biomes can be a daunting thing to capture in text. Here are some guidelines to creating your own ecosystem:
- A biome starts with water. Because most of the life in any given ecosystem (on earth, anyway) is vegetation, water is the main thing to consider, and water is often dictated by weather and geography. Is this place dry? Is it very rainy? Does it go through a dry summer and a winter full of monsoons? Do the mountains drain off all the rain? Does the water collect in peat? Is there a lake/river/delta/ocean/oasis/ground water? Thinking about the way water enters and leaves the system is a good first step.
- The second step is flora. Plants adapt to survive in the conditions they are in, so the two biggest limiting factors on vegetation are water and light. If there is very little water, they tend to become succulent and cactoid to conserve it. If it rains often, plants tend to grow quickly, have a short lifespan, and large leaves that repel water. The more vegetation in one ecosystem, the more sunlight becomes a limiting factor; plants can only live if they can photosynthesize. How a plant adapts to overcome the obstacles in its environment can be a fun, inventive process. Even on earth there are plants with bizarre adaptations that let them live in harsh environments, so as long as something fits its ecosystem, it is a viable option.
- The final step is fauna. The limiting factors on fauna are food and water. How an animal obtains both is how it lives its daily life. Creating a food web is a good way to check to see that the animals in a created biome fit in with their ecosystems, because everything both eats and is eaten. Animals also have to be bodily adapted to survive in their ecosystems. If it is cold, they must have an adaptation that lets them deal with it. If they only eat a certain food, they need a specialized way of obtaining it. This is very flexible. As long as the system works, it can be increasingly bizarre, and is not limited to mere ‘creatures’. Intelligent races can be made up with the same principles as any other animal.
Toxic Birds, by NocturnalSea showcases some really cool adaptions found in our world in wonderful colour.
Things to Consider:
All of these things and more need to interact together to create a working ecosystem. How much does an author need to know to make a convincing system? What if the story is largely removed from the natural environment?
Constructing a Social Structure: Noticeable Social Building Blocks
There is no right way to create a society, because there are no “rules” to how they work, and the human understanding of a society has only human input. Because every reader has lived in a society, they all have a basic understanding of how they work. People intuitively understand some of the workings of interpersonal relationships, the connection between actions and consequences and morality within the limits of their culture. This means that a created society must have real depth to be rich and convincing. However, there are some consistent building blocks that can guide the creation of a society, no matter what form it takes.
- Values are one of the key elements of any given society, because they are what is important to its public. These are the base elements of potential religions, laws and customs. When someone embodies cultural values, they are likely to be praised and given high status. When someone breaks or discards them, they are likely to be demonized and given low status. In North America, there is a high cultural value on money; the rich are high status people, and the poor are low. This is not the only value, because there are almost always more than one set of values in a society. The younger a society is, the more likely it is that the values of its people will be homogenous and the older, the more likely it is that there will be polygynous sets running through the culture. Values will change the more societies interact with each other, but will always be the driving force of behind status and morality.
- Spirituality/Religion is how the people in a society deal with the divine, death and many of the ‘bigger’ questions in life. It may become organized, and form a religion, or stay private and keep society secular. Religion is specifically when spirituality becomes organized. If one particular religion dominates society, it will probably become one of the structures that society uses to keep order, because it is one way of expressing values. However, this does not mean it has to eradicate all other religions. The Roman Empire (before the Holy Roman Empire) did not quash the religions of the people they conquered. Instead they supported them, by allowing worship of local gods and building temples to them, as well as their own. Roman religion still dominated Roman daily life, but it was not structured in a way that competed with others. On the opposite side, an Assyrian King has been recorded saying he would smash his enemies to death with the statues of their gods. Religion is separated from spirituality by the scope. Where religion is a structure in society, spirituality is a structure inside a human being. The two may be joined very closely, or be very separate, both having different effects on the societies that encompass them.
- Customs are, in part, how people live and the rituals of everyday life. They are the actions that are considered polite, rude or weird for a person to perform in any given situation. There are greeting rituals, eating rituals and ways in which one treats members of society above or below oneself. Ritual performances of customs, like the handshake as a greeting, can often have strong links to what is polite or rude. One origin story of the handshake, is that it was to show the person being greeted that one was unarmed and friendly, and it is still considered a polite greeting today. Some customs are more important than others, and have greater consequences for being disregarded. It depends on what values and what institutions support the custom. Refusing to shake someone’s hand is rude, but indecent exposure could get someone arrested. Both actions are breaking a custom, but one has much harsher consequences than the other, because the rules it breaks are backed by cultural values.
Enchanted Forest II, by Blinck: I bet the people here value their trees.
Things to Consider:
Values, Spirituality/Religion and Customs are big building blocks of a culture, and they are not easily separated. Do values inform religion, or religion values? Do all customs reflect the values of a people?
Constructing Social Structure: Concrete Traits
Certain aspects of societies are "concrete" in the sense that no matter where the culture is, or what it looks like, it is moulded by these two things. Technology and Environment can have far reaching affects:
- Technology is a changing trait of society, but an important one. Technology is ways people have invented to overcome obstacles in their lives and especially in the earlier stages, is related to what people need to accomplish. The level of medicine in a society is a level of technology, as well as things like plumbing, electricity, or microchips in people’s brains. It can be either a subtle or overt mediation, depending on how public specific inventions are. In a steampunk or cyberpunk novel, the levels and nuances of technology are often important to the story, and require a lot of attention. In a Fantasy novel, this is not necessarily true. The difference in story attention comes from the difference in the societies within the stories. It has the ability to utterly change a society, or force it to stay the same.
- Environment has a very real effect on society, as well. Environments are where societies are born; they provide the food, building materials and locations, all which help shape people and culture. If the climate is dry and prone to flooding, without any hardwoods to build with, what kind of dwellings would the people construct? Would it be mudbrick cities that create hills as they are washed away every season, or would they find a stone quarry and build raised cities of stone? That would probably depend on if they have the materials to make stone building tools. Are there animals that they can make antler or bone chisels from? Do they have the resources and the know-how to make metal tools? Environment also can have a hand in the art of a society, depending on how much it is valued. The Minoans were famous naturally motifed frescoes, while the Assyrians had a more warlike focus in art. However, not all societies are made to fit their environments; the environment only informs society if the culture is endemic to the area. A colonial society will carry many of its architectural, culinary and cultural preferences to new lands that may not easily support them. As societies advance in technology, there is a greater chance for people to be apart from their natural environment as well.
Things to Consider:
Technology and Environment are involved in every society, but to what extent are they connected with each other? How do they affect customs, religion or values?
Environments & Social Structures: Putting it all Together
To construct a world that mirrors the complexity of our own requires a lot of thought. Everything: water, flora, fauna, values, spirituality, customs and technology, is interconnected in a real society, because they all exist in the same space. The complexity of both nature and human (and nonhuman?) behaviours are limitless, but this is what lets authors create convincing worlds for readers to get lost in.
How much worldbuilding is required to write a good story? Can you have too much? What other aspects of worldbuilding are helpful to think about?
Making Places: This blog doesn't update very much, but what's there sure is cool!
National Geographic: Explore the natural world; the weird, the disastrous and the beautiful.
The Secret Door: With exciting google-earth technology, explore some really neat places for inspiration.
Al Jazeera: The human and society aspects of worldbuilding found here! Though this is one of my preferred news sites, other news works to the same effect.
Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner: This book takes a very literal approach to worldbuilding. On earth, with a "future" society taken to interesting limits. Also, in a weird way, it predicted twitter.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin: This book takes place on a planet far outside the reaches of the earth we know, inside a society just similar enough that we can still understand it.
Abarat, by Clive Barker: Very vivid and creative fantasy for young adults. Get the version with the paintings included, so you can see his monsters as well as read about them.
The Scar, by China Mieville: I already talked about this one, but wow. Mieville paints Bas-Lag with a vividness that lets you see.