I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. When I first began writing, I was woefully ignorant about many things, but I knew it was important to create a solid feeling of reality in any fantasy world. My first efforts were less than good, but as time went on and I read the works of other authors, and played certain, world-heavy video games, I learned how important creating a sense of depth is in world building.
We all know the importance of giving depth to the physical setting of your story. The environment must be absolutely clear in your mind. But the society your characters inhabit is just as important as his physical world–how they live in that environment a key component of world building.
You achieve depth in a society by creating layers. What those layers are is listed below, but key is in how you apply the layers. The society must be there in YOUR mind, rock solid and with no apologies. The reader doesn’t need to know the details or the history, only that it is.
The World of Neveyah was originally invented as the setting for an anime-based platform-style RPG (Role Playing Game) that was never built. We intended to create a Final Fantasy style world and game, but the tech crash happened, and the game didn’t materialize.
However, I had retained the rights to my maps, my characters, and my story line—which eventually became the Tower of Bones series. Mountains of the Moon is the original story that the series grew out of, although it was the fourth book to be completed and published.
In a large console/computer RPG, world-building is critical. When you look at the great games that are considered classics, you find one commonality: Whether the classic game is a Platform game, a Beat ’em up game, a Shooter game, a Stealth game, or an MMO game—they all have memorable worlds and deep, involving story lines.
What I originally did for the game was to write the story of the community my protagonist grew up in, a word-picture of that world and how the environment shaped their society. I made a list of questions about the society and the answers formed the picture of Wynn’s world and his place in it.
With that done, I set it aside, to use as reference material when I need to know how a particular character would react in a given situation. This is the method I still use today when I create a new world.
I have posted the following lists before, so if you have already seen them, thank you for stopping by!
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?
Do they have a written language? This is really important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a really low-tech society because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition.
- How are people educated?
- Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
- How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?
- How is monetary wealth calculated?
- Do they use coins? What is their monetary system? If you are inventing it, keep it simple. (I generally use gold, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver/ 10 silvers=a gold)
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 seen as honest and trustworthy?
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?
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?
- Or do they have a magic-based technology?
- How do we get around and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, by train, or by space shuttle?
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?
- How does the government use and share the available wealth?
- How is the government viewed by the citizens?
Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?
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 also 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?
This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a jumping off point. Considering this little list of ideas always leads to my realizing other large concepts that combine to make up a civilization. You are welcome to use this roster to form your own inventory of ideas about society.
Know your world, know the society, and write with authority.
Give the reader just enough detail to show the world as one that is real and solid, but don’t devolve into dumps about how that world came to be. You, as the author, are the only one who needs to know those details.
Credits and Attributions
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Milano Duomo 1856.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Milano_Duomo_1856.jpg&oldid=146639100 (accessed September 23, 2018).
6 responses to “Creating Societies #amwriting”
I love hearing this advice to give depth to social layers of world building. Makes perfect sense. Even if 90% of it doesn’t show up in the actual story, the reader should feel that is has been invented and should feel the social pressures of that world on the characters.
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Hello! Exactly–it’s mostly in our head, but it’s there. Some authors are masters at the societal aspect of world building–Robert Jordan, for one, and Tad Williams for another.
I’m often befuddled by the planning that goes on for some writers, when for me it comes near instantaneously as my fingers hit the keys. Although I’ve taken time to draw maps and construct lexicons of alien languages, most is two degrees away from the various customs and inventions of real Earth societies I have studied in books and in school, saved for rainy days, then spewed out as necessary at the precise moment a word or a gadget or a behavior is called forth in the story. It is amazing how the muses work, how the midnight gremlins finish my thoughts, and the worlds revolve around my index finger. I suppose it goes back to being well-read, then sliding the facts a little askew to create fiction.
Nevertheless, a thorough list of conundra, enough to cause the amateur fictioneer to disavow any attempt at world-building!
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Thank you Stephen–you do work a little differently than I do — but by building languages and using maps you do plot and world-build–you just don’t think that’s what you’re doing ♥
That is a very good start to world building. There is a lot to think about isn’t there. If done before you start writing it does make your world more believable.
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Hello! Yes–this method helps to set my characters in my head, both the world around them and how they will react to a given situation. Then when I am writing, the random ideas that fly out of my mind actually make sense, because I am picturing them in a world that is real to me. In the second stage, revisions go faster with this method.
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