My Two-Cents on World-Building

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?

18 thoughts on “My Two-Cents on World-Building

  1. The Bheidien sound awesome! An interesting take on mermaid lore. And I agree – why would they be able to talk with fish? Doesn’t make much sense to me.

    For myself, I like to focus on worldbuilding details that are plot-relevant…I’ll admit that I don’t entirely “get” writers who build the world first and the plot second. For me, it happens hand in hand. For example, if I discover I might want to utilize religion in my world, then I’ll build a religion. But if my story has nothing to do with that, then I won’t bother with the religion aspect just for the sake of having a religion aspect. Even if I think it’s likely that the world has a religion.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you like them.

      I know what you mean about staying plot-related. And sometimes I do that, or I simply don’t think of some world-element I might need until it comes up in the plot. But overall I am definitely one of those people who builds the entire world and comes up with all sorts of details that will probably never see the light of day in the actual story. However, in this particular case, this world I’m working within is actually one I’ve been building for a very long time, and does (or will) continue a very large number of different related and not-related stories/characters. The Bheidien are simply an addition to that world, so a lot of the stuff (like the Cuval, who I mention in that above description but don’t explain) are elements that were already there in my head.

      This world I’m building is MASSIVE too. It’s an entire planet, not just one country or a couple. It has 5 major continents and variety of kingdoms and cultures, etc… And I plan on using all or most of it in SOME story or another, as they are generated. That, and it’s just plain FUN. ^___^

  2. Your world sounds pretty awesome. I tend to be a world-builder myself, though for the current piece I’m working on I haven’t really expanded the setting much because it doesn’t really need the expansion. But I have one story in which the setting is equally massive: two continents at least, though I’ve debated having the entire planet featured, but that just sounds intimidating.

    • Creating an entire planet is DEFINITELY intimidating, but it’s also a ton of fun. And I’ve been doing it a few pieces at a time for a few years now, which takes away some of the terrifying-ness of it.

      • How did you go about it? Do you just research various cultures and integrate that into your planet? I’m so curious.

        • I wouldn’t say I specifically go out and research anything in particular, BUT I have a long-standing deeply-ingrained fascination with culture, religion, and anthropology. I’ve taken art history classes, anthropology classes, philsophy classes, comparative religion classes, (I ended up minoring in Theology), and watch Discovery Channel and NatGeo religiously, and I read history books a lot. All of that just sort of coalesces in a variety of ways as I try to think about what would be more or less plausible for certain cultures.

          For instance, in the case above, I knew I wanted this to be a small city-state kind of kingdom, and I knew it would have only a small nobility class. In that case, how much sense would it make for them to have “money”? Not much. So, I went with an economy based on trade of goods and services instead, based on what I knew of feudal culture in Europe. And I tend to create fairly elaborate belief systems simply because I am obsessed with religion and have a decent amount of knowledge about it.

  3. I’m so glad to read this today. My nanowrimo novel has turned out to be a fantasy, and I’m having a great time inventing the world. As it turns out, I’m with Annalise – plot all the way, coming up with the details I need for that. I can imagine that I’ll eventually get around to making up many many more details in the finished novel, but for now it’s all plot and dialogue, and getting to 50,000.

    I haven’t written anything in this genre, so it’s big fun for me. I started with the premise of an historical novel that I was going to set in 600AD Germany, knew I couldn’t manage the research, thought of Avatar and the Na’avi, and there I went.

    • I’m glad you find this at such an opportune moment! Writing fantasy is so much fun, and the world-building is definitely one of the best parts. I wish you luck with NaNo and beyond!

    • Hehe, thanks. Yeah, I keep hoping to get some cramming in this weekend too, but there’s also homework, house-cleaning, grocery shopping, etc. *sigh* Sometimes I hate being a grown-up.

  4. I love how you’re starting out that culture. It sounds enchanting and a nice twist from TLM. I have a curious question about the architecture – wouldn’t constant water currents and pressure (depending on how deep they live) be more damaging to delicate frames?

    I’m a massive world builder, myself. Due to my storytelling/DungeonMaster habits I am perfectly content with building multiverses first; then universes, then a solar system or two, then ‘details’ of the planets and finally their inhabitants. When I write for a storytelling/roleplay game this way I can easily bring in dozens pages of campaign material in just an hour or two…

    …but when I write for NaNo I tend to start with one or two characters and ‘expand’. Of course I -always- end up struggling with words when I do it that way. Guh. >.<

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Thank you. I’m glad it sounds interesting to you, and it’s always nice to find other obsessed world-builders. I love the idea of multiverses, and the intricate ways various worlds, dimensions, storylines, etc. can all intersect.

      As for the architecture, I think of it as being fairly resistant to pressure because it is mainly constructed from rock and coral and such that is already adapted to water. Also, while a structure that was built and then just left in the ocean would probably erode or something, these are structures that would be constantly and meticulously maintained to prevent such erosion. And finally, if all else fails, I can still lean on the classic excuse for anything in a fantasy novel: magic! 😀 I try not to do that too often. I try to make these things as internally logical as possible, but magic is always there if I need it.

      • Those are good examples!

        Yeah I too don’t like leaning on the ‘magic crutch’ so to speak, though it does come in handy for the “It uh…works like…oh do I REALLY need to be logical here?!” moments. Hehehe. Sounds like you’ve got it really set. Would love to read your NaNo novel when it’s done.

        Thanks again^^

  5. All interesting stuff! The thing I’ve found most interesting in my current WIP is the weather! Suffice to say, it’s cold, overcast and definitely post a drastic climate changing event two thousand years previously (not global warming). I’m still constantly finding little things I need to change (everyone wears boots, clothes are always heavy, there are historical/folk memories of a summer that lasted longer than a few weeks…)

    • Weather is definitely fun stuff. I’ve been trying to work out logical climates on my planet for awhile, and I keep finding things I need to adjust and change. I’ve been studying climate maps of Earth to try to understand where climates gradually change, and when you can get away with sudden shifts from temperate to desert, etc. (mountain ranges are a good device for that).

      Yours sounds really interesting. Long winters would depress me though.

  6. Pingback: Your Novel’s World: How Do You Create It? « Elisa Michelle

  7. I found this post really helpful. I’m trying to create a world where each city has it’s own particular culture and the different races tend to live apart except for merchants, so each city’s culture becomes that races’ culture. The biggest problem I’ve been having is creating a prejudice/hatred between some of the races and then trying to figure out why it developed.

    • Yeah, sometimes hatreds between cultures do seem to spring up out of nothing except the fact that this group of people is different from us, so we’re going to hate them. But it’s always better if you can generate some sort of catalyst or reason (even if it’s a small one). Some particular difference that just makes it impossible for two groups of people to even imagine getting along.

      Good luck with that, and I’m glad my post was helpful for you! Thanks for commenting.

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