5 Tips Series Archives - The Art of World Building
Apr 032021

5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #12): Conclusion

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is closing thoughts. You can read more in Chapter 11, “Conclusion,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Stay Organized”

However you do it, keep your world building files organized so that you can easily find information. And don’t repeat info in more than one place because you won’t remember to change it in both. I keep a master spreadsheet where I can see, at a glance, certain basics about every city on a continent such as population, races present, age, colors, and symbols. And in each city file, I don’t mention these things, alluding to the spreadsheet.

Tip #2: “Follow Your Own Rules”

If we state that no one can do something, don’t have someone be able to do it. The exception is when a character is special in achieving this impossible result, but do that on purpose, not because you made up a rule, forgot, and then had someone break it later without you even commenting on it. Audiences notice these things. Keep a list of your rules and do yourself a favor – don’t be ironclad about them. This gives us flexibility to break one when we need to.

Tip #3: “Consider a Partner”

World building can take huge amounts of time. Consider doing a joint venture with friends where you build a setting together, collaborating and dividing up the work. Just be advised that if this friendship ever fails, you may start arguing over who gets to use the setting. A simple written agreement can specify you each have ownership to write stories in it, but you’ll need to work out these details.

Tip #4: “Remember to Have Fun”

Try not to get so bogged down in world building that it’s no fun anymore and you don’t have time to write stories – or promote them. Use the resources I’ve provided to help you decide what to skip and when. World Building University has a free course that’s designed to help you decide what to do. Use promo code “185Tips” once “Accelerated World Building” is available!

Tip #5: “Use World Building Tools”

Whether it’s my series, The Art of World Building¸ my school World Building University, or books, podcasts, and YouTube videos by others, get familiar with many opinions on how things can be done and take all of it with a grain of salt. There are few things we must get “right.” Be flexible and don’t get overwhelmed.

Summary of Chapter 11—Conclusion

In the series conclusion, we look at how to organize our files of world building notes so that the info glut doesn’t become overwhelming; this includes some tools others have created, whether free or not, and the pros and cons of using them. We’ll also look at different approaches to world building and how they can affect our working methodology and results. Final thoughts include the merits of following our own rules per world and whether partnering with another world builder is a good idea or not.

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5 More Tips – Cultures

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Mar 052021

5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #11): Cultures

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is cultures. You can read more in Chapter 5, “Creating Cultures,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Determine Cultural Vision”

Have an overall vision so that we avoid creating manifestations of culture that clash with each other. An obvious example is elves acting refined at dinner but acting like savages when making love. Invent a vision (which springs from values) that guides our invention of culture, so incongruity doesn’t spring up unless we want it to.

Tip #2: “Race as Culture”

A frequent complaint is when a fictitious race has a mono-culture – every society in that race is identical. The difficulty of creating cultures likely causes this oversight. Don’t make all elves the same regardless of where they live or the social class to which they belong. It’s not realistic – and yes, people do complain about it.

Tip #3: “Create Culture You Can Use”

Some aspects of culture are far more useful to us and should be our focus. This includes greetings, meal etiquette, phrases, rituals, and daily life routines. Other items like songs, clothing, and architecture styles are less helpful because readers won’t see them (less true in visual mediums).

Tip #4: “Alter Earth Expressions”

We can leverage anything from Earth, but changing our expressions is a quick way to make people seem like they’re from somewhere else. “What the hell” becomes “What in Tartarus” for example. Make a list of things you say and just invent alternate versions. It doesn’t take long, and the cumulative effect works.

Tip #5: “Alter Daily Routines”

Creating a daily life schedule that differs from Earth is a fast way to make a place seem different. Be sure to use climate as part of this. People in cold places may venture out in midday when it’s warmest, while those in hot/humid places might say indoors for a siesta. Having a sense of location helps with regional variations on culture.

Summary of Chapter 1—Creating Cultures

This chapter discusses the differences between a culture and a custom, and that morals, values, and beliefs underlie cultural aspects. A cultural vision should be based on these and inform all decisions subsequently made. World builders can determine the scope of an invented culture, as some are regional, or throughout a sovereign power. Cultural depictions have visible, audible, and performance aspects that can be defined. These include body issues such as body language, hair styles, gestures, clothing, and more. Greetings and farewells should be defined because characters will use them. Similarly, swear words, slang, expressions, and colloquialisms can be created to characterize interactions. The daily life of a culture is depicted in dining, bathing, sleeping, employment, and transportation rituals and behaviors, while pastimes, holidays and more create a respite. Even architecture can be influenced by culture.

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5 Tips – Other Systems

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Feb 032021
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #10): Other Systems

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is other systems. You can read more in Chapter 10, “Creating Other Systems,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Simplify Monetary Systems”

Audiences don’t care about our monetary system or want to remember it. We’ll seldom be mentioning it anyway. In the U.S. we just say “dollars” and “cents,” never mentioning pennies, nickels, etc., so do the same in a fictional world. It can even be smart to say that an $100 item here is a 100 credit item in SF, for example. Why figure out what everything is worth?

Tip #2: “Invent Some Crimes”

In a world with magic or new tech, we have crimes unknown to us on Earth. This is a fun imagination exercise, including deciding punishments. Be reasonable about why the laws exist and find ways characters can be constrained by them or run afoul of them. This is likely with traveling characters.

Tip #3: “Know Your Units”

In commerce, units of weight mean the amount of gold, for example, determines the value. But units of value mean the item has no value beyond what’s printed on it, like paper money; the paper itself is worthless. Units of value become worthless when the government backing them collapses and may not be present in fantasy settings as a result.

Tip #4: “How Educated Is Everyone?”

In fantasy settings, educational levels tend to be lower, as in the 1500-1700s on Earth, while SF often suggests people are more educated, but they needn’t be. Ignorant people can drive a car well, and maybe they can fly a spaceship, too, especially if it has an A.I. they just need to command. Either way, we should work out how much education is expected and whether characters met that expectation or not.

Tip #5: “How Informed is Everyone?”

Regardless of education, information flow can be compromised. In fantasy, it’s typically word of mouth and prone to some inaccuracy. In SF, it might be better, but that’s assuming people have access to data; they may not, and for our story needs we can choose how ignorant they are. This helps us create biases that place them at odds with those who bring more info, creating conflict. This is a good reason to restrict information flow in both genres.

Summary of Chapter 10—Other Systems

Other systems exist in our setting and warrant development. Education systems will determine opportunities available to characters, including employment. We’ll examine educational systems and their impact on employment, plus where and how people are getting educated or being disqualified from it. Health systems include medical and mental, and they range from great to terrible, each having significant impacts on lives. Information systems aren’t just for SF, because fantasy settings need to disseminate information, too, and have their own ways of doing so. Understanding monetary systems and how to keep them simple is another focus and includes how to determine the value of time, labor, and materials. And no world is complete without laws, crimes, and punishments, so developing a legal system is a critical world building task we breakdown into a manageable task.

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5 Tips – Names

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Jan 052021
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #9): Names

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is names. You can read more in Chapter 9, “Creating Names,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Avoid Apostrophes and Hyphens”

The use of both is cliched. If doing this, make sure most names from that culture are the same so that it doesn’t seem like we’re just trying to be exotic, which is how this got a bad reputation. The hyphens are caused by concatenating a mother and father’s surname. An apostrophe replaces missing letters and we can easily live without doing that.

Tip #2: “Keep Names Short”

Long names are a way to distinguish one race from another, but no one likes trying to sound out Limineraslyvarisnia, for example. However, such names can exist, so if we do this, only use that long version once and shorten it for the rest of the book, such to “Limi.”

Tip #3: “Alter Existing Words”

We can take words we see around us and remove or replace letters and syllables to make new words. We can add prefixes or suffixes. We can substitute vowels. These techniques are fun and effective.

Tip #4: “Surnames Sources”

We can use places, occupations, nicknames, and first names for “last” or surnames. This helps us reuse places and names we’ve already created. Places can imply a character’s origins, but some, like “Hill,” are too generic for that. Professions can imply at least their parent’s background, such a blacksmith getting the last name “Smith.”

Tip #5: “Avoid Name Generators”

There are free online programs that can create names for us with a button click. A quick search will turn them up. But they tend to feel impersonal and when we need multiple names, these programs are unlikely to create ones that seem to fit together.

Summary of Chapter 9—Creating Names

Many techniques exist for creating names of people, places, and things, and all of them leverage our creativity to make the results and process more satisfying than using name generators, which are also discussed. Caveats and pitfalls abound, for while a great name elevates our story, bad ones turn off audiences, or keep them from talking about a character with an unpronounceable or unspellable name. We look at the differences between given names, surnames, compound names, and different ways to leverage parts of our invented world for all of them. The tips in this chapter will make this required activity fun and rewarding.

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5 Tips – Languages

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Dec 022020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #1): Languages

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is languages. You can read more in Chapter 8, “Creating Languages,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Read Books”

There are several books on how to create a language, including The Art of Language Invention (italics) by the guy who created Dothraki for Game of Thrones (italics). Reading this will convince you this is doable or not – and what you need to know if doing yourself or even hiring someone else to do it.

Tip #2: “They Can Be a Distraction”

No one but us understands these words and they can distract a reader. Even those who take the time to sound them out have been pulled out of our story while they do so. We may want to just avoid this altogether.

Tip #3: “We Have Three Options”

We can ignore language creation, we can make up nonsense words as we go along, or we can create a real language to one degree or another. The only people who’ll really know which we did are conlangers, a small group of people whose opinion might not matter to us!

Tip #4: “You May Coach a Narrator”

If you hire someone to create an audiobook for you, you’ll need to coach them on how to say everything unless you do the book yourself. Make sure you can say everything yourself if this might happen.

Tip #5: “Hire a Pro”

The Language Creation Society’s (LCS) site at https://conlang.org/ makes it easy to hire an expert for as little as $100 US or up to $800. The difference is how much they give you. But understanding what we’re getting may require reading those books I mentioned.

Summary of Chapter 8—Creating Languages

Creating a language is one of the most challenging aspects of world building, but it’s also one of the few that we can outsource; how and where to do so is discussed. Even so, some basic terms must be understood so we know what we’re buying and receiving from our expert. If we choose to do it ourselves, we should consider whether it benefits our audience and how, or whether it’s even a burden that we can save both them and ourselves. This chapter will not teach world builders how to invent a language because there are entire books on the subject, and those are referenced here, but it will discuss the pros and cons of constructing a language and what we lose by not having one (or more).

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5 Tips – Items

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Nov 042020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #7): Items

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is items. You can read more in Chapter 7, “Creating Items,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Use Standard Forms”

Don’t be afraid to create magic items that are typical in form, like jewelry or clothes. Being able to wear the item minimizes the risk of loss and keeps it handy when it’s suddenly needed. This is a huge advantage, so while a magic ring is a cliché, that form of item is also helpful.

Tip #2: “Limit Their Powers”

For both tech and magic items, make sure they don’t solve a character’s problems perfectly or it’s too convenient. Something must go wrong. The battery in a tech item might have drained. A magic item can suffer a similar fate, a rationale being that whoever created the spell wasn’t powerful enough to make it better.

Tip #3: “Avoid Talking Items”

The infamous talking sword is a fast way to get mocked, and yet we have devices that talk to us now, not to mention AI in SF, where we can get away with it. But in fantasy, it’s still frowned upon without a good explanation.

Tip #4: “Marry Form to Function”

The purpose of an item doesn’t always match its form. The powers in magic rings, wands, and staves have little to do with their shape. This is often true of tech, too. When the purpose is more active, marry function to form, such as an arrow or sword designed to strike something.

Tip #5: “Invent Regular Items, Too”

Everyday items acquire significance by being associated with famous (or infamous) people and events, like a prophet, hero, villain, or royalty. We and our characters are less likely to make a big deal of these, but creating them fleshes out our setting. Besides, making a big deal out of everything is like having high drama every moment – it’s too much.

Summary of Chapter 7—Creating Items

Whether magical, technological, or more ordinary, memorable items exist in our setting whether we mention them or not. SF likely expects them, and fantasy often has at least one magic item someone has or covets in a story, but even ordinary items can be given significance through association with important people, places, or events. This chapter discusses how to invent their properties, origins, and form, and how to determine who is likely to use or want them. The creation of an A.I. is included.

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5 Tips – Water Travel

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Oct 202020

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #7): Water Travel

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is water travel. You can read more in Chapter 8, “Travel by Water,” from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Confusion is Normal”

There are many reasons that determining how long it takes to travel on a wooden ship sailing is hard. This includes oarsmen being unable to row continuously, wind speed not being constant or in the same direction through a journey, damage to ships, and different degrees of encumbrance (how weighed down it is) all changing estimates. Maybe it comes as no surprise that we aren’t sure how long a trip will take, but Creating Places gives you enough info to figure it out.

Tip #2: “Know Your Ship Rates”

Wooden ships are rated based on how many guns and men they have, though the number of decks and masts can imply this as well. In a world without guns, we can still rate them based on armament. Ships of different rates were unlikely to take on ones much bigger, so take this into account when determining which vessels your story needs.

Tip #3: “No Guns? Now What?”

In a world without gunpowder, there are no cannons, making our ships tame…unless we find an alternative. Catapults, trebuchets, and ballista all have their pros and cons. The latter could be the best and most effective replacement without causing other believability issues in your work, but you’ll need to understand the number of crew needed to operate one vs. a cannon.

Tip #4: “Know Your Ship Types”

Whether it’s a galley, brig, frigate, galleon, sloop-of-war, or ship-of-the-line, our ship has an appearance, size, capability, and reputation we can utilize with skill if we know it. We don’t need to invent something new because readers seldom see these and aren’t bored with them. We can make changes at will, provided they make sense, because many variations exist on Earth anyway. Feel free to tweak the design of a known vessel…once you know where to start.

Tip #5: “Determine Base Speeds First”

Most wooden ships average between 2-6 knots over a long trip. They can be becalmed (0 knots) or reach tops speeds of 11 knots, but none sustain that without magic. We can fudge the time needed, but we should know what’s possible. This includes being able to convert miles to nautical miles (multiply it by 1.151) and then divide the nautical miles by the average knots to learn how many hours would pass.

Summary of Chapter 8—Travel by Water
Figure 58 Corvette

Figure 58 Corvette

Landlubbers have difficulty determining how long it takes for any ship, whether powered by oars or sails, to traverse a distance. This chapter explores the factors affecting sailing speeds and what vessels are most likely to be used during an Age of Sail period. Calculations are provided for realistic estimates. Both long and round ships are discussed, including the galley, brig, frigate, galleon, sloop-of-war, and ship-of-the-line. In fantasy, we have species and warrior types who might be part of our crew. We might also rule out gunpowder and cannon, which means having ships with no real fire power or which use alternative weapons, some of which are examined. Subscribers to The Art of World Building newsletter receive an Excel spreadsheet that performs calculations in kilometers, miles, and nautical miles.

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5 Tips for Creating Plants & Animals

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Oct 192020
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.

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

#authors can learn how create #plants and #animals in #fantasy and #scifi when #worldbuilding. These 5 tips are extracted from CREATING LIFE (THE ART OF WORLD BUILDING, 1). Read more at www.artofworldbuilding.com

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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5 Tips – Creating Land Features

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Oct 122020

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #3): Land Features

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is land features. You can read more in Chapter 4, “Creating Land Features,” from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Know Where Volcanic Mountains Aren’t”

When an oceanic and a continental tectonic plate meet, the former descends under the latter and causes volcanoes, but when two continental plates meet, they fold on top of each other, creating the highest mountains on Earth. They also aren’t volcanic. Your interior mountains will be the tallest.

Tip #2: “Olympus Mons on Mars is Huge…And Boring”

With Mount Everest being 29,035 feet, Olympus Monson Mars might sound far more impressive at 69,459, but it’s not. It’s so wide, the size of France, that you wouldn’t even realize you’re standing on one. It won’t cut a majestic figure against the sky. Bigger isn’t always better.

Tip #3: “A Volcano Can Be Anywhere”

Due to random faults that appear in tectonic plate, we get put a volcano anywhere we want.

Tip #4: “Mountains ‘Humanize’ Dragons”

Dragons often appear to be invincible, but if we want to be more realistic, make it harder for them to fly at high altitudes. This happens with real Earth birds, who struggle to get over very tall mountains. Making your dragons struggle, too, gives them a vulnerability and makes them seem more plausible.

Tip #5: “Decide How Old a River Is”

Younger rivers tend toward being fast, rapid, and somewhat straight. By contrast, ancient rivers are slow, wide, and meander in a zig-zig pattern. Using these wisely lets us avoid all rivers being shown as the same.

Summary of Chapter 4—Creating Land Features

A continent will have mountains, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, forests, woodlands, savannahs, jungles, prairies, wetlands, and deserts, but world builders should understand each to place them in believable locations. While some aspects are obvious, minor details can change our decisions and augment our resulting stories. Why say characters have entered a run-of-the-mill forest when we can say it’s a savannah instead, describing how it looks and what life is like for inhabitants and those traversing it? This chapter aids world builders in making a more varied landscape—one that is accurately depicted.

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5 Tips – Magic Systems

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Oct 072020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #6): Magic Systems

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is magic systems. You can read more in Chapter 6, “Creating Magic Systems,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Are Unpredictable Results Possible?”

In some worlds, like Harry Potter, spells that aren’t cast correctly still “go off” but with unexpected results. Is this possible in your setting? Or does the spell fail? The latter seems more believable; the ability to so easily screw it up makes magic so absurdly dangerous that it’s likely forbidden pretty much everywhere.

Tip #2: “Decide if Spells Are Needed”

Do people need to recite memorized lines, make gestures, or use physical materials to do magic? Or can they do it by force of will, like a god? In theory, spells are to achieve a specific result within a range of possible results, meaning limits are built in. The caster’s skill and strength determine where in the possible range their spell falls. But if willing things to happen, there may be fewer limits and more inherent danger. What makes sense for the story?

Tip #3: “Have a Good Name”

While we can just call it “magic” and keep it simple, this doesn’t work when there’s more than one type in the setting. Invent cool names for each to increase audience attraction. We can also call the practitioners a related name instead of the generic “wizard,” for example. This distinguishes our setting, too.

Tip #4: “Sanderson’s Laws Are Not Laws”

Author Brandon Sanderson proposed three “laws” of magic systems that are not laws but guidelines that should not make us feel restricted, but they’re worth noting. They amount to making the reader understand the magic before using it to solve problems, creating limitations on magic, and expanding what you have before adding new ideas. Sound advice!

Tip #5: “Decide What Training is Needed”

What can magic users do without training? Anything at all? Do they need formal training to become powerful, skilled, or even be allowed to perform magic? Refusal to accept training is an easy way to make someone an outlaw. Decide what sort of training is available and from who (person, group, guild, university, sovereign power). Defining this allows us to create distinctions between wizards who received training from one or another.

Summary of Chapter 6—Creating a System of Magic

Magic systems can be simple or complex, but they should always be consistent. This chapter discusses the methods and principles of good systems and how to create them. This includes the importance of naming them, deciding if spells are needed and what those are for, whether spells can go wrong and how, and different types of magic we might want to include in our settings. We’ll also look at how much training someone might need, what forms that training takes, and learn how to decide what’s right for our setting. And no discussion of magic is complete without a look at how to invent spells.

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