Posted in worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Flora

I covered creating and managing fictional animals in another post, but today we’re discussing plants. There’s a huge amount to cover when it comes to plants, but this is just a basic overview if you’re looking too add in some foliage to your world. The good news is, plants bring in a whole world of information on their own.

It’s likely you’ve heard that there’s a flower language. This doesn’t just apply to which flowers are appropriate to send your sister for her birthday however, this covers almost every plant known to man. Four leaf clovers bring luck, oregano symbolizes joy and of course, roses indicate love.

Plants also exist in every environment. Before you scream there’s no plants in Antarctica, there are in fact Antarctic hair grasses, many mosses and lichens and even fungi. Plants are everywhere, so consider what sort of environment they exist in. Desert plants need to conserve water. Fruit-bearing plants need a way to either protect their seeds, or to aid in seed dispersal.

Like with animals, when creating a plant, consider a few things:

  • Where does it grow?
  • How does it spread new plants?
  • How would it defend itself from being eaten?

These three things make it easy to start on plants, and help cover the basics. When covering where it grows, consider threats to its water supply such as drought, or even over saturation. Nutrient poor soil choices will also tend to make for more stubborn plants who grow slower. And plants that need to protect their roots from things like burrowing animals might have poisonous roots, but edible berries and leaves.

Keep in mind that some plants are well known for helping with common ailments. Medicinal herbs are easy to find, but unless you know what you’re doing, that can same herb can turn from on-hand remedy to poisonous with little warning.

You don’t need to look hard for plants with magical properties either. Dandelions are supposed to grant wishes when you blow on them, and St. John’s Wort will fend off evil spirits. Superstitions can show you where common plants might have an additional property.

Posted in Exercises, worldbuilding

Worldbuilding: Fauna

Earth itself has an amazing diversity of life. This isn’t just limited to people either. There’s over a million known species of animals on the planet. Estimates place the total number, both known and unknown, closer to eight million. The reason for such a wide margin has to do both with the sheer number of animals that currently exist and are known, and the fact that getting an accurate number even on humans is difficult.

That can also carry over to fictional worlds. Whether you’re working on an extraterrestrial pet or figuring out how dragons work exactly, fictional works have plenty of their own animals.

When handling a fictional animal species, it’s a good idea to consider the basics first, and then get into adding any additional features. Start with:

  • What does it eat?
  • What sort of climate does it live in?
  • What kind of threats does it have to watch out for?
  • How does it defend itself?
  • How does it make a shelter, if it needs one at all?
  • Are they lone animals or do they live in groups?

Also consider things like how they reproduce and how much care is given to babies and which parents might be responsible for that care. For aquatic animals, also consider how they get the air they need. Some animals have gills while others will come to the surface briefly.

These basics can give you a good idea of additional features that would work. A deer that hunts prey will need teeth capable of cutting, instead of just teeth useful for crushing leaves. Likewise, remember that even prey animals will need some means of defense. This could be in armor-like hides, or with claws and horns.

Once you know what the animal needs for its basics, you can start playing with an adding features. Consider how adding wings to a rabbit might make it better able to escape from predators, and how it might affect its ability to navigate dense undergrowth. When adding in something like magic or psionic abilities keep in mind how these additional abilities would help them in their natural environment. Obviously when giving magic powers, you have a lot more room to work with, so long as you’re not breaking the established rules of both magic and physics in your world. Remember fire underwater sounds cool, but doesn’t work unless that fire has some way of getting oxygen to continue burning.

It’s also possible you won’t need any additional features for your fictional creatures. You might know what a dog or a cat is on sight, but consider describing them as if you’re seeing it for the first time. You might end up describing an animal like this:

Four long legs held up a lithe, muscular body. Each paw ended in sharp, hollow claws. Aside from the obnoxious hissing, it was also capable of two different growling sounds, one of which indicated it was happy if you believed the stories. If the slitted eyes weren’t unnerving enough, both triangular ears swiveled to catch sounds from all directions, and the tail flipped, curled and twisted as the creature pleased for it to.

Any guesses which creature that is? It’s the common house cat. Play with your words and descriptions, see what you can do to an ordinary animal.

As an exercise: pick an animal you’re familiar with and describe it as if it was the first time you were encountering it and didn’t have a name for it. Think about how it looks, moves and sounds.

Additionally take a common animal you’re familiar with and give it an extra feature–this might be a physical feature like horns, or wings, or it might be a non-physical ability such as telepathy or conjuring. Write about how it navigates its world with these extra features.

Posted in worldbuilding, writing

Worldbuilding Introduction

Originally posted Jun 10, 2019. Updated as of Feb 21, 2020. 

I realized when I was going back through my posts and organizing for my next worldbuilding post that one of the things I hadn’t done was include a list of covered topics. You can now find that below the original post.


Worldbuilding is a huge part of writing genres like fantasy and science fiction. It’s also a large part of games, both tabletop and video. Whether it’s a sprawling other-worldly planet like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, or something as simple as a hidden layer of magic in a real city, worldbuilding is the key to your fictional setting.

If you ask ‘what is worldbuilding’ the answer is pretty simple and straightforward. Worldbuilding is building any fictional setting regardless of size. That makes it a core component of fantasy and sci-fi. It pops up plenty in other genres too, usually in smaller doses.

Depending on how deep you go, worldbuilding can be expansive and large enough to cover entire tomes on its own. How much you need can be dependent on both how much you want to explore your world, and the requirements of your story. Aside from what the world looks like physically, there are also cultural aspects to consider and cover. Daily life is another aspect that can be affected–your characters won’t have to run an errand specifically to get gas if they’re traveling around by horse, but they will have a lot more daily chore requirements.

Because of the amount that can go into worldbuilding, I’m kicking off an ongoing series. Today I’m starting by looking at the different ways of building a world.

There are a lot of ways of building a world. Random Generation is one way and can be useful to provide a basic structure. Generators can be found for everything from city layouts to political maps. Although this takes out a lot of the work of coming up with names and the picky details, it is random so it can and will contradict itself in some places, which is something to be on the lookout for. If continuity isn’t a concern but time is, random generation is extremely useful.

Questionnaires are another method. The internet is full of question lists to help you figure out what your world is doing and give you an idea of things you may have overlooked. These can get extremely detailed and are really thought provoking in some cases (have you ever thought about what happens to the waste your fictional people produce?), but answering those questions can also be time consuming, both on writing the answers down and on researching examples to see how it works in the real-world. If you need fully-customized answers and have the time to make sure everything works nicely together, this is a fantastic method for building a detailed world.

Expansion is my favorite method, and sort of a middle-ground between generation and questionnaires. By starting with one level (be that a kingdom or a tiny shop somewhere) and building on the general idea, you end up ‘nesting’ locations. The tiny shop is located in this little town, which is located in this region, which is part of this kingdom and so on and so forth. Name each level as you go through it (Sam’s Shop of Contraband Sales for example), and work out the general idea of what it’s for and what it does before moving up or down the level as needed. This gives you a general overview of the world as a whole. It’s less time-consuming than questionnaires while maintaining continuity, but it’s not as detailed.

Of course, there’s also nothing to stop you from blending all three methods together. If you need an idea to start, a randomly generated town or city can give you a good base for expansion. If you have a general overview of the world but need more details, filling out a questionnaire or two is a good way to go.

Worldbuilding Topics

Posted in worldbuilding

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.

Posted in worldbuilding

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?