Worldbuilding Workshop, Part I

Posted: August 14, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

For those who’ve asked me whether I was going to post my Worldbuilding Workshop on-line somewhere, here it is at long last!  (The beginning anyway.)  Special thanks to Gerald Blackwell, who redrew the diagram because I couldn’t figure out how to get it to transfer from Word!  Welcome to Part I.  I hope you enjoy.  There is more to come.

worldbuilding_diagram

Worldbuilding Workshop

Whether you start with characters or conflict, no one and nothing is created in a vacuum. A character will very much be a product of the way he/she was raised, but also what ecology, nutrition, religion, etc. helped form his or her development.

Conflict often comes when an individual or group is at odds with or fighting against what are considered the norms of a society or when cultures clash against each other over ideology (religion), control of resources (ecology) or whatever. And, of course, rarely does it boil down to just one element in opposition, since all are so tied in together.

I’m going to start with that word—conflict. You don’t have a novel without conflict. You don’t have a story or tension or suspense or any of the multitude of things needed to keep the pages turning. If you begin your novel with a character perfectly in tune with her society and the status quo, well, then you don’t really have a story. If, however, you throw a huge monkey wrench into the works—for example, if that same character sees something he or she shouldn’t, maybe a murder or a kidnapping or—maybe he or she starts to question or delve. Or maybe you have a character already on the outs with society—a criminal or a street person or a rebel…. No matter what you’ve got, you need to build a world that stands in the way of the heroes, let’s say, achieving their goals, but also you need a society that’s internally consistent.

So, the first thought you give to worldbuilding will be based on the needs of the story. Is your setting plucked out of history or even the modern world? Is it a space station? An ice planet? A seaport? An alternate New York.

Whatever you choose, your world will have certain challenges, limitations, resources, etc. which will inform the culture.

I’m going to start talking about the Environment, which is to me one of the most pivotal issues in the early development of a culture and hence at the top of my chart. Clearly, people can’t use resources they don’t have and will not develop technologies for which they have no use. At its core, a culture builds on what it has available, creates innovations to ease the burdens of work and do what must be done more efficiently. (As far as other systems, it also develops origin myths and legends to explain the world around it and reinforce the mores of the society. It evolves political systems and laws to govern and settle disputes, separates into family units for protection, affection and shared resources and develops ways of allocating those resources. It also develops common modes of expression so that all of these things can be communicated.)

But back to the Environment: you will not have the same culture develop in a spaceport or seaport as in a desert or island culture. We know based on common sense and experience that a desert or tundra culture will of necessity be nomadic, traveling from one place to another to take advantage of scant resources. Island cultures will probably be caught up with fishing and possibly trade, depending on their placement as regard to trade routes. Here are some things to think about when creating your physical world:

The ecology: consider the climate, the topography, the flora and fauna, soil make-up and water sources.

The demographic features: how big an area does your culture span? What’s the total population? How dense?

Contact: is your culture isolated or does it have contact with other societies? In what capacity – trade, invasion, marriages? What has bled from one society to another? How has this affected the other systems? (Religion and language, particularly, are two things that tend to spread like wildfire.)

On to Technology: what level is your society? Is it Agrarian? Hunting and Gathering? Industrial? This will define not only the actual gadgetry needed and used, but the economy as well, since the concept of wages is absent in many nonindustrial systems. If you’re using our contemporary world for a basis, you may not have to do much development regarding technology, but what if this is a future or post-apocalyptic society? For example, Faith Hunter, in her Rogue Mage series, had to do a lot of research on what would or wouldn’t still function in her alternate version of our world, in which Armageddon has come and gone, complete with plagues, nuclear explosions, and ideologic wars over the meaning of it all. At the end of the devastation (and the opening of the series), only a quarter of the Earth’s population is left behind, along with various powers of Darkness and Light which have fought each other to a stalemate. The only technology that remains is what can be scavenged and repaired, run on limited fuel reserves or powered by the new race of magical beings. It’s fascinating reading and illustrates many of the points I make here regarding worldbuilding, character creation and the development of magical systems.

Religion is often used to explain origins and propagate cultural mores. What’s important? What do people swear by? What do they fear? What are the values your society wants to uphold and how codified are the religious strictures and rituals? There are various kinds of religious beliefs:

Animism – belief that all natural objects are embued with souls

Animatism – belief in mana, a power that permeates the universe and all things and which can be drawn on
Shamanism – belief that special individuals have the power to commune with the supernatural
Ancestor worship –reverence for dead ancestors and belief that the deceased kin have interest in and power over human affairs
Monotheism – the belief in one god
Polytheism – the belief in many gods, which are generally associated with natural phenomena (like the winds or rain) or aspects of life (fertility, childbirth, death)

Rituals are very important to a society. They reinforce the society’s values and mark status changes (rites of passage) and as such can be social as well as religious. A graduation ceremony would be an example of a non-religious ritual. A christening, communion, bar or bat mitzvah and often funerary rights are religious rituals.

While we’re on the subject of religion…does the belief system here play any part in the magic? In other words, is your magic based on the belief in mana, the power in all things? Do your gods actually manifest? Are they really gods? What are their powers? Are they the sources of the powers of the faithful?

How tied in is the religion to your politics? In some cultures, they’re pretty well indistinguishable and in others, religion has been outlawed. In ancient Egypt, for example, Pharaoh wasn’t just a ruler, he was looked on as a divinity on earth. Clearly, politics and religion were intertwined. In others, say in Henry the VIII’s England, they were at odds and fighting each other for power.

Politics:
• Anarchy – Rule by all/no one.
• Democracy – Majority rule.
• Monarchy – Rule by hereditary leader. Monarchies are one of the oldest political systems, developing from tribal structure with one person the absolute ruler.
• Communism – Rule by all citizens. In theory, classless with common ownership and decision making
• Technocracy – Rule by scientist/intellectuals.
• Republic – Rule by officials elected by a voting public.
• Theocracy – Rule by a representative of a state sponsored religion
• Westminster system – Rule by republic and representative democracy through parliament
• Feudalism -Rule by lord/king with a hierarchy of nobility, vassals and serfs.

Now, in smaller societies, where the cultural unit is band or tribe, there will, of course, be less complex government, like a chief, headman or council.
Remember that societies may also govern through other, more cultural or psychological means, such as shunning, to punish unacceptable behaviors.

Family unit–

There are a lot of things to think about here from whether people may marry as they choose or whether marriages are arranged, whether it’s acceptable to marry within group (endogamy) or without (exogamy) and whether multiple or serial marriages are allowed or encouraged.

What exactly does family mean in your society? Do people tend to group together in nuclear or extended families? Who or what is at the core of your family unit? Often, the more vulnerable a culture is to the vicissitudes of fate, ecological or otherwise, the more people will cluster together in larger family groups for shared security and resources, and for continuity should death or illness strike down one of the contributing members.

Also, while not usual outside of societies in which there’s an unequal proportion of one sex to another, there are historical precedents for polygany, the marriage of one male to two or more women and polyandry, the marriage of one woman to two or more men.

For a truly unique world involving a very different sort of family unit, I recommend David Brin’s Glory Season. In this, he’s created a world founded by women in which they seek to create a new blueprint of humanity. Interestingly, he looked to lizards and aphids as a model. According to his afterward, “During periods of plenty and stability, they self-clone, churning out multiple duplicates like little Xerox machines. But when the good times end, they quickly swing back to old-fashioned sexual mating, creating daughters and sons whose imperfect variety is nature’s mortar of survival.” From this, he posited a society where woman who have established a niche in their society are allowed to establish a clan, which they continue through cloning. However, recognizing the dangers of stagnation, during the summer season children are begat the old fashion way to allow for a wildcard element. Any wildcard (or var, as they’re called) who’s able to create her own niche is subsequently allowed to establish her own clan.

In other words, there’s no reason to stick particularly to any of these pre-established conceptions of familial units and plenty of ideas to draw from outside of humanity.

Social grouping – caste system – I can refer you here to Glory Season here as well, because the clans are like castes, ranked according to the perceived importance of the niche they occupy, and members of one clan cannot decide that they want to join another or do something outside of what they’ve been born into.

Economics:
This is partially determined by the technological level of the society, of course, but also by resources, ecology and the like. In other words, what’s of value to a culture. The less technological the culture, the less likely it is that there will be any monetary sort of exchange for goods and services. If the group believes in ownership, it’s more likely to be communal, with resources like food divided up by merit, status or need. If there is a bit more specialization in labor – in other words the society is beyond the hunter-gatherer phase – there may be trade or barter. And, of course, we all understand about monetary systems like capitalism and communism.

But, of course, economics goes deeper than the system used. We all know that sometimes the system fails, so part of the world may also be whether the economy is healthy or not. I admit that this may not be a sexy part of worldbuilding, and it’s not one that I tend to take a lot of note of, except when I feel it doesn’t work. When Jonathan Lethem’s first novel, Gun with Occasional Music came out, it had quite the buzz going, but I have to admit that the place where it all fell down for me were the “baby-heads,” parents artificially growing up their kids, mentally anyway. My problem here was that he was creating too much workforce, and it wasn’t as if the society could artificially create jobs for them as well. I grant you, he was purposely creating a dysfunctional society. However, when it came to the economy, I still had a lot of difficulty suspending my disbelief.

Language:
Although, of course, your novel will be written in the language your readers will understand, it’s important to have an idea of how the language of your civilization will sound, not only for naming of characters, but because you may introduce new concepts and creatures that will need new designations. Think about language: it’s full of idioms, slang and other things that may not translate from one language to another and may also end up written as your character would actually speak it (whether in that language or a necessarily garbled translation of it).

Steven Harper has some very good advice in Writing the Paranormal novel when it comes to language, and naming in particular. He suggests avoiding the “Apostrophe of Doom” and adds that odd letter combinations which are unpronounceable for your readers will stop them as they try to work it out. I know that many readers mentally skip names that are too complicated, thinking of them by the first letter or syllable of the name. You take a lot of care with your work, you want to make every word count, particularly names, which hold a lot of power, both in folklore and reality to conjure up certain images or expectations based on the cultural zeitgeist.

Cursing, as I mentioned with religion, is also very telling. The example I offer up here is from Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series, where the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Zounds, which is a running together of God’s wounds, would be Billary’s Balls (Billary being one of the main gods of the world).

How is knowledge recorded and passed down from generation to generation? Does your society share language with the lands surrounding them or is there a barrier? Have they come up with a common trade language in order to communicate?

Perhaps your society is so alien that it doesn’t communicate verbally? Or even telepathically. The most alien of all alien societies that I can think of comes from Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which I can highly recommend for those who like their science fiction hard.

Often a shortcut to all this is to use a known culture as a basis. However, make sure if it’s a fantasy world that any changes you make don’t seem inconsistent. It’s always jarring to me to have a Polynesian-based culture with, say, Nordic-sounding names.

If you’re writing in our world, make certain that reactions to the changes (the introduction of magic, for example) make sense. Is it new enough that the law is struggling to keep up? Old and established? If so, how has the culture changed because of it?

To Quote David B. Coe from a post on Magical Words: “Writers often speak of different aspects of our work in a way that makes them sound compartmentalized. We develop characters, we establish setting, we advance our narrative, we sprinkle in healthy doses of action, we write descriptive passages. The truth is, though, that if we handle these things correctly, there is nothing compartmentalized about the result. Character and narrative development feed on one another, propelled forward by those action scenes, and meshing seamlessly with the worldbuilding or research we have done to make our settings come to life.”

In other words, writing is an awful lot like cultural anthropology…you can’t separate out the elements or you lose out. It all needs to work together.

Click here for Part II.

Comments
  1. […] fabulous co-worker Lucienne Diver has started posting her World-building Workshop over at her blog today. Even if you’re not a fantasy or science fiction writer, you should […]

  2. This is awesome, Lucienne! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Mira Cadwell says:

    Thanks so very much for sharing this material. It’s excellent. I’d sign up for a workshop with you anytime!

  4. pibarrington says:

    Wow Lucienne, you really are great at pointing out areas of weakness (in a good way not a bad one!) That helps me so so much as a science fiction writer in terms of watching for pitfalls in my own worldbuilding! You also help with small but crucial details that make the setting realistic! Get to work on that diagram–now I really want to see it!

  5. Stanislava says:

    Great points here. I certainly care when reading a book about the names and made up words. That also goes for my writing. When thinking of a place, or a creature that only exist in my book world, I try to draw inspiration from mythology – not necessarily copy it, but make it sound plausible and somewhat believable for readers.

  6. Lena Frank says:

    Reblogged this on Marlena Frank and commented:
    I’m reblogging this cause it looks incredibly helpful, and I’ll need to be referencing it closely when I go back to start edits on my fantasy piece I finished up in April. I’ve been brainstorming some of these things, but there is plenty more that needs to be explored.

  7. I’m so glad you’re all getting something out of it!

  8. M.J. King says:

    This makes me feel better about majoring in cultural anthropology in college than I’ve felt in a long time. There’s a look I get when people find out, and they only get more confused when I try to explain that I did it to improve my stories. (“Oh, you’re a writer? Then shouldn’t you have been an English major?” As though that wouldn’t have been the fastest way to kill my love of writing.)

    Thank you!

  9. Kimberly says:

    This is fabulous information. I favorited it since I just happen to need to work on some worldbuilding in one of my novels. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing all your awesome info.

  10. […] c) My agent has a great series of 3 (so far) posts on WorldBuilding, starting here […]

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