5 Tips On World Building: Part 2

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Droemar's avatar
By Droemar
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.
© 2010 - 2021 Droemar
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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.
Droemar's avatar
I look forward to reading it!
Foot binding at least had a cultural backdrop of an obsession with beauty. That sort of thing would've been acceptable if it had been established correctly by Paolini. And it's STILL not hacking off limbs ...
Angel4Danger's avatar
Well it was only for females, which were rich enough to never be expected to work.
sentient-zombie's avatar
I'd have to add the example of a well thought-out world, LeGuin's Earthsea.
It has wizards, dragons, and other stereotypical fantasy stuff, yet it's authentic and memorable. The setting isn't a default medieval European one, there is race diversity and culture conflict.

Dune also did a good job on how settings influenced the society.
barbaroshima's avatar
Girls had no rite of passage
Not true. Many cultures, both in the past and in many that still exist today, have rituals and events for a girl's rite of passage. Some of the rituals did have to do with the start of menses, but not all of them.

It all varies, though. Some cultures may have more male rites of passage or have more elaborate ones. Others may have the opposite, with more numerous/elaborate ones for females. But really it depends on the culture (whether real or imagined).
GreenSprite's avatar
Interesting, and good points. A reason why I don't a) read much fantasy and b) create my own world is that I'm all too aware that EVERYTHING influences the world, even things that might be seen as "no big deal" by some, as the existence of glass or paper. Basically, almost everything that we take for granted in our real world hasn't been like this forever and has a cause (more like lots of causes). So I end up disecting and overthinking why do fantasy worlds work like ours when they shouldn't and I'm generally much of a partypooper.

However I'm not so sure you're right when you say girls never received initiation rites in any culture. I remember reading such things about ancient Rome and Sparta, and certain African tribes. I'm no expert by all means though, so I might be wrong.
Droemar's avatar
Women in Sparta were actually taught how to fight and read and write, which was a big deal back then (conversely, and ironically, Athens wouldn't let it happen.) Female initiation rites do exist, of course; Africa is of particular note: they are just not as prevalent among the history civilizations as a whole. It's far more common for males to have an initiation rite and celebration, whereas the onset of menstruation was all that was needed for a celebration of "becoming a woman".
GreenSprite's avatar
Yep, I know.
Something else I remembered regarding female initiation rites: witch/priestess/oracle initiations. These sometimes overlapped with the girl "becoming a woman". Dang, it's times like these when I wish I could remember where I read things. [citation needed]
Kriraen's avatar
Wow, just earlier today I decided to get going on creating a world for dungeons and dragons (my first time DMing), and then I get on and read this! It must be a sign! But really, these tips are great. I'll definitely keep them in mind.

I really like these journals, and I think I just might have to start watching you because of them. I really hope you do more!
GreenSprite's avatar
How did your first time DMing go? Just asking cause I'm about to do the same rather soon. Note me if I'm not too nosey :)
Jaala's avatar
hrm, how about a race that was created to serve as war machines by another. They are quite simply chaos energy given intelligent thought, placed in near indestructible organic bodies and then trained to kill and die.
Droemar's avatar
Well, I guess I'd wonder why someone would think to give these things sentience, since it doesn't appear to be necessary for their cause. I mean, you ask a warlord if he wants slaves who think or slaves who behave with the loyalty and train-ability of dogs, which one do you think he'd choose? I can understand intelligence like "listen to these simple instructions and do nothing else", but creating something with the same kind of sentience as humanity is always a bad idea. Especially when it's something like "Let's give these creatures sensitivity, emotion, and heart, then treat them horribly, and then give them power the equivalent of a walking nuclear bomb without any kind of failsafe. What could possibly go wrong!?"
I did one created race in my high fantasy world, where human and animal spirits were crossed to create something capable of tracking down and killing elves. The intelligence of the created race was eventually overcome by animal instincts, so the humans assumed the creatures were always stupid and animalistic (they weren't, but they were treated that way.) But, the creators also strictly controlled the breeding, and in preparation for when the elves died out, embedded a magical failsafe so that the race would eventually die out. (And it would have worked, if a pissed-off god hadn't interfered, but that's the story at work.)
Jaala's avatar
....long answer will note you.
Jaala's avatar
:D i love world building. If a story has a good world I'll stick with it even if the prose sucks just to find out how the world works.
persephone-the-fish's avatar
Be careful if you're using another culture for a model: as frustrating as it is to constantly read Europe-based fantasies, it's also annoying to easily identify what culture the author used as a model, European or not. For example, in Tad William's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, the central action is centered in Generic Europe Knockoff, but several other cultures are also used, easily identified as Generic Viking Land and Generic Primitive Swamp People. It was really distracting. For another example, look at Joanne Bertin's Dragon and Phoenix which takes place mainly in Fantasy China Land where there is a conflict between the Fauxmandarins and the Fauxmongolians, which the Fauxscottish dragon people solve for them. A straight up copypasta culture is annoying no matter what continent you export it from.
Droemar's avatar
That's very true! I try to do cultures that are "loosely inspired by", but try to take a genuine look at how other mitigating factors would've taken the culture away from it's "roots". It's rare that I can read fantasy with faux-cultures that I'm like "Wow! Awesome!" unless it's so close to historical fiction that I may as well be reading it anyway. (In fact, part of the reason I like historical fiction is because it's like fantasy minus magic.) I think copypasta is a result of someone doing the research, and thinks that the research equals originality.
persephone-the-fish's avatar
Historical novels or even fantasy novels set in "the real world," alternate history style or a la Harry Potter, do make the familiar settings easier to swallow, don't they? Well, as long as in the case of fantasy they still follow the rules they establish for their magical systems, which is another important part of world building: if the magic has fairly well established rules, but those rules are inconsistently applied, then it becomes less believable and disrupts the reader's immersion in the story. I almost find this sort of thing even more distracting than a generic culture.
Redmagesalyre's avatar
And that's why I love Eyewitness books. They're incredible informative and easy to get into, even if they're made for kids.

On European medieval standard fantasy setting: yes, it does get boring, which is why I started going through books on tribal societies, ancient China and Japan, and the Aztecs. For one, one of the kingdoms in the series I've created has a government structure based a little off of the Mayan during their "Classical" period. But even then, it's hard to get good information on lots of different non-exhausted societies until you go to Wikipedia. I was going to get a book on fantasy worldbuilding when I read through a review: basically the reason why so many European based fantasy worlds is because it's the most analyzed in terms of fantasy, like in the book I was going to buy. The reviewer was upset that the only African civilzation reviewed was the Ancient Egyptians; so what about the Kush or the Meriotes or Great Zimbawe? And very little on Polynesian societies (I'm lucky that my mom had lots of books on that subject from a vacation to Hawaii).

The writing thing is something I'm glad you went over. I've heard of something called a "book curse", which monks used to ward people from burning or destroying copied books. Very useful back then.

Last point: the Paollini religion with the multilation rites. I'm thinking that's his "tract" on religion overall, and that makes me sad. You have to understand why people do what they do, ritual-wise. Rituals and customs have to have a rhyme and reason to them, even if they seem strange or useless. From what I've read, when an animal was sacrificed to the gods in Ancient Greece/Rome/etc, the gristle and bones were burnt and the meat was alloted to the people in attendance. Seems like it was a way to supply meat to the populace to eat. In Mercedes Lackey's Joust, it's noted that the sacrificed animals are given to the dragons to eat, the sands are warmed by transporting the heat from houses and temples to the sands for the dragons to nest in. She puts some rhyme and reason into how the dragons are houses and fed, to add weight to the story's world.
Droemar's avatar
I have read the Joust series, and I remember really liking how she justified the structure that supported the dragons. Of course, Lackey is usually a good one for world-building, even if her pacing can get a little slow.
I don't know if Paolini was doing an author tract or not; considering how wildly his plot directions swung between the second and third book, it struck me more as gross incompetence. Paolini attempting to quell his louder anti-fans and doing a sloppy job of it. An author tract suggests some kind of inherent cleverness on the part of the author, an attempt to sneak something by the reader, and Paolini's just not a good enough writer for that.
At least in my head.
Redmagesalyre's avatar
Author tracts can vary, at least in my opinion they can. They can be either very sloppily done and sound incoherant or they can be very cleaverly done, and just be a part of the story.
felineflames's avatar
European-based stuff really DOES get boring after a while. I'll never understand why that's the backbone of fantasy writing. I guess it takes too much effort to be original.

Thank you for pointing out that people have lived other ways besides that of Feudal Europe. :)
KreepingSpawn's avatar
this is such important stuff! :D
bluedrgnMethy's avatar
you know, You could really put all your rants and tips in a book for writing tips and help. these would be really helpful tahn most of the others I've seen.

I say this because I've seen plenty of tip books that have the same stuff you learn in school and no help whatsoever. Your way of thinking is more useful as a bare bones in which you can add flare to later. :)
mirime-duinram's avatar
Interesting and good points. I usually start with your last point, because I like to come up with an environment first and then figure out how things work from there. And personally I'm tired of generic Euro-fantasy land as well, for the same reason I'm usually frustrated with fantasy: there are all the options in the world (and then some) out there, and I'm still reading these tired old tropes? Fantasy is supposed to be imaginative, not cliché. (This is why I don't read much fantasy anymore; scifi tends to be better at this.)
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