I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. I’m an avid reader, and always have been. Some of the worst books I have read were bad because the setting made no sense or was unclear. This has been as true of stories set in modern New York City as well as fantasies set in wholly imagined worlds.
The author is responsible for making the setting clear and real in the mind of the reader. To do that, the author must pay attention to building that world, even if that world is a well-known city. I can’t write about Seattle if I have no idea what it is like to live there. I can’t stress this enough: do the research.
Because I had noticed these shortcomings in some less than stellar traditionally published works, I made a list of questions to consider when I begin constructing a new society. The Tower of Bones series began as the core story for an anime-based RPG that was cancelled before it was built. For the game’s original concept, I made a checklist of questions about the world and used the answers to write the story of the community the game’s protagonist would live in, a word-picture of about 2000 words. This is the method I still use today.
Answering the questions posed by the following list of ideas always leads to my considering a kajillion other rather large concepts that combine to make up a civilization.
Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do this society have available to them? What about transport?
- Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
- Medieval metallurgy and technology?
- Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
- modern day?
How do we get around and how do we transport goods?
- On foot?
- By horse & wagon?
- By train?
- By space shuttle?
Social Organization: Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? Are there
- A servant class?
- A merchant class?
- A large middle class?
- Who makes up the poorest class?
- Who has the power, men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?
Every society that has merchants also has some form of accounting. The need to account for stores of food and goods may actually have given rise to the earliest forms of written languages. It has been postulated that simple accounting systems came before words.
Quote from Wikipedia:
The earliest known writing for record keeping evolved from a system of counting using small clay tokens. The earliest tokens now known are those from two sites in the Zagros region of Iran: Tepe Asiab and Ganj-i-Dareh Tepe.
To create a record that represented “two sheep”, they selected two round clay tokens each having a + sign baked into it. Each token represented one sheep. Representing a hundred sheep with a hundred tokens would be impractical, so they invented different clay tokens to represent different numbers of each specific commodity, and by 4000 BC strung the tokens like beads on a string. There was a token for one sheep, a different token for ten sheep, a different token for ten goats, etc. Thirty-two sheep would be represented by three ten-sheep tokens followed on the string by two one-sheep tokens.
- How is monetary wealth calculated?
- Do they use coins? What is their monetary system?
If you are inventing the monetary system, keep it simple. Otherwise, go with a traditional form of money if your society is low-tech. (For my low-tech worlds I generally use gold coins, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver / 10 silvers=a gold.) Conversely, use good old-fashioned electronic currency if your world is high-tech.
Language and the written word: Do they have a written language? This is important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a low-tech society because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition with only the elite able to read and write.
- How are people educated?
- Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
- How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?
Government: There will be a government somewhere, even if it is just the local warlord. Someone is always in charge because it’s easier for the rest of us that way:
- Is it a monarchy, theocracy, or a democratic form of government?
- How does the government fund itself?
- How are taxes levied?
- Is it a feudal society?
- Is it a clan-based society?
- Warlord, President, or King/Queen?
- How does the government use and share the available wealth?
- How is the government viewed by the citizens?
Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?
- If not, why? What causes the tension?
Waging War: This is another area where we have to ask what their level of technology is. It is critical for you as the author to understand what sort of weapons your characters will bring to the front, and what the enemy will be packing. Do the research and choose weaponry that fits your established level of technology.
- What kind of weaponry will they use?
- How are they trained?
- Who goes to battle? Men, women, or both?
- How does social status affect your ability to gain rank in the military?
Ethics and Values: What constitutes morality?
- Is marriage required?
- How are women treated? How are men treated?
- How are same-sex relationships viewed?
- How are unmarried sexual relationships seen in the eyes of society?
- How important is human life? How is murder punished?
- How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
- What about drunkenness?
- How important is the truth?
- What constitutes immorality?
- How important is it to be honest and trustworthy?
Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?
Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? If it is central, ask yourself: Is there one god/goddess or many? If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.
- What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
- What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
- Who has the power?
- Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
- How does the priesthood interact with the community?
- Who can join the priesthood?
- Do people want to join the priesthood or do they fear it?
- How is the priesthood trained?
You are welcome to use this roster as the jumping-off point to form your own inventory of ideas for world building.
When you have cemented the society in your mind, the world your characters inhabit will feel real and solid, and your protagonists will fit into it organically. Their society will be visually real to the reader, even if the world it evokes in their minds isn’t exactly your vision of it. You will have done your job, by giving them a solid framework to imagine the story around.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “History of ancient numeral systems,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_ancient_numeral_systems&oldid=799316402 (accessed October 8, 2017).