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Worldbuilding: Basics of Social Stratification

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers.

Think fast: is your hero an underdog?

Modern readers, especially Western readers, are used to reading about unlikely heroes who save the world by triumphing over colossal odds. Think Harry Potter, the scrawny orphan with the abusive relatives; think Vin, the suspicious street kid from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn; think Lord of the Rings’s Frodo. This trope has been a part of storytelling around the world for a long time, and with good reason – since most people see themselves as the little guy, everyone likes seeing the little guy win. And especially in American culture, the idea of the “self-made” person who achieves their success through their own wits and determination has resonance outside the world of storytelling, too. However, if you want your fantasy world to be realistic, you may want to take another look at your hero’s social position.

For as long as people have lived in groups, those groups have had dominant and subordinate members. And for the most part (with a few exceptions), the people on top will be the ones who make the biggest changes, and the ones born on top will be the ones who stay there. So if you want to tell the story of a hero whose culture doesn’t expect them to be the one changing the world, you may want to get creative.

Social Stratification

This distinction between the people with power and the people without is what sociologists call stratification, the same word used in geology to describe layers of rock. Social stratification, unsurprisingly, refers to “layers” of people (like the upper, middle, and lower classes); in the modern world, the divisions between these layers are often invisible or unwritten, but in other times and places they’ve been laid out very clearly. In medieval Europe, whether you were born a member of the royalty, the nobility, the merchant class or the peasant class dictated pretty much everything about your life, and you weren’t likely to leave the class you were born into. George RR Martin acknowledges this in an interview where he talks about why the movers and shakers of his A Song of Ice and Fire world are all high-born people. Martin wanted his story to reflect the fact that in a real feudal society, a peasant wouldn’t have been able to walk up to a king and say anything she wanted. Except under extraordinary circumstances, she’d never have been able to get near him.

Obviously, the modern world doesn’t have feudal lords (at least, not in the same way), but an individual’s social identities and the conditions of their birth still affect their life chances in substantial ways. In any society, the rulers tend to make rules that favor people like them. This is why the election of President Obama was such a big deal, and why people got excited when Justice Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court. People believe that leaders who are like them are more likely to make decisions that benefit them – and they’re probably right. Tribalism is deeply rooted in human nature; drawing lines between “us” and “them,” and doing what we can to better the condition of “us,” has been benefitting people for a very long time (this is why a lot of rhetoric around the benefits of diversity focuses on how it encourages people to develop broader definitions of “us”). So the fact that people in power favor others like themselves over those who are different from them doesn’t make them evil; just human.

All the same, the effects are indisputable. Even in the 21st century, even in places like the United States with its narrative of “the American Dream,” significant upward social mobility (moving from a lower class to a higher one) is still very rare. Most people born into working-class and poor families remain in those classes as adults, far from the seats of power. And depending on what your other social identities are, gaining power and influence can be even more difficult.

So, what do you do if you want your fantasy story to have a realistic power structure, but you don’t want your intrepid hero to start out as the ruler of the world? Well, you’ve got a few options. Let’s look briefly at two of them: different types of power and different types of stratification.

Different Types of Power

Who holds the power in your society?

Okay, now who’s fighting them for it?

Even in the most tyrannical societies, it’s almost impossible for one group or person to hang on to control of everything. Your society probably has a government, the “state” that sociologist Max Weber identifies as the individual or individuals who “legitimately control the means of violence” – in other words, the ones who have final authority over armies, weapons of mass destruction, city guards and police. But where does that government get their money? (Think of the power of “special interests,” and the fight over campaign funding, in modern American politics.) Who holds the moral authority in your society? (In medieval Europe, kings and princes were extraordinarily powerful people, but when the Pope spoke, they listened.) Do you have magic-users whose special abilities might level the playing field? And what about celebrities? Whether you’re talking about a singer, a military leader, or just someone thrust into the spotlight by circumstances, anyone who has the affection of thousands or millions of followers is in a very powerful position indeed.

The three characters I mentioned at the beginning of this post are all able to take their “hero” positions because of their unique types of power.

  • Harry Potter’s not just a scrawny orphan; because of a random event that happened when he was a baby, he enters the wizarding world a major celebrity, which gives him an enormous amount of social power. Most of Harry’s actions throughout the books, including his quest to save the world, are set in motion not because of any special quality he has but because other, more powerful people have decided he can’t be ignored.
  • Mistborn’s Vin isn’t just an ordinary street kid: she has magic abilities that are vanishingly rare among people from her social class.
  • As for Frodo, he’s a little different. His power to save the world comes from the nature of the threat it faces: by making the One Ring into such a corrupting force, Tolkien came up with a situation where anyone who held (or even wanted) any kind of power couldn’t be the hero. The only guy who could save the world in this story was someone who desperately wanted nothing more than to be ordinary. So that’s another strategy.

Different Types of Stratification

If you want your hero to be an underdog instead of just someone with a different kind of power, you’ve got another way to play it. Stratification based on social identities is never simple. Every person’s got a number of identities (the sociological term for this phenomenon is intersectionality), and while some of those will likely make it easier to wield power, others will not. Many powerful black men, including popular actors and President Obama, have talked publicly about their experiences of casual racism at times when they weren’t recognized as being famous. A white woman has come close to winning the nomination for President of the United States, but there’s never been a “serious” candidate for that office who was gay, or who wasn’t a practicing Christian. In the modern United States, your odds of gaining and keeping power are still significantly higher the more you have in common with this list of traits:

  • Cisgendered maleness
  • Whiteness
  • Heterosexuality
  • Christian faith
  • Ablebodiedness (no physical, mental, or developmental disabilities)
  • Good health, including a lack of addictions and mental illness
  • Physical attractiveness, including not being too thin or too fat
  • Age between 25-60 (varies depending on the specific type of power)
  • Legally recognized, monogamous marriage
  • Fatherhood (within the bounds of marriage)
  • A college degree
  • A professional (white-collar) job
  • Financial security
  • Native English-speaking ability
  • Native-born American citizenship
  • No criminal history

Looking at this list, you can see more clearly how even if your character’s handed a lot of the right cards for power in their society (which, depending on your world, will probably vary from the ones listed above), they could still be an underdog. George RR Martin’s Tyrion Lannister is a wonderful example of this: he’s a brilliant man from one of the most powerful families in Westeros, but many people, including his father, fail to take him seriously or give him the credit he deserves because he also happens to be a dwarf. His sister Cersei wants nothing more than to rule the kingdom, but her gender gets in her way.

So, in short, if you want to tell a story about an underdog, there are a lot of different (and more realistic) ways to do it besides having your peasant girl march into the court and tell off the king. Depending on the norms of your society, there are probably half a hundred ways a character who’s born into the ruling class could still be an “underdog” because some part of them doesn’t match the model of who’s supposed to be holding power – and as we saw with the examples of Harry, Vin and Frodo, there are other ways besides power to bring someone to the center of the world, too (including plain old luck). Consider it a challenge that’ll help you build not only richer worlds, but more creative plots, too!


Designing Realistic Magic Academies

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers.

When I reread JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books these days, I have different questions than I did the first time around. Questions like: who are the great legendary heroes of British wizarding society that every kid learns about? What options does a talented student like Hermione Granger have for post-secondary education? Who taught Ron Weasley how to read?

Anyone who’s read or watched the Harry Potter saga knows quite a bit about Hogwarts. But even after reading all seven books, I’m still pretty confused about the education of 20th-century British wizards. And if you’re planning to create a school of magic for your fantasy world, there are some things you should think about to keep your readers from having this same confusion. Most importantly, you need to figure out the function of your school within its society. Another way of thinking about this is to ask yourself this question: who is your school’s target audience?

At first glance, schools of magic would seem to be pretty common in fantasy fiction. Besides Rowling’s Hogwarts, there’s the Citadel in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and loads of others. However, most institutions of magical learning seem to operate on the trade school model: students are a slice of the general population, of various ages and backgrounds, who’ve come in search of highly specialized knowledge or training. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is presented as a general education program: all British witches and wizards between the ages of 11 and 17 are expected to pass through its doors. Like general schools in most parts of the world, it divides its students primarily by age, and students have relatively little choice in which courses they take for most of their academic career. Hogwarts students aren’t there to get a cosmetology certificate or a law degree: they’re just trying to graduate from high school.

If you’re thinking of creating a school on the Hogwarts model, the first thing you need to consider is the prevalence of formal education in your larger society. Although human societies have always had to train their children in how to be productive adults, and formal instruction for some elite portion of the population (on topics including literacy, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and science) has existed in almost every society throughout history, widespread education of “the masses” is a relatively new concept. Laws requiring formal schooling for all children regardless of their background first appeared in parts of Protestant Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries; compulsory schooling didn’t become the general law in the United States until 1918 (though many states mandated it decades earlier).

But let’s set aside the question of prevalence: let’s say your story is set in a version of our modern real world, like Rowling’s is. That means that some sort of formal education for children is almost certainly mandatory in your society, at least through the mid-teenage years. So you know you’ve got a school system designed to serve the general population. Your next task is to think a bit about the people who designed the system, and figure out their most important goals. Because a quick look at the history of the modern Western educational system shows that the people putting together public schools have had different goals at different times, and these goals have all affected our complicated modern system.

Scholars of education pretty much agree that in the 21st century, the general Western education system has a few main purposes:

  • Instilling practical life skills. Although there are a lot of debates these days about what schools ought to be teaching students – how human sexuality should be discussed in school (or if it should be discussed at all), whether programming courses should be mandatory, whether teachers should make sure every high school graduate can balance a checkbook and change the oil in their car – there are a few skills the modern world takes for granted. If you’re an adult living in an industrialized country, it’s expected that you can read, write, and do basic math. That’s one reason standardized tests focus on these skills: someone who’s illiterate or innumerate will have a really hard time in the modern world.
  • Developing loyal citizens. The first public schools in Protestant Europe came about because religious leader Martin Luther thought it was important for all citizens to be able to read the Bible. In the United States, widespread public schooling became popular during the massive immigration of the 19th century, and one of its main goals was to teach immigrant children how to be Americans. The Pledge of Allegiance was developed with this goal in mind; ditto the story many American children still learn about President George Washington chopping down a cherry tree as a boy. Although many modern schools in the US and elsewhere try to take a more multicultural approach to their curricula, it’s still expected that schools will teach children about their country: geography, civics, and perhaps most importantly history. And what’s included in that history is a matter for constant debate in countries all over the world. Public schools put a country’s entire next generation in a room together to learn about the world. It’s unavoidable that part of that learning will involve establishing some basic norms about what it means to be American/Australian/Japanese/a British wizard.
  • Establishing cultural literacy. If you grew up in the United States, there are certain books you probably read in high school: The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird. If you grew up in the English-speaking world, you probably have at least a passing acquaintance with Romeo & Juliet and The markers of what constitutes “an educated person” are different from one place to another, but education almost always includes more than facts and figures. And depending on which rank of society you’re planning to move in once you’ve finished your education, the amount of “culture” you’re expected to be familiar with could go beyond literature. You might be expected to speak a foreign language fluently, or to recognize classical music or fine art, or to know which fork to use at a fancy dinner party. Which brings me to the final role of formal education…
  • Gatekeeping and credentialism. As I say above, in much of the world throughout much of history, formal education was the domain of an elite few. As education expanded to the masses, that wealthy few began creating additional prestige markers to set themselves apart. For a while, it was only the elite who attended high school; then, it was only the elite who pursued bachelor’s degrees; now – well, you get the idea. This phenomenon, called credentialism, is one thing sociologists point to as a cause of “degree inflation” (where bachelor’s degrees are increasingly not sufficient education for a professional job). The harder it is to get credentials for a job – credentials that imply particular specialized cultural knowledge as much as they do practical knowledge – the longer that job will stay in the hands of the elite.

With these goals in front of us, we can see that Hogwarts has an odd curriculum for a modern comprehensive school. As far as we can tell from the books, it focuses very heavily on the acquisition of practical skills: like Martin’s Citadel and Rothfuss’s University, it feels much more like a trade school than a place for general education. I’m not suggesting that Rowling should’ve given us long accounts of Harry and his chums doing algebra and reading Dickens (or, y’know, 19th-century wizarding-world novels with titles like The Goblin Lord of London). But she could have given us a little more cultural backdrop than the one almost-universally-disliked History of Magic course that appears briefly in Order of the Phoenix.

If your school of magic is a specialized place where people go to learn the wizarding arts, then you can feel free to make the classes as content-focused as you want. But if you’re designing a place for general education, you’ll want to include at least a little of the other stuff. What cultural touchstones are young people in your magical society expected to be familiar with by graduation? What does “an educated person” look like? Who teaches students the basic intellectual survival skills? (These could be reading and fundamental math; they could also be something completely different.) And how do the elites in your society (because every society has people who’d rather not mingle with “the masses”) set themselves apart? Are there private magic academies that teach spells in ancient languages known only to the wealthy? Does your school have the equivalent of AP courses, or a PTA pushing the school to offer Mandarin to give their kindergartners a jump-start on the road to Harvard?

You don’t have to put it all in; you probably shouldn’t. Like all worldbuilding, a little in the text goes a long way. But thinking about it will help you build a better magic school, and with it, a better world.

On Dothraki and House Elves: Developing a Fantasy Culture

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers. You should definitely go check out the other great contributions!

Can you describe your fantasy story’s dominant culture in one sentence?

That’s where many of us start when we’re writing, especially those who really love to worldbuild. We hit on a concept for a race of catpeople, or think about how people would be different if they’d evolved underwater, or decide to tweak how human reproduction works. Concepts like these are fantastic starting places: with a little research and creativity, they can be spun pretty quickly into a full-fledged culture, with elaborate practices, values, and stories and beliefs about how the world works.

And you can stop there. A lot of authors do, including some whose books are runaway best-sellers. But if you want your story to portray a realistic society, building “the culture” won’t be enough, for three reasons: cultural drift, cultural exchange, and deviance. Let’s unpack these a little.

Cultural Drift

How old is your primary culture? And how much territory does it cover?

There’s a lot of talk both inside and outside the United States about “American culture,” You know, the culture of Big Macs and organic local farmers’ markets, of abstinence pledges and the reality show Sixteen and Pregnant, of – you get the idea. Even in “the information age,” the US still has regional cultures. If you’re familiar with those cultures, you might make assumptions about someone from the Bay Area, or the Bible Belt, or Brooklyn, but you’d likely realize there’s not much you can assume about someone from “America.” The country’s just too big.

The same goes for cultural change over time. Even in a relatively young country like the US, there have been dramatic cultural changes since its founding, and modern people get into positively brutal arguments about what the original culture was (just ask someone with an opinion on the issue what “separation of church and state” means).

Over time and distance, the Vulgar Latin spoken in the Roman Empire fragmented into the very-different Romance languages. Culture fragments, too, and it also changes in response to local conditions. The American Revolution changed its people’s culture dramatically. So did the slave trade. So did the car.

Failing to take cultural drift into account seems to be particularly common when you’re developing non-human cultures (centaurs are noble, dwarves are gruff, elves are arrogant, you know the drill). One exercise to help you get around this is to think about which of the cultural traits you’ve developed are actually rooted in biology: those are the ones most likely to be universal across cultures. For instance, almost all human children are raised in family groups; almost all humans subsist on some combination of plant matter and animal protein; almost all humans will have sexual partners at some point in their adult life. But think how many variations exist on those themes if you widen the scope to all human cultures.

Cultural Exchange

Think fast: where did tomatoes originate?

If you guessed Italy, I can’t blame you. Tomato sauces and bruschetta are so strongly associated with Italian food now that it can be hard to believe there were no tomatoes in Europe until the sixteenth century. They originated in southern Mexico, and came to Europe with returning Spanish explorers. Same thing with chili peppers, brought first to Europe and then to Asia from the “New World.” People traveled, they saw new things, and they adopted those things as their own.

Intelligent creatures are curious. If people from your primary culture have contact with other cultures, whether through war, alliance, or just casual encounters, some parts of those other cultures will trickle home with them. Some American GIs who served in Vietnam came home with a new taste for Southeast Asian cuisine; some sub-Saharan Africans who heard the preaching of European missionaries decided this Jesus stuff might be worth exploring.

Food and religion are particularly good examples of cultural exchange, because they’re pretty portable and fairly resistant to extinction. When people travel to a new country, they bring their cuisine and their faith along, and even when immigrants assimilate, food and faith tend to persist longer than other things. But the longer an export is immersed in a new culture, the further it’s likely to drift from its original source material. Christianity in Africa looks quite different from Christianity in Europe; “Chinese food” in the United States is very different from Cantonese or Szechuan cuisine. Blame cultural drift again, along with syncretism (a term most commonly applied to religion): combining new cultural elements with ones that are already working well. East and Southeast Asia are notorious for this, with many people’s religious practices incorporating elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and local indigenous traditions without the practitioners seeing any contradiction.

Cultural exchange is particularly common where two cultures bump up against each other often. This is why “ethnic” food is most prevalent in big cities that are common immigrant destinations, and why there are more Mexican restaurants in the southwestern US (i.e., close to Mexico) than in New England. If your story’s set in a border town, it will almost by definition not be monocultural.

Finally, of course, there’s cultural exchange in the most direct sense of the word. When two human cultures first meet, there are two things you can almost always count on: they’ll try to kill each other, and they’ll make babies. Even if there are taboos against intercultural sexual relations – even if it’s punishable by death – it’ll still happen. And the children who come from those unions will have to be categorized within the societies who could potentially claim them, and decide for themselves what cultural space they’re going to occupy.

Which brings me to my final bullet point. I suspect that right now, someone reading this is preparing to protest that your fantasy culture is the exception, that your cultural authorities (king, warlord, high priests, whoever) maintain a policy of strict isolationism, so there’s no opportunities for cultural exchange, and they’re immortal, so there’s limited opportunity for cultural drift because the story coming from the top never changes. To you, I say that even in the most authoritarian societies, there will always be the crazy ones.


What was US culture like in the 1950s? (Hint: This is a trick question.)

If you took early American TV as your guide, you could easily believe the America of the ‘50s was a land of capitalism-loving, comfortably middle-class families, with stay-at-home moms and breadwinning dads. But, of course, some Americans still got divorced in the ‘50s; some were in same-sex relationships; some were poor; some were Communists. The dominant culture’s social norms may have pointed people toward the Leave it to Beaver ideal, but the reality was a little different.

Whatever norms, beliefs and values your society has, there will be people who stray from them. People who don’t believe God created the universe, or don’t believe that the Big Bang did. People who sever ties with their family of origin, or who live with their parents until they’re forty. Straying from the mainstream – whatever that mainstream might be – is what sociologists call deviance.

People tend to think of the term deviance as referring to illegal and/or immoral actions, and that’s certainly part of the picture. But there are also deviant acts that violate norms rather than laws or morals, like sitting down right next to someone on the bus when there are empty seats available elsewhere. You won’t get arrested; you may not even get a dirty look; but you’ll almost certainly make the other person uncomfortable. And there’s another type of deviance even milder than norm-breaking, people who just do things a little differently. In 2014, in much of the world, not having a cell phone makes you deviant; so does having twelve children. Ditto skydiving, or having a tarantula for a pet.

Your society will have all these forms of deviance. There will be people who commit crimes (actions that a government deems undesirable for one reason or another); there will be people who do immoral things (often actions that a religious authority deems undesirable); and there will be people who do weird things, and think outside the box. The motivations for these actions could be anything you can imagine. What if there was a Dothraki in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire who was allergic to horses? What if there was a Hogwarts house elf who had a vision from the gods and started preaching that the house elves needed to go join Voldemort’s cause, or that they needed to use their magic destroy the humans?

The people in your world will be born into a culture, and that culture will shape their thoughts and beliefs and actions. But no thinking person can conform completely to every aspect of their culture, no matter how constrictive that culture is. You’ll always have variability.

This might all sound like a lot of work, and I’m certainly not suggesting you come up with a hundred incarnations of every culture that could potentially appear in your story. But for the main cultures, I’d suggest it’s worth thinking about these things. Because the more nuance you can put in your cultures, the realer they’ll feel to your readers – and who knows, you may even find opportunities for new stories! The messianic house elf seems like it has potential to me…

Worldbuilding from Real Life Without Leaving Home: Travel Guides

I’ve already mentioned here the Comic-Con video I found a few weeks ago where a group of epic fantasy authors discuss everything from overcoming writing anxiety to designing maps. In the conversation, the authors talk a lot about what to read to help you with building rich worlds, but there’s a technique I’ve recently discovered that they didn’t mention and which I’d like to share with you. So here it is, in brief:

If you want your world, or even a corner of it, to have the flavor of someplace you’ve never been, read a good travel guide.

In my own worldbuilding this year, I’ve been making a special effort to avoid the straightforward transposition of existing cultures. Some authors who use this technique do it brilliantly: Guy Gavriel Kay’s built a career on doing minor tweaks to real-world cultures and writing not-quite-historical fiction. Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books also have cultures very similar to those of the real medieval world (in most cases). George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has not-quite-Mongols (though Martin notes that he was inspired by a range of nomadic cultures in developing them), and not-quite-Moors. But I wanted something that felt more original, something that readers couldn’t point to and say “obviously, that’s [England/Japan/India/Italy].”

However, like any good worldbuilder, I knew that I didn’t have to invent everything myself. So instead, I started reading. I read two books on Japanese history and culture; I spent a morning reading up on the armies of ancient empires that ruled over present-day Mali, Congo and South Africa; I have a whole bookshelf full of stuff on comparative religion. That’s all great iceberg work, but it doesn’t do a good job of giving me bits of flavor. Architecture, culture, customs, food… the sorts of things a reader would be interested in learning about. Or, y’know, a tourist.

The idea of using travel guides occurred to me in a bookstore a month or so ago, and so a few weeks back, I checked out two guides from my local library to put the theory to the test. I grabbed what looked interesting from what they happened to have available, and what I ended up with was Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and Fodor’s Scandinavia. Both were useful; the Lonely Planet one included substantially more cultural stuff, though I’m not sure whether that’s because Southeast Asia requires more cultural explanation than Scandinavia for the guidebook’s presumed reader (a questionable assumption for about a dozen reasons) or because Lonely Planet does better culture in general. I’m planning to do more research (and will post a followup comment when I do). But both books included sections on history, politics, food, cultural taboos, holidays, and the must-see places around the country. All things that you’d want to know about your fictional country just as if it were a real one.

Just for fun, a sample of fun facts I learned from these guidebooks, in no particular order:

  • Traditional Vietnamese puppet theatre is “water puppetry”; it was originally performed in flooded rice paddies with the puppeteers standing in the water.
  • In rural Thailand, you are likely to be awakened by a rooster crowing at any hour of the day or night
  • Some Finnish communities traditionally wash their rugs in the sea
  • Cambodian delicacies include grilled tarantula and cobra wine (wine with a dead snake in it)
  • A seaport in Denmark has a pair of ceramic dogs in almost every front window. Historically, when the dogs were facing each other, it meant that the man of the house was home; when they faced away from each other, it meant he was out at sea.

You get the idea. Details like this are appealing to tourists but can also offer a unique flavor to your fantasy world.

Of course, before incorporating any aspects from a real-life culture into a fantasy culture, you should spend some time thinking about the context in which you’re planning to use the elements. If you borrow too much or too distinctively from a single culture (an example of “distinctive” might be if you decide you want your culture to write with ideograms, something  associated in the real world almost exclusively with Chinese language and culture), you want to make sure you’re not encouraging readers to use perceived real-world stereotypes to draw assumptions about your world, or otherwise demeaning the real-world culture. The difference between learning about other cultures to generate ideas and practicing straightforward cultural appropriation can sometimes be subtle. And if you want to use a single culture as more comprehensive inspiration for your fantasy world, please don’t stop with a guidebook: take Nisi Shawl’s advice from Writing the Other and learn everything you can about the culture, ideally including conversations with people who are cultural natives.

Guidebooks won’t build your world for you, and they shouldn’t be your only resource. But they can be a great starting point to generate ideas, and a fabulous way to fill your head with images, smells, tastes and sounds from outside the cultures you’re familiar with.

Pat Rothfuss Says: Worldbuilders, Embrace Your Geekiness

After finishing a first draft of my novel around Christmastime, I spent the first half of this year going back through my series bible to fill in worldbuilding holes. As I’ve mentioned here before, worldbuilding for me is both less and more intimidating than writing. On the one hand, there’s less pressure to get the prose right; you don’t have to worry nearly so much about individual characters’ motivations; and you can reassure yourself with the thought that “I probably won’t need most of this anyway.” On the other hand… worlds are big. Like… big.

Last week, I ran across a fabulous video from Comic-Con 2014 featuring five epic fantasy authors (Joe Abercrombie, Diana Gabaldon, Lev Grossman, George RR Martin and Patrick Rothfuss). If you’ve got an hour to spare, I’d really recommend the whole thing — they talk about the writing process, about who their first readers are, about how they come up with maps, and many other glorious things — but there was one piece of it that really spoke to me, and that was a quote from Pat Rothfuss about traps to avoid when worldbuilding. He says (roundabout Minutes 22-25 in the video):

A lot of people following in Tolkien’s footsteps [will] think, “If I’m writing a fantasy novel, I need to have a bunch of created languages, because Tolkien did it, and it’s kind of become a tradition.” But Tolkien didn’t do it for tradition; he did it because he was a language geek and that was what he loved. And I am not a linguist. I need [languages] to make my world realistic, but I don’t geek out over it. I’m a geek for currency, and so I have [my world’s economy] all worked out, and that filters into my books… Nobody ever spends money in Tolkien’s books, because he obviously didn’t care [about it]. That wasn’t a thing for him. And so, when people ask [me] about worldbuilding, what should they do, I say, you’re a geek for something. And if that’s herbology, or the nature of the night sky, or plate tectonics… revel in your geekery. Roll around in it and make that a part of your world, because that will be really interesting to the people reading, because you’re interested in it. Whereas if you try to do something because you feel like you’re supposed to, I don’t think that’s the best way to really enjoy yourself and make a vibrant world.

I think there are two pieces of real wisdom here. The big one, of course, is that we’ve all got our geekeries. Even people who don’t consider themselves to be “geeks” have specialized knowledge, from their hobbies and occupations and life experience; author and scientist Dan Koboldt organizes a whole section of his blog around guest posts from experts in a wide range of fields. My personal list of random specialized non-writing-related knowledge and interests includes, in no particular order:

  • Ritual
  • Religion
  • Names
  • Language
  • Astrology
  • School curriculum design
  • Genealogy
  • Kinship and family relationships

I’ve got whole sections of my bookshelves devoted to these topics, and almost all of them have been at least somewhat fleshed out in the world of my novel. And for the most part, I had a great time doing it.

I think that’s the more subtle aspect of Rothfuss’s point. When you’re worldbuilding, just like when you’re writing, at least some of the time you should be having fun. There are always things about putting a world together that will be less-than-your-favorite-activity (one of my big ones is maps: I dislike drawing maps), but there should be parts of it that are fun for you, too. Rothfuss strongly implies that if you’re not enjoying yourself, you won’t make a vibrant world, and I believe this is true, in the same way that I believe that if I’m bored with the scene I’m  writing, it’s probably a sign that the scene isn’t working, or that if I’m not feeling some of the emotion my character’s feeling in an emotional scene, I’m probably not getting deep enough into it.

And I can vouch for the wisdom of Rothfuss’s words, at least in my own experience: when you’re working out the nitty-gritty details that readers love, if you love them, too, it’s going to show. Later in the same SDCC interview, George RR Martin reports that he really gets excited about heraldry. Let’s look at a little section from A Storm of Swords, shall we?

“There’s a purple flag with yellow balls.”

“Lemons?” Pod said hopefully. “A purple field strewn with lemons? For House Dalt. Of, of Lemonwood.”

“Might be. Next’s a big black bird on yellow. Something pink or white in its claws, hard to say with the banner flapping.”

“The vulture of Blackmont grasps a baby in its talons,” said Pod. “House Blackmont of Blackmont, ser.”

There are eight more sigils described in this sequence. Only one of them is a family of significance to the story at that time; most have no members who ever appear on screen at all. And yet, GRRM went to the trouble to create them all, because he thought it was cool and fun to do. And it makes the story feel richer.

You’ll never fill in all the parts of your world when doing preparatory worldbuilding. You’ll have to make some up as you go along, and even if your world ends up out in the Real World of published fiction, there will inevitably be parts of it that are still full of holes (GRRM has a great quote in the Comic-Con video about how he discovered the truth of this with his maps very late in the game). But if you take Pat Rothfuss’s approach and start with developing the stuff what you love, I think you’ll be well on your way to having a world that feels real to your readers.

World-building and The United States of Westeros/Andor/Tatooine/And So On

I was talking with a friend yesterday about world-building. This is a regular semi-ongoing conversation for us, but this time, he was looking for some specific advice on how to make the different cultures in his world distinct and realistic. Since this is something I’ve been doing a lot of recently (and since I spent 11 years at school supposedly studying human cultures) I consider myself minimally qualified to offer some advice. So I’ll do that here — but first, a caveat for all you world-builders out there.

It might sound obvious, but no matter what genre you’re writing in, if you’re coming out of an American tradition, your world is going to reflect elements of American culture. And if you’re writing for an American audience, your work will sell a lot better if there are certain things in it. Things like a protagonist who pushes back against their oppressive culture, or who saves the day all on their own when the army’s been defeated, or who rises up from the masses to bring justice to the people (ok, that last one was a conscious semi-subversion of the trope, but still).

I thought about this yesterday when my friend was explaining how “the people of Culture X generally have these personality traits”: my first question was what deviance looks like in their culture. Part of this comes from my training as a sociologist (that even in the most conformist cultures, there will always be people who buck the trend), but I’ll admit that just as important a motivation is that those are the stories I’m used to reading. If we as readers (especially Western readers) are presented with a monoculture as the protagonist’s culture, we’re going to start looking for the people who are exceptions to it. In part, that’s because we know that’s how real cultures work (more about that later); in part, it’s because that’s what we as Westerners are used to looking for from our heroes. Western heroes, especially modern ones, are the ones who resist authority. Even our military characters are quasi-firebrands who don’t just blindly give or take orders.

So when you’re worldbuilding, just like when you’re plotting, you need to accept that you’ll have blind spots based on your home culture — and so will your audience.

When you’re writing, unless you’re really conscious of it, your target audience will be people whose worldview has at least some things in common with yours. The first time this hit home for me was in 2004, when I was studying abroad in South Africa and went to see the so-bad-it’s-mostly-good apocalypse flick The Day After Tomorrow. It’s a climate-change disaster movie, and the big final shock shot is the entire Northern Hemisphere covered in ice. Very unsettling… unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere. The theater where I was sitting just burst out laughing.

In addition to your own blind spots, you also want to keep your audience’s in mind. If you make your cultures too different from what readers are used to, and don’t want to make your story be about that difference (the way LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness is kind-of-sort-of about gender), your readers are going to miss things. A few months ago, I was picking the brain of another friend who’s a medieval historian: he pointed out that on the first day of a class with new undergrads, his job is to make them understand that medieval people didn’t think the way modern people do. In medieval Europe, most people knew very little about the world outside of the twenty-mile radius around their village; ritual (religious and otherwise) was one of the few ways that society made sense, not something to be pushed aside when you got bored with it; and strict class divisions were the natural order of things. George RR Martin has incorporated a lot of these elements into ASOIAF (it’s why basically all of his viewpoint characters are nobility, making them better-educated, better-traveled and possessed of more agency — thus looking more like modern people) but even he’s made some adjustments from strict historical accuracy to make his books more accessible to his target readers. As this post by author Dr. Sanjida O’Connell puts it, “You need to find authenticity, rather than accuracy.”

Movies and TV shows do this all the time. A movie about the 1920s won’t have every detail of speech and dress and manner looking the way it did at that time, because modern viewers would miss things or misinterpret them. Blogger TPD Whitehead makes this point, using Deadwood (disclosure: a show I’m familiar with only by name) as an example:

…[P]eople in the Wild West did not use swearwords like ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’, they used words like ‘tarnation’ or ‘nincompoop’. The problem is that if a modern drama used those words as swearwords, at best it would come across as a parody. As such, by using swearwords which modern audiences find offensive, they created an air of authenticity which would not have been created had they used historically accurate language, and I think this is an idea that should be generally observed.

In the same way, your fantasy world has to have a few familiar things for your readers to cling to. Even if your characters aren’t speaking English, you’ll inevitably have to use some English idiom when they speak (if only because speaking without idiom is HARD). Even if your main character’s not human, she’ll have to think like a human on some level or there’ll be nothing familiar for readers to relate to. To get your message across, sometimes you need to walk the line between “really cool, innovative and different” and “comprehensible to my readers.”

All that said — a few things I’ve discovered in the last few weeks that might be useful to you as you set out to build a world.

  • If you’re creating a new race of people, think about the difference between biology and culture. It’s customary to say that humans have no single culture, but when I started developing my non-human races and went online looking for “elements of culture”, I found a discussion board post (which after 20 minutes of searching I now can’t find again) stating the things that all human cultures (though not all humans) have in common. They’re things like “humans care for their offspring until they hit puberty”; “humans create lasting social bonds with sexual partners”; “humans eat a particular subset of animals and plants”; “humans are social”; “humans have religion.” Thinking about the issue on that level, I sat down and worked out the biology of my race (on a basic level); their life cycle, how they reproduced, what they needed to survive, etc. That allowed me to come up with a list of elements that would be common across nearly all cultures, and another list of diverging points (basically, anything that my brain spewed out in the form of the question “Do they do this or this?”) that I could turn into cultural differences.
  • If there’s more than one sentient race in your setting, which is common in SF/fantasy, think about how that would change basic social interactions. Speculation about the sentience of other apes, dolphins, corvids or octopus aside, our world doesn’t have that distinction: there are humans (who we’ve done a fine job of fragmenting into a million different subgroups) and there are animals (who are also fragmented into subgroups). If you’ve got multiple races, think about how they view each other. Are members of the same race with wildly different cultures more hostile to each other than they are to members of other races? Do the different races not view each other as “people,” or view some races as “people” but not others? This is a really important element that can greatly enrich your story.
  • If you want to showcase multiple cultures, human or otherwise, please, please take some time to develop differences in your secondary cultures and avoid the Planet of Hats (warning: TVTropes link. Follow at your own risk). This post by Stokes explains what’s going on with the hat-planet folk — that by default, humans suffer from the assumption that “we” are individuals, but “they” are a stereotype, and that comes through when authors are writing. Most of us take time to develop our protagonists’ culture and show how different individuals buy into different aspects of it to a greater and lesser degree, and show conformity and deviance, but it can be easy to skimp on that where secondary cultures are concerned, especially if they’re the enemies. Tad Williams is very good at this; so is NK Jemisin.
  • And finally, a link out of my professional world that might be useful for world-builders. The American Sociological Association has 52 sections, kind of sub-associations for people interested in particular things like race, education, religion, disability… y’know, the sort of stuff that makes up cultures 🙂 If you’re looking for a way to add texture to your culture, just look at the list and see what areas strike you. Do you want to think about how your culture views the elderly? How they handle war? How they do medicine? As I say to my students when talking about research projects, sociology studies anything that humans do, because everything that people do is part of human society. And whether your protagonists are human or not, they have a society.

So that’s my — er — $1.50 on world-building. Now, I should probably stop mucking around on the Internet and head back to my own world, because those cultures aren’t going to finish themselves…

Anomic Worldbuilding

Research is comfortable.

After finishing a first draft of my novel just before Christmas, I decided to spend the winter break filling some world-building gaps in my setting, to let the draft cool a bit before I returned to it. I honestly didn’t think I had much work to do: a few days on my narrator’s home town, a few days on the religion that plays a fairly central role in the series, a few days sketching out the major races and how they’re different. I thought I’d do some reading, draft some ideas, and then, on the weekend of Imbolc (February 2), I would read through my novel draft and roll up my sleeves to start revising.

Well, as you can tell if you know how to read a calendar, February 2 was more than 3 months ago now, and I’m still world-building. My new tentative deadline is that I’ll return to my draft on June 1st: of course, as soon as I set it, my mind reduced the next 3 1/2 weeks to approximately the length of a coffee date, as m7y panicky author’s impulse shouts that there’s no WAY I can finish everything I want to finish before then. I’m prepared to be somewhat lenient with myself — as Husband points out on a regular basis, one up side of being my own boss is that I can change my deadlines when necessary — but not overly so, because I’ve experienced this particular type of panic before. This is the panic of the anomic creator.

In Emile Durkheim’s super-cheerful study Suicide, he argues that there are 4 main reasons people decide to permanently check out of their social communities. My dissertation chair always explained the four ways to her students using a two-by-two table: too much and not enough, connections and limits. A suicide bomber commits “altruistic suicide” because she’s merged completely with the goals of her community (too much connection); a desperately lonely person commits “egoistic suicide” because he’s lost all ties to his community (too little connection). A prisoner might commit “fatalistic suicide” because they feel there’s no way out of their situation (too many limits)… and someone who wins the lottery might commit “anomic suicide,” because they no longer know what to strive for.

Anomie is a difficult term for undergraduates to grasp at first, but when it’s put in the context of their own lives, they get it easily. For a young person who’s spent the last 4 years worrying about where they’re going to go to college, getting into UC Berkeley might seem like the ultimate goal achieved, and leave them unsure of what they’re supposed to do next. New BA graduates are also frequent victims of anomie: they’re not students anymore, and there are no grades in the work world, so empirical markers of success are harder to come by. And for PhD students, my admittedly-limited experience suggests, anomie is a near-constant companion. As a PhD-in-progress, you’re making the transition from the probably-very-familiar role of student to the new role of scholar. You’re expected to not only read books and articles about a topic, but go out into the world and collect your own data, and then develop original theories from it. And there’s no one in the world who can speak with authority on what grade you should receive for this work.

My teaching semester wrapped up on Tuesday, and I spent our last class period answering students’ questions about graduate school. When one woman asked, with the weary eyes of someone mired in honors thesis prep work, how you were supposed to know when you’d done enough research, the only answer I could give her is the honest one: “You can’t, because you won’t have.” It’s one of the purest examples of the dilemma of anomie that I’ve encountered. There’s always one more book to read, one more article to squeeze into a lit review. And for someone who’s been a student for most of their life, that’s the easy part. Reading, taking notes, synthesizing information… we can all do that. The scary part is stepping away from it — because so long as you’re researching, you can feel like you’re doing work. Staring at a blank page or a blinking cursor makes that a lot harder to do.

I’ve learned a huge amount over the last four months, both about my setting and about real-world elements that I want to incorporate. I’ve drawn up a fairly detailed account of the colossal war that shaped my narrator’s world, named all the players and scribbled down some details of their various motivations to make sure no one was just a mustache-twirling dastardly villain (because much as we all love dastardly villains, I’d rather my world be populated by real people). I’ve worked out rules for the magic system, and how magic is passed down from parents to children (or not). I’ve got a sense of where all the various sentient races fit into things, and a vague notion of elements that would be different in their respective cultures. In the process of doing this, some of the more esoteric books I’ve read include an account of life in Soviet Russia (fascinating), a book on prayer practices around the world (not as helpful as I’d hoped, FWIW), a trio of texts by “armchair historians” Joseph & Frances Gies called Life in a Medieval City, Life in a Medieval Castle and Life in a Medieval Village (super-helpful, even though I’m determined that by hook or by crook, my setting’s core cultures will NOT draw exclusively on medieval Europe) and more Wikipedia articles than I’d care to admit. I could talk to you (at least in brief) about how weather works, about how long an invaded culture typically persists before being overrun by the invaders’ culture, about US Army Basic Training and the war practices of the Zulu king Shaka.

I’ve had fun doing all of this, but I’m starting to feel the itch that means it’s turning into procrastination. Because that’s the other answer to my student’s question, the one you’ll see in books on how to do social science research. The time to stop collecting data is when you start to get flashes of the big picture your data’s going to make when you piece it together, and I think I’m just about there. When I drafted outlines for Books 2 and 3 in my series last week, I found myself using new data from my worldbuilding efforts without really thinking about it.

I know I’m going to miss something. I know that in three or four months, I’m going to reach a point where I need to stop and take a few days working on language, or religion, or other cultural paraphernalia. But I’m starting to feel the bones of my setting fitting into place. So I’ll take the next 3 1/2 weeks to finish up. I’ll draw up a checklist of things that must be done before I can start again (off the top of my head: reviewing the basics of my partially-constructed languages, working out a few more details on the religion, and drawing up profiles of the major secondary characters), and then I’ll go back to my draft, and I’ll start that scary revision process. And it won’t be comfortable. But I think that’s kind of the point.

Countries’ Presentation of Self

Short “midweek” post (label only applicable because my weekend posts have been coming on Tuesdays the last few weeks — attempting to get back on the Sunday-morning schedule this week) in the spirit of “Hey, lookit that…”

I get several bougie/bobo magazines over the course of a month, which is always  an opportunity to check out advertising targeting those who have more disposable income than I do. My favorite kind of bougie advertisement, by far, is “national advertising,” where countries that might not be seen as the trendiest choice for American tourists attempt to sum themselves up in a single page and a few pictures. While some of them are artfully and tastefully done, for the most part, the campaigns remind me of the buzzword-style endorsement used in the Book of Mormon song “Two By Two,” where the young missionaries get their assignments and bounce off to them saying things like “Oh, wow, Norway! Land of gnomes! And trolls!” (for what it’s worth, the Norway tourism site seems to have nothing about either gnomes OR trolls, but then again, I didn’t do a comprehensive analysis there…) Here’s a post from the blog Tourist vs. Traveler listing a bunch of different country slogans and photos, some of them better than others. She points out a few unfortunate ones in particular, like Panama’s “It will never leave you” (which, as Jaunted points out, is a little too easy to twist into something with unpleasant antecedents).

The ad that caught my eye in my Smithsonian magazine this week was for Guatemala: like much of the advertising for Central American countries, it features a beautiful “natural” setting and a man in vaguely traditional clothing, but the real highlight is the words “2012: It’s Not Just a Date. It’s a Place. It’s Guatemala,” with the implication there being that this is the place to go to witness the end of the world. I guess “apocalypse tourism” has its appeal, but it seems like a strange thing to focus on for a country (and a culture) that presumably has much more for visitors to experience than the inevitable tour explaining how the Mayan calendar does not REALLY predict the end of the world.

All this got me thinking about how tourism boards might spin our favorite fictional magic-warlord-inhabited, war-torn or otherwise touristically unattractive destinations. I wandered around the Internet for a little while and found a few entertaining things, pretty much exclusively for Game of Thrones/Westeros (like this artist‘s prints advocating trips to Pyke, Tarth and Skagos, or this one with Westerosi postcards (“Westeros: For the last time, it’s not Middle Earth”), but for the most part, it seems like unexplored territory.

What do y’all think? Good tourist taglines for Middle Earth? For Tatooine and Alderaan? For Caprica? Let the creativity flow… 🙂

Personal Wikis and Worldbuilding

Husband and I went to our first San Diego Comic-Con this summer. It was definitely an experience; we spent at least 50% of each day standing in line (which most often meant assembling at least 2 hours before the event we wanted to go to), and didn’t go to any of the big panels that end up on YouTube or in fandom news coverage (mainly because doing so would have required getting in line the day before). But oddly enough, sitting down on a convention hall floor with your laptop for 2 hours can be a productive place to get work done (I did my first chapter-by-chapter outline of “Big Book #1,” which is looking more and more like it’s actually going to be Trilogy #1). I also got to meet 2 of my favorite authors, have a brief conversation with one of them about writing (and get a silly picture taken), and go to a few panels to hear SF/F authors talk about their craft.

In one of these panels, the one that collected 9 epic fantasy novelists (the group in which I’m counting myself these days), the moderator asked the panelists a question that I’ve long pondered myself: “How do you keep your world straight?”

Although the tale I’m telling is (I think) fairly unique in some of its aspects, there are meta-elements that it has in common with most modern fantasy epics: namely, those in keeping with a very large scope. Right now, I’ve easily got enough material for three 300,000+ word books (and maybe more than that; see above note about Big Book #1 turning into Trilogy #1…), which includes a very large cast, a bunch of different locations, and bits and pieces of many different cultures/languages/histories/etc. So as you might imagine, I was interested in the authors’ responses 🙂

Everyone had their own approach, of course, but the one that stuck with me (which I, red-facedly, don’t remember who to credit with) was the person who said that they used a personal wiki to keep their world organized. This is a mini-website, built on the Wikipedia model, but with one big difference: it’s hosted on your local machine. Which means that not only is it not publicly available on the web, but it’s still accessible when you’ve shut your wireless access off in order to actually get some writing done (not that I do that… ever… always…)

Basically, my goals in starting my little wiki were twofold:

a) to keep me more consistent. When I figured out the betrothal rituals for my character’s culture, I made a page called “Betrothal” and wrote down the details. This means that the next time we see someone get betrothed, in 200 pages or so, I won’t have to stop and think “…wait… did I already decide how this goes?”

b) perhaps more importantly — to save me having to scroll back through hundreds of pages of text hunting out details. I’ve already lost track of the number of times I’ve caught myself looking for things like “…wait… what color are his father’s eyes?” (Blue, if you were wondering. So are my hero’s. His mother’s are brown. Important stuff, right? ;))

I’m still in the early stages of figuring out how to use the wiki, but here’s some of what I’ve done with it so far:

  • Character homepages: Each of my existing “main” characters has a page which includes things like their description (usually copy-pasted right off the page(s) where I’ve written it), mannerisms, bits of backstory, and backstory questions still to be answered/figured out (yeah, I know you’re supposed to have all of this stuff sorted out before you start writing, and all your worldbuilding done, too, but that’s not the way I fell into this project. Oh, well.).
  • Place homepages: A repository for things like maps, geographic details, and more technical stuff (I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months hunting down websites to figure out things like how many people you need in a medieval village to support an inn there; good to have those links in one place along with all the notes I’ve come up with on my character’s hometown).
  • Chapter homepages: The most useful thing for me so far. My goal is that at some point soon, each chapter I’ve written so far will have a page summarizing what happens in it and how each scene is advancing the overall plot of the novel. This not only lets me feel like I’m not writing random scenes that aren’t connected to anything, but (I hope) will come in handy when it comes time to revise, someday, and I start cutting things. It seems like it’ll be useful to be able to quickly look somewhere and say “oh! if I cut that scene, THESE are the sixteen things that I’ll have to introduce in other places because they become important later!”
  • Random cultural stuff: I have a calendar page on my wiki. And a page on marriage rituals. And a page describing the layout of the temples in the major religion that’s been lurking around the edges of my plot thus far. Basically, any time I drop a paragraph of info-dump exposition into my book, I try to make sure it’s also reproduced here. Saves time on hunting for it later.

I don’t yet have a consistent system for updating the thing — I’m trying very hard to avoid the trap that the pro writer at Comic-Con mentioned, of letting it turn into a time sink (spending an entire afternoon filling in details on your book wiki and thereby feeling like you’ve gotten writing done… if you do that every day, it gets to be a bit of a stretch) — but my goal right now is that after I’ve reached the first big plot break in my book (which is coming, I fervently hope, at the end of this next chapter — unless the book decides it needs another chapter first…), I will take a week or so and get the wiki formally “assembled.” All of my scrambled backstory notes, scribbled maps and bits of half-assembled worldbuilding — at least, what I’ve got for the novel so far — will be in a single place. And then I will proceed boldly forward in a more coherent fashion.

That’s the hope, anyway. We’ll see how it goes; maybe I’ll need to go back to next year’s Comic-Con just to have three days’ worth of organizing time sitting in line.

How about all you others out there in the F&SF-writer-verse? How do you keep your fictional universes straight?