Book Blog Archives - The Art of World Building
Jan 142021
Figures of Note

Earth mythologies are full of interesting characters that are not gods or humans. This includes Charon, who ferries souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron. There’s Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek mythology, who prevents the dead from leaving Hades. For ideas, all we need to do is look at other mythologies. We may want to start with a role or job function, which will also give us a location this individual occupies, and its characteristics. If the River Styx has properties we’ve already invented, and effects on people, then our version of Charon might be able to control or counteract these for at least himself.

The gods are often the source of such figures, who arguably need their approval to perform the function they serve. But these figures can come from any source, such as supernatural accidents before they are put to the use they now serve. A god may be the only one who can control it, possibly using a device that can fall into the wrong hands. Other times, an individual from a species or race might have been transformed into this figure, possibly due to their devotion to an idea that the god agrees with. For example, Charon could believe that everyone must be judged upon death and was so fervent about this in life that Hades assigned him to transporting souls. This gives such a character an attitude that can be revealed while interacting with our characters.


We may not think of cartoon characters like Spiderman or the X-men as supernatural beings, but they’re close. Most of us would agree that they have supernatural abilities though not intrinsically supernatural. There are few limits on using these elements to transform them if it’s credible. What happened to them, when, why, and how did it affect them physically? Decide how much control they have over their skills at the point of the story that they’ll be used. Like any character, they need backstory, just one with extra information.


Another supernatural being is the “familiar” of wizardry. They originate in medieval folklore and were though to assist witches, or perhaps in our case, wizards, including protecting them, whether that means physically or scouting and warning. They may also possess specialized knowledge, particularly of a plane of existence different from which they originate. They are usually in the form of a small animal and appear corporeal rather than ghostly, though we’re free to do either. We can make them invisible to others, too. Whether they’re considered good or evil depends on who they serve; they might be considered fairies or demons. Familiars are sometimes given as a gift, or appear when someone is alone or in trouble, after which they are bonded from weeks to decades.

Jan 112021

In Creating Life, we discussed both animals and monsters, so these won’t be covered here, but we can take any of them and add supernatural elements.

We don’t always need to decide where a creature originated, but it helps us determine everything else we need to invent for it. Under circumstances we invent, predetermined sources of energy can give rise to this creature. Having decided where such energy is available helps us establish a physical point of origin. How and even if our creature relocates can also add believability. Does it need a new habitat due to the way its body now functions? Perhaps it can’t abide certain temperatures or other environmental issues, or just craves a specific environment now and adapts its habitat accordingly.

The creature’s physical properties and capabilities are often linked, though they needn’t be. What changes can we make to its appearance based on its supernatural abilities? Perhaps there are marks on the skin that react to external stimuli. That said, it can be advantageous to have this creation externally indistinguishable from the source; that allows for surprises when they prove to be other than they appeared. Decide on whether this subterfuge is helpful. If not, pair the skill to the body, such as ears that can move in odd ways because their hearing is superior, or eyes that look different (color, pupil shape, etc.) because their vision is altered.

Jan 072021

A chapter from Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1) covered the creation of gods and pantheons in detail, but here we’ll cover lesser beings: the demi-gods.

The term can mean many things, so for our purposes, we’re discussing any supernatural being that has less power than gods but is in some way related to them, and works with them in some capacity. They are often the offspring of gods or a human who has been given divine powers or rank. Some, like Hercules, are the result of a human (or another species, even an animal) mating with a god. The term would include angels and demons on Earth.

In mythology, demi-gods often serve a specific purpose, such as being a messenger of the gods. As world builders, this means we can invent someone when we need them for our story, though we may want a few of them in advance. Such a universally used character, as the messenger, might get more frequent use and mention by us and our world’s inhabitants. On the other hand, a figure like Cupid only comes up in love scenarios. For these beings, we need little more than a name and function until we show them in a tale. This means they’re easy to create and flesh out later. Decide if any are needed. Here are a few roles they can play:

  1. Harbinger of doom
  2. Harbinger of love
  3. Harbinger of good
  4. Messenger

Other figures can be invented when we need them, though it helps to hint at their existence beforehand so that it doesn’t seem too convenient that just the right one has popped up when our story needed it.

If we invent half-gods, meaning they have a mortal (i.e., human or other species) parent, too, we need to decide on their abilities, which don’t need to come directly from the divine parent. Deriving talent from the divine talent makes it easier to decide who their divine parent was, but there’s an idea that talent skips a generation, for example. I have musical talent and so does at least one of my kids, but neither of my parents do, though a grandparent had some. When we invent these half-gods, we are implying that deities have sexual relations with mortals. Does that conform to the view we’ve developed of their relations?

Jan 042021

Most of us have probably seen an alternate reality depicted, especially in SF. There used to be a TV show called Sliders where, in every episode, the characters were forced into an alternate reality from Earth. These variations can be easy to create. All we need to do is make some changes that have a significant impact, even if the average person doesn’t realize the influence it would have (until reading our story). For example, on Earth, what if the Nazis had won WWII? What if we’d never invented GPS? What if global warming has raised the sea level by ten feet?

These examples are extreme, but we can do variations that impact far fewer people, such as just our main characters. One who is married in one reality is not in another, or is a parent, or lost a sibling in a way that affected their outlook. When we’ve developed backstory for a character (to shape who they are), and then we want an alternate reality for them, we can change that backstory. We’re trying to change who they are by presenting them with an alternate view of themselves or their life, one that causes them to question their life choices or even their personality in their own reality.

A template in the appendix can assist with the invention of alternate realities.

Dec 312020

In some fantasy settings, there’s an alternate way of traveling that amounts to magical paths, which may have a corresponding magical doorway for access. Using these paths typically offers an advantage accompanied by great risk. A common advantage is much faster travel, which can help story issues when we need them to get somewhere faster than possible. The usual dangers are nasty and dangerous things one might encounter, whether living, dead, or inanimate (and possibly supernatural). This adds adventure, as well.

Other people could be walking these paths, posing another risk. Maybe they (or our characters) are lost and have been so long that this place has changed them, whether actual mutation or desperation leading to mindsets they’ve never had or acts they wouldn’t normally commit. Do they prey on travelers for survival? The normal rules of physics sometimes don’t exist in these places, such as time moving differently.

In the real world, a path leads through and around other locations. We can invent these within this supernatural landscape, from buildings like castles, homes, and magical towers, to land features like forests, rivers, and mountains, all with supernatural properties or life within them. If we create enough sufficiently interesting places, they can become another reason people enter this land, to acquire something found within, rather than to travel through it. Perhaps wizards can find rare items to use in their spells, or send someone else to fetch them; this is the basis for my free novella, The Ever Fiend (Talon Stormbringer).

The doorways into this other world can be wholly supernatural or physical with supernatural properties. They may be located in places that are inherently dangerous or which have become that way due to being guarded by something, or that territory being controlled by something nefarious. Consider naming not only this supernatural land but the doorways. Inventing an origin is optional but helps with realism and our invention of additional details. An obvious source for a supernatural land is the gods. Omitting an origin adds to the place’s mystery, though we might want to decide in our files and withhold the revelation from an audience.

A template in the appendix can assist with the invention of supernatural lands.

Dec 282020

Some could argue that a fantasy world without the supernatural isn’t really fantasy, though we can still consider it that if it has all the other trappings, such as fictional species and races. But in SF, we can skip the supernatural altogether and not ruffle any feathers; unexplained phenomena are considered science we don’t understand. In either case, the supernatural can significantly impact the world(s) we invent, so we should look at what we can invent. Chapter Six covers magic systems and there is some overlap of subjects covered, so readers may want to peruse both.

Supernatural Energy

The most obvious type of supernatural energy is magic, but divine power also exists. While radiation, dark matter, and similar items that we might find in SF aren’t necessarily supernatural, they can be considered this way by both us and inhabitants; this means we can invent fictional types or decide what happens when characters are exposed to those or real ones. Humans have seldom if ever been exposed to many real energies in large doses, or at least, most of us don’t think we have. This allows us to do things like invent The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, or the Fantastic Four due to exposure and audiences will believe it. As usual, plausibility is the bar to get over.

Regardless of the source or what we call it (magic, radiation, etc.), we are inventing details about:

  1. Its origins
  2. Its properties
  3. Where it occurs
  4. Whether it can be controlled and how
  5. What protection against it exists
  6. Past incidents involving it

Origin is an area we can skip if desired because scientists often don’t know the source of an energy in the real world; it can take decades to discover this and omitting the source adds mystery. But gods are typically considered the source of their own power, while magic is thought to derive from them if they exist in our setting.

We may want to name the types of energy because inhabitants will, and it eases all references to them. SF authors can invent them or use existing radiation, like gamma rays, while inventing new effects, and fantasy authors may have even greater leeway to start fresh. Try to find a name that sounds cool or intimidating; a nickname can help and can be based on something that once happened when someone was exposed to the energy.

Decide where this energy can be found, such as only in space, in a lab, in areas prone to supernatural phenomenon, or in seemingly random places. Are there conditions that must be met before this energy is detected or surges to life? With this decided, we’ll know how often it’s encountered and by who. If such a location is near an elven settlement, for example, they’ll probably be local experts. This can help when the energy (or something like it) is found elsewhere in our world, with that expert elf present for our story, to explain facts and suspicions to audiences and companions alike.

Inventing the properties of our energy is useful and fun to do. This includes its appearance, with invisibility being one option. Does it remind people of anything? If it looks like blue fire, there’s a nickname we can use. Does it give off heat or cold? Maybe it does neither until we touch it. Can people detect it before making contact, and if so, what does it feel like? Electricity, heat, and cold are some options. How close do people need to be before they are affected, or is there a range of effects based on proximity? How intense is it at each distance? If the phenomenon is temporary, we can also decide on duration, such as it happening in a given location but each flare up is only a few minutes and maybe predictable (like the “Old Faithful” geyser).

Deciding if and how this energy can be controlled is another subject for the imagination. The ability to control it may come and go. Perhaps long ago no one could, now they can, but in a nearby future, technology needed for that control will be destroyed. What if it’s been brought into civilized areas and now it’s out of control? Or unforeseen circumstances, such as interaction with a nearby and different energy, causing changes to its behaviors or properties? For SF, we’ll invent technological devices that include weapons, defenses, and containment fields. In fantasy, this energy may be assumed to be magic unless we offer some explanation that it’s different. If people can control magic with spells but not this energy, that helps distinguish the two. We may want some supernatural energy to still exist naturally so that people encounter it either by accident or on purpose.

We can add interest to this energy by inventing past incidents involving it. This can result in monsters, tall tales, myths, legends, and famous characters that may provide a cautionary tale. These can be as short as a few sentences tossed into our narrative, like this:

Nasha blanched at the idea of passing through the Nifling Hills on the way to Illiandor. “Isn’t that where Olian the Fool had half his face burned off?”

Kier nodded at the legend. “They say the flames got him, if you believe that story.”

“You don’t?”

“Blue Fire coming out of the ground without warning? Seems far-fetched.”

A template in the appendix can assist with the invention of supernatural energies.

Dec 242020

After determining the god this religion follows, world builders should start with history because we can incorporate this in the invention of a religion. Almost every religion pays great attention to its beginnings. This will include historical figures that performed influential deeds, and the symbols that are crucial to it. The world view and place in society is another early subject to flesh out, as are relationships with species and which ones are typically members and/or clergy. How people worship can come next. The details of becoming a priest are an area to save for later unless we need it. Combat is perhaps the last subject to work on unless fighting is a major aspect of the religion, as with a god of war.

Dec 212020

Our first decision on the afterlife is whether it’s real or imagined. If it’s real, then likely a god created it and the rules are incontrovertible. In this case, our religion is probably right about anything going on there or how to arrive, though having them be wrong is one way to make someone lose faith. Being right can add considerable weight to pronouncements about what one’s behavior may cause. That, in turn, could inspire devotion. The question is how people learn that the priests are right and then tell people, given that they’re dead?

But if the afterlife isn’t real, this means that a species invented it, if the concept exists. This means they’re wrong, and if they’re wrong about this, they probably are about many other things. One aspect to consider is that, if wrong, the followers have likely tailored the concept to fit the religion and its teachings. But whether they’re wrong or not, we’ll craft those lessons and world view to create an afterlife that fits. If the good are rewarded and the evil punished, we only need to invent those environments to our muse.

There may be more than one afterlife, depending on how we count it. Heaven and hell can be considered two, each distinct but both arrived at by the same means: your conduct and/or faith. If each religion has more than one and we’re creating a number of religions, this could become overwhelming. It might be better to have a few afterlifes that are universal (because the gods created them and they’re real) and which are less tied to a religion. Either that, or a religion has a special area in an afterlife, such as Catholics and Protestants both going to heaven but having their own version or area, whether they ever meet or not.

Can people visit the afterlife while still alive? Fantasy tales are full of this trope. This is one way for the truth of it to be confirmed or compromised. Communing with the dead is another way. If an afterlife can be reached by the living, we must decide how, such as a physical or spiritual journey, one often fraught with peril. The challenges faced can have no meaning or be based upon gods or just the story we’re telling and its needs for character development or plot coupons. Some of the perils can be real while the species might have invented others that either don’t exist or are quite different than imagined. This can cause problems for those journeying there if they’ve mis-prepared based on a lie. Besides, there’s less tension in a journey that goes as expected.

In Earth’s history, there have been various overarching ideas on the afterlife over the centuries, the details tweaked for the times, and we can leverage any or all of them. The first three here are considered good while the others are bad:

  • Paradise (heaven) – a wonderful place without needs or wants
  • Ascension – becoming a higher being, such as a demi-god of a trait you exemplified
  • Rebirth – another life with or without memory of the previous one(s)
  • Oblivion – the soul simply ends upon bodily death and that’s it
  • Torture (hell) – perpetual horror and pain
  • Boredom – monotony unending

Finally, remember to name the afterlife(s) with a word that suggests whether they’re menacing or hopeful. A great name can elevate these to being memorable, though what we decide exists in them helps, too.

Religions in Combat

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Dec 172020

Some religious orders forbid the use of force or carrying weapons while others have armed and trained warriors. A decision is easy for a god of war or peace, though the latter could acknowledge that people must defend themselves and that peace can be achieved through might, so we can once again put a spin on our invention. If we go with a less obvious rationale like this, we can state why with exposition or a scene like this one:

Kier disdainfully glared at the priest, hefting his sword. “Stand aside or be cut down.”

The priest patted the blade slung at his waist. “My goddess may treasure peace, but she’s not foolish enough to simply turn the other cheek. I know how to use this.”

“You had better, or you will meet her soon enough.” Kier advanced only to find the priest swiftly raising a blade that clanged against his twice before his fell to the floor.

For each religion we invent, a sense of the god’s impact (through clergy) on the world and our story can guide our decisions. Do we want priests to be passive and easily bossed around or do we want more strength of behavior like the one depicted just now? Decide what feels right.

When weapons are forbidden, there’s often a rationale, which can be a deep part of a religion’s views. With Christianity, Jesus taught about turning the other cheek, and this humility is an inherent part of every religion that is based on his teachings. With our invented religion, do we have a rationale we can use to justify a lack of violence? A god of greed might want followers to fight to gain or keep what they have, or at least see it as a practical necessity. But does a goddess of the forest feel this way? Maybe not for a long time, but if species begins decimating woodland like we’ve done on Earth, and all manner of non-violence has not inhibited the destruction, perhaps a change of approach is in order. Either way, don’t be afraid to challenge perceptions and expectations, which on Earth lead many to assume priests are defenseless wimps.

We should also decide if priests are to accompany warriors, whether this is for war or smaller outings. This may be sanctioned, or the clergy may find themselves in this position against their will, such as trying to save a wounded soldier only to find himself and allies fighting for their own lives. Are priests members of the armed forces and what rank do they have? It is presumably not every religion, so which ones gets this role? They sometimes must also administer last rites to the dead and dying.

If we’ve decided they use weapons or wear armor, we should specify what they are expected to have…


We should consider the effect weapons have on victims when deciding what priests are likely to use. A religion might forbid the spilling of blood and therefore suggest blunt weapons like the staff or mace. These still cause bleeding, of course, but it tends toward being internal. Blood is not only a symbol of life but also carries diseases, so whether it’s symbolic or a practical matter, this viewpoint can arise. Gods of war or death might prefer its spilling and allow especially destructive weapons like hollow-point bullets. Technology allows for weapons that kill in other ways, such as radiation. Light sabers or similar laser-like weapons cauterize wounds and prevent bleeding.

Consider whether suffering is something they want to minimize or maximize in victims. A faith might promote a swift death if it’s to happen at all and prefer bladed weapons (blood loss kills in minutes verses hours or even days). Others might prefer subduing someone and train people in martial arts. Such a tactic might leave the practitioner relatively defenseless against better armed and armored opponents.


Priests are only likely to wear armor when sent into combat on purpose, just like everyone else. For everyday living, local hostility levels will determine the feasibility of wearing light protection. What we want to decide is, if they’re armored, what is it? If there’s a lightweight chainmail, this can be worn under robes. Leather is another option, but even knights only rarely employ plate armor, so this is less likely. In SF, we might have technological armor akin to Kevlar, and we can invent these to be light and slim. These can also absorb or resist magical, godly, or technological power (like radiation).

Decide what sorts of forces they’re likely to encounter because this is what will determine the armor choice. Is there an aspect of this religion that informs the choice? For example, if leather is made from an animal that they consider unclean or sacred, then this is ruled out. If metal somehow interferes with communing with a god, so much for chain mail and the like. Armor might even be considered a barrier to being reunited with their god (through death) and therefore be frowned upon. Being creative with a choice makes this more entertaining for us and audiences. Otherwise, keep it simple.

Creating Religion World View

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Dec 142020

To decide on the religion’s official language, we should choose which species the prophet(s) belonged to. The other option would be the god’s language, should one exist. It could also be the language of those the god most wishes to reach, which could be a species other than the prophet’s. For older religions, the language could be one no longer spoken, such as Latin, which can make it unique, prized, and mysterious. Holy texts are likely written in the official language unless translated.

Choosing where this prophet became one can help determine a likely species, but arguably most religions will want to convert other species, too. If they’re not considered worthy, by mortals or a god, this inclusion or exclusion will determine the availability of translations to other languages. Even if the clergy don’t create them, others may. The willingness to reach others will also decide which, if any, species languages clergy are expected to know and to what degree.

Place in Society

It can be difficult to generalize a religion’s place in society because this will depend on the society. It might be a state religion in one place and banned in another. What we want to decide is, for places where it is accepted, what role can it play in society and the lives of individuals?

For example, it could be prominent at sporting events if the religion promotes athletics or prowess in battle. Priests could be blessing the games or acting as fair judges. If the religion helps alcoholics and others similarly afflicted, it can provide hostels or treatment for free, perhaps with backing from the settlement or sovereign power (which is paying their bills). Which religion’s priests perform marriages, burial rituals, or life’s milestone ceremonies? All of this will be based on the god(s) we’ve created and what they care about.

One reason these matter is that members of a society will think of a religion’s reputation when it is mentioned, their buildings are passed, or their priests are encountered. Even the followers, if wearing the religion’s symbols, can elicit a reaction, whether subtle (a frown or smile) or excessive (taunting). Arguably, every character we invent should have a religion (and might have switched in their past) or none, but there’s typically a reason for the latter, such as trauma or upbringing causing loss of faith. This will, in turn, cause their reaction to their own or other religions and such details are realistic.


Invent religious customs based on a deity. A god of war might want a show of strength that results in a firm handshake. The words might be bold and decisive, such as, “Fierce is the heart!” A god of peace might wish blessings and be gentler in touch. A goddess of pain might slap a hand painfully. We can invent these beforehand or while writing. They often don’t need explanation because the depiction tells the audience what they need to know. Refer to chapter 1 on creating cultures for what to invent, using the deity as inspiration.


Some religions may send clergy out as missionaries early in their career; older priests are more established in the community and will be missed if sent far away. They can be inspired to do this or commanded to by clergy or deity. Are they aggressive or passive about proselyting? The same religion might be aggressive in one area and less so elsewhere due to local leadership or situations among those to be “saved” by conversion. Determine if there’s a set number of years this work must be done.