Monthly themed post
World Building: Lots of Little Stories
Once you have a landscape filled with exotic creatures, towns and cities, governments and religion, it’s time to think about how all these things come together to influence the characters and the story you want to tell.
It’s one thing to create a cool critter, but when it becomes a symbol of a certain religion, or perhaps part of a legendary stampede that flattened a whole town, then your cool critter becomes part of a wider story that can be worked into your character’s journey through a conversation or perhaps a mural on the wall.
For every creature, or plant, or feature of the landscape you’ve painstakingly designed, take a moment to note down a little story in which this thing plays a leading role. In my world, for example, my friend Max and I created the gallows worm, a creature which hangs from trees in the Black Forest and captures unwary animals, pulling them up by the neck into the branches and devouring them from the inside out – leaving horrific ’empty’ shells (which obviously give the Black Forest its reputation for being a scary, haunted place). I went one step further, though, to give a terrifying run-in with a gallows worm to one of my adult characters when he was a young man. Some of these things will never make it onto the pages of your book (at least, not as central plot points), but having things to mention in passing makes the world feel so much bigger and cooler!
So go crazy. Perhaps your character had one of your new critters as a pet growing up, or maybe their mother was addicted to that plant you made up during her pregnancy… (What were the effects on the baby?!?!)
The same idea applies to towns, governments and religion. Perhaps your character’s grandfather came from that town. What was it like for him, growing up there? Was there enough food? Were the rulers kind, or unforgiving. Perhaps he might have lost his first wife to a famine and chose to leave – to begin again in your characters’ home town.
Anything goes, and you’ll quickly see the benefits of relating your inventions to your characters.
We live our lives in a world saturated with stories. The tales told to us by our parents about their lives, their parents and their beliefs help define our identity (whether we identify with them or rebel). The parables told by religion shape everything from morality to social norms. Even the gossip is a little story told by one person about another who has been sufficiently interesting as to warrant the attention.
Ultimately, you are probably building this world of yours to act as a backdrop against which you tell your epic story. If you take the time to record plenty of little stories, myths and anecdotes, your world will have a sense of depth and history which will, I promise, make writing the ‘real story’ quite exciting.
World Building: The People
When creating your world your focus will probably be on the people your story is about. Even the most extreme sci-fi and fantasy stories have some form of humanoid creature as the dominant characters, or, if they’re not humanoid, they will to acquire human traits; the reason for this is simply because it’s going to be humans reading your story, and your reader needs to be able to relate to your characters. For that reason I’m going to focus on humans, though the same general rules will apply whether you’re writing elves or aliens. (Both mainstream fiction and historical fiction are set in real world locations with real world demographics, so there’s no space for creativity in this area, but even if you write these genres, knowing a bit about world-building might help you understand your people better).
Survival and Growth
Humanity needs some basic things for survival. Oxygen and gravity will likely be provided directly by the planet unless you’re writing sci-fi in which case, experiment, but don’t leave the people floating around because the planet you just created doesn’t have gravity.
Fresh drinking water is essential as is food. These will generally come from the surroundings of your people. How technologically advanced the population is will determine how these resources are acquired. History is the perfect place to find examples of how these can be attained and the effects that this has on settlements.
Hunters and gatherers tend to be nomadic, following herds or visiting known crop sites with the seasons. While a single centre may form, this will only occur if there is surplus food to support those that are not supporting themselves. They may have little in the way of minerals and technology, as ore cannot be mined by a nomadic people. While the need to mine may force people to settle and be supported by others, or people may trade for metals, it’s possible they live without metal, and spend time collecting flint, etc. from known sites when the seasons allow it.
Agriculturalists will settle on fertile land, inevitably near water, and may fell forests for more farmland depending on their location, needs and beliefs. It allows less work for more yield, and people could begin to find other pass-times, such as thinking (philosophy) and experimenting (science).
Nearby rivers provide the best early form of transportation. Villages and towns situated on river banks can trade with each other and eventually grow into towns or even cities as they trade for things that they can’t provide for themselves. As the population grows, more people are able to turn their skills to things that nomads may not have had time for, such as fashion and art.
As time progresses, your people will find other ways to provide drinkable water, such as wells, rain water tanks, condensation collection, or even salt to fresh water treatment plants, allowing towns to exist away from rivers and in less accessible or hospitable locations. However, out of the way towns are likely to remain small, while those that lie on trade routes or better yet at junctions will flourish.
Food will also eventually start being grown or made in the most appropriate areas for it and then traded across the world as it is today, allowing entire regions to specialise in a certain thing and relying on the rest of the world for everything else.
People will naturally go to the easiest places to survive, but it these areas are full or not appropriate for some reason, they may go elsewhere and develop ways to survive. Humans are the most adaptable creatures ever, so if you your setting is a swampy land with nothing but huge trees (the bark/leaves of which happen to be life-sustaining, or are able to be traded for food) then people would likely build tree-houses and swing bridges and live in this environment. If you want to see ways in which people adapt to different environments, then all you have to do is have a look around Earth. From Inuits to tribes in Africa, there are examples of people adapting to life in the extremes.
As the number of settled people grow, two things are likely to happen.
Belief in ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ will develop, and laws will have to be created to protect those that act ‘right’ and punish those that act ‘wrong’. Laws suggest a kind of government body to make the laws and a kind of police force to uphold the law. Even with the laws there will be inner conflict. What kinds of conflict, and how that is resolved will help show what your people value.
Not all laws make sense. Not all punishments make sense. One of the most basic beliefs is ‘an eye for an eye’. You kill, you will be killed. A common one (I think it’s shown in Aladdin), is losing your hand when you steal. It’s a good arena to explore your own attitude to things like capital punishment, or how to handle overflowing prisons.
Laws may be in place that are ignored. Some laws may get followed rigidly. And sometimes laws get used to exact some kind of personal revenge or to frame people (I’m thinking witch-hunts and the Salem Witch Trials in particular here).
Some laws aren’t so much ‘laws’ but more traditions that you have to respect, such as not interrupting your elders, or taking your shoes off inside, and often come from a place of reason.
Spiritual beliefs will also come into being, with people needing something to place hope in, and something to blame for the bad times.
No matter what your personal views on religion are, at some point as your society grows people will start questioning humanity’s place in the world. There are two sides to this: what is real, and what people believe to be real. What is real, and how it interacts with the people, may influence what people believe to be real, but you don’t have to look far to find real life examples that people will believe anything. The point here is, your people’s religious beliefs don’t have to be the truth, but they will believe something. Religion plays an important role in society. The type of ‘gods’ the people will come to believe in will depend on what is important to the people. If agriculture is the centre of their lives, they will come to have gods, or spirits, or energies, that control or influence the seasons or rain or fertility of the land.
People’s beliefs will affect their relationship with the natural world. If there is a great respect for forests, or a particular forest, there won’t be mass clearing of forest to make farmland. If people rely on swampland, or have some spiritual relationship with it, they won’t drain the swamps. Etc. People may avoid settling in a place that’s considered haunted or tapu. Places that are sacred may be settled by some kind of priests, or may be avoided and feared. While it’s easy to create a people who have no respect for anything other than themselves, often the culture will be more interesting if they hold extreme respect for certain things or places. And keep in mind, people’s relationship with the natural world will affect where towns appear.
Sometimes those that rule over religion also rule over the people, so laws are the laws of the ‘gods’.
The more time that passes, so the more people their are, the higher the chance of their being clashes of cultural beliefs. Differences between cultures can vary greatly. It may be that only the gods they believe in are different, or they may completely different races with a different language as well as different beliefs. In sci-fi it would be possible to write so far in the future that all cultures have amalgamated into one, but how long this would take (and if it’s possible) would be debatable. Even if there was only one human culture, there would still be different dialects and beliefs in different regions, and these semi-cultures would be sure to interact and, at times, clash. What conflicts occur, and how they are resolved, will depend on, and affect, the peoples’ perspective on the world and those that exist in it.
Wars are all too common, and even if you are not writing about a war, it’s likely that there would have been wars in the past. In this case, there’s likely to be some kind of town fortifications or army, and even if peace is now achieved there may be some bad blood between cultures.
Language become an issue when there are more than one of them (you can delve into this area when you only have one culture, but it can be tricky to show in the story). If you’re going to start creating a language, have fun, but do some linguistics research first. I think it’s worthy of a blog post of its own so maybe I’ll do that another day. What I do suggest is if you’re going to have more than one language, then read how other authors have handled it. Misinterpretation (and mis-translation) can be fun to write, it can start wars and feuds than go on for hundreds of years, or could just provide some nice awkward moments. One fascinating thing I love about languages is that there will be words in one language that other cultures just doesn’t have an equal for (such as mana). You can try explain it or understand it, but often true understanding can only be found by native speakers.
Generally readers assume things are the same as their own world, and will continue in that belief unless you give them a reason not to, so if they know of a habitat similar to the one in their story they will probably assume the people there live in a similar way. To make your job as a writer easier, you may not want to turn your world on its head. If having something drastically different is relevant to the story, such as coastal towns that don’t fish as all the fish they catch are poisonous, and your story is set in one of these coastal towns, then have fun, but make sure you consider the impact of the change. If coastal towns don’t live off fish, then how do they survive? If the fish were always poisonous why are their coastal towns at all? It would make sense if this were the situation that the coastal towns would not be as well off as the coastal towns in our own world are. There’s always an impact, even if it seems like a small change.
Two things to keep in mind: you don’t have to know everything about your world, and you don’t have to put everything you do know into the story.
World Development: Ecology (part 2 – Fauna)
- Low energy food, need to browse (eat leaves) or graze (eat grass).
- Often are prey species
- Often live in groups (more eyes to watch for predators)
- In mammals, eyes are located more centrally along the side of the head, allowing them greater peripheral vision.
- Not generally nocturnal.
- High energy food, important in seed dispersal/pollination.
- Birds have a high metabolism and thus need to eat high energy food regularly.
- Arborel (tree living) mammals have their eyes located at the front of their head, allowing them better spatial judgement.
- Birds are diurnal.
- – High energy food, requires effort to obtain, one large meal can sustain a carnivore for several days.
- Some species live in groups – packs/prides – and hunt cooperatively for larger prey.
- In mammals, eyes usually positioned towards front of face, allowing better spatial judgement and thus better control over catching their prey.
- Many diurnal, but some nocturnal.
- High energy but need to eat a lot to sustain the animal.
- Many insectivores also occasionally eat meat or fruit.
- Generally solitary or live in pairs (especially if nocturnal as well).
- Many are nocturnal, but not all. Depends on other factors – like predators and active behaviour of the insect food sources.
- Birds are diurnal (mostly)
- The best generalists, because they can adapt to survive in most situations.
- Highly destructive when introduced into new ecosystems.
- Some are social, others solitary or live in pairs.
- Some are nocturnal, some are diurnal.
- Can be a predator, but can also be prey.
Scavengers: Eat dead things (vultures, blowflies etc)
- Work as nature’s “clean up” crew by eating things already dead – including stuff well past its expiration date.
- A very important part of the ecosystem, even if they are kinda dirty and “gross”.
- Vultures have naked heads so that they can stick their heads into the carcass without getting their feathers matted with blood – this could lead to problems with the “waterproof” qualities of their feathers and lead to them dying. They also do not have very strong talons.
- Some scavenger species are actually very effecient hunters (ie: the spotted hyena). Just as some predators rely on scavenging or stealing their kills from other hunters.
Now, how about making up your own species? Sounds like fun?
It sure is!
Here are some ways you can make your native wildlife distinctively different from those on Earth:
1. Focus on birds, reptiles or invertebrates rather than mammals
Consider a world like ours in which there are no mammals – what habitats are there for the reptiles (or birds) to fill? How might they evolve to better exploit these habitats. It might help to study island ecology – looking at places like New Zealand and Hawaii where native mammals were never prevalent. Consider changes the birds might make to fit in here – losing their ability to fly, growing bigger, living in burrows, behaving more like monkeys… etc. Another thing to consider is that mammals hunt by scent (and many have poor colour vision), whereas birds and lizards both have colour vision – so what role might this play in how the native wildlife looks? New Zealand birds are generally drab in colour – which allows them camouflage and protects them from avian predators. This defence proved ineffective when mammals were introduced, and annihilated them.
2. All vertebates on Earth have four limbs – so why not give yours six?
|Weedy Seadragon/Peacock = Weedy Seacock?|
4. Take Real World animals and alter them to fill different niches
This is particularly fun for Post-Apocalyptic variants of our own world. Okay, assuming the world faces a nuclear holocaust, or climate change or whatever it is that entirely reshapes the face of the world as we know it – what animals will survive?
Probably the hardy generalists and omnivores. The rats, the pigs, the foxes and maybe the cats. Animals such as lemurs, aardvarks and anything with a highly specialised diet or life cycle will be doomed. So, with those animals gone, and the world reverted to its wild self, how might the surviving species change to fill the niches that are left?
Speculative Zoology is fun and challenging. There are several online sites I have found, so here are a couple of links:
Also worth looking into is Douglas Dixon’s “After Man” – published in 1981, so maybe a bit hard to get nowadays. I picked mine up second hand.
And you don’t *need* to have a Post Apocalyptic setting to make this work – sometimes it is just interesting to think – how would a rabbit look were it arboreal? Or could sparrows live underground?
|From Budgerigar to Budgieraptor!|
5. Take real world animals and give them elemental powers
However, they might be mistaken for Pokemon. One thing that puzzled me with Pokemon (in the early days) was – what do they eat? Other pokemon? Later development answered this with a “yes”.
Since dragons are a mythological species with no basis on any particular real animal, authors (and artists) have had a lot of fun developing them in a variety of ways. The typical Western dragon is reptilian, huge and scaly – often with wings – and this seems to have perpetuated throughout many fantasy novels – although sometimes they have three pairs of limbs (four legs, two wings) and other times two (2 wings + 2 legs). Often they also have elemental powers.
My two favourite Western-ish dragons in literature are Patrick Rothfuss’ in “Name of the Wind” and Robin Hobb’s dragon ecology in her “Liveship Traders” series.
In most novels, when a human bonds with a dragon, the two are able to communicate either via telepathy or verbally. This was nicely avoided in the movie of “How to Train your Dragon” which is one of the many things that made that movie original and wonderful.
I personally have several dragon characters, none of which resemble this phenotype:
Rhapsody the Sea Dragon (top)
There are NUMEROUS tropes used in fantasy for designing new species, I have engaged in intensive research at tvtropes to bring you a summary of some of their most relevant ones:
Call a Rabbit a “Smerp”: Which refers to taking standard critters and giving them unusual and original names. This can be especially effective if the Writer wishes to convey an otherworldlyness to their story, or set the culture of the protagonists separate from the typical one. I, for example, generally have used the Malagasy names for the variety of lemur species featuring in my stories, as I feel this adds to the authenticity – as the Malagasy people were there first (likewise, I always list the Maori names on my NZ animal illustrations, when I can find them). It can give the ordinary a somewhat fantastical feel.
Call a “Smerp” a Rabbit: Which refers to having bizarre a variations on the typical – such as giant riding lizards or small wild birds but referring to them as their Earth equivalent – leading to confusion and disorientation on the part of the Reader. If your “cows” are really stocky dragons that eat grass, it might be best to find another name for them. If you do wish to go this route, make it very clear from the start that your cows are not like our cows! This is found in reality too, when early explorers named everything based on what they previously knew – hence the presence of “robins” and “wrens” in New Zealand, despite the fact that they are not closely related to the European birds by the same name.
For more tropes (and before I get off topic) – visit this page here.
World Development: Ecology (part one – habitat)
For your fantasy novel to truly work, you need to develop the world as fully as possible. This does not mean you need to spend half the novel describing the geographic formations, the flora and fauna, the rainfall and plate tectonics, of course, but it does mean that you need to have at least some inkling of what it is going to be like, so that your story remains consistent and becomes more vividly alive in the reader’s mind.
Now, although I have written a number of stories, very few of them actually involve fantastical worlds – or at least, very few involve fantastical worlds that do not bear a resemblance to Earth. My latest novels, and first trilogy: “Lemurs: A Saga”, is set in an alternate-world Madagascar, where the sentient life forms are primates – in the case of the island of Madigaska, lemurs, but there are also monkeys over on the mainland and that once played the part of Missionaries (but I decided not to make them following our world religions: although the irony was amusing, I do not wish to cause that sort of controversy). I also have a futuristic Furry/Steampunk/Magic School novel in the works – which required me to figure out a post-apocalyptic environment for earth, and which I keep abandoning because my scientific brain keeps pointing out problems with the fact that the characters are anthropomorphic animals of various species.
Anyhow, as someone who has studied ecology, I feel I can at least look a little authorative on the topic, so let us begin:
Designing a Convincing Ecology for your Fantastical World
Firstly: What is Ecology?
Ecology is the scientific study of how living organisms interact in their natural environment. Ecology is made up of various parts, the simplist components of which are:
Habitat + Flora (plant and tree life) + Fauna (animals)
For the purposes of this, let us assume that Habitat refers to both the fixed geographic features (desert, swamp, grassland etc) and the variable features (weather patterns). To begin creating your fantasy world, you must first decide on these geographic features and determine what the general environment involves – is it a tropical forest? Savannah? A post-apocalyptic future where the world has been wiped clear of most sentient life?
Sticking with environments that we have on Earth will make this easier, and also more convincing to the Reader. Essentially, the closer you make your world to the world we all know and love, the easier it will be for the Reader to delve into the world and better experience it. This doesn’t mean that you need to make it a carbon copy of Earth – just that some facts like: rain falls down from the sky, there are day/night cycles, the world is round (or flat)* etc, will make for more time for the actual plot and less time spent on trying to make the Reader understand what the heck is going on. I am an avid Reader, but I struggle with books that distort reality out of my comfort zone – such as Graham Edwards’ “Stone” series where the world is essentially a wall, and any books where the main setting is a house where each room is somewhat like a different kingdom. Discworld, however, I am fine with. And you might be able to make a world of floating rocks over a lake of molten lava** work – and if so, kudos to you! There are Fantastical Worlds compromised of islands (Clive Barker’s Abarat), set in a carpet (Clive Barker’s Weaveworld), shaped like a ring (Larry Niven’s Ringworld) and I’m sure there is at least one that is the inside of a sphere, not to mention various worlds made of houses (Garth Nix’s House, plus another that is so obscure I can’t remember it, except that it was weird), the aforementioned Wall series and many, many more. But essentially, I prefer ones that mirror Earth, at least insofar as general environment goes.
- Cold, barren.
- Low plants, no trees (environment doesn’t support tree growth – too cold for most of the year).
- Either frozen or wet, depending on season.
- Few animal species.
- Dark and cold for a lot of the winter months, food scarce.
- In spring, everything comes suddenly to life, and many birds come here to breed, then migrate away for the colder months.
- Cold and relatively dry, except during the wet seasons.
- Supports trees and plants, but not a great range of species.
- Range of different species, much of it fairly large (wolves, bears, deer, along with rodents and birds.)
Alpine Tundra (High Altitude scrubland):
- Harsh, windy conditions.
- Does not support much tree growth.
- Trees stunted and windswept.
- Animals hardy and opportunistic (in New Zealand, we have the kea, the only alpine parrot in the world).
- Some are drier than others, leading to high altitude grasslands.
- High altitude – air is thinner, making it harder to breathe.
Temperate Grasslands similar but less harsh. Warmer, but still cold in winter. (Prairies)
- Wet and cool.
- Produces lush forest, with a variety of different Evergreen tree and plant species.
- Range of different animal species.
- Two layers – overstory and understory.
Temperate Rainforest similar but with three levels and supporting more range of species. Wetter and warmer.
- Warm and dry summers.
- Wet winters.
- Diverse range of plants and species.
- Wet and warm.
- Lush rainforest, with a vast range of Evergreen tree and plant species.
- Diverse range of different animal species.
Savannah (grasslands and shrublands):
- Dry and warm.
- Predominent vegetation is grass or small shrubs, occasional trees.
- Trees are deciduous to conserve moisture (acacia), or store water in their trunk (baobab).
- Plants have thorns (to protect them from plant predation), not leaves (which lose moisture).
- Support a large range of animal species, some of which can be quite large.
- Rainfall seasonal, often all occuring in a short period of time.
- Hot, barren, dry.
- Not many plants.
- Few animal species, most of which are nocturnal.
- Lots of rocks.
- Warm or cool, depending on latitude.
- Considered the most biologically diverse ecostystem.
Other environmental effects that may affect your environment:
Volcanoes: volcanic soil is very rich in nutrients, but lava rock from recent eruptions radiates heat and almost forms a barren desert of its own.
Fire: can do great damage to the wetter forests, which are not adapted to survive its onslaught, leaving the landscape barren – and in some cases (as in Madagascar), almost infertile. This can also lead to soil erosion, which leads to the hills sliding into the lakes.
Earthquakes: The moving of tectonic plates shapes mountains.
After determining what your habitat is like, select a real world one that resembles it. Sometimes this is easy – it’s a rainforest or temperate woodland, but what of more complex worlds – say, your habitat is a barren, frozen wasteland (Arctic tundra) or bubbling pools of molten rock (look into the life found in hotsprings or highly sulphurous underwater sites)?
My Furritasia world – the futuristic one with the anthro animal-people, is set in a post-nuclear world. Vast tracts of land were rendered barren and poisonous by the nuclear radiation***. Whilst I cannot, yet, come up with a plausible explanation behind the animal-people, a coral-life fungoid now blankets the post-nuclear wasteland and the main natural inhabitants were various species evolved from cockroaches, including several massive fungus eating species, and a carnivous type that hunt in pairs or packs. Cockroaches, it is said, can survive anything, and even radiation will not defeat them.
* One of the first worlds I ever invented, back in my Discworld obsessed early teenage years was called “Dyce” and it was six-sided (well, seven sided really, cos it had a sphere in the center). Gravity worked weird in that world – each side had a different environment and sentient life form, and each sentient life form thought that their side of Dyce was the top. This was because when you approached the edge (which looked like a steep cliff), you could actually just walk around it, like step over the edge and onto the next surface, without falling off. However, because your equilibrium was used to you being on the flat, you would forever feel like you were walking horiontally down a wall. Or perhaps even upside down, if you got that far. I never did go very far with that idea, but it’s kinda nifty, and possibly worth exploring again at a later date.
*** If I had actually studied Chernobyl and other real world situations before writing this book, I would have understood that plants and even wildlife are not easily beaten by radiation, but so be it.
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