One of the things I love most when creating a new world is creating the inhabitants. No story can exist without a main character. And your main character belongs to a specific society, even if he/she is excluded from it. Whether your novel is set in your hometown or in an imaginary world, the society your characters live in will shape how they react - whether they conform to the system or go against it.
You can create your world starting from any point - the physical realm, the society, the character, the story problem etc. - but at some point you have to decide how your main character (MC) and his/her story problem fit into the larger world he/she lives in. The interplay between your MC and his/her world will help give your story the depth, and coherence, necessary to engage your readers and create a vibrant world that will live on in their minds well beyond the end of your book.
This article is divided into three sections: the society/structure your inhabitants live in, expressions of that structure, and the individual within that structure. At the end of the article I have listed a set of questions for each of these sections that can be used to help organize the many threads that go into creating/analyzing the society your characters live in.
1. Social Structure
Just as the audience responds to the set when the curtains go up in a theater, the setting you give to your story guides your reader to a frame of mind. For example, Bethia in Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks is born into a minister's family in 1640’s Cape Cod. Her view of the world and her place in it as a woman, as openminded as she is for her time, is quite different from that of Kyra in The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams who is born into a cult community. Even though the two settings have some similarities, knowing that there is a different world beyond the compound’s gates means that Kyra is able to escape. Bethia has nowhere to go and must abide by the rules, or bend them when she can.
The issue of where power lies is essential to understanding the society your characters evolve in - whether you are creating a fictional world or using ours. In fantasy, many talk about the triangle of power between Priest, Warrior and Worker/Merchant. Is power in the hands of those who can speak to the gods, or are gods themselves, as in Ancient Egypt? Or is it controlled by those who wield swords/light sabers/weapon of your choosing? Or is it run by the people who manage access to resources and therefore control money or other symbols of riches?
In today’s world there are examples of each type of power, to various degrees. Where you place your character will determine who or what he/she will fight or strive to protect. Fighting in this sense can range from Bethia’s insistence on maintaining a forbidden friendship (that could have been more) with a Native American; or it can be a full-out attack, as in The Hunger Games, where Katniss ultimately wants to destroy the society she grew up in.
The seat of power will also shape what the society values - in its institutions and in its people. If your rulers are from a Priest-type system, certain forms of behavior, such as rituals of worship, spiritual advancement, correct conduct, will be valued differently from those of a military society with its focus on warfare, strategy, technological advances, and obedience.
These underlying values will be reflected in everything: government and its policies, family structure, education, how people do business, and the spiritual or religious beliefs that may or may not prevail.
2. Expressions of the Underlying Structure
As a Priest, Warrior or Worker society develops, all the external manifestations of that particular culture will align with it. For example, a world based on Military Power will have a style of architecture that reflects this core value: buildings will be made to resist attack and monuments will be put up to honor military victories. A Priest caste will build temples, churches or other spiritual centers and a Merchant society will construct environments that favor trade or commerce (such as shopping centers and transport systems for goods). In most cases, there will be a juggling for power within the same civilization. People and events will be perceived according to the society’s underlying values. For example, meekness might be valued in a Priest society, but abhorred in a Warrior one.
Other, more subtle expressions, will manifest in the fashions that are acceptable for all, or part, of the society (such as who can wear crowns, or stripes). Clothing is influenced by climate and available resources, but fashion is influenced by the ideals and moral views of society. A Worker/Merchant society can have functional clothing to show the value placed on manual labor, or it can have elaborate dress to show riches. Either way, there is a reason for the fashions and mores that develop.
Even everyday things such as what people eat and the way food is prepared, the language spoken, the gestures used, will be influenced by the culture that it develops in. Here we greet people with a casual ‘How are you?’ whereas in Nepal they say ‘Have you eaten rice?’. Neither question is expected to get a real answer, but they do say something about how our different cultures developed.
When creating your world, spend some time developing these smaller aspects that are affected by both the physical environment and the culture that it nurtures. This imbues your setting with a level of consistency and depth that makes your world - and your characters’ reaction to it - more believable and poignant.
3. The Individual Character(s)
The way your characters perceive the world around them is shaped by the social structure they grew up in, their past experiences and their own ideas of right and wrong. This in turn will affect how your characters can evolve over the course of your story. For example, in True Blood, Sookie has always been an outcast, so she naturally gravitates towards others who are outside the norm - even if all she really wants is to be normal.
Although you can’t give all the details of the history of your world, you can and should, show the impact they have had on your character in his/her current situation. In The Game of Thrones, Dani wouldn’t be who she is, or where she is, without the past events that pushed her and her brother into exile.
Even if your society (as in today’s world) has been firmly established for hundreds or thousands of years, trace elements from its origins will remain in the attitudes of people and its social structure which is hard for other societies to understand. Think of America and the entrenched right to bear arms, where a 16-year-old can have a hand gun but can’t drink, vs. Europe’s generally younger drinking age but more controlled gun policies. My point is not to argue which is right, but rather to say that some of today’s laws and attitudes are a reflection of past events. In your world, this will also be true.
Your character’s desire to adhere to this structure, or to resist it, is what makes the story interesting - and is often a part of the character’s inner arc.
Whether your characters choose to respect the limitations imposed upon them or not, the society they live in will affect how they interact with those around them and how they feel about their own actions/reactions.
Questions for a Civilization:
A Few of the Things I Think About When World Building
1. Ground Rules
Where is the seat of power? Who controls access?
Is this system new, and in good shape, or is it falling apart and in need of change? How does this impact the MC? Does the MC believe in the system or want to change it?
What are (or were) the founding beliefs of the civilization? If the civilization has become segmented, at what point did it change?
Do gods really exist or are they just a convention most people believe in?
How are laws created and enforced? Do all laws apply to everyone or are some people above the law? If so, why?
Under what conditions can you kill someone? In self-defense? For honor? When that person is from a lower rank/caste? etc.
What is considered immoral? Is the group’s wellbeing more important than the individual’s, or vice versa?
If the society stresses a flat structure, are there rules forcing people to be average? If it is an anarchy, how can people rebel? If it is a hierarchy, are you born into it or does merit count?
2. Physical Expressions
What does the architecture look like: imposing, glorious, open, functional? And what does it say about those who built it?
Is nature seen as a resource to be exploited, or an entity to be taken care of?
How are resources distributed and used? What part of the society focuses on harvesting the resources that are available and what part trades? What are the structural or historic roots of the division of labor?
What has caused wars/feuds vs. what has brought groups closer?
What form of clothing or physical attribute shows rank, if any? Can you tell a worker from a ruler from an outcast by what they wear?
What languages are spoken? What linguistic structure do they have? What sounds are common (in names, speech etc), and does that reflect something about the people?
What kind of education system exists? For which segment of society? Or is it for all? Are children prepared for a specific job? Is education something that can be chosen?
3. The Individual Characters
How are family units structured? Can people choose their own partner? Number of kids?
How do people find jobs, or are jobs chosen for them? Is there a strict hierarchy?
How are feelings expressed (or not)?
What expectations do different groups have? Of themselves, others, the society?
What type of recreational activities do people enjoy? Who participates? Are these activities typically in a group or individual?
And most importantly, why will the MC want to face the issues encountered in the story, or why will he/she run away?
And my favorite question, what would the MC give their life for?
Whatever the answers to these questions and many others, your story must involve inherent conflict. In Dragon Fire, what my MC most desires is forbidden. And he must choose if he is willing to die for what he believes in. If there was no conflict of interests (here heart vs. duty), there wouldn’t be a story to tell.
This article is the second in a series of four articles on the Art of World Building, an aspect of writing that I have enjoyed since I wrote my first story in 8th grade. I now write YA sci-fi and fantasy – and my mind is always inhabited by too many characters.
Part 1: The Physical World (June 8, 2013)
Part 2: The Inhabitants of Your World (August 8, 2013)
Part 3: The Inherent Conflicts/Issues in Your World (October 8, 2013)
Part 4: Showing Your World (December 8, 2013)
Born in the US, Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt – and still thinks the two are connected. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium, where she lives with her husband, two children and three horses.
Dina loves to create intricate worlds filled with conflict and passion. She builds her own myths while exploring issues of belonging, racism and the search for truth... after all, how can you find true love if you don’t know who you are and what you believe in? Dina’s key to developing characters is to figure out what they would be willing to die for. And then pushing them to that limit.
Some choices are hard to live with.
But some choices will kill you.
When seventeen-year-old Anna first meets Rakan in her hometown north of the Arctic Circle, she is attracted to the languid energy that pulses around him. Unaware that he is a shapeshifting dragon, Anna is drawn into a murderous cycle of revenge that pits Rakan and his clan against her best friend June.
Torn between his forbidden relationship with Anna, punishable by death, and restoring his family’s honor by killing June, Rakan must decide what is right. And what is worth living – or dying – for.
Buy Dragon Fire at Amazon
Release date:August 5, 2013 ebook:Nov. 15, 2013 trade paperback