This is part eight 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.
Good morning, all! It’s time for another entry in my world-building series, and here’s where things can get devilishly tricky and complicated. Why? Because people have that effect on worlds. That’s the whole point, after all. And that’s what we’re going to bravely tackle today.
Grab a helmet, folks. Peopling a world has unintended consequences, even for the best intended creator.
Your World, Your People
A world is just a curio until you get some life going. In this case however, you can freely imagine a historian and an anthropologist giving each other the sweetest of high-fives, because this is where they really go tag team championship on the planning stages. You’d be completely shooting yourself in the foot if you failed to draw upon real world examples.
Even if you’re going for something fresh and new, you’d be best served by real world examples serving as a kind of foundation. But there’s a lot to be said for wish-fulfillment. This most famous literary example I can think of for this is the creation of JRR Tolkien’s nation of Rohan from The Lord of the Rings.
The good professor was famously known for his what-if scenario involving the defeat of the British to the French at the Battle of Hastings. Long story short, the French successfully used cavalry and equine mastery. The British did not. From that moment on, a lot of the British culture had an influx of French all the way down to their stories. The Arthurian Legend Cycle? Knights of the round, Excalibur, and all that? French based lore. You get the idea.
Tolkien had a beautiful thought of “what if”, stemming from the concept of Anglo-Saxon cultures developing that kind of horse superiority. Rohan, and its people, are the end result of that kind of wish fulfillment. They’re vikings of the plains, in a way. But its basis was steeped in real world events, cultures, and historical aftermath.
The Ugly Side of the Crowd
Left without need of further editorial.
Now then. Let’s get one thing straight here for the sake of transparency: I’m a Caucasian, cisgendered male, to use the internet parlance. I bring that up because when you’re talking about tribalism, racism, sexism, and jingoism, someone will inevitably look at the person discussing it and that will dictate the tone with which they read whatever follows. It is what it is.
Having said that, please note: I recognize these facets of civilization, and I fucking abhor them even as I utilize them in my world building. It’s a terrible threshold every world-builder will have to consider crossing over, and the only way to go about it is to break things down clinically. This isn’t a PHD thesis on these subjects, or a dissertation on matters of social justice, but a look at them as tools for narrative.
Short version: I hate the ‘isms, and I have little love for the people who defend the idea of adopting these prejudices as a worldview. But, this isn’t that kind of article. Got that? Good. Moving on.
While we can’t fairly say that every form of sentient life will wax the same kinds of prejudices prevalent in our own societies, it’s a safe bet that differences will be the things that your people can, and will, hinge things upon. But, therein lies that threshold I mentioned earlier, and it boils down to a choice on your part.
Do you acknowledge this kind of myopia in your people, or do you abstain from it?
Either way, you really need to be serving at the altar of WHY going forward. Each has its pros and cons to be considered. But personally, unless you are operating under the assumption that your populous has reached the zenith of cooperative living, I think that tip-toeing around the issues wounds growth. Mind, you don’t have to go frothing-at-the-mouth xenophobic with your people, but there is something to be said for that archetype as a cautionary tale.
Any point of stagnation is a mire that will crush development not only for the individual entities in your story, but for the world as a whole. Because it neuters another source of conflict and resolution. Even the most open-minded and accepting of cultures will still experience this kind of dissonance, if only from outside their own borders.
Whether or not your people go idyllic, casually prejudiced, or Third Reich insane is entirely up to you. But do not discount the story impact simply because the topics make you uncomfortable. Building worlds is not, repeat NOT, for the faint of heart. You must take on the good and the bad with equal tenacity. Otherwise, you’re just constructing a tourist trap.
What We Value, What They Value
Strip away the need for resources, and what you’re left with is cultural identity. What do these people value most in their lives, and what do they identify with whenever they consider the subject of their nationality or race?
This is a crucial talking point, because while it does invite the specter of tribalism and jingoism, it also informs everything in a culture from its art to how it interacts with the world around in on a philosophical and political level. Who we are—at least who we think we are—is just as much a source of character development as it can be a point of pride.
Mind, the reality doesn’t always match the self-image. There are plenty of factors that can twist those values to unsavory ends, but it doesn’t mitigate the fact that cultural identity is the catalyst for a snapshot of any one people. Let’s use the Rohan example again.
From a distance, the people of Rohan value hard work, loyalty, and the lifestyle afforded them by their mastery of horses. Simple enough. That informs their architecture, their mannerism, language, naming conventions, and their heraldry and artistic endeavors. It also has an effect upon their social standing, government, and how they approach military tactics.
The core of your people can and should be directly influenced by the things you’ve already been considering up until this point. I told you there was a reason for all that heavy lifting, didn’t I? The lay of the land, the religions, the technology or magic use- all of it colors the perception of culture your people will have, and how they see themselves.
I think that historian and anthropologist just high-fived again. They’ve earned it.
Because that flows directly into …
The Class about Class
Stick with me here. It’s worth your time, and there are no pop quizzes.
The social hierarchy of your people is another one of those evils that you’re going to have to consider when developing the culture, both with and without. First, there’s the question of government, and perusing the laundry list of all those -ocracy and -archy words. Here, you have the “X is only as good as its Y” equation.
Democracy is only as good as its Representatives. Meritocracy is only as good as its Education and Training systems. Monarchy is only as good as its Ruler, which holds just as true for Autocracy. Technocracy or “Magocracy” is only as good as its technology or magic. Theocracy is only as good as its … well, good luck. You get the gist.
But considering that, you now have to embrace something that I know a great many of us are burnt out on: politics. Don’t run. Be brave. We’ll get through this together. Politics isn’t just the stuff of rabid online arguments or party affiliations. Let’s face facts: if you get any of us together just to agree on what to order on a pizza, dissenting opinion, relationship history, and all these other social factors will come into play.
So, from values to worldview, what are the politics of your people? Better get polling.
And religion, naturally, can thread through it all. Again, the real world is a treasure trove for how that alters the social hierarchy of any culture, for virtue or vice. Even the most ardent and equally balanced democracy is not beyond the influence or an established religion system.
Food. Wait, what? No, really. FOOD. Food has an impact on the ordering of your culture that can not be understated, from the staples at the bottom rungs to the luxury cuisine at the top. You better believe its got influence to spare. It’s life, it’s the product of the land, and the land shapes the lives of the people.
But, again, we start straying into the territory of the haves, and have-nots. GOOD. This is where you figure out how your people hashed out the disparity, if they have at all. And if they haven’t, that’s going to dictate terms going forward from internal policy matters to issues of social standing.
A Final Word
Dealing with people, even as a concept for storytelling, is a messy enterprise. I don’t say that from some kind of misanthropy. I’m honestly delighted by that fact, even on the days I lament the ugly things that arise from said mess. You have to be, as well. Delight—love rather—is what’s going to help you round out the people you’re making, from the noblest to the most monstrous. It’s what’s going to make them live and breathe.
It’s very, very tempting to skip the ugly, because we see more than enough of that in our own world. One might say, isn’t the whole point of world-building and storytelling; to act out a brand of escapism? And I would say, sure. If you’re lazy.
For me, the point really is about facing these things head on, using them, understanding them, and perhaps even translating them into things that help as much as entertain. Our stories are how we make sense of life, after all. But, if one needs a more quick-quote version of that ideal, let me leave you with this:
I’ve never met the coward that made an interesting world.
On the next world-building article, we’re going to get a handle on the rules of your world, and what good are rules if you can’t break them now and then?
Until next time, Horns Up.
(My new book is out! The Lexicon Calopa is on sale!)