Title courtesy of Carl Sagan
Been a while; a lot’s changed. I discovered that the worst thing about trying to maintain a weekly blog is trying to come up with things to talk about.
I’m still writing, and recently shared a bit of my world-building process with some friends. Another friend asked me for my notes; alas, all my university work was a casualty of one too many overseas moves, and all I have left are a handful of the most useful resource books. So here’s a tutorial you can follow for quickly building the foundation for a fictional world.
Well, I say quickly. As most recipes do, I’m skimming over the two hours it takes the bread dough to rise, and assuming you have all your research materials in hand like a magic oven that contains a bowl of pre-risen dough.
So let’s invent your universe so you can get on with making that apple pie.
It starts with considering your setting. Location, time period (for Earth-based scenarios), technology level and society level (for non-Earth-based scenarios), and level of social contentment (are the people largely happy, or dissatisfied) are important factors to take into account. Before you set anything down in stone, the overall mood needs to be considered, because that’s what’s going to guide your hand in creating the rest of your fictional structure.
Take a moment to get a feel for the world you want to play in. Is it gloomy like Dickensian England? Is it the pastels and clean “space-age” lines of idealised 1950s middle America? Is it the pessimistic, curb-stomping nihilism of 1980s Britain? How about the gritty, patched-together underdog starships of Star Wars versus the clean, well-funded starships and optimism of Star Trek? Or the brightly comedic swords & sorcery of D&D versus the grime-smeared grey morality of The Elder Scrolls?
You don’t have to tell me. Just write it down.
This is going to sound like a chore of the worst sort, but you have to consider your world’s political situation. Even the least-political of human lives is affected by the contemporary political environment. If you want a world that’s going to react realistically to the weight of your protagonists’ existence, the political foundation needs to be poured.
Examine the mood you wrote down. Look at it from all angles; consider how the elements of society might have to interact to create that kind of setting.
The first key is to determine whether you need a government that works — that takes care of the needs of its citizens and provides opportunities for self-improvement — or one that people are dissatisfied with. A gloomy or nihilistic or run-down setting is rarely going to have an idealized government; societies where the citizens are exceptionally long-lived is more likely to have a system which the people are content within, because they have a longer perspective and more time to experiment to find out what works.
Conversely, they may also have much more time to play a long game, solidify a power base, and potentially make life very, very hard for those people they value less — there is no right nor wrong way to conceptualize elves, and Tolkien is not the ultimate authority. Remember, we’re talking about YOUR world, and you have the power to throw the tropes out the window.
But I digress.
Consider what we know of sociopolitical systems, past and contemporary. Yes, this involves research, and you will want to examine every society you can find a book on. I have a great list of reference material for European societies (that was my field of study) but that should not be the end of your investigation. Look into the different social structures and religions throughout African, South Pacific, and South American history — and do take care to avoid books written from a Western Imperialist perspective (unless you are specifically researching Imperialist attitudes) because more than being biased these are generally inaccurate in crucial aspects. You might want to look up a good college’s relevant reading lists — if the lists are not available online, you can call that department and ask the secretary.
Those books are going to be pricey if you want to buy them. Personally, I’m a massive fan of taking advantage of interlibrary loan systems and photocopying the crap out of the relevant sections. This might be easier if you live in a college town, but even where I grew up in the suburbs the various towns and schools were on the exchange program.
Got your reading done? Cool. Next!
Consider the kind of world you have, and select a bunch of systems that might suit it best — we’re shotgunning right now, the narrowing-down will happen later, so just grab everything that sounds like it MIGHT work, and dump it in a pile. There will probably be a few sociopolitical structures that you’ll have to leave out entirely — just save that reading material in a folder somewhere for your next project. Get a political compass chart off the internet (I’m a fan of this one) and determine where your theoretical political system would likely fall, based on your research. You’ll note that I’m not providing examples here — I don’t want to accidentally limit your invention at this point. The tropes were made to be broken.
Set that research off to the side for a moment: it’s time to determine your world’s limitations.
The more technologically advanced a society is — and I mean specifically in terms of communications networks and transportation — the larger the territory it can hold. If it’s a fairly primitive society, their claimed territory might be informed by natural boundaries like mountains and rivers, by how far their defense force can travel in a given number of days, how far the regent can see from their tower, or how unfriendly the local wildlife and rival social groups are. Contemporarily, we’re at a stage where claimed territory is informed by treaty and agreement, rather than distance — our communications and travel limitations on the ground are a minimal hinderance at worst, but are severely limited with regards to where we can go outside the envelope of Earth’s atmosphere. There’s a reason we’ve only sent robots to Mars, so far.
So consider how your society communicates and travels over distance. The longer a society’s reach, the more pervasive its culture and social structures become, and the more likely it is to have some areas that are more developed than others.
Unless they’re extremely eco-minded, more-densely populated areas will be reliant upon the surrounding farmland for produce. Villages are often self-sustaining, with the occasional merchant and postal worker coming through with goods, gossip and messages. Heavily urban areas MUST have some sort of mercantile trade network, because there’s nowhere convenient to produce enough food within the developed areas to feed everyone — even in Vincent Callebaut‘s fantastic architectural concept paintings with gardens all over the outside of buildings. There’s likely some sort of subsidization from the city to the countryside to encourage farmers to produce more exclusively, which means that they would in turn be reliant upon urban factories to process farm-produced raw (e.g. cotton) and stage 2 (e.g. processed cotton) materials into stage 3 (e.g. thread, fabric and paper) and 4 (e.g. enhanced-fiber and higher-tech) goods.
You don’t need to go nuts on drawing out your social support network at this point. I mean, you can, I’m not gonna stop you if the whim’s there. You really only need a rough outline right now.
Bear in mind that any decisions you have made could easily alter some of that setting you initially conceived. Setting anything in stone at this point is not really a good idea unless it’s something that absolutely has to exist in order for your plot to function. And even that can be tweaked — remember that if it’s too precious to alter in order to make the story better, you might want to reconsider your story’s balance points.
Let’s pull that political compass chart up again. We’re going to focus on the axis labeled “authoritarian” for a moment. Leaving aside the actual political concept of Authoritarianism, you want to consider how much weight your fictional government is hauling around.
More bureaucratic governments might have restrictions on where people can settle or develop land for manufacture and trade purposes. All the available land might be “claimed” by the local governmental body or some aspect thereof, and anyone wishing to expand outwards might have to petition for a plot of land — which might be chosen for them, or they might pay a surveyor for a formal assay for land which best suits their purposes
A more authoritarian government might tell its citizens what they are to do and how they are to do it — this would be a heavily religious system in less-developed settings, or it might be a corporate oligarchy in more-developed settings (it could still be religious: I have faith in you to pull that off if you want to). A less authoritarian government might even just throw money at its citizens (not literally, although you could certainly make a fun scenario out of that; it would be in the form of subsidies, grants, or socialist systems like Universal Basic Income) in order to encourage them to actively build new opportunities.
Just outline that, don’t get too involved on it right now, you can puzzle the details out later.
Put the chart aside, but keep it in mind.
At this point, you want to consider the system by which people learn their skills and trades; if it’s a family tradecraft, or a guilded apprenticeship system, or a standardized formal education system. Our current education system was developed to create good factory workers for the Industrial developments of the early 1900s — it’s sadly showing its age and inadequate for our less industrialized demands, now that everything is outsourced and the blue-collar work happens in offices on computers. A more restrictive government might ban certain forms of knowledge from the educational system entirely, or have a list of specific things it wants all citizens to know; it might also ban certain types of citizens from learning at all, or make it impossible for them to attain the prerequisites required for access, creating an unequal social stratification.
Those last two words are kind of important at this stage, because now we’re going to take a look at how your fictional society is divided. A government that actively cares for its citizens will result in a system with less financial and social inequality, whilst one that the citizens are dissatisfied with will result in a much broader spread of social and financial inequality. I’m not being a bleeding-heart progressive here: this is a quantified, researched and studied fact. If you’re seeking gloom and nihilism, you’re going to have a much wider social stratification and rampant poverty.
This is not to say that poverty is solely the product of an uncaring government; natural disasters, economic risk-taking, and warfare will also render land infertile, cities inhospitable, and upend the human-constructed social system. A few good case studies can be found in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the 2005 aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the Darien scheme of 1690s Scotland.
By now you should have a fair pile of notes and research. This is the shotgun method: a wide spread of ideas and concepts that may or may not work.
I’m not going to tell you how to narrow things down, specifically, because that is heavily dependent on the type of world you’re aiming to construct. But there’s a few important points to remember:
- Most real-world governments do not operate on a pure form of any one political ideology: they’re often a combination of two or three, with aspects that best suited the people in power
- Most “communist” and “socialist” nations are actually dictatorships or otherwise disproportionately authoritarian; these sociopolitical concepts are barely relevant and are present in name only
- Many countries in Europe are heavily Socialist, despite the presence of monarchies and oligarchies
- Don’t assume you don’t need to do research on something you think you already know; we all make assumptions and have unconscious biases that affect our understanding. Look the stuff up anyway to refresh your memory.
- You may need to dial your fictional setting’s technology level up or down in order to make things work.
- You may need to add a war, natural disaster, or other calamity into your backstory
- If you have different cultures interacting in your setting, they may not all have the same sociopolitical structures. You’ll need to run through a mini-worldbuilding session for each of them
- There is absolutely nothing wrong with creating a flawed sociopolitical system. Many writers do so intentionally with the goal of using it for social or political commentary
- Some readers might take your depictions or criticism of certain systems they hold dear very personally; this is their problem, not yours
- Don’t be afraid to run your concepts by others — find a friend who also writes, or whose research field is close to what you’re working on. They’ll ask some hard questions about things you won’t have answers for; don’t get defensive, use it as an indicator of where the most glaring holes are
- Don’t be afraid to pull from known historical examples for inspiration; art is a mirror of life
- And have fun with it!