Tag Archives: creating worlds

World-building, part 1: Place #amwriting

My novel, Mountains of the Moon, was born in 2008. It began life as a storyline for an anime-based RPG that never went past planning into production. The original title was Neveyah, named after the world in which it was set.

MOTM is set in an alternate universe and takes place in an environment that was ground zero for a war between gods. As a result of that battle, the gods were prohibited from acting directly against each other and must now act through their people.

When the story opens, the World of Neveyah has been recovering for a thousand years.

I had created the maps for the role-play game, so before I began writing Wynn’s story as a novel, I knew the topography of his world.

Of course, I got distracted and wrote Tower of Bones, a story set two generations later before I finished MOTM, but that’s how writing works for me.

I went to science to see how long it takes for an environment to recover from cataclysmic events. I took my information from a place I live a two-hour drive away from, the Channeled Scablands of Washington State. This vast desert area is  comprised of the scars of a natural disaster that occurred around 18,000 years ago.

From Wikipedia: The Cordilleran Ice Sheet dammed up Glacial Lake Missoula at the Purcell Trench Lobe.[10] A series of floods occurring over the period of 18,000 to 13,000 years ago swept over the landscape when the ice dam broke. The eroded channels also show an anastomosing, or braided, appearance.

I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game. All RPG players will tell you that a hazardous environment and correspondingly dangerous creatures are a core part of a game’s story. Hazards present threats the protagonist must learn to coexist with. Overcoming and surviving danger raises a player’s skills and strength.

That concept of personal growth through action is a feature of all adventure stories.

Thanks to that year of prep-work on the game, when I began writing the book, all the hard work was done. Many hours of work and years of writing is why the world seems so solid from the opening paragraphs.

When we first brainstormed the idea of writing a fun, yet deep and meaningful story and making a computer game out of it, my partner had two requests. He wanted the central character to be under a curse. Also, he wanted Wynn’s arc to take him from the most naïve, sheltered twenty-year-old ever to walk the planet, to a strong adult capable of making a difference in a world that could sometimes be a terrible place.

So, with those requests in mind, I sat down and wrote a 3500-word outline of events, and answered as many questions about the world as I could think of at the time:

  • What is the name (and the meaning of that name) of the worlds involved in the character’s journey?
  • Who are Gods involved, and what is the core of their conflict?
  • This is a portal story, so where was my protagonist, Wynn Farmer, when the story opened? Why was he unaware of the portal before he fell through, and why wouldn’t it take him back to his world?
  • Where was he at the end of the opening chapter? How did the air feel? What scents and odors were common to that place?

Blue camas and wild mustard on the Violet Prairie, Tenino Washington, in May 2014

The world of Neveyah is an alien environment, yet it’s extremely familiar to me. I based the plants and topography on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and geography are directly pulled from the forested hills and farmlands of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.

Who did he meet (Jules Brendsson)? What did he see, and how did that meeting go?

When he realized he couldn’t go home, how did Wynn react to his new environment?

It was written as a game, so the environment plays a part in the characters’ learning curve. Coping with it is how the characters “level up” or grow in strength. While Wynn didn’t expect to fall into Neveyah, Jules had been sent specifically to meet and instruct him in the use of magic. Wynn and Jules must walk from the meeting place to a town.

As they are walking, Jules must get to know Wynn and teach him how to use a form of magic. What does Jules think about his student? Looking through Wynn’s eyes, what does he see in each scene?

This is where atmosphere comes into world-building, something we’ll go into detail about on Wednesday.

On this original world-building document, I wrote every detail I could think of, from the largest and most dangerous creatures down to the insects. Over the next four years, as I wrote the novel, I added to it whenever I thought of something new.

In the process of building the world that Wynn Farmer fell into, his storyline began to write itself.

The act of designing the immediate scenery builds the entire world in your mind. I go with the familiar, with some strange twists thrown in for fun.

You might tell me that you can’t picture a place you haven’t been to. But what does that really mean?

Sunset on Cannon Beach, August 2019

Open your eyes and look around. At this moment you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world. These elements could exist before your eyes, or they exist in your memory.

Use what you know, reshape it, reuse it, and make it yours.

Everyone has a place they want to be more than anywhere else. For me, one place on earth represents my serenity, my creative happy place, and it exists in the real world but is a four-hour drive from my home.

Yet, when I need to, I can pull that place up in my mind. By visualizing my summer retreat, I recharge my serenity-batteries.

Open a new document, one that will be your world-building work sheet. What kind of place seems to build itself in your mind? This is an environment you are mentally connected to. In writing that that place, it will flow from you and convey itself to the reader. Write down the sights, smells, and the emotions you experience when thinking about it.

Perhaps it is a real place, and maybe you experience a sense of longing when remembering that place. If so, write how it makes your physical self feel.

This the point where cosmology and human nature intersect to create atmosphere, and we will continue this discussion on Wednesday.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Channeled Scablands,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Channeled_Scablands&oldid=963105167 (accessed August 1, 2020).

All images and maps used in this post are the creation and intellectual property of Connie J. Jasperson.

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Society, the hidden underpinning of worldbuilding #amwriting

Authors all know that the physical setting of a story and the immediate environment must be absolutely clear in their mind. But there is a hidden aspect to worldbuilding, one that is nearly invisible to the casual reader.

Whether you are writing real-world environments or sci-fi/fantasy, a significant part of the world your characters inhabit is their society.

This aspect of worldbuilding is a fundamental underpinning of any novel, but it is one that goes virtually unseen. How people live, and their place in society is an invisible component of any story.

All societies are made up of layers. What those layers are is listed below. What makes your story different is how you apply the layers and yet keep them subtle to the reader.

We build the society in our minds, and to us, it is rock solid. It helps to write a page or two of background info, just for yourself. The reader doesn’t need to know the details or the history, only that it is.

My Tower of Bones series was initially 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 storyline. This worldbuilding eventually became the basis for 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.

Companies like Square-Enix have it right. Over the last three decades, they’ve consistently produced anime-based RPG games that are considered classics. These games have a rabid following because they share one commonality: they all have unforgettable characters, memorable worlds, and deep, involving storylines.

When I was asked to write the storyline for the game, I began with my protagonist, a hapless yokel named Wynn Farmer. I created a word-picture of his world and how the dangerous environment shaped his society.

Then I made a list of questions about the society Wynn lived in.  The answers formed the picture of his world and his place in it.

With that done, I set it aside to use as reference material for when I needed to know how a particular character would react in a given situation. We intended to determine what was important enough to be a cutscene later, but never got to that stage. Cutscenes are generally a short transitional animation, marking places where the storyline advances and giving deeper insight into the characters, their motives, and their ultimate quest.

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 and are bored now, thank you for stopping by.

Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has wealth? are there

  • Nobility?
  • A servant class?
  • A merchant class
  • A large middle class?
  • Who makes up the most impoverished 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 vital part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and understand 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 does this society have available to them? What about transport?

  • Hunter/Gatherers?
  • Agrarian/farming
  • 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?

These lists are a jumping-off point, something for you to consider. The answers to these questions always lead to my considering other larger concepts, ideas and values that combine to make up a civilization. Please feel free to use this roster to form your own inventory of ideas about society.

Know your world, know the society, and write with authority.

Give your readers just enough detail to show that your world is real and substantial. You don’t need to go into detail about how that world came to be. You, as the author, are the only one who needs to know those details.


Credits and Attributions

Potions of this post were first published here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as “Creating Societies,” © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson. https://conniejjasperson.com/2018/09/24/creating-societies-amwriting,  published September 24, 2018.

Sword image via Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Espadon-Morges.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Espadon-Morges.jpg&oldid=350432233 (accessed March 18, 2020).

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