Free-For-All Friday: My Two-Cents on World-Building
Hello everyone! It’s Nov 4th, which means all us NaNoWriMo nuts are now knee-deep into the writing frenzy. Some people are already pulling ahead with word counts in the 10-15,000 range. I, however, spent Tuesday (the first day of NaNo) frantically trying to grade papers and finish homework, that I am already behind. By last night, to stay on pace, I should have had 5,000 words, but I went to bed having written only 4,000 (and that, just barely). Still, I have hopes that I will be able to catch up a little over the weekend. We shall see…
Speaking of NaNo though, I wanted to share a little of my world-building with you because I think world-building is one of the most important and most enjoyable aspects of writing fiction especially in fantasy and certain areas of science fiction when you are quite literally creating entire new worlds for your characters to inhabit.
I am not by any means an expert on world-building, of course. If you want expert advice, I highly recommend Orson Scott Card’s How to Write to Science Fiction and Fantasy and World-Building by Stephen Gillet. But, of course, I have plenty of opinions on the matter. Detailed, thoughtful world-building can make the difference between a fantasy novel that is mildly interesting and/or cliché, and one that is unique, immersive, and exciting. That is not to say that my worlds ARE all that unique, immersive, or exciting yet, but I’m working on it.
I could go on about physical world-building: continents, climates, and so forth, but for now, I’m just talking about creating a society/culture. To that end, there are some very important elements that should be involved. Some of these are obvious: government, cultural norms (are your people militaristic, artistic, pacifist, do they love to dance, are they vegetarians, etc), physical characteristics (if they differ from humans), and sometimes religion. These are obviously important. But there are others that are sometimes forgotten such as: economic systems, interactions with other societies, architecture (this one’s huge, folks!), and gender roles (even more huge, folks!).
Admittedly, this is all just my own two cents, so take it for what it’s worth. Which probably isn’t much. *shrug*
Just to give you an idea of how I go about world-building, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve come up with for my NaNoWriMo story. I haven’t yet put it into any kind of systematic format. I usually just write down everything I can think of about the society and worry about systematizing and filling in details later. And keep in mind that this is still pretty early in the development stage, but in any case, might be interesting. So, here is what I have on the Bheidien, which are the “mermaid” people in my twisted weird retelling of The Little Mermaid.
The Bheidien (which translates as “People of the Sea”):
The Bheidien are a race of people who, several millennia ago, chose to leave land and adapt themselves to living in the ocean. They are part humanoid and part fish in appearance, with a variety of different styles and colors of tail, fin, and scale. They are not actually related to fish at all; their ancestors merely used magic to mimicked fish as the adapted to the sea and evolved.
The royal family have traditional passed on a number of physical traits that follow two general family lines: one side have a more delicate feathered and colorful tail and fin (like a male Siamese fighting fish), and one side tends like look somewhat shark-like in shape and color.
All Bheidien have human heads, necks, shoulders, and arms, with scales beginning somewhere around the chest or torso and getting gradually thicker further down the tail. They have two pairs of eyelids — one a normal “human” pair, and the other a clear pair that close in water and open in air. They also have gill-slashes on either side of the neck for breathing, and feathered, fin-like extensions at the tips of their ears.
They can speak in water by use of long, thick vocal cords that are adapted to water, but because of the changes of sound in water, their language is slow, filled with high and low pitches, clicks, etc, and musical in quality — but still with actual words, and a vocabulary and grammar that is closely related to the parent language of the Cuval.
No, they can’t speak with fish. (Just because humans live on land with animals doesn’t mean they can necessarily talk with them, right?) Yes, they do sometimes eat fish. (Just because humans live on land with animals doesn’t mean they don’t eat them sometimes, right?)
The Bheidien have a fairly simple culture that relies heavily on tradition. There are three separate kingdoms that do not have much contact with each other (being rather spread out in a very large ocean), but they are all fairly similar in basic structure: a city-state kingdom, with a magical “wall” that protects the kingdom from storms, hard currents, and more aggressive creatures like sharks; ruled by a monarchy, with a small but powerful nobility (of approximately 4 or 5 families depending on the kingdom); and a citizenry that is not much involved in politics or power, but is stable.
The Bheidien are powerful magical practitioners, though their kind of magic is somewhat different from the Cuval, and relies almost entirely on the spoken word and song. They treasure singing. They love beauty in all things. They create intricate and beautiful architecture, using coral, other materials, and magic, without having to worry as much as humans do about structural integrity or weight (because of the constant presence of water). They do not wear clothes, but love jewelry and decoration of all kinds.
The internal economic system is not based on money but on trade. Goods are provided to the palace and royal family by way of taxes. The small nobility class earns most of its goods in exchange for providing land and security to the citizenry. The citizenry does most of the work of hunting (fishing?) and gathering other foodstuff, crafting and trading in other goods, and doing physical labor activities. The Bheidien kingdoms occasionally trade with each other, and once or twice a year meet to trade with the Cuval (who come out in boats, or find piers, etc).
Revealing the existence of the Bheidien to humans is the worst crime one can commit. However, the Bheidien still believe that all life of any kind should be respected, so despite their fear of humans, he does not in any way, shape, or form, condone the harm or killing of humans. While Bheidien society allows for an eldest daughter to take the throne or inherit wealth, many other aspects of Bheidien culture are still patriarchal, so that all the younger daughters have little personal or political power. Some can claim positions of power by becoming advisors and councillors, but most are only “useful” to the family and the kingdom if they can be married off well. Men (yes, the Bheidien have a different word, but I’m not going to go into details about the language here, so consider this as “translated”), so: men are still mainly responsibility for the safety of the city, as well as most physical labor and leadership positions. Women are still considered mainly home-makers, though many are also artists, architects, singers, and magical practitioners, etc.
So, what kinds of world-building do you enjoy doing? What are the most important elements for you? Who do you look to for advice/modeling on how it should be done?