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Worldbuilding: History

I’ve found one of the most daunting tasks for my world building has been the history. Figuring out character’s personal histories is easy, but when preparing the history of an entire world, figuring out how the countries formed, who the political leaders were and what wars have been fought is a lot more intensive, and it seems an awful lot like an endless puzzle.

Thankfully there are multiple techniques to use when crafting a history. Before getting into those however, one of the best tools to use for everything is to ask why. Why helps you figure out details that can open up new lanes of exploration for your world and your history: why do These People disagree with Those People? Why do These live here? Why do Those revere that resource?

Apply liberal amounts of ‘why’ when you find yourself stuck.

Ages and Timelines 
The two best ways of organizing history are both based on chronological order. Timelines tend to be a little more specific with X happening in Year Y. Ages however, cover a range of years without getting too terribly specific about the years each event happened.

That also means it may help to start with figuring out your ages first–are you following the age of stone, bronze, steel, etc? Or, are your ages and eras named for the major advancements in civilization like the move from caves into tribes and villages?

Timelines are especially useful for organizing big events leading up to your story. This can include things like the birth of notable figures, inventions of new technologies and major discoveries.

Ages help you see how your world has developed overtime. Thinking of them as spectrum may help–you may not know exactly when your people had fully transitioned from using magic to burning coal for example, but you can mark the edges of that era based on the transitory change from one fuel source to the other.

Devices 
Devices are used all the time to explain how a character had some powerful tool or the other. Hero has a magic sword from an abandoned religion? That’s a device, one you can use to help build your history: why was the religion abandoned? Where did he find this sword? Why did they need a sword with immense powers?

Scour your drafts for devices. Find an abandoned ruin? Start asking why and how long it’s been abandoned.  Magical family bloodlines? Start asking why and how they got that way. History can be built around the answers you find in questioning the facts.

Work Backwards 
Personally, I love starting with the most recent events and building off that. Start with asking yourself what the most recent advancement is, or who the current ruler is. Who ruled before that? What needed to be discovered before they could advance medication or transport? What sort of obstacle needed to be overcome for these people to settle in that area?

Repeat this as you build your layers backwards. It’s fine if you don’t have the answers for all of it. Remember that history gets harder to prove and track the farther back we go, largely because means of recording history had to develop as time passed.

Also remember that any of these techniques can be combined. Find the devices in your story right now and work backwards from those–find out how they came to be and the events that shaped the area around them. Build everything up into a transition from one thing to another, creating your first age. Create a timeline of known events, and fill in the gaps by asking yourself questions about how they create the devices and facts in your world.

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Worldbuilding: Holidays

People love celebrating. True, some people like celebrating more than others, but if there’s a reason to celebrate, people will. That’s essentially what the holidays are about–celebrating something. Depending on what your holiday is about will depend on how it’s celebrated and when. When creating a holiday however, there’s a few things to consider.

When

Some holidays have movable days, like Thanksgiving, Easter and the Chinese New Year. The reasons behind that can be varied, which gives you a couple of things to consider when forming your holidays: are specific days of the week considered holy or sacred, as in the case of Easter? Are the holidays tied to a seasonal or lunar calendar as with the Chinese New Year?

Other holidays are firmly locked into a date. These might commemorate a specific historical event such as Guy Fawkes Day for the UK or the Fourth of July for the US. It might also be the reason to celebrate an event such as a death–which is namely why Valentine’s Day is always February 14th.

When also covers how long. Festivals such as Diwali can be celebrate for days. Yule, which coincides with Christmas, lasts for twelve days. Although New Year’s Day is the official holiday, celebrations begin on New Year’s Eve, with people staying awake until midnight to greet the new year.

Why

As I said, if there’s a reason to celebrate, people will. This doesn’t just apply to big holidays either: think of the last time you went out for a nice dinner with a friend or family because someone had good news. A job promotion, new baby, buying a house or even just to celebrate someone’s birthday. The reasons for a celebration are varied, and that means so are the reasons for a holiday.

Some holidays mark the change of seasons such as the Solstices or even the change of the calendar such as the many varied new year holidays. Holidays are also used to mark and celebrate important figures, though often these are country or region specific.

Other holidays might have a specific function such as remembering the dead as in Día de los Muertos or in celebrating love such as in Valentine’s day.

How

If you’re creating a holiday, also consider how it would be celebrated. You can probably think of a few things connected to each holiday you know and celebrate with ease.  Red decorations for Chinese New Year, presents for Christmas, turkey for Thanksgiving, sugar skulls for Day of the Dead, and so on and so forth.

While some holidays include giving gifts, others might call for things like fireworks and parades. Specific dishes might be prepared around that time such as mooncakes or stuffing. Color patterns could be associated with various holidays such as red, white and blue or orange and black. Staying up until midnight and egg hunts are two very specific traditions associated with New Year’s and Easter respectively.

The how is often tied directly into the why, but keep in mind that holidays have a varied history of their own. Some of them have been completely taken over, becoming defunct even though parts of their celebrations remain in the holidays that have absorbed them.

 

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Worldbuilding: Technology

When you think of technology in a fictional world, your first thought might go to science-fiction. That’s not wrong, as science-fiction is dominated by computers, AI and faster-than-light travel. That’s not all technology is however. By definition, technology is the use of science to create equipment and machines for practical use.

Every tool is an example of technology. A hammer and nail can be used to join wood pieces together, creating a practical means of building a house. Similarly, the wheel creates practical transportation, both of people and goods.

That means that even in fantasy, where everything a computer can do could instead be done by use of a spell, you have to consider what sort of technology would be available. One of the big fantasy tropes is using a medieval, renaissance-like setting. That means farmers, knights, castles built of stone and a lot of hand-labor.

Even here, technology exists. Your farmers will be applying basic science to get plants to grow by turning their soil, watering their crops and yes, training horses to haul their carts. Knights need someone to teach them the fine points of swordplay, but they also need a smith to make their weapons and armor. That castle probably uses masonry, which leads into chisels, stone saws and mortar.

That’s at the base end of the spectrum. There is technology, but it is simple and doesn’t require an advanced understanding of how to work the equipment. At the other end we get into advanced technology.

Keep in mind that advanced technology doesn’t necessarily mean every character needs an engineering degree. Rather, it means that the technology has been built up and improved upon.

Take for instance glass. Organic glass such as volcanic obsidian has been used in tools such as knives and early spears. Once it was discovered that melting silica could create glass, the uses for glass began to spread. Early uses included glass beads and decorative murals. Today, we know that although silica produces a brittle glass, we can add ingredients such as magnesium, aluminium and iron to produce stronger types of glass for a wide variety of uses including windows, touch screens, eye wear and sculptures.

When building technology for your world, consider a few simple questions:

  • What purpose does it serve?
  • How can it be built upon?
  • What needs to be built first in order to make this a practical solution?

 

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Worldbuilding: Superstitions

It might not surprise you to learn that supersition ties into your culture as well. Your culture, after all, is built on your terrain and the available resources. Superstitions are much the same way. In order to create a good superstition however, it helps to understand what they are.

By definition, superstitions are beliefs or practices based on beliefs in the supernatural. Often these aren’t based in fact, but they may be based on a false idea of causaution. For example: having a lucky item. If you happen to have that particular item on you when you’re having a good day, you might think of it as ‘lucky.’ Your brain then subconsciously looks for more evidence to back up that idea while disregarding anything that refutes it. In other words: If you think an item is lucky, it will be. The same thing happens in reverse.

Because of that however, things like old wives’ tales tend to persist because lots of people have heard them, and because our brains are looking for reasons to believe them (or not, dependent on your view). Stepping on a crack in the sidewalk won’t really break yours or anyone else’s back, but a common schoolyard rhyme warns against doing just that: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

Superstitions also include practices. Things like throwing salt over your shoulder, or knocking on wood are done to ward off bad luck. Picking a penny up face-up off the street invites good luck (some claim this is especially true in regards to finances). Other practices making a wish on a star, or kissing a necklace clasp before putting it behind you. These little rituals are things that you or someone you know might do without putting much thought behind it, a sort of ongoing habit that you almost know doesn’t mean much, but you still do. Just in case.

As I mentioned at the top however, superstitions tie into your culture. In some places, certain colors are considered lucky. Red wedding dresses are signs of good luck in China and India, but a daring and even deadly choice in western cultures. Finding a place to start building your supersition is as easy as lookign at some of your ceremonies. What colors are associated with those ceremonies?

Another place to look at is the animals your created people would be exposed to. Cats are one such example. The Japanese maneki neko is a cat believed to bring good luck to its owners. On the other hand, black cats have picked up an unfortunate and undeserved label of bad luck due to old fears of witchcraft and evil. Similarly, snakes are considered bad,  and some practices include nailing a dead snake over the door to prevent illness. Examine which animals your people would deal with, and some of the trouble (or lack of trouble) they might cause. Keep in mind that other superstitions can affect how an animal is perceived: cats in general after all, are supposedly lucky, it’s only black cats that are supposed to be unlucky.

One final place is also in your plants. Knocking on wood is one common superstion, with little known about it’s actual origins. Making wishes on dandelions is another. Plants have a number of uses, from food to medicine, which makes them a prime place for superstitions. Plants that are difficult to grow in a gardens and herb beds might come across as ‘lucky’ plants for those that can get them to seed and sprout. Interestingly this can lead to some curious beliefs as certain plants should never be given away: instead have a friend ‘steal’ them from your garden.

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Worldbuilding: Culture Introduction

Now that you’ve got a world and maybe even a city or two to populate your world, you might need to think about culture. In very broad terms, culture is the customs, arts and intellectual achievements of a given region. Culture is in itself, a broad term because of how much in encompasses. Although culture is has an extensive reach and is deeply engrained in society, society only dictates the people and hierarches of those living in a particular area. Culture dictates the beliefs, cuisine, art and morals of that same group.

One form culture takes is that of customs. These might be the customs of social behaviors such as etiquette or manners. Custom also includes tradition, such a how you celebrate a holiday or even just a birthday. Here in the US, we tip servers and bartenders, it’s expected and often when it’s not done waitstaff will grump about being stiffed–largely because it’s so ingrained in our culture their wages are  based on getting those tips. Over in England, tipping isn’t done.  It’s one social custom that changes between culture, and there are plenty of other examples as well. Handshakes, greetings, even terms of endearment vary across cultures.

Another place form of culture is in the arts. Not only is this in paintings, sculpture and literature, but also in the music and performing arts such as dance and theatre. Music is an exceptional case for this. Latin music uses a variety of percussion instruments such as bongos, the guiro, and pandeiro among others alongside string instruments similar to guitars, which create lively beats. Heading into music from China and Japan, we find more string and wind instruments such as the dizi, erhu, shakuhachi, and the taiko drum, resulting in more somber and calming music. Both types of music are beautiful, but very different from one another.

The final place for culture I’d like to mention is in intellectual achievement. This doesn’t mean in how smart a culture is. This applies to the beliefs, laws and morals they hold to be true. That leaves a lot of room for variation, and a lot of conflict between cultures and nations.

Also keep in mind that culture is a learned thing. Most cultural behaviors are taught to us by our peers. These aren’t just the manners we learn from parents like please and thank you, but the jokes we learn from our friends we wouldn’t share in front of our grandparents.