One thing that I’ve noticed when poking around the Internet on the topic of fantasy worlds is that there are a plethora of worldbuilding guides out there, from roleplaying campaign-specific aids to the more general fantasy writer advice. But search for “world creation”, and aside from one anomaly you’ll get a lot of stuff about mythological and religious tales of how the world began. There seems to be something different going on in people’s minds when they think about these concepts.
We’re doing this with our minds, but never seem to acknowledge the fact.
This difference might explain something about how most fantasy world are made. When you build something, you are already using established components, such as bricks and mortar, wooden planks and roof tiles to build a house. It seems that some authors take the view that fantasy worlds have a series of standard components that can be used and built on. This is one example. It assumes that you’ll go from the standard race archetypes of human, elf, dwarf and the like, in a pseudo-Mediæval Europe kind of way. On this model, you’re taking established materials and doing new things with them. You can create a new kind of “house” with your fantasy writing building blocks, but however you arrange them, it’s still a house and likely very similar to the myriad of others that were built before your picked up your pen/trowel.
Some people are apparently fine with this but I find it off-putting, as it generally leads to bad writing, like this:
The Great Hall had once been a cathedral to a god now forgotten and out of fashion. It was packed with all manner of Argivian nobles, clad in finery that swelled their forms to twice their size. In addition, the incense used in the hall was overwhelmed by the clashing odors of perfume worn by the Argivian women (and some of the men). Twanos wondered if he could afford to sneeze in his tight outfit, and his eyes watered…
…The tawny-haired man’s position on the podium gave him a chance to sweep the crowd with his eyes and pick out faces. Kayla and Harbin in the front row. She seemed nearly wilted in her gown but was still game, while the boy had surrendered to boredom a half-hour back and was now kicking the sides of the pew in a desultory fashion. The apprentices were led by Richlau the schoolaster, the senior students Rendall and Sanwell at his side. Sharaman was in full military harness and looking almost comfortable in his dress uniform.
There were others: Argivian noblewomen in full regalia, and young courtiers vying with them for flashiness. Korlisian merchant lords, more restrained, but still bedecked in the most sumptuous of fashions. There were dwarven diplomats from the Sardian Mountains, a dour group of diminutive people who made the Argivians look positively festive and the Korlisians evenhanded. Their mountains held much of the resources that Urza needed, but they were willing to trade their metals and stones for gold, which Urza considered a minor metal of little real value in the battlefield.
There were also others of whose identity Tawnos was unsure. There were a band of fur-wearing barbarians from Mapiri, and a group of priests, black-robed savants with mechanical devices hung around their necks. Gixians, Tawnos reminded himself, from a monastery far to the northwest. – Jeff Grubb, The Brothers’ War
This is supposed to be a panoramic sweep describing a hall full of dignitaries, but I struggle to pick out many descriptive words; the archetypes write all the description for us. The hall is described as an “old cathedral” and left at that, with each group only given a miserly couple of adjectives to describe what they look like on top of them. The nouns do most of the describing; noblewomen, courtiers, merchants, dwarves (well, “dwarven” in this case is an adjective, but not a description), scholars, students, barbarians and priests. This is almost all we have to go on for their descriptions, relying on pre-packaged notions of what each category of person looks like. But this is supposed to be another world. Why should our notions of what these sorts of people wear in this world have any bearing on what they wear in another? This is world building using pre-established components, as appears to be recommended here and in many different world building guides.
Thankfully, several people already see this as a problem, and offer some advice to counteract it. My own thoughts are that this sort of thing should be done from the ground up, literally; geography should define the limits of civilisations, modes of dress, physical features, and to an extent their architectural styles, because that’s what set the ultimate limits for many actual societies. Less directly physical components such as the society’s rulers should be at least well thought-out. In The Brothers’ War there are quite a few different modes of rulership and society, but these do not stray far from historical archetypes. Why would your world have a semi-feudal society if they don’t have the rule of a king whose power is based on the ability of his friends providing him with an army? Why would your city-state be ruled by a conglomerate of merchants if there isn’t a lot of obvious trade going on? Why do nomadic desert tribes always have to be, well, tribal? All these societies are cookie-cutter concepts taken from our own history, but generally with little desire to be totally historically accurate or to understand the historical reasons why government was the way it was and recreate them. They just serve as a familiar backdrop to the story, to be glazed over and fill in relevant details when something (generally the author’s own creativity) is missing.
Worldbuilding guides often seem to miss this sort of thing, particularly how interconnected societies tend to be. Religion is not usually an add-on for pre-scientific societies, but something that is integrated into the whole social fabric. The ruler’s mode of ruling is not distinct from the way his or her people conduct business or live their lives. Creating a world should involve figuring out all these little social nuances as a keystone, from the ground up. The consequences of geography, power structures (more primal and pervasive than social structures), the state of a society’s knowledge and its sense of aesthetics will all have an impact on that society’s form. This includes magic, if it exists in your world. As I mentioned in a previous post, magic is far too frequently tacked-on to a fantasy setting, rather than made an integral part of the social fabric. If you have a class of people who can wield otherworldly power, why are they not using it to rule other others? In some settings they may be of course, but these are the exception rather than the rule. If they’re not ruling, what keeps them in check? Force? The limits of their power? The time needed to acquire magical ability? Some innate property that only means that the unambitious have magical talent? OK, the last one is stretching it, but you get my point.
Of course, there are also those choices that are entirely arbitrary, such as a society’s written script. But once the choice is made, what happens to that script is an organic process that is shaped by the forces around it. Are certain phrases prevalent among a class of people who (thanks to social pressure) are frowned on? This will influence modes of writing in the upper classes (assuming there are classes) in order to distance themselves from the undesirables.
I’ll recommend two tools to help with this kind of world creation. One is snitched from another blog: use animal species to determine racial traits. The blog recommends dog breeds, but other animals would fit just as well; animals are often fitted to their environments, meaning that you can place them in particular environments quite easily without them feeling out of place (or do it in reverse and design your world’s climate around the characteristics of an animal you want to base a race on). This will also give you some potential pointers as to what features are considered desirable and therefore top of the social, or maybe the actual, food chain (hell, look up the Kennel Club Breed Standards or the equivalent if it’ll help with this!).
The second tool is a concept that has become central to feminism; that of privilege. Very basically, privilege in this sense means that certain types of people are favoured automatically by a social system, assumed to be the default that all other types will react to. This will give you a reasonably clear understanding of the general framework of a society, by giving you its aspirations and assumptions. To give an example Hypersleeper described to me, at an academic gender studies conference, people were asked what they saw in the mirror when they looked at themselves. An African-American female declared that she saw a black woman in the mirror. A Caucasian female declared that she saw a woman. A Caucasian male declared he saw a person. This isn’t to say that the others weren’t people, but the social mores that all three had programmed in had the “white male” as their default idea of a person, at the top of the “social tree”. Take a while to think about how privilege in this sense affects our perceptions of people, and then skew it into the world you’re creating, into the societies that you want to make. Altering the privilege structure to your world, to know what the “default setting” is seen as (if it is seen as anything at all), will give a lot of colour (not all of it pretty, as privilege generally isn’t to those that don’t have it) to your created world.
That’s all for now. I’m still moving, and have a lot of stuff on next week. I’ll try and get some more writing done in between all the hecticness and work, I promise!