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5 Tips for Creating Monsters

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Sep 072020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #5): Monsters

This is the fifth in a series of world building articles! Today’s theme is monsters. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 5, “Creating Monsters”, from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Do You Need Monsters?”

Our story might not need monsters, but in games, what else is there to kill but species and animals? Adventuring characters need threats to worry about, but a species/animal can suffice. The best reason to invent a monster is the reason they’ve historically been created: to instruct us in morality and other concerns about how to live. Find your theme and invent your monster.

Tip #2: “Determine What It Can Do”

A monster’s skills are often the reason it’s terrifying. Decide on one or two traits it uses to kill, hide, or terrify people (even if on accident). This should coincide with your purpose. Get started by fantasizing scenes of people hunting it, being hunted, or fighting it, and what signs of its existence it leaves behind.

Tip #3: “Understand the Difference between Monsters, Species, and Animals”

A species is a lot smarter than a monster, usually, a villain like Dracula being an exception, partly because he was once human and not dead for long. Animals differ in being numerous, whereas a monster is typically the only one of its kind. But we can break these “rules” once we think about them. Read Creating Life to learn more.

Tip #4: “Decide Where Your Monster Originated”

Accidents are an easy way to create monsters, especially in SF, where imaginary technology can wreak havoc. But magic and other supernatural forces can do the same. Consider whether someone created your monster on purpose, too, and for what reason? This can give us a world figure. Evolution might also have led to this creature’s existence. Determine its origins to create a well-formed monster.

Tip #5: “Decide What the Monster Wants”

Whether it’s food, revenge, security, peace and quiet, or to hoard treasure, knowing what the monster wants will determine its behavior and lair. Treasure is actually a silly thing to desire, given that money is only useful when we’re part of society, and a monster isn’t, by definition. Read Creating Life to consider other factors.

Summary of Chapter 5—Creating Monsters

The difference between monsters, species, and animals is largely sophistication and numbers. Many monsters are created by accidents that turn an existing species or animal into something else, but sometimes monsters are created on purpose. In the latter case it’s especially important to decide who caused this. A monster’s habitat has an impact on its usefulness and sets the stage for creating atmosphere and characterization that will largely define our audience’s experience with it before the terrifying reveal. Its motivation in life, or in our work, also determines what it does and the sort of trouble it’s causing for our species.

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5 Tips – The Supernatural

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Sep 022020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #5): The Supernatural

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

Tip #1: “Origins Aren’t Needed”

Even scientists sometimes don’t understand where various energies they’ve detected originate, so we don’t need to state this either. That said, an interesting idea that creates even more mystery is never a bad thing. In fantasy, there’s a tendency to decide the gods did it, so SF seems to offer more opportunity for mystery.

Tip #2: “Determine Prevalence”

How often is a phenomenon encountered? It may always exist but only flare up at certain times, maybe even regularly, like the “Old Faithful” geyser. Or supernatural elements might be common, which tends to reduce reactions to them. Decide how often the event occurs and whether rarity is something the story needs.

Tip #3: “Determine Impact”

If the supernatural is very common, such as everyone being able to cast minor spells, then this could greatly impact society. Unless we intend to think our way through every detail, it’s sensible to decide that magic, for example, is quite limited, as is often shown in fantasy. Thinking our way through every detail can lead to many unique revelations which set our world apart.

Tip #4: “Do Supernatural Creatures Exist?”

If so, they often take the form of extensions to their abilities, such as a horse that runs faster or can cross into other realities. Decide what problems the story has and how something like this can help, but be careful not to make the solution perfect. For example, make the faster horse unable to go all the way to their destination.

Tip #5: “Are There Demi-Gods?”

A figure like Cupid is a lesser god with a specific function. We can create such individuals if we need them, or if they can affect our characters’ lives. We can also create half-gods like Hercules. Decide on their abilities, origins, function, and reputation. A few infamous past deeds round them out.

Summary of Chapter 5—Creating the Supernatural

Supernatural elements exist in both fantasy and SF and can be used to add to the unexpected. The audience may expect magic, for example, but not our version of it, so there’s room for originality here. We can also create energies that give rise to phenomena, beings, or places like magic pathways or alternate worlds and realities that impact our setting and stories. How much impact and prevalence these supernatural elements have, and how to determine this, are an important focus of this chapter.

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5 Tips for Creating Gods

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Aug 312020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #2): Creating Gods

This is the next installment in my series of world building articles! Today’s theme is deities. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 2, “Creating Gods,” from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Decide Whether to Create Them”

A story that doesn’t need gods frees us from inventing them. That might change if the setting is a world we’ll use often, as a religious character would crop up sooner or later. But single-use worlds can get away without deities, though it’s arguably better to just create a lone god and skimp on details or a pantheon. If you don’t have a feel for what to do, skip this…or read Creating Life to gain ideas.

Tip #2: “Science Doesn’t Eliminate Religion”

A popular theory states that with more science we have less religion, but look at our own world to see how much of it still exists despite all of our accomplishments. Science may explain things that were once held to be of divine origin, but beliefs persist. Your world’s inhabitants will still believe in a higher being, most likely, even if you decide not to comment on it.

Tip #3: “Are the Gods Real?”

In fantasy, deities are typically real and sometimes put in an appearance. SF often doesn’t mention the gods, but if so, they seldom show up. Decide if the world’s gods are real and whether they interfere in events. What are some famous incidents and consequences? Read Creating Life for ideas.

Tip #4: “Mix and Match Analogues”

If we create a detailed setting we repeatedly use, gods are one of the subjects we need to invent only once because they exist outside the scope of our current story and can be reused. This is one reason to create one more highly developed world. One detailed pantheon can be more entertaining and be a common theme across stories. Why create pantheon over and over?

Tip #5: “Use Analogues”

We can borrow gods of various Earth pantheons and alter them to fit our setting. This helps us get started. At the least, we can create a list of gods and their attributes and then start mixing and matching what we like to create our versions, like Dr. Frankenstein creating gods.

Summary of Chapter 1—Creating Gods

Our species will invent gods to believe in even if we don’t invent them, so we may need some deities for people to reference in dialogue, whether praying or swearing. In SF, belief in gods may still exist despite, or even because of, advances in science. In fantasy, priests often call on a god to heal someone, and this requires having invented the gods. Pantheons offer advantages over a lone god, including dynamic relationships between them and the species. Half gods and demigods are other options that help us create myths and legends to enrich our world, especially if gods can be born, die, or be visited in their realm.

Myths about how the gods or species came to exist help people understand the purpose of their lives and what awaits them in death. Symbols, appearance, patronage, and willingness to impact the lives of their species all color a pantheon and world. Gods also create places people can visit or items that can fall into the wrong hands, offering possibilities for stories.

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5 Tips – Religions

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Aug 052020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #4): Religions

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is religions. You can read more in Chapter 4, “Creating Religions,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Start with History”

Religions are more tied to history than anything else in world building. Invent a prophet and his story which can give us artifacts, holidays, traditions, and more. Virtually everything springs from this, making it the obvious starting point.

Tip #2: “The Control Factor”

Religions exercise control over practitioner’s lives to one degree or another, from how often to pray, when, where, and what words to say, even what actions to perform before, during, and after. These manifestations of faith are critical to how believers and non-believers view the religion. Is it too strict? Not strict enough?

Tip #3: “Create Symbols”

What’s a religion without symbols? We create these using our prophet’s story. If he first spoke to a god while wearing a cloak, eating an apple, and standing beside a tree type, we have three symbols right there. It’s that easy to create them because we’re just associating trivial things with momentous occasions.

Tip #4: “Invent Clergy”

Priests can be viewed in specific ways depending on how they act or restrictions that are placed on them. This reflects on an entire religion and how the populace view it. Are there scandals that affect them, or do they fear that one will emerge? Power is held by those in high regard, so how can the clergy fall from grace based on inappropriate behavior by wayward members? What defines “wayward?”

Tip #5: “Do They Convert?”

Are there missionaries in this religion or do they let people come to them? The former is significant because it makes them active, rather than passive, characters who might upset people, including our characters, whom they try to convert. The religion will have a reputation for this if so. Use it to personalize them.

Summary of Chapter 4—Creating Religions

While some items we create have history as a minor element, history is crucial with religions, so first we look at where and how the religion formed, including a prophetic figure and the role of a god, should one exist. Creation and end of world myths, and the afterlife, are important elements that potential followers consider, along with the requirements for worship and the penalty for failing to follow the rules. How someone joins and leaves a religion can be trivial or significant and includes the possibility of expulsion. We’ll need holy sites, too, and a decision on holidays, languages, customs, sects, relationships with everyone from species to other religions, and what members of the clergy are like and their role in society. Most importantly, we need the symbols and beliefs of this religion.

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5 Tips – How Many Worlds?

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Jul 302020
5 World Building Tips: How Many Worlds?

This is the eighth in a series of world building articles I’ll be sending you! Today’s theme is analogues. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 1, “Why Build a World?” from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Determine Your Goals”

If you’re intending on a long career, maybe it makes sense to build one world extensively. Otherwise you might build 20 worlds for 20 books. Is that more or less work than one in-depth setting? Figure out your intentions.

Tip #2: “Use Extreme Worlds Sparingly”

Extreme worlds might best be suited to one-off stories due to the risks inherent in taking big chances with believability. Such places are ideal for SF when characters are planet-hopping. But there’s no reason characters in a fantasy setting can’t be using magic or portals to do the same thing.

Tip #3: “Be Earth-like Most Often”

For any setting that’s frequently used, it’s wise to make it Earth-like in many basic respects (gravity, light, oxygen, etc.) unless we really intend to feature the unusual features often. If we’re less into world building, this is the default approach. We can change a few things, like adding species similar to dwarves, elves, and dragons, while keeping the rest normal.

Tip #4: “Reclaim Wasted Time”

World building can be done in small bits. We don’t need to devote months on end like with a novel, where we can lose our train of thought if we stop. It’s a great way to reclaim lost time, like when standing in line somewhere – jot down ideas on your phone and flesh them out later. College often prevented me from writing, so I did world building in small bits, ten or thirty minutes at a time when I felt like it or had an idea.

Tip #5: “Don’t Get Overwhelmed”

Remember that world building is optional. Yes, we might need to create a setting, but we can essentially make it Earth by another name if desired. Don’t let world building become a chore or get overwhelmed by a big to-do list. Otherwise, you’ll just give up. World building is fun!

Summary of Chapter 1—Why Build a World?

While world building is expected in many genres of fantasy and SF, we must decide how many worlds to build. This will depend on our career plans and goals. Learn the advantages and disadvantages of building one world per story vs. one world for many stories, and when to take each approach. Sometimes doing both is best, allowing for greater depth in one world but the option to step away to keep things fresh. Using analogues can help us create believable societies quickly but has pitfalls that can be avoided. Do you have the ability to create many interesting worlds, and will they have enough depth to make the effort worth it?

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5 Tips on Using Analogues

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Jul 272020
5 World Building Tips: Analogues

This is part of a series of world building tips! Today’s theme is analogues. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 1, “Why Build a World?” from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1). The video has more info than this page, so check it out and subscribe to see more!

Tip #1: “Use Analogues”

An analogue is a world building element that has a corresponding version on Earth. Maybe we create a country modeled on Japan, using cultural and physical elements so that we don’t have to invent all of it from scratch. This shortcut helps us create realistic items for our world but has a caveat of being less interesting and original. Use wisely and you can save time and effort.

Tip #2: “The Rule of Three”

It’s more of a guideline than a rule, but when using an analogue, it’s a good idea to make at least three major changes to it so our audience doesn’t immediately recognize it. A large, four-legged, pack animal with big tusks, floppy ears, and a trunk is obviously an elephant. What would you change to make it seem new?

Tip #3: “Don’t Use Names Poorly”

Avoid using a familiar name for something that’s very different. If you call something an elf, people expect pointed ears and a preference for forests. Failure to follow certain expectations will make them assume you don’t know what you’re doing. Use a new name if you’ve changed anything fundamental.

Tip #4: “Mix and Match Analogues”

We can combine elements from different analogues to help obscure where we got the idea. Take staple foods from one land (like rice and fish from Japan), culture from another (like Nazi Germany), and the typical appearance (including clothing) of people from a third (an African tribe). Look at the Earth like a buffet from which you can create a unique meal.

Tip #5: “Make It Worth It”

Audiences have short memories, so we should keep an analogue easy to describe and remember. This is aided by making the changes significant. Adding two extra legs to a horse may not be worth it, especially if all of the horses are that way. It’s not like the six-legged kind are faster than the four-legged ones that don’t exist in your world. Make the alterations relevant or leave it like the original.

Summary of Chapter 1—Why Build a World?

While world building is expected in many genres of fantasy and SF, we must decide how many worlds to build. This will depend on our career plans and goals. Learn the advantages and disadvantages of building one world per story vs. one world for many stories, and when to take each approach. Sometimes doing both is best, allowing for greater depth in one world but the option to step away to keep things fresh. Using analogues can help us create believable societies quickly but has pitfalls that can be avoided. Do you have the ability to create many interesting worlds, and will they have enough depth to make the effort worth it?

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5 Tips – Armed Forces

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Jul 082020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #3): Armed Forces

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

Tip #1: “What Government Type Do They Work For?”

Virtually all armed forces groups work for a government, so determine this before doing anything. A democracy and a dictatorship will have different armies, for example. How? The latter will be extremely rigid, far more so than the other, including potentially no personal life at all. The military isn’t known for great freedom even in a democracy, but imagine how much worse it is in a totalitarian government.

Tip #2: “Create Symbols and Colors”

In the real world, we immediately recognize the symbols of the military and make judgments about anything emblazoned with them, from personnel uniforms to buildings and ships. Not creating these is unrealistic, while creating them takes only a minute.

Tip #3: “Decide How People Join”

Knowing what it takes to become a member helps us decide on skills or how elite a group is. This also creates a reputation for members. Are there prerequisites, like the ability to ride a horse or fly a ship? Are certain races forbidden/prized? What physical traits does one need? Can one acquire missing ones like improving strength? What sorts of tests must be passed and how many chances does one get? This adds pressure and pride/humiliation for those trying to join.

Tip #4: “Understand and Use Existing Ranks”

Know what a lieutenant, major, and colonel is in the army and their respective navy or air force counterparts, then use the same ranks and job functions, even if you change the titles for your world, which isn’t recommended. Only those in the military usually know these things and aren’t bored with them. Confusion (or exposition) is the only result of being clever here.

Tip #5: “What’s Their Reputation?”

We all think certain things of each military group in our sovereign power, and so do our characters of theirs, so decide what the group is known for. Are they respected? Feared? Do you pick a fight with one or avoid that? Are you impressed or scornful? This matters even when our characters are not from such a group, because they’ll often have to deal with those who are.

Summary of Chapter 3—Creating Armed Forces

Military groups like the army, navy, air/space force, and knights are a staple of both fantasy and SF. We can leverage existing ideas or craft our own. Doing so means deciding how someone joins and leaves a military group, including requirements, tests, and training. Some species and races might be forbidden or assigned special roles, and throughout history, famous members can inspire pride or loathing we can use. When devising military units and ranks, it helps to understand Earth analogues, so some basics are included in this chapter. The world view, uses, locations, place in society, and symbols are all important elements of memorable armed forces and this chapters covers them all.

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5 Tips – Organizations

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Jun 132020

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

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is Organizations. You can read more in Chapter 2, “Creating Organizations,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “What Do They Want?”

Every group wants something, so decide whether they want to control an object, possess land, hold power, uphold philosophical ideas, or something else. Not knowing what they want and why makes for an unconvincing group. We also don’t understand what will drive them, upset them, or make them go too far when thwarted. A goal is everything.

Tip #2: “Decide Who Their Friends and Enemies Are”

It’s too simplistic to decide that an organization operates without allies and enemies. Whether individuals, species, kingdoms, or other groups, those connections decide who they are. We sometimes must create those other groups first, but circle back and finish this connection. It will pay off.

Tip #3: “Create a Power Structure”

Does power rest with a committee or a single strong man? Is that strength physical or supernatural? Knowing who’s really in power and why helps us create tension within the group. Otherwise, they seem to just get along with each other too well. Tension is a story’s lifeblood, so don’t overlook threats to those in power and how it can taken away, and by who.

Tip #4: “How Do People Join or Leave?”

Can people leave this group or are they murdered for trying? What do they lose if leaving? How do they join? What must they do to be accepted or remain? This can add tension for members, who may be tempted away by other characters in our story.

Tip #5: “Create a History”

An organization has people with a shared viewpoint, so what events caused them to band together? What ideas drive people to them? This can be the rise or fall of an idea or government that they miss or want to oppose. Leverage other historical events already in the setting, by creating a group (or two) who dislikes what’s happened.

Summary of Chapter 2—Creating Organizations

Organizations for good or evil are a staple of both fantasy and SF. This chapter discusses both group types and their world views, plus common traits like goals, enemies, friends, and their source of (and quest for) power. How members join and leave such groups is an important element, as some organizations might prevent or inhibit departure. Prerequisites can also bind a member to the group. The history and actions of a group are an important part of its reputation.

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5 Tips – Cultures

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May 142020

5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #1): Cultures

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is cultures. You can read more in Chapter 1, “Creating Cultures,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Culture Clash is Useful”

Invent culture to cause conflict. Any time we need characters to have bad feelings towards each other, a culture clash is an easy way to create this. For traveling characters, it’s a virtual given. People are sensitive and judgmental. We don’t need people to have screwed up in a serious way, just offend someone in a trivial one.

Tip #2: “Understand Cultural Origins”

Values, beliefs, and morals are the origins of culture. These are ideas. And they manifest as rituals, habits, customs, art, music, and the use of language. We should therefore create those values, beliefs, and morals and then figure out how they manifest (that’s culture!).

Tip #3: “Consider the Government”

A sovereign power’s government greatly impacts culture from the “top down.” Consider how much freedom and control people have. Less means less variation at regional, settlement, and social group levels of culture. More freedom means more variation.

Tip #4: “Know What’s Valued”

While morals and values are slightly different, they can both be used to invent culture. A more high-minded society will value different traits (like dignity, equality, politeness, and tolerance) than a barbaric one, which might value self-reliance, courage, respect, and integrity.

Tip #5: “Determine Cultural Scope”

Are we creating culture throughout a kingdom, region, or social group? Culture trickles down, so what’s valued in the U.S. might be less valued on the East Coast, and more valued in New York City, especially in the punk rock scene. Determine what level we’re inventing culture for because it’s not uniform across all these levels.

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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185 Tips Book

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Dec 242019

185 Tips Cover

Subscribers to the newsletter receive world building tips in their inbox (along with downloadable templates), but now you can have them all in one place in a new, short book, 185 Tips on World Building. This has all tips from all three volumes, including those not yet sent to subscribers.

The eBook is on pre-order at Amazon and will be released Jan 14, 2020. It makes a great gift for anyone thinking of diving in.