Tag Archives: Building a fictional world

#amwriting: worldbuilding: a framework to hang a story on

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government, some set in fantasy worlds and some set in contemporary real-world environments. When I first began writing I had been reading and studying the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and the many other pioneering sci-fi and fantasy writers of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

This was long before eBooks, and I had discovered the joys of the secondhand book store. Every payday I had several new books to add to my collection. In fact, it became hard to find people to help me move whenever my work took me to a different place, because of my large collection of secondhand books.

Many times the actual details of the society and the infrastructure didn’t matter and didn’t come into their stories at all. But the authors knew them, and their visualization of each character, each setting, and the other elements of the scene came across clearly in their writing.

These are subjects that arise my mind in the second draft because after the story has been laid down in its raw form, the answers to these questions matter. And in truth, the answers to these questions are only important in a peripheral way, an invisible framework to hang your story on. The answers ensure continuity and prevent inadvertent contradictions from arising within your manuscript.

Social Organization: What place does your character occupy in her society? That will determine how she interacts with others. Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? Are there

  • Nobility?
  • 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?

Language, the written word, and accounting: 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 access to a written language determines how knowledge is passed on.

Is there a system for communicating knowledge across generations? How does historic information get passed along? How do they communicate knowledge over long distances? Books? Songs? Messengers? Subspace Communication?

Some ideas to consider:

  • How are people educated?
  • Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
  • How are bards, storytellers, teachers, and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?

Ethics and Values: We currently live in a world where ethics and values are hot topics, and morality in government is a mushy concept. This especially true if a politician has enough plausible deniability or enough bravado to tell and maintain a bald-faced lie despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. In your fictional society, what constitutes morality? What constitutes immorality?

  • 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 it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
  • How important is it to only tell the truth?
  • What level of deceitful dealings is acceptable?

Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?

  • How important is human life? How is murder punished?
  • How are thieves viewed? What place in society do professional thieves have?
  • How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
  • What about drunkenness/drug abuse?

Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do people have available to them? What about transport? Low technology generally can begin with an oral tradition and have some written languages. But low-tech means it takes time to pass along messages, and information can get lost or skewed over generations. Low technology in my books ends with the invention of the printing press and widespread access to Roman-style plumbing.

In my work, high levels of technology begin with the invention of the telephone, steam engines, blimps, and other motorized transport, and the use of radio communication. It grows from there to include cyborg technology for instantaneous communication, warp engines, and all manner of nanotechnology.

  • Hunter/Gatherers?
  • Agrarian/farming
  • 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, or by space shuttle?

 Do they have the use of magic or a magic-based technology? First you must consider who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:

  1. if the number of people who can use it is limited
  2. if the ways in which it can be used are limited
  3. if not every mage can use every kind of magic
  4. if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  5. if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
  6. if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal

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 tribal 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?

Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? Feel free to skip this section if religion plays no role in your tale. If religion 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?

Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?

  • If not, why? What causes the tension?
  • Can people freely cross borders?

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside.

Waging War: This is another area where we have to consider the level of technology. 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?

When you have cemented the world in your mind,  you will leave enough clues in your writing that the environments your characters inhabit will flow naturally, and your protagonists will fit into them organically. Your fantasy 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.


Attributions:

First Edition cover of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Illustrator, Ruth Robbins, published 1968 by Parnassus Press.

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, image by vlasta2, bluefootedbooby on flickr.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

8 Comments

Filed under writing

#amwriting: world building: maps and the mythology of history

The world Ortelius' Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564

The world Ortelius’ Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564

After years of work on the author’s part, regardless of whether the book is an encyclopedia, a contemporary thriller, a historical fiction, or even a travelogue with photographs, the world that the book details remains untouchable by our human hands. This is because that world only exists between those pages and in the mind’s eye.

The fundamental laws of physics bar us from going back and viewing or experiencing the reality of a historical event as a participant. We can, however, read about it, paint images of it, or make a film depicting what we believe happened during the event. This is where world building comes in.

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy www.berkeley.edu

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy http://www.berkeley.edu

But wait, you say. I’m not writing fantasy. I’m writing a story about France, in 1945. I don’t have to build that world–it actually exists.

I’m sorry–the world of France in 1945 is long gone. It no longer exists, except as a memory.

Let’s assume you are writing a historical accounting of the Battle of the Bulge. But, even though it may explore a soldier’s true experiences through newsreels, the pages of his diary, and  the interview you had with him, in reality, the world of this book exists only in three places:

  • it flows from the author’s mind
  • to the pages of the book
  • into the reader’s mind through the written word

Because we can only view history through the stained glass of time, we must accept that it assumes a mythical quality when we attempt to record it. Even a documentary movie that shows events filmed by the news camera may not be portrayed exactly as it was truly experienced. The facts are filtered through the photographer’s eye and the historian’s pen.

Your mind is the medium through which the idea for a novel or story is filtered and words are how it is made real. The key to making both fiction and non-fiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: worldbuilding. It is worldbuilding that makes a stark accounting of incidents and conversations seem real to the person reading the book.

To build a world out of ideas and words, the author must know it well:

  • Create a stylesheet to avoid contradictions in your work. This is covered in my post, Stylesheets.
  • If your work is set in a contemporary setting, make use of Google Earth. This allows you to see a recent image of the place for yourself, even if you can’t afford to travel there.
  • Go to the internet and find maps of the place in the time your are writing about. If you are writing genre fantasy or speculative fiction of any sort, create a hand-drawn map for your own reference. We will discuss this below.
  • Research/or Create and these systems if they pertain to your work: Political, Social, Religious, and Magic. (We will discuss how to do this simply in my next post.)

If you are writing fantasy you need to know what the world looks like.

Original Map of Neveyah from 2008 ©cjjasp

Original Map of Neveyah from 2008 ©cjjasp

I love maps. My own maps start out in a rudimentary form, scribbled in pencil on graph paper, just as a way to keep my work straight. They begin looking like the one to the left of this paragraph, and evolve as the first draft of the story evolves.

Towns get renamed. They get moved to more logical places. Whole mountain ranges are moved, and forests and savannas appear where they are supposed to be. Over the course of writing the first draft, my world becomes real and the pencil sketch  map will become the digital art you see below.

In my books, people are going hither and yon with great abandon, and if I am not really on top of it, the names of towns will evolve over the course of the novel–Maudy will become Maury (this actually happened) and distances will become too mushy even for me. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

Map of Neveyah, for RizAero

Map of Neveyah 2015 ©cjjasp

When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:

  • accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
  • misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
  • forgetting where the characters were in chapter four

Perhaps certain things will impede your characters. If they are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location of on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:

  • Rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

Billy's Revenge Floor plan ground floorIf your work is in sci-fi, consider making a rudimentary star-chart, if space-travel is a part of your tale. For Sci-fi, you might want to know:

  • the name of the star or stars if the system is binary/trinary
  • number of planets, their names and positions
  • which planet the story takes place on
  • moons and asteroid belts that may be relevant to the tale
  • map of the area on the planet your story takes place or
  • map of space station/ship if the story takes place in space

In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will  nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do. This is because their perception of a league may be three miles while yours might be one and a half. Despite the fact that a league has no finite length and is whatever the author decides it is, some readers feel their opinion is of such worth that they will never back down. They will become so annoyed by this that they will give your book a three-star review, simply because they disagree with the length of time your character took to travel a certain distance. 

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A league is a unit of length (or, in various regions, area). It was long common in Europe and Latin America, but it is no longer an official unit in any nation. The word originally meant the distance a person could walk in an hour.[1] Since the Middle Ages, many values have been specified in several countries.”

Map of Eynier Valley for 'Huw the Bard, ' ©cjjasp 2014

Map of Eynier Valley for ‘Huw the Bard, ‘ ©cjjasp 2014

Therefore, a league is what you say it is, within some loose parameters. I go with the distance you can walk in an hour, but you have to take into consideration the terrain.

Huw the Bard takes two months to travel between Ludwellyn and Clythe. In his story, Huw Owyn is walking through fields, woods, and along a several winding rivers for the first half of  his journey. He has to backtrack as frequently as he goes forward in order to sneak around those who would kill him. It’s only safe for him to walk on the main road once he makes it to Maury, weeks after fleeing Ludwellyn.

It is a stretch of road that he could have done in two weeks if he had been able to stay on the main road, and if he hadn’t had to do so much backtracking. But that inability to make progress creates opportunities for tension.

Readers love to see maps in the front of books, but you don’t have to put yours there if you don’t like your own handiwork. This map can be only for your purposes, so you will know in a concrete way where every town and village is in relation to your story.

Fantasy readers like maps. If you choose not to include your map in the finished product, consider hiring an artist to make your map from your notes. Because I am an artist, my pencil-drawn map always evolves into artwork for the book.

Every book, fiction or non-fiction, takes an idea, translates it into words, and dares the reader to believe it. It is our job as authors to take what is intangible and make it seem real to the reader who is experiencing the world and a moment in history through our writing.

11 Comments

Filed under Fantasy, writing