5 Tips On World Building: Part 1

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Droemar's avatar
EDIT: If you like this journal entry, check out The Sarcastic Guide to Writing ebook www.amazon.com/The-Sarcastic-G… for exclusive content on world-building, character, and dialogue!

World-building, for me, is one of the biggest things about fantasy.  It has, in many cases, saved a book from sucking.  Conversely, poor world-building can drag a brilliant plot and excellent characterization down.  What is world-building?  It is consistency of logic and the new rules that you introduce as part of the story.  Easy to say, hard to do.  World-building, in good fantasy, more often than not, provides some kind of critical plot point.  (If it doesn't, that's okay, but really good fantasy usually takes an established rule and gives it story stakes.)  
Examples?  Phillip Pullman establishes the rule of daemons in his His Dark Materials trilogy, so that by the end of Book 1, when someone grabs another character's daemon, it horrifies the reader.  Because it was so heavily established that touching another person's daemon was anathema, forbidden even in battle, a betrayal of a cultural value.  Another, different, example is in Garth Nix's Old Kingdom trilogy, with the seven bells of necromancy consistently behaving as they are described: the bell Ranna always puts someone to sleep; it never does anything different.
This is a two part series, but the first part will be an overview.  For the most part, I build my races and worlds through a series of questionnaires.  Over the years I've narrowed things down quite a bit, to about 10-15 questions.  But if you're looking for a good place to start, Googling world-building questions will help you discover more about your race/culture than you ever wanted to know.

1.  Laws and boundaries need to have some kind of ramification for the characters. This rule is at the top, because it's the one I see broken the most often.  People take the time to establisha brooding council, an evil king, a cadre of badass soldiers, or what have you, and the characters skip right past them.  A country that cuts the hand off of every thief?  The hero steals indiscriminately, without fail, every time, and always has.  A mansion guarded by the biggest, baddest bunch of guards the world has ever seen?  Well, the hero and friends send a grappling hook over the wall and climbs on up.  Mostly, this happens because someone is giving detail to a
world, but not willing to explore it further because it's inconvenient to the plot.  After all, you want your heroes to confront the evil chancellor in the mansion, because that's a much more interesting scene than killing guards.  As tempting as it is to write an anti-hero who plays by his own rules, please keep in mind that societies have rules for a reason, and it's very, very difficult to survive on your own outside of them.  A sub-problem of this is having a very strict society, like, say Victorian England, and having a product of that society flout its rules without consequences.  If a woman decided to throw off her corset, get drunk, and cavort nakedly in the street in Victorian England, I can't even begin to tell you how badly she'd be beaten.  But a lot of people write the sassy heroine with a smart mouth because it's more fun.  This bugs the crap out of me.  I hate seeing an established society that a "speshul" hero is allowed to give the middle finger to.  Not only are you moving into Mary Sue territory, but you're also passing up a prime opportunity for conflict.  Show me a hero struggling to operate within a society he doesn't necessarily agree with, and I'll show you a hero with reader sympathy.

2.   If "Oh, my God" exists, I want to know why. Religion is one of the major driving forces in the real world, especially the further back in history you go.  It's influenced politics, war, and economy, whether you like it or no.  Examining religion and its place in your fantasy world is very important, because a world made of atheists is going to have just as many rules and regulations as a world of a thousand gods.  Whether your God or gods exist isn't necessarily important, but the way the culture treats them is.  Even in our world, an atheist says "Oh, my God" when he's freaked, because there is a cultural backdrop behind the exclamation; our culture has religion in droves.  If there are no established gods, talk of an afterworld, or even a chat about metaphysics, and someone says "Oh, my God", it makes my brain short circuit.  Where did this God come from?  Is it just the one?  Is he mad at you for taking his name in vain, or just his priests? Are there priests!?  Either find something else for them to say, or establish that there is religion somewhere.  Religion is so closely tied with cultural values that to overlook it, whether because you hate it or are attempting to be PC (see Rule 3), odds are that someone, somewhere, in your fantasy world looked up at the sky and said, "Why are we here and what happens after we die?"  Differing religions, naturally, make for great conflict.  Especially if the gods are real.  Keep religion in mind when you're world-building, because it's a massive piece of the puzzle.  This doesn't mean you have to go on author tract about it, or even make it a major part of your story, but allow it to be part of the backdrop.

3.  Politically correct is not a necessity. Pressure from contemporary cultural norms encourage things like equality, fair trials, and not being racist.  Unfortunately, it's only been in
the last hundred years that crap like that has actually become the norm.  Women could vote before black people could sit in a restaurant next to whites.  Before that, you could put up a sign
that said "No Irish", and before that, you could work children in factories for 16 hours straight for ten cents a day.  Before that?  A lord owned your ass and the asses of your kids and great-grandkids, and could throw you off your land to starve for getting mud on his doublet.  Before that?  Well, you were just on your own to keep marauding barbarians off your mud farm.  Even Ancient Greece and Rome treated their woman pretty bad, and don't even get me started on stuff like the handicapped or mentally disabled.  The Middle Ages are looked upon with a highly romantic air, and don't let that stop you from writing in it, but do a tiny bit of research, please.  I love the Middle Ages because it was so different; I love how they made bows, and glass, and built cathedrals.  I don't need to see peasant women being treated as valuable member of society, because they weren't; I know it and you know it.  Again, that these societies, by our contemporary standards, were unfair gives a lot of opportunity for conflict.  Don't skip over it.  You need not emphasize in the other direction, like in Monty Python, but show us your world, the dirty and the clean.  The good and the bad.  It'll make it more believable, and if you don't, odds are you're in cliche' territory with all the other morons.

4.  Warfare drives technology; in fantasy, magic would do the exact same thing. A lot of people seem to forget this.  If there are people out there who can throw fireballs, I can just about
guarantee you that there's a king out there, with a lot of gold, that he's willing to throw at their feet in order to burn his enemies.  And if the fireball throwers refuse, well, they have families, don't they?  Or, if they're too dangerous to be allowed to live, a king with an army wouldn't mind trying to wipe them out.  And maybe capturing some of their kids, so the kids can be raised to be fireball-throwers for the king.  It applies to just about everything.  Invisibility?  Shapeshifting?  Talking with animals?  Espionage.  Teleportation?  Flying?  Sneak attack.  Energy blasts?  Dragon-summoning?  Head of the army.  I never understood how Paolini's so-called golden age of Dragon Riders wasn't really some kind of military junta, especially since punishment for things like murder and theft would be meted out by flying, scaly death tanks.  I mean, maybe your wizard is the one in charge.  Magic and what it can do has to be considered very carefully, because it has huge ramifications.  Magic is power, and power is everything.  Just ask businessman and politicians, and look at what they do with it.  I hate seeing heroes with super-awesome destructive powers, who A) never get blackmailed, bribed, or asked to do some fireworks by the folk in charge, B) never get mobbed by people or towns who are
terrified of what they can do, or C) imprisoned for blowing shit up.  This goes double for someone whose powers haven't been seen in a thousand years, were responsible for the death of a civilization, or mentioned as having a hand in the end of an age/world by a prophecy.  Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle series treats very powerful magic in a realistic way, because the main character becomes embroiled in squabbling factions that each want part of her power.  Same with the concept behind X-Men.  Don't just give your hero abilities and go with it; examine what kind of ramifications that kind of power would have.  I mean, if people freak out about a gun in an office building or high school, imagine how they'd react to fireballs ...

5. How people get food must be examined. Many fantasy writers overpopulate their worlds, not just with a human and elven and dwarven populations, but with massive, immortal dragons, marching orc hordes, and perverted centaurs.  First of all, starving people = not fun.  Ask anyone who saw or wrote about the French Revolution.  In fact, riots in Rome were a big reason why bread and circuses was developed to keep the people happy.  If a populace is well-fed
and entertained, it's less likely to riot on you.  Conversely, a town under siege usually breaks because it runs out of food, in many cases after they've eaten the horses, dogs, cats, rats, and the dead.  One such town gave their guy in charge to Genghis Kahn, because he wanted to keep fighting and they didn't because their families were starving to death.  Long story short, I have no
idea how Sauron kept all those Uruk-Hai fed.  Conversely, if you have a so-called evil king, who is willing to let Urgals- er, I mean, orcs, march all over the place raping and burning, pretty soon you're going to have a pissed off population.  And I don't mean an indignant population, I mean a "I'm so hungry I'll throw myself on a knight in plate mail for the chance to eat his horse" population.  Same goes for dragons, who, if they're bigger than elephants or even some whales, would have to eat meat.  Meat was a rarity for peasants, who saw it maybe a couple of times a month if they were lucky.  Sooner or later, if no one has anything to eat, it all breaks
down.  The ones in charge may live, but a lot of people are going to die.  The aftermath of the Black Plague saw famine on a scale so massive that harvests literally rotted in the fields.  So, if
you have marauding hordes, tectonic plates shifting in a matter of seconds, reality torn asunder, earthquakes, or dragon attacks, you'd better show me what kind of aftermath occurs.  Again, story stakes and conflict come in here, but don't just have it for the sake of the hero.  Show us the world the hero is defending and why, and we'll be much happier.
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WallofIllusion's avatar
This seems really useful! I'm working on worldbuilding but I keep getting distracted by the story itself, so hopefully this will help keep me on track...
WorldBuilding's avatar
If you're interested in ensuring a balanced population then you should check out Medieval Demographics Made Easy - it has a great section on how many acres of land a population needs to support itself. Not only that but it also breaks down the population required to support certain types of industry.

You can find the article at the following link: [link]
mbartelsm's avatar
Everything was nice, till you brought up the lord of the rings, dude, it is THE LORD OF THE RINGS! you think the greatest worldbuilder ever didn't thought about food? did you even read the books? or just watched the movie? behind mordor there are vast fields meant for growing food, and yes it is not enough, but even in the movie orcs fight for food amongst them.
Droemar's avatar
Yes, like I haven't had a LOTR fanboy jump on me about that before. As I recall, Tolkien himself gave a Shrug of God about the orc horde in question. Orcs also apparently eat meat, "all manner of flesh" and I've also heard the argument that they "ate filth". Not corn or crops, though.
Don't know, don't care, but it's still a mistake worth thinking about in your own writing.
mbartelsm's avatar
Sorry if the comment was a bit rude, I was a bit sleepy when I wrote it
Pumpkin13's avatar
Hey man, this was really useful! I'm working on a major project at the moment and I have at least four worlds to build =S A "standard" Earth, a Celestial equivalent of Heaven (kinda cross breed between Christian Heaven and Norse Asgard), a hellish realm, and there's vast desert rocky wasteland realm in between the second two which is populated by nomadic creatures and the suchlike. I mainly wondered if you had any suggestions on building Celestial realms. As you've touched upon at many points, if something is perfect or too easy it becomes uninteresting, it's the conflict or imperfections that draw our attention. Which makes creating a supposedly celestial heavenly realm one of the most difficult type of world's to create.

My Celestial Norse vision of an angelic heaven (working title "Alterheim" but for now I'll just use christian references) is in a bit of a twilight phase. God (Vasha) has left, for reasons of her own beyond the comprehension of lesser minds (it is revealed why she left later on) and so the Light of Heaven is slowly fading, and they fear the growing strength of Hell's legions. So one of the four Archangel characters (Raphael, the female Radha in my work) constructs a plan to "re-ignite" the Light of Heaven. The main plot is about how that plan goes down, how it is hijacked and how they try to save it. It goes without saying that the construction of the celestial world will greatly influence the construction of the human world (currently thinking a fairly crapsack world split between super powered Corporate conglomerates and a an almost fascist-esque Religious faction).

Sorry for all that, thought I'd try and give you a brief run down... so yeah any thoughts or suggestions on creating heavenly or celestial worlds?
Droemar's avatar
I think I'm due to post either something on religion and something on role of myth in fantasy worlds, so you can keep an eye out for that. Otherwise, I'd say buy my ebook The Sarcastic Guide to Writing and see if it helps.
Charanty's avatar
"Conversely, a town under siege usually breaks because it runs out of food, in many cases after they've eaten the horses, dogs, cats, rats, and the dead."
-> Don't forget cannibalism. And that's not all - people in St-Petersburg when city was under siege during WW2 used to eat really weird stuff such as glue, leather belts and etc.

Also when it comes about magic - who runs the society when magic is a real power? Is it "magocratic" or mages are sort of "grey eminence"? Or maybe they aren't interested in ruling at all.
If magic affects lifespan of the user (say, it makes you live for centuries) what kind of influence it has on society?
Droemar's avatar
Those are some excellent world-building questions.
Charanty's avatar
Thanks. I love asking such questions.
I've dedicated a huge guide to the questions of the world building.
Have you ever read the queen's blade series?? If you haven't, you should! It is probably one of the best examples of a well-thought out and fleshed out fantasy world! It's from smashwords, and you can read it ONLINE!! :D
Nightiingale's avatar
This is just a little thing on your warfare point (and world building in general), going off on a tangent but..

Warfare drives technology, but so does medicine. People try to figure out how to blow each other up, then bandage themselves up and stop dieing from everything. Personally, I feel that medicinal and medical practices have evolved just as much, if not more so than warfare has. A king would throw mountains of gold at someone who can blow the shit out of their enemies, but would probably throw even more at the guy who can cure his son of Haemophilia.

I've seen so many fantasy stories where you have magical healers and there's no justification, explanation or ramification of healing spells, and magic. Just “you get better, because this guy here.. is this guy and he's got the magic touch”. It’s one of my pet peeves. It’s like I’m looking at a final fantasy fantasy game with cure spells and healing potions! No one stops to think of what the positive and negative impacts of society such magic would have, let alone the impact it'd have on the story in general. Sometimes, I see good examples of healing magic (when someone's sat down, and thought out the limitations and the rules of said magic), but most of the time nuuh. It's stupid.
Zada2011's avatar
I'm currently trying to make a story and have set aside all plot aspects in favor of making the world first. Especially since dragons are involved in mine I have to look at how it affects the territorial behaviors, concentration in areas depending on habitat and availability of food, not to mention getting the whole thing laid out in some order and starting to make societies and how they function in areas.
Zada2011's avatar
So in other words since I forgot to mention it above, your journal posts about this have been a life saver.
Actualy, its not well documented in the books but Sauron had vast farms operated by slaves to feed his armys. Thay would also eat literaly anything. He could get by feeding them horse shit. But partly when thay won a battle thay would eat all the dead, no matter wich side, or in what condition.
I beleve it was mentioned maybe once in the books, but there where a few minor notes about it in the apendexxes and some of the background information books.
Keaze's avatar
These are some great tips because I often see such bad world building in books and especially manga, where the culture just seems like a mish-mash of different concepts the author thought sounded cool.

Now, this might just be me, but you seem to want everything to be too realistic. Why would children or women really have to be mistreated in a fantasy world? It's fantasy, just because it happened in our history doesn't mean it has to happen in fiction too unless the writer is writing a historic novel or wants to address that particular issue.
And you seem to look at everything from a western perspective. Some western societies did have these norms but that doesn't mean every other society had them as well. Some cultures treated women as equals and many weren't racist. The problems that existed in USA and Europe didn't exist in every culture and there's no need for them to exist in a fictional one either. Even if someone is making a quasi-medieval Europe fantasy world chances are they're making it so that they can break some of the conventions that actually existed, not abide by them.
Lastly, cultural conventions weren't set in stone. For example, in the family of my ancestors both men and women could inherit and posses land even though it was normally only men who had that privilege. My grand-grandfather came to propose to his wife alone, even though it was customary to bring friends when you do it. Life of people in the past wasn't as set in stone as we are so often made to believe, otherwise different cultures wouldn't evolve in the first place.

I've always seen "Oh, my God!” as just the same as "Oh, no!" because some made up exclamation just sounds stupid when said in a dramatic scene. But, then again, I usually assume people don't speak English in fantasy world. After all, Latin was the thing back in the days and half the words used in fantasy wouldn't really exist in the past.
Droemar's avatar
None of these suggestions are hard and fast rules; nothing in writing really is. If your theme and plot have nothing to do with the equality of women and children, you wouldn't be serving the story by putting it in. And while cultural conventions certainly weren't set in stone, my intent was to address the obvious rules being set up just so a hero could skip over them or knock them down.
I can't help corrupting my own perspective, because I am from the West, but I do understand that bigotry, misogyny, and racism are and were global problems. (And most stories are all about conflict, so it's not much of a leap to find it.) While I know that places where races mingled freely and without conflict existed, by and large they were exceptions, not necessarily the norm. But, if one's world-building supports that all races get along and women were treated as equals, that's fine; the point I'm trying to make is that it's easier said than done. You can do anything you want with world-building, just do it consistently. Note that I didn't say believably; the Varjak Paw series is way out there in believability, but I adored the story's world-building and the plot itself was beautiful.
The "Oh, my God" thing would seem very out of place in a world without gods, a god, or religion. It creates a domino effect of fridge logic for me(the moment after the TV show where someone goes to the fridge to get a snack and realizes, "Hey, wait a minute, that couldn't have worked!"). If the characters have wandered through 50 pages without seeing a church, a priest, or a psalm, and when a dragon appears they say "Oh, my God!" that's not consistent world-building. At best, it's some kind of pseudo-Christian backdrop where monotheism has, for some reason, suddenly caught on. Admittedly, if I were writing in Latin and hadn't mentioned gods, I'd be more inclined to have one of my characters utter "Merda!" Short, sweet, and it does the exact same thing.
Granted, not every fantasy novel has to have the kind of level of detail that I'm going into here, but I figured folks would like help with the complex kind.
Keaze's avatar
I think your journal will be helpful because I see so many works (and not just ones done by amateurs) where the main hero acts like he doesn't come from the world he was put in.
Starhorse's avatar
It's like a mini-fix between massive book-talks. :pat:
Droemar's avatar
That doesn't mean you're off the hook, missy!
Starhorse's avatar
pah! Of course not! But I don't think my parents would appreciate a three hour long distance call -more- than once a week.
Droemar's avatar
Oh, right! Because I demand that you talk to me for 3 hours at a time!
Starhorse's avatar
don't be ridiculous. of course it's you.
Snaphance93's avatar
Droemar, you have become the next Limyaael :D

No, seriously, these things are useful. It's good to know I'm not alone in this world when it comes to world-building and research.
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