World building entails many different things, and those things vary from genre to genre and manuscript to manuscript. While some world building advice is universal, other bits are not.
This is the first post in a series about world building. I hope to keep them all brief and to the point, but let me know in the comments if you want more information or have questions you want answered in future posts!
Words and Culture
Our world is limited by what we know, and therefore, so is our world building. Yes, people can imagine loads of crazy things. But when it comes down to it, are your characters in dresses or pants, breeches or jeans? Are the places they live dwellings, huts, or condos; villages, townships, communes, or cities? The words we use to do our world building are limited to what we and our readers already know. That’s just the way it is. Yes, words can be invented to describe new things, but that can’t be done with EVERYTHING. It just can’t. At some point, you, as a writer, have to decide if your world uses candles, whale oil, magic orbs, electricity, or crystals for lighting. Okay, maybe not that specifically, but you know what I mean.
So if we are limited in this way, the best place to start with world building, in my opinion, is in history, in the cultures we already know. Even for science fiction, do your characters sit upright at tables, recline on their sides on couches, or sit on cushions on the floor when they eat? It’s a very basic question, but with that one answer, you’ve suddenly chosen your cultural background.
In science fiction or futuristic settings, issues like this are easier to circumvent because of globalization. It is still something to consider, however. It will create the atmosphere immediately if you do something unique with these basic daily routines.
I believe most fantasy (and perhaps science fiction) needs a cultural starting point. Even if you aren’t using armored knights and dragons, most westerners default to European fantasy building. Castles may have been born in the Middle East, but most of us don’t envision those types of castles when we write about them.
Tunics are safe though, right? Wrong. They’re European. Trousers date back to the 6th century BC, but even a thousand years later, Roman men were wearing togas. Saris are not togas. In China from 1600-1900, men wore changshan and women wore qipao. Contemplate that for a minute. It wasn’t until a hundred years ago that Chinese dress became less culturally specific.
Don’t worry, women weren’t in dresses for all of history. In ancient times, both men and women wore loincloths and were bare chested. In many cultures around the world, some sort of ‘pants’ were worn by both sexes. If anything, the pants were hidden by robes/’dress’ like clothing. Even Charlemagne hid his pants as if they were undergarments!
Alright, I let my history nerd show, I apologize. You don’t have to be a history buff to write fantasy. But you should consider that every choice you make in wording, from clothing, to dining, to lighting, will create your world for you. Starting in a specific culture and time period that mostly matches what you want to do will help you build your world without a lot of thought.
Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that you appropriate a culture in its entirety when world building. I find that very boring. It comes across as lazy as well, especially in cases where the culture isn’t significant to the story.
You may not have different languages in your invented world. You may not even have different countries or nationalities. But whether you’re writing a space opera featuring a melting pot of characters or a quiet fantasy that takes place solely in a quaint little village, the names you choose for your characters and locations will reveal something about your world building.
When I create a world, I pair up each invented place with a real place, linguistically (if not culturally as well). This is the BEST way to ensure that your names will stay unique to your created divisions, whether you’re dividing by race, class, region, etcetera. What physical characteristics do you seen when you read names like Jae Won Bae, Santiago, Ptolemus Samos, Kalinda, or Jaska (P.S. these are all from books I’ve read recently)? What types of places do you see when you read names like Sacré-Cœur, Kiyomizu-dera, Pangong Lake, Gashaka Gumti, and Pskov (all real-world places)? You may not immediately recognize the language or culture where the names and places come from, but they are unique, linguistically and culturally specific.
If you tie your created realms/people to cultures or geographical locations in our world, you’ll have a linguistic foundation on which to build your invented culture. Maybe country #1 uses lots of z’s and j’s in their language and naming. Maybe culture #2 is gruff with short, tough sounding names like Cnut, Garr, and Wyne. Guess what, those are all Anglo Saxon names. If you stick to a specific language, you can search baby name sites, or my favorite BehindtheName.com, and create a mini database for yourself so that you can get a feel for the names you need to use/invent and have a place to draw from when a new side character suddenly pops up while you’re writing.
The way I look at these formative steps of world building is this: Why create something ordinary when you can create something extraordinary? Why stick the familiar (probably European) when you can present something more unique to your readers?
Later in this series, I’ll be looking at political systems, climate, and topography. Are there any other subjects you’d like for me to explore involving world building? Let me know in the comments!
Continue reading with World Building 102