World Building, Polyhedral Style
This first appeared as a post in March of 2011.
At SheVA Con, I ran a panel on World Building; a surprising number of people showed up–and most of them even stayed. So in the hopes that you’ll find it as interesting as the folks at SheVA, here’s the handout I prepared for the panel. Enjoy! (editing update: this has since been expanded and developed into a booklet, which I hand out at signings and events.)
(*side note: While this was developed for a fictional world, all of the below questions can also be applied to setting up “real world” stories. Just for fun, try picking out answers that suit the real world you live in: see how many of these questions you can actually answer!*)
World building often starts with drawing shapes on a piece of paper; but that isn’t the only place to start. For me, world building is like developing a giant polyhedron–there are multiple spots that all tie in to one another by the time you’re done.
Develop two opposing cultures. They could be large, as in America and Europe; they could be sub-cultures, like physicists and psychologists. What does each one hold as a value? What does each culture loathe to the point of violence? Most important of all: Why?
Do those two opposing cultures have the same biology? Are they physically different in any way? Obvious differences can be skin color or hair color; but maybe one culture lives underwater or the other lives high on a mountain. How have they physically adapted to their particular environment? How have those adaptations affected their cultures, and how the two cultures understand one another? Turn it around: has their culture affected their biology (think of cosmetic surgery and people hooked on prescription drugs)?
Are both cultures equally aggressive? Is one more into talking and the other into fighting? How is the leadership structure of each culture set up? Is there a biological factor involved (young males are better for fighting, older males are better suited to long-term leadership, females are shy and prefer to stay at home with the babies). Is the biological factor really biological, or is it actually cultural/political? Is there a political upheaval going on inside each culture at the moment? Between the cultures? What is it, and why did it happen? How is that upheaval going to affect the cultures internally? How will it affect the political relationship between the cultures?
How long has each culture been in existence? Did one spin off from the other? Has Culture A been largely peaceful, while Culture B has a history of bloody strife, rebellion, repression, infighting? What were the major events, the turning-points of the last hundred years? Five hundred? For example, 9-11 was a major event; so was the discovery of penicillin, the understanding of sanitation, the development of guns, nuclear weapons, space flight, the internet, and many other items. Pick out a dozen items for each culture, spread across at least five hundred years. Look at how those affected the culture, the politics, the biology of your fictional world.
Do you want to use language based on modern day English, or medieval? Do you want “special words”–an alternate language, like Klingon, for your “alien” culture” (which forces you to decide which of the two cultures you want the reader to see as “alien”– Cherryh did a great job of turning this on its head in her “Chanur” series). Does the language have any special terminology or structure or pattern intrinsic to biology, politics, history, or culture–maybe in your fictional culture, females have different language patterns than males, teenagers have a language all their own, and politicians don’t describe a situation the same way a farmer would.
I deliberately placed this last because it’s normally put first. By this point, though, you should have some ideas as to whether the two cultures live in desert or mountain, on giant rafts or in spaceships. So now you can look at more specific geographical questions. What is the most similar “real world” geography to the area each culture inhabits? How close together do the two cultures live–different continents or different planets; on opposite sides of a city or all mingled in together? How does that proximity/distance affect the culture, history, biology, language, & politics you’ve already developed? What are the most peculiar characteristics to be found, geographically, within or near your cultures?
For example: the Grand Canyon, deep ocean trenches, high mountains, strange lakes, odd weather patterns, Bermuda Triangles and so on are all notable features of an area. Where, in relation to your two cultures, are the best water sources? (If you’re dealing with space travel, where do they get water and air from–assuming the life-form you’ve developed needs water/air) Is there a geographic source of tension (water rights to a large lake, the fouling of a large river, access to fertile fields for farming) between the two cultures? Is there plenty of land available to support life, or has overcrowding forced them to burrow underground or build up ridiculously high?
The questions and consequent decisions tend to start cascading from there, and if you take the sequence from any other point it does the same thing. Along the way you’ll find story ideas naturally building up from the work you’re doing.
Have fun! (And remember to get some sleep….)