This is part two of my ten-part world-building series. As always, I’d like to point out that what’s presented here isn’t absolute gospel. There are many ways to world-build, and many paths to get to the same destination. I’m not the all-knowing guru, but rather a geek who’s sharing how he goes about it. Ready? Let’s go.
A world is only as good as its moving parts. And the biggest cogs in that world-machine are us. Not necessarily humans, but sentient beings in general. I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I need more coffee. You get the idea. And today, we’re goings to jump in with both boots on our biggest foibles when it comes to how we sentient things tend to run the tables.
HISTORY – How did we get to “now”?
Listen: If delving thousands of years into your world’s past on some kind of Tolkien power-trip isn’t your thing, don’t sweat it. If it is, high-five me. Either way, you should at least know what came before. Knowing the history of anything is crucial; not only for selling it with confidence, but for knowing just where it’s going.
So take the time to conceptualize that history, even in simple bullet points. How did your world get to where it is right now? Why?
You’re familiar with the fate of those that don’t learn from history, right? Right. Well, it turns out far too often that those that learn end up making the same mistakes anyway more often than not, because of simple limited viewpoints. That means that not only can people be doomed to repeat the woeful hits of history, but that those bygone events will absolutely affect what comes next.
That weft and weave of history can help form the spine of your world and the stories that take place in it. It’s flavor that creates instant depth, aids in driving the course of the narrative, and creates an intrigue for the audience who might really cotton on to any tidbits you might feed them from the “before-time”.
POLITICS – Why can’t we be friends?
I just felt a tremor in the Force, as though a million souls groaned aloud, and a legion of eyeballs rolled. I kid. I don’t have millions of readers. But you might have winced when you saw the word “politics” in big bold letters like that. We’re well and truly sick of politics, by and large. Can’t we get to the good stuff?
Slow your roll, anarchist. Politics are essential to your world, because it’s the bedrock of our interaction. Let me spell it out for you: EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL. Not just governing bodies. Everything. Your local PTA, your interactions in the restaurant with the waitstaff, your daily back-and-forth with family and friends; it all falls into political interaction. Hierarchy. Needs and wants and the undercurrent of societal beliefs.
Your world has politics. Period. Grand or meager, they are there. Learn to love them. Embrace them. USE THEM.
Once you can come to terms with that, ask yourself: What are the politics of this world? Parties? Factions? Movements/Interactions? And, per the usual, WHY?
You don’t have to go full Game of Thrones on this business either to get compelling political currents. But you do have to accept that, yes, we fumbling sentient beings are subject to nationalism, tribalism, jingoism, and all the other unfortunate -isms that spring forth from our interactions with one another. Even “enlightened” societies still have ideologies that come to loggerheads with competing ideals.
Star Trek’s humanity was (mostly) united. But they didn’t stick around on Earth, now did they?
CONFLICT – No World is Paradise
I’ve said it before in vlogs, and I’ve written it before in articles, and I’ll shout it from the rooftops: CONFLICT DRIVES EVERY GOOD STORY. But today I’m not talking the micro view of the conflict that exists between individual characters. That’s for your story to suss out. I’m talking macro view; the world stage; the sweeping conflicts that pull in nations.
Your world has them, even if you’ve not decided what they are. How do I know? Because even the most idyllic Utopian setting has something broiling beneath the surface. Sentient beings rub each other the wrong way, inevitably, even at the pinnacle of cooperation. Otherwise, it’s stale. Booooooo-ring. That world might as well have a sign that reads “Nah. We’re good. Move along.”
But even that seems sinister, doesn’t it? What’s going on there, I wonder?
And every large-scale conflict can be traced back to the usual suspects: resources, ideologies, or plain old empire-building ultra-dick-move Manifest Destiny. It’s not just for games of Risk, anymore. Try it today!
So, what’s yours? Why? It could be the backdrop of your tale that never gets explored, but is always felt. Or, it could be the fulcrum on which that tale pivots. Either way, it’s damned useful to you. That being said …
WAR – Hooah, good God ya’ll
What is it good for? Well, in terms of world-building, absolutely everything. Be it the border skirmish or the sprawling Axis and Allies tangle, war is both the breakdown of relations and the chance to forge something new. Even if your world is the gleaming bastion on the hill, it had to go through some real grime to get to that point.
So, what about that war? Or wars? This is where taking the time to due diligence on history, politics, and conflict starters comes into play. Was it an apocalyptic grand struggle in the past that set the metronome on the rhythm of your current world? Is it an ongoing struggle that is always spoken of blithely due to it being “so far away”, until it suddenly isn’t? Or, is it a clash that is simmering, looming on that horizon like a thunderhead? Are the protagonists of your world preparing for it? Working to prevent it? Or even at the helm of it?
No wrong answers here. Just that pestering little question that you need to be able to answer. Why?
Dig deep. Sling some mud. See what sticks. Your world can be as screwy as our own, or more polished. What it can’t be, should NEVER be, is absolutely perfect. After all, a perfect world is little more than the satellite for something far more interesting. And if that sounds cynical, just remember that a flawed world might be more interesting for the nicks and scrapes, but only because the imperfections make the beautiful things all the more potent.
Tomorrow, we’ll walk hand in hand through part 3 of my world-building series, wherein I’ll unveil how I go about forming the very lands themselves. It’s like Sim-City, with fewer instances of Kaiju attacks.
Unless, you know, you’re into that.
Until next time, Horns Up.
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)