5 Tips On World Building: Part 2

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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!

Once again, I don't want to get into world-building questions that will help you fill in the gaps, but merely provide an overview of the major things you need to take into account when creating a race or a culture.  We can start off with the difference between the two.  A race is defined by physical characteristics: skin color, hair color, and so on.  Culture is defined by the characteristics of values and practices.  If you have shapeshifting dragon men, that's a race.  If you have shapeshifting dragon men who eat babies, and shapeshifting dragon men that protest the eating of babies, that's a culture.  (And if you have humans who don't differentiate between the two, that's conflict!)

1. How does a race or culture educate its children? As my good friend :iconmajnouna: pointed out, the idea of children as "sweet, innocent little darlings" only came into being about 200 some odd years ago, during the Victorian age.  Prior to that, children were cheap labor, considered mini-adults as early as the age of 8 (or earlier!)  "Children's rights" was just as pivotal a movement as women's rights or civil rights, it's just a more fully absorbed norm (at least in some places).  But how a culture educates its children can provide a lot of windows into the society, especially for the hero character.  Public schools?  Well, you'd have to have a taxpayer system and a government that actually cared (and no, that rarely included a monarchy). Apprenticeships?  Sure, as long as you know that running away from an apprenticeship, your one chance at stepping up on the class rung no matter how abusive the master,  gave you a black mark for the rest of your life.  Temples or shamans doing the teaching?  Expect a lot of devout, even downright zealous, folks coming out of the school (would that cause concern or tension from the crown's influence?).  Keep in mind that education doesn't necessarily mean literate (see Question 2); many stained glass windows and Renaissance triptychs are there to tell stories to illiterate people. In many cases, education just meant "This is how you'll stay alive": farming, child care, animal husbandry, finding food, and warfare.  As they said of longbowman, "If you want a good archer, start with his grandfather", and there have been skeletons with warped collarbones discovered.  Children learned to string and draw a bow as well as a man before they saw the age of 10 and it literally could change their bones.  When hand-to-mouth was a way of life, kids didn't sit around doing nothing, and when you had a high infant mortality rate, you tended to have a lot of kids in case you needed a spare.  And by the way, lords conducted warfare because they could afford it; swords ain't cheap, unless they're made of crappy stuff that'll break in battle.

2. Does writing exist? Odds are the answer to this is yes, since few take the time to research what a society with an entirely oral history acts like (a lot of Native American and Mongol history is kind of irretrievable because of it).  However, few bother to look at paper, parchment, and the making of such things, let alone who was allowed to read.  If you think that the feudal system worked because everyone could read, you're sadly mistaken.  And in fact, the invention of the writing press scared a lot of people, because it meant that the poorer classes now had access to cheap, widespread literature that might give them all crazy ideas.  Prior to that, the "landed gentry" made it a point to make sure folks stayed illiterate because it kept them on top.  In many cases, it was illegal, and the higher-ups honestly thought it was because the lower classes were too stupid to grasp the concept.  However, a well-read civilization with a high literacy rate tends to have philosophers and advances in medicine.  (Islam, China, and Greece/Rome, for example, were ahead of their time because they liked-a-da-reading.)  I hate seeing medieval characters crumple up paper or parchment (i.e. sheepskin!) and throw it away.  Unless you're a king, that crap don't fly (and if you were, you had something called a SCRIBE!).  Monks, scribes, and priests were most likely to have such things, because much of their life's work was dedicated to making copies of things (like the Bible) or writing down what someone said.  Almost everyone specialized in something, so if you were a horse breeder, an archer, a soldier, or a farmer, odds are you didn't write or read.  If writing exists, how widespread it is vastly effects the advances and social freedoms of your society.  There's a reason the saying is "The pen is mightier than the sword."

3. What does the culture value?  I don't necessarily mean gold, but that could be considered one!  However, among the conquering Mongols, the idea of gold or money was so stupid to them, they couldn't believe it actually existed.  Because to them, the concept of someone willing to pay you to not take their stuff, deserved to have their stuff taken because they were too weak to have it in the first place.  If you weren't strong enough to defend it, it didn't belong to you.  That was a cultural value: strength.  If you couldn't ride a horse anymore, you sat with the women and children; your social status literally plummeted if you lacked strength.  Among Native American tribes, whose hunter-gatherer culture directly affected their cultural values, couldn't imagine "owning" land.  To them, the land was there to provide for everyone, and what you took was yours, but it was considered churlish to be greedy.  What a culture values usually dictates gender roles and morals.  Obviously, to a Spartan, killing is not a moral wrong.  But to a Buddhist, it is.  What is acceptable for a woman is rarely acceptable for a man (like it or not, ya howling feminists.)  Girls had no rite of passage, as it were, because nature did it for them: the onset of menstruation was the passage of girl to woman.   Boys, on the other hand, needed a ceremony to be declared a man, and his personal values were tested against those of society.  (Joseph Campbell once made a fascinating suggestion: that the lack of rites of passage in American youth had direct correlation with the popularity of contemporary gangs and disaffected, directionless youths.  Whereas girls, who get the "rite" anyway, aren't having as big a problem.  Interesting stuff!)  Courage and honesty are values, but they're open to very different interpretations.  The Mongols ran away from battle all the time, and were called cowards, but to themselves, it was merely a tactical withdrawal.  Thinking about what your culture holds most dear can be a very interesting way to garner conflict: if the elves consider the concept of "ownership" of anything irrelevant, than they're obviously going to clash with a materialistic culture of humans.

4. What are the customs of the race or culture? Cultural values and customs can sometimes be confused.  If a girl is considered a woman because she's had her first period, that's a value.  If people dance around her with burning sprigs of cinnamon and have a feast because of it, that's a custom.  Festivals and religious ceremonies fall under customs, which is basically the day-to-day things that make a culture.  Several things influence customs: society, values, and environment.  An example of customs done wrong: in good ol' Paolini's Brisingr, we have a standard European fantasy setting, a monarchy/feudal system, and a bunch of stupid priests who mutilate themselves for a mysterious god, cutting off their arms and legs to eventually become stumps that are carried around when they achieve High Priesthood or something.  Now, let's examine this from the Society standpoint first: who would let this happen?  A crown that needed stuff written down?  Lords who needed granaries and people to work in them?  Soldiers who needed to pray without, um, losing fingers or extremities that would make them useless in battle?  A people who needed comfort, guidance, or possible quelling in hard times? This custom couldn't operate in the society as it's been presented, because no medieval society would tolerate this kind of blatant crap.  (Creating cripples out of able bodied men when rampant disease does it for you anyway?  Are you serious!?)  Now the Value standpoint: how does this moral, ethical, or spiritual stance reflect what people hold dear?  Does the society care for its cripples?  Elevate them, even?  Embrace leprosy and disease instead of attempting to ward it away?  Believe that health is something so fleeting that one shouldn't even bother with those pesky arm and legs? Not from what I've seen so far; apparently folks want justice, courage, and brave, hot dragon riders.  And last, the Environment standpoint: how did the physical landscape influence this?  Did people who were stumps drink less water in times of drought?  Eat less in time of famine?  Did drinking blood from arms and legs quench thirst and hunger without the guilt of killing?  Wouldn't it have just been easier to kill them instead of turning them into cripples that would have to eat and drink eventually?  I don't know, but I think I'm starting to give the author too much credit.  A custom has to show a culture in action, providing a background that allows us to believe in the hero's cause (or his rebellion, as the case may be.)

5. What kind of place do they live in? A lot of fantasy is set in what basically amounts to Europe, which can get kinda boring after a while.  Please keep in mind that humans, being what we are, have been able to adapt to just about every environment: be it desert, frozen tundra, or wasteland. First, don't tell me that people who live in the desert grow and eat rice.  Rice needs a lot of rainfall, and you'd look stupid.  If there are trade routes for it, that's different.  But especially in a medieval society, peasants wouldn't be eating rice, because it would be too expensive for them!  Also, racial things like prominent epicanthal folds and skin color are adaptations to environments, so think about how that effects your race.  If your race originates in the tropics or around the equator, it's going to be exposed to more ultraviolet radiation and adapt darker skin tones.  This can apply to elves and centaurs, too!  If you, say, want to base a race off the Anasazi Indians, but don't know how they lived, then that's when research comes in.  If you know absolutely nothing about a subject, I recommend picking up a kid's book on it, especially Eyewitness books or something similar.  Thinking about your environment can help you understand why a society became hunter gatherers versus farmers, or why they have obsidian weapons instead of working steel.  This can extend to other parts of your world-building, too: obsidian means volcanoes somewhere, so do they have a volcano god?  Volcano ceremonies?  And so on.  The abundance of food, water, and other resources has a direct effect on what a culture values (See Question 4), because morality and ethics are very easily swayed by a hungry belly.  Compare Greece's values, an agricultural society with a nice Tuscan environment to grow things, to the values of the Mongols, sheepherders and hunters on the grassy wastelands of Mongolia.
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Melelel's avatar
Well thanks for all these, they've been very interesting.

You clearly know a bit about history. Certainly more than me for example. I'm actually working on a script for a sci-fi story. That is to say that it's a story with a sci-fi setting. It is set in a completely different world. One day when I'm finished the first draft (at this rate it's going to be at least a couple of years away, given that I'm in the middle of a different story right now) I'd like to show it to you. It will involve a lot of little details that will probably slip my notice. I'd really appreciate it if you could look over it when it's ready, you'd probably see a great deal that I will have missed.

p s. Actually I did think of one example of self mutilation. The foot binding in China often left people crippled.