Randy Ellefson

Fantasy author Randy Ellefson is the author of THE ART OF WORLD BUILDING, a guide for authors, gamers, and hobbyists. Learn more at http://www.randyellefson.com

Jul 252017
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #7): Undead

This is the seventh in a series of world building articles! Today’s theme is undead. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 7, “Creating Undead,” from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Decide If You Need To Invent Undead”

Creating new undead is challenging because so many useful types exist and are public domain, meaning we can use them. Inventing something similar to an Earth analogue is ripe for ridicule as “just a vampire with insert-minor-difference-here,” for example. Make sure you really need your need undead’s skills, appearance, traits, or behaviors before creating them.

Creating Life (Vol. 1)Tip #2: “Determine What the Undead Wants”

Everyone needs a goal in life, or in this case, undead life. But some undead are in denial about their status, so decide if it knows it’s dead and how it feels about that if so, or why it’s unaware. This can determine whether it wants peace, revenge, or has unfinished business that keeps it here.

Tip #3: “What Type of Undead Is It?”

Determine whether it’s spiritual or if it has a body, and what state of decay that body is in. That will help determine the impact it has on those who see or encounter it. Don’t be afraid to create undead plants and animals. If it’s alive, it can be dead. And if it can die, it can return.

Tip #4: “Decide Its Origins”

Did someone create your undead on purpose or by accident? We can use phenomena, technology, or magic to do this. Also decide if the undead can create more of itself, such as the way vampires do. This will determine their numbers, which in turn decides how much experience people have with it. That will decide if they know how to kill it.

Tip #5: “Can It Be Killed?”

Whether or not the undead can be permanently destroyed is what the living will most want to know about it, so make a decision. Then figure out how and when this can be done. Feel free to be inventive, as everyone loves a good death, including things that are already dead.

Summary of Chapter 7—Creating Undead

Many types of undead already exist and are public domain, and it’s challenging to invent something new. Undead are often classified by appearance and behavior, but it is also their origins and how they can be destroyed that will help distinguish our undead from pre-existing types. The two basic ones are those with a body, like zombies, and those without, like ghosts. Those with a body might have a soul or not. We can decide on the mental faculties of our undead by deciding if the mind goes with the soul, but there are other factors that can impair the minds and even emotional states of undead. All of these affect behavior, as do their origins, goals, and what they’re capable of.

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Jul 202017

A pantheon is a mythological collection of gods. They are often related by familial ties and recognized by the culture that invented them but not usually by others. While creating multiple gods is more work, dynamic relationships among deities is more entertaining and can drive plot. We can start with a list of traits, such as truth, courage, love, hate, patience, curiosity, peace, greed, fear, sloth, deceit, and wrath. We can use phenomena like gods of storms, war, and death. We don’t have to choose one approach or the other, but mixing them could make our pantheon seem random and not well thought out. One solution is to decide that traits lead to phenomenon, or vice versa. For example, the god of wrath becomes the god of storms. This is expanded on further in the last section of this chapter, “How to Create Gods.”

A pantheon allows characters to show personality by the god(s) they pray to, especially for priests. As our characters investigate catacombs, ancient ruins, or a modern megalopolis, they will see symbols of the gods, encounter overzealous priests, or even visit a theocratic society. These elements can affect the decisions they make, such as not entering a given room due to the symbol of the god of torture on it. Even unrecognized symbols from an unknown pantheon can be useful for creating an unsettling feeling.

Our pantheon might have more than one afterlife (covered in Cultures and Beyond, The Art of World Building, #3), whether it’s as simple as heaven and hell or more complicated, where different deities have conceived different rewards and punishment and oversee them personally. Deities can have a role in how people are judged, whether they can be redeemed, and if the living can visit the dead, or vice versa. When we assign gods different roles, we can create conflict in how (and if) they choose to do their jobs.

A pantheon is often not organized in any particular way, with the exception of familial relationships, should they exist, but if we assign certain traits to every god, we can group them that way. For example, maybe every god is associated with a season, element, or color. This causes multiple gods of spring, fire, or indigo. This may impact their ability to affect elements, their priests similarly affected. A god or priest of fire might suffer more from water-based attacks. Some people also organize their gods by good and evil.

Jul 172017
Chapter 2 – Creating Gods

Whether we write fantasy or science fiction, chances are sooner or later we’ll need a god or gods. At the least, our characters might want to pray, swear, threaten damnation, or utter thanks. And when someone is born, dies, or reaches a milestone, gods are often praised.

Gods are typically credited with the reason for everything existing, but starting our world building with them is optional. Our gods can be real or wishful thinking, but in fantasy and SF, they are typically portrayed as real and taking an active role in the lives of the world’s residents. Different religions spring up from different beliefs about even a single shared god, so before we can create religions, decide on deities.

Did the gods create our world on purpose or was it a byproduct of a “big bang” origin, and they stumbled upon it? Did they shape the land a certain way or just let it do its thing over millennia? Are they active, causing the seasons, night and day, and the winds, or do they just manipulate these forces?

Appendix 1 is a template for creating a god. It includes more comments and advice, and an editable Microsoft Word file can be downloaded for free by signing up for the newsletter.

In Science Fiction

In SF, characters may travel between many worlds, each having a pantheon, which is not to say that we need an extensively developed pantheon for each world. Rather, a general feel for the presence of religion and actual gods appearing can be all that we need, plus a few names.

There’s an idea that science kills religion, the premise being that the more scientific discoveries are made, the less need we have of religion to explain things. While there’s some truth to this, religion shouldn’t be ignored. People still often believe in deities. Some might say that less educated, more rural people fall into this category, but many of our greatest scientists believe in God. Writing SF on possibly highly-developed worlds doesn’t absolve us from inventing religion, which will never really go away. Our characters can live/arrive on a world dominated by religion despite science.

One way to work religion into SF is to consider world view issues. Planet-hopping characters may believe that gods created the universe and therefore these deities will also rule other planets. Discovering on arrival that no one’s heard of those gods will cause distress. They may try to claim the new planet’s god X is really their home planet’s god Y. Or they may be so incensed that they try to wipe out the inhabitants of this wayward planet. Or convert them. Christian missionaries tried to spread God’s word around Earth, so why not do the same on a planetary level?

Whether the gods are real or not is another matter to consider. If real, are they happy with a species gaining so much power that they can leave the world the gods created for them? If they created the universe, maybe they’re okay with it because those gods rule the other planets as well. If the gods didn’t create the universe and only rule their area of it, maybe they encourage our characters to colonize other worlds and galaxies, or the peaceful lives they live are shattered by alien invaders coming to convert them. Is there a proxy war going on between these gods and those of other worlds? Our gods could provide the technologies being used to travel.

In SF, sometimes the gods are actually advanced aliens masquerading as gods, as in Stargate SG-1. This can be useful for having “gods” that can be killed, perhaps to the surprise of the mortals they rule. The discovery of the truth can be psychologically powerful. We’ll need to figure out where the aliens came from and why they’re doing this.

In Fantasy

In fantasy, gods often put in appearances that leave little doubt that they exist. In antiquity, there are numerous myths of Norse and Greek gods being jealous of humans, tormenting, killing, and having children with us. The Christian god is the one who keeps quiet. We can choose either approach, but gods who affect events are more useful. Their followers can be the ones impacting life, whether these are your main characters or their enemies. A common use for gods is to have a priest lay hands on wounded people and ask their god to heal them. We need deities for this. A developed pantheon helps us flesh out the priest character’s personality as we decide who they pray to.

If our world has multiple humanoid species, do we want each species to have their own gods or to share all of them? The latter reduces the numbers we must create, but the former allows for more variety. Each species can have their own creation and end-of-world myths, for example. We might invent gods that are tailored to a species, rather than all gods being universal and therefore less specific. To minimize the quantity invented, we can decide each species only has a few gods, not twenty each. We might also decide that some gods are universal while others are more tailored to a species. This works well if a subgroup of gods invented that species, their combined attributes influencing the result. That species can worship all the gods but have more allegiance for their creators.

Jul 132017
The Problem of Exposition

The objection to exposition is that authors cause a loss of momentum when they stop the story to explain a setting or even a character, then resume on the other side. Authors of older books sometimes wrote pages upon pages of exposition; I usually skip over this. Modern audiences expect a story to keep moving. I’ve had beta-readers give me grief about exposition as short as a four-sentence paragraph. This seems a little harsh to me, and you’ll have to use your own judgment. Whether or not an explanation is too much is a personal choice. Keep in mind when inventing something that requires explanation that many readers will skip these passages, or an editor might strike them entirely.

How is an author to get across needed information? That’s a writing question more than a world building one, but an old standby is the ignorant character who keeps asking what something means only to have another character explain it to them. Overusing this is a poor style choice. The technique is especially prominent in films without a narrator, though some shows use heavy voice overs to explain things. Like it or not, some exposition will always be needed. We just don’t want a death certificate for our stories to have “Death by Exposition” on the cause of death line.

Show vs. Tell

One way around exposition is to reveal world building details as an integral part of a story. For example, my story “The Garden of Taria” exists so I can reveal an aspect of a humanoid species (querra). However, that’s my goal as an author. It’s not a reader-centric goal of a story about characters, which is what we want.

So I created a character, Taria, who seeks refuge from a chaotic world in the ordered sanctuary of her home. The querra keeps invading her house whilst helping himself to her possessions and food. He makes a mess everywhere and doesn’t respect property. All of this is what I wanted to show. Their arguments reveal querran outlook as I’d desired, but this doesn’t come as exposition. It’s dialogue and behavior. Their conflict causes both characters, and maybe the reader, to question human ideas on property, possession, capitalism, and wealth. In other words, I’m showing this world building element, not telling it. The story is about characters and issues, achieved with world building.

And that’s what we want.

Other Methods

We can also include more details in a glossary with each published work. Since perusing it is optional, readers with greater curiosity will do so while those who don’t care are freed from exposition overkill. Tolkien did something similar with The Lord of the Rings, which includes multiple appendices.

A related solution is to create a website all about our world, linking to it from our glossary or even the text of our stories. Each time a new item is mentioned in a tale, the word is a hyperlink to the corresponding page on the website. This is also optional for our readers, who may love being able to do this; they might also be annoyed/distracted by the sight of a hyperlink in a novel unless this sort of thing becomes common.

A website might be overkill unless we’re a successful writer, but it can help invest readers in our world and possibly draw in new ones. The size of the website is up to us. It can just be a few pages or a longer glossary associated with our book’s page. For me, the online version is the master glossary, the one in a book being far shorter and tailored to that story. For examples, you can see mine at Llurien.com.

The Value of Influences

During world building, we can become so focused on inventing something new that we try not to be influenced by anything we’ve seen before. While this is admirable, we can inadvertently deny ourselves something precisely because someone has done it, which means we’re still being influenced. True freedom to invent means not worrying about similarities at all and using every possible good idea, with the caveat that we must avoid copyright infringement.

For example, I avoided inventing an underground species because I figured they’d just be dwarves by another name, because they’d be short. They have to dig most passages and homes, and this will inhibit their vertical growth, or they’ll all have stooped backs. I let myself be influenced in the negative, avoiding something useful until I realized that a dwarf is far more than just height and habitat.

Aspire to create a species that looks and lives however you want them to. If a physical adaptation is based on habitat, this is good. If it makes sense for our forest-dwelling species to have pointed ears and slanted eyes, then so be it, even though elves are like that. Incidentally, pointed ears don’t have a biological basis and don’t improve hearing; such criteria can help us eliminate or add features. When you notice that you want to do something that reminds you of someone else’s creation, question why theirs is like that. If the feature doesn’t make sense, ditch it. The most powerful influences are the ones we don’t even realize we have.

Question everything.

Jul 112017
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #6): Plants and Animals

This is the sixth in a series of world building articles! Today’s theme is plants and animals. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 6, “Creating Plants and Animals,” from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Decide Whether to Invent Plants or Animals”

Learn the benefit of creating either and how to speed up the process using analogues or the templates below. In SF, we really need to invent them if characters are on other worlds where they will be different. Fantasy can get away with mostly Earth-like life with some additions if we have ideas. Creating Life can help you think of some.

Creating Life (Vol. 1)Tip #2: “How Will You and Characters Use It?”

There’s no reason to invent something if we don’t have a plan for it. Both plants and animals are good for products to make life better. Create a list of these uses, such as decoration, food, medicine, entertainment, guards, pets, transportation, pets, and domestication. This will create goals for you to achieve with invention.

Tip #3: “Research Earth Analogues”

Creating plants and animals from scratch isn’t easy, so learn to model them on analogues from Earth. Researching even known ones can turn up surprising facts we didn’t know. These can be used as inspiration while freeing us to tweak details to our liking. That way, we don’t have to “get it right” because we’re the authority, not the truth.

Tip #4: “Understand Classifications”

Animals are classified as amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles, while plants are classified as seedless, seeding, and flowering. Understanding the differences can help us be specific and invent details that make our new life forms worth the time to invent. Creating Life includes extensive research that world builders need to know about this.

Tip #5: “Know Your Limits”

It’s usually best to invent only a few plants and animals for a setting simply because we won’t have much occasion to mention them. This is true of even worlds we’ll use for decades in a long, cherished career. In such cases, new life can often be invented on the fly, so this is an area of world building that is ripe for doing piecemeal rather than all at once.

Summary of Chapter 6—Creating Plants and Animals

In fantasy, creating plants and animals is optional due to expectations that the world is very Earth-like, but in SF that takes place away from Earth, audiences are more likely to expect new ones. It takes less time to create these than other life in this book, but we’ll want to consider our time investment, how often our setting will be used, whether our creations impact our work and the impression it creates, and whether the desire to do something unique and new is worthwhile for both us and our audience.

Plants and animals are classified into categories, such as cycads, conifers, and flowering plants, and amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles. The lifecycle of the former and the behavior of the latter help distinguish them and can be used to propel or inhibit stories involving them. While we may have purposes for them as an author, our world’s inhabitants have them, too, such as decoration and medicinal uses for plants, and domestication, sports, guards, pets and transportation for animals. Both can be used for food and materials to enrich life and our world.

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Jul 102017
A Question of Depth

A single, detailed world provides a richer, more diverse, immersive experience for an audience, but we must remember that they want a story, even in gaming. World building is always subservient to this, and yet when we spend many hours doing it, we’re tempted to include more of what we’ve created than is required for our story. We’re too close to our work. It can be prudent to take breaks from world building and remember that it isn’t the ultimate goal.

Audiences don’t want stories about our world building. They want stories about people and conflicts. These should be layered within our setting, not used as an excuse to show off what we’ve invented. There are ways to achieve this.

For example, when I created the Coiryn Riders, a group of military horsemen distinct from knights, I went overboard. I ended up with a fifteen-thousand-word file of details on their ranks, advancement, training, usages, equipment, and more. I could never get all this across in an average novel even if I wanted to (and I don’t). But there are many ways I can use them.

I could have a lead character become a Coiryn Rider and show his rise through the ranks over the course of a novel series, revealing many details about the horsemen and what it’s like to be one. As minor characters, they also serve as heralds, so one might be tasked with traveling alone through hostile lands. They are supposed to be given safe passage, which provides an opportunity for a King’s Herald to be killed by an enemy power, inciting war. One might use his military skills as part of an adventuring group I’m featuring. I can have my main characters encounter a group of Coiryn Riders on nearing a city, revealing that the riders routinely patrol perimeters, or in their role as heralds, deliver warnings of nearby threats. They are also cavalry in army war scenes.

That’s several possible uses. I wouldn’t want to try jamming all of this into one story. Instead, I can spread it out across many tales over the course of my career. By having worked out so many details in advance, I run little risk of contradicting myself with later works set on Llurien, a problem that inventing/publishing piece by piece exposes us to.

The Coiryn Riders were not invented for a specific tale. They were invented for their own sake as something that exists on Llurien, filling a role or need. When I’m assembling a cast or story idea, I include them if they can help me achieve my story goals. And when there’s no use for them, they don’t get a mention. I’m not tempted to include extraneous world building. I know I’m going to write many stories in my career and sooner or later I’ll show many facets of these horsemen, collectively painting both a broad and a detailed picture. Doing so arguably creates the greatest depth of all. And it prevents me from walloping my audience with a ton of unnecessary info at any given time.

When we create a world to tell a single story, we don’t have that option. We might be more tempted to ramble on about our world building. Or we don’t invent those things at all because we won’t be using them, which predisposes our world to lack depth. But we need to have a well-realized world (just not go too far), for the same reason we invent character backstory—it helps flesh out our depiction of the world, and helps our readers to understand it.

Jul 062017
How to Decide

Consider how passionate you are about world building. If you’re an author, your primary goal is telling stories. Will you be satisfied with showing your originality in the story more than the setting? Is there a risk you’ll get so involved in world building that you’ll seldom get around to telling those stories? Authors are well known for finding excuses not to write despite wanting to write. Will this become one? Every minute on this is a minute you could’ve spent on your writing craft or building an audience. Where does your heart lie?

It’s also important to consider how long you intend your career to be. If you’re a “lifer” and will write for decades in a genre requiring world building, then expending a lot of effort makes more sense than for someone who wants to give writing a shot and will bow out after failure, or even modest success. If you know that’s you, why invest tons of time, even if you love it? Fiction is a speculative field, but writing a book at least produces a product to be sold; building a world seldom does.

Life intrudes on our time to write. This is truer for longer works like a novel. If we don’t have time to write a novel this year, because we’re in college, or just became a parent, or something else, we can spend time inventing a setting instead. A novel takes months of continuous work to stay involved, but world building can be done in a few minutes here and there. In my case, I spent most of a decade unable to write due to first college and then an injury that made writing difficult; in the meantime, I built an enormous amount for my main world. The younger me gave the older me a great gift.

How Many Worlds Are In You?

Do world builders have the ability to create more than one great world? Theoretically, yes. Do you? Creative people try to avoid repeating themselves. The more specific an idea, the more sense it makes to exclude it from a second world. Having dragons on both worlds is okay, but if the first world is dominated by dragons who only breathe fire, cast no magic, and won’t let anyone ride them, then repeating that in another world makes us look like we have no imagination; the dreaded “formula” accusation will get hurled at us. With each world created, we further restrict ourselves. Soon we’re out of ideas. We could solve that by being generic all the time, but then what’s the point of world building?

A Caveat

If the first story we publish in a world begins a series, audiences may/will expect any subsequent stories set on that planet to have some connection to that initial one. This likely originates from this being what authors frequently do. If we defy this expectation, there may be some backlash. We can avoid this expectation by publishing unrelated stories on that world before a series there. One problem with that solution is that if we’re self-publishing, it’s widely believed that our careers will do best if we publish a series because readers gobble up subsequent books, so perhaps self-publishing a few unrelated short stories or a novella gets us past all of this. Or we can just ignore the issue.

Jul 032017
One Vs. Many

Since world building takes time, we should consider how many worlds we might build over the course of our career and whether it makes sense to build a world per story (twenty worlds for twenty stories), just one world for all [twenty] stories, or a mixture of both. Or neither. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each approach.

One World for One Story

Creating a world for each story has some advantages. We build only what we need for that tale, so it takes less time. We don’t have to think through so many items. We’re not tied to that world indefinitely; if our audience doesn’t like it, or we grow tired of it, or something just doesn’t seem to be working, we were done with it anyway. Those creators who aren’t sure how much writing they’ll do can test the world building waters and learn if it’s something they enjoy. If we’re a novice at world building and it shows in early work, we can learn and move on rather than having to fix those mistakes. If we have a more experimental concept that takes greater risks with an audience supporting it, we’ve risked less.

This approach has disadvantages as well. Skimping on world building could cause an under-developed or less interesting world. It can be less unique, too, if we use staples like elves, dwarves, and dragons. It takes considerable work to invent species that favorably compare to those. If we do a lot of work but only use it once, is it worth it? We’ll have to repeat much of that work every time we invent another world. This could cause world building fatigue when we’re on our twentieth world. The risk of repeating ourselves also rises. If a story becomes very popular and our audience demands more, we might find that our less developed concepts have caused problems we struggle to resolve in later works.

One World for Many Stories

The alternative is to build one world for use on those twenty books. Just doing it once means not repeating ourselves. Greater depth and realism can be created by inventing more detail, which is needed to make new concepts, like species, more believable. This approach becomes worthwhile if we’ll use the setting for years. If we invent new life and use only those, we’re no longer bound by the expectations that familiar species cause. We have freedom to follow our own rules. Our books will stand out, and if the setting is popular, this alone can draw fans back with each new product released. We might even be able to license the world for product development, from action figures to role-playing spin-offs.

This much attention to detail is a considerable time investment, which The Art of World Building will reduce. We need a diverse world to avoid audience boredom over so many tales, and this requires months, even years of development. During that time, we’ll benefit from friends who are willing to provide feedback on the world we’ve created, but this is hard to get. People want to comment on a story, not on our world building. If we know other world building authors, they might help and are our best resource. If we never get published, we never reach an audience and have arguably wasted time, but having multiple stories to set in that world mitigates this, as does the ability to self-publish. Time spent on this is also time not spent on our writing craft. World building fatigue can creep in from inventing so many things, but everything is optional and some elements have higher priorities than others.

On the surface, creating one setting per book may involve less effort at the time, but if we have to create a dozen worlds over the years, is that more or less work than one more detailed, reusable setting?

The Hybrid

We can split the difference—create one planet that’s intended for many stories while also creating less developed ones for single stories. This hybrid approach is the best of both worlds. We might need a break from our “main” world (for lack of a better term) or just want to do something different or new once again. We can utilize a single-use world for more extreme risks, keeping our main world more accessible.

If we create a main world to use many times, a mixed approach will ease the upfront time investment. This is discussed in more detail in volume three, Cultures and Beyond, “Getting Started” chapter. What we can do is create our continents in rough form, then the gods of that whole world, and any species, animals, and plants that are found mostly everywhere. Then focus on a continent and some nations on the large scale and some basic history, including wars and animosities. We’ll also need a major city or two in every kingdom. At that point, we’ve created a basic framework for the rest. As needed when writing a story, we can flesh out details of any given city.

At later times, we can develop other continents, cities, and add more monsters and other creatures as we go along. If we have a new book series, we can set it on the world we’ve created but in another kingdom or continent we haven’t used much, or even in another time period. And yet we still have our species, our gods, or a system of magic. We can reuse much of what we’ve already done.