Oct 142019
 

Strange phenomena are staples of fantasy and SF, especially when the latter involves explorations of the cosmos. Space offers nebulas, radiation, and alien planet environments. We can invent all manner of experiences that have no real explanation or at best, pseudoscience to impart believability or specific effects on characters and their environment, such as an interstellar ship. Space phenomena have a great advantage in that their location is flexible; we can place them wherever we feel like it and invent them on the fly.

By contrast, singularities on a planet or other body (moon, asteroid, etc.) are typically associated with a given location. They often benefit from at least speculation as to their causes. Technological or magical disasters, resulting from experiments or battle, offer easy rationalizations and even suggest world figures or famous items that might’ve been involved. Monsters or creatures can be a result, too. Does this phenomenon influence only things that come in contact with it or can it affect nearby objects? Maybe it can compel people to approach.

We can also create seemingly unrelated phenomena in different locations but which bear some similarities, but later associate them with each other. We might also have phenomena that begat other phenomena, with no one knowing this until characters stumble upon the truth. This sort of layering adds depth while fascinating audiences as oddities they’ve experienced before are revealed to have new significance.

There might be places where magic or technology doesn’t work, is unpredictable, or is supercharged. Animals could go wild, which is a cliché, or become docile if we want a new impact. There can be locations allowing extraordinary travel, whether actual doorways, random spots, or the former built on the latter. These gateways can lead to other physical locations, supernatural ones, or an alternate reality or timeline. These methods may be predictable, controllable, or neither. Can only certain people or devices activate them? Or we can have a portal open constantly because no one knows how to close it. Beings could be summoned through them.

On Earth, we have places where strange behavior is believed to occur, like the Bermuda Triangle or crop circles. Then there’s Area 51, a rumored place for storing unusual items. The origins of places like Stonehenge or Easter Island have been debated, but we can invent similar locations and attribute fantastic reasons for their existence.

Oct 062019
 
Underwater Settlements

While extraordinary to us, an underwater settlement might be commonplace on your world, if a water dwelling species exists to construct them. Are there dry areas or air pockets allowing land species to reside there safely? Or be imprisoned because there’s no way to reach the surface? Perhaps magic or technological portals allow people to enter or leave such a city. Think about what sort of industry and skills a water dwelling species might acquire if they not only have water-filled areas but dry ones, assuming they can move on land. Might they craft a large enough space to practice with weapons they’d need skills for on land?

Floating Settlements

We’ve seen cities in Star Wars, and rock formations in Avatar (italics), both suspended in the air. We can use magic, technology, or unexplained physics to do the same. Aside from this floating aspect, these settlements otherwise differ little from more ordinary communities. However, we should think about what opportunities are afforded. A flying species might be prone to inventing such places or find them very attractive. There might be few predators except the flying kind, making life safe. While no city walls will exist, what kind of aerial fortifications might be needed? Trade might be quite difficult without ships, large flying animals, or other means to transport resources. It may also be at extraordinary risk of crashing to the ground, which seems an obvious sabotage focus for enemies. How does this place protect itself from hurricanes, tornados, or strong storms? The obvious answer is that it’s only built somewhere that doesn’t experience these.

On Earth, we have Venice, which is built largely on stilts, but the impression is still of floating on water. This does not require magic or advanced technology, but we can invent a place that genuinely floats on the sea. A water dwelling species might find this accommodating and even be the ones to invent it. The setting can be a place where land and water species can interact more easily. This must occur where significant waves are rare if not unheard of, so look for a lagoon or otherwise protected inlet in waterways like bays or sounds. If there are large sea monsters that could easily wreck the place, then it won’t exist, but if there’s a new sea monster never considered before, we can have fun destroying the settlement in a story.

Other Unusual Homes

A species might build homes inside hills like the Hobbits of The Lord of the Rings. Elaborate mountain homes are a staple of fantasy dwarves. A flying species could build small homes inside enormous trees, but with no way to reach the ground so that predators, including other species, can’t access them.

Sep 302019
 

Noteworthy locations provide our characters somewhere to stumble upon, avoid, or seek out on missions. They can cause interesting items or life forms to exist, possess, or flee from. World builders can place these in almost random locations, reducing the burden of logic needed to explain origins. Some phenomena simply exist where they do or are the result of natural geological forces (such as volcanoes or meteor strikes), while events such as explosions, battles, or experiments gone awry can cause others. Used in small doses, they can add complexity, interest, and variety to a setting.

Not every location needs to be spectacular to be of interest. Anything unusual can do and should not be overlooked.

Catacombs and Hidden Passages

Catacombs, bomb shelters, sewer lines, tunnels, and subway lines, especially beneath a settlement, can provide somewhere to hide people, creatures, or possessions, and be used for stealthy maneuvering. We can decide they are known to all or a select few who are using them for nefarious purposes. Even if known, the extent of them seldom is; much of the fun lies in the mystery. When inventing these, decide why they exist. They might have been designed for covert work, such as in military locations. Royalty could have decided they wanted ways to move about without being noticed (or for their spies). Excessive heat in tropical locations might have led to these cooler places to dwell at times, or store things like wine or munitions. Perhaps there are secret training facilities.

In a world with dwarves, perhaps they just enjoy such locations as a reminder of home and have tunneled deep, with or without permissions. They might no longer live here, leaving abandoned tunnels that are partly in use by those with both good and bad intentions. Sometimes these locations aren’t known because a civilization or population from a thousand years ago might have left it. The current settlement could even have been built atop such a place with no one realizing it.

Step Wells

For most of us, a water well might not sound interesting, but if you Google “step wells in India,” the pictures will change your mind. These are elaborate pits in the ground with flights of stairs leading down to the water. The steps appear akin to an amphitheater, being wide and often on all four sides in a square or rectangular shape. Platforms can exist in these, and with some imagination, we might decorate them with carvings and statues. Some structures have cave-like openings into a cliff face and buildings that are carved from within. If we have a species which dwells in fresh water, they may swim up underground rivers to emerge from these wells.

Step Well

Monuments

Monuments can be buildings, monoliths, or statues. Some could be more spectacular than others and qualify as famous locations. This can be due to size, complexity, or the individual or occasion being memorialized. Having world figures helps us decide on the latter. We should also determine the condition such monuments are in. Those in abandoned places might be in disrepair or have been vandalized, even destroyed utterly, whether this is known or discovered by characters in a story. Visiting such a place to acquire power or an item can therefore throw characters off their intended quest. Monuments located amid existing civilization might also be prone to thievery attempts and desecration.

On Earth, we have Egypt’s great pyramids, the Great Wall of China, or Stonehenge. The ancient world included the Seven Wonders, which included a temple, two statues, the pyramids, a mausoleum, gardens, and a lighthouse. These seven were chosen because there were, at the time, seven bodies in the heavens: the sun, moon, and five discovered planets. An invented world might benefit from a similar explanation if monuments are being counted. The lists can be longer, and different lists have existed over time. The original seven don’t sound impressive until one considers the unusual size, adornment, or subject (often a god) of most. Many of these wonders were destroyed by earthquakes or floods.

Graves

While most cemeteries won’t be of much interest, other burial sites may be. One possibility is a system of catacombs, where skulls and bones have been stacked. Mausoleums can be enormous, uniquely decorated, or house famous people; these may contain items, such as treasure, which others plunder. These would require guards of ordinary or extraordinary kind, such as ferocious animals/monsters, or humanoids with demonic, technological, or magical powers. Graveyards could also have unique layouts where different classes of people are interred separately. Rituals might also be done at regular intervals. A day of the dead festival might exist, the macabre scene fitting for a story. Lone grave sites in the wilderness might also achieve significance for location or features.

Sep 262019
 

History can be created at random, though at times we’ll want to create multiple events regarding a given subject at once. Entries needn’t be related, making this ideal for piecemeal invention. For any subject, such as a sovereign power or group, we can either start inventing the past in our history file or do it in the file for that power or group. The biggest items should go on the world history with minimal redundancy across files. The event categories above should provide ideas on what might need to be created before a history, but we want to work on history after inventing the thing for which we’re creating that past. Otherwise, follow your heart and feel free to let creativity run free.

Sep 232019
 
Wars

A world without war isn’t realistic. We can invent these while conjuring a world history or while working in a given sovereign power’s file. Doing this requires some idea of the governments existing in those powers and their locations; otherwise it’s hard to know why the war is being fought, not to mention where, or what impact it has on the powers or anyone else caught in the conflict. It helps to understand technological or supernatural level of the combatants.

Is there a goal we hope this war will achieve? Perhaps we want simmering resentments between characters of today. Maybe we want a disaster to result as the logical conclusion of animosities we’ve set in motion. Is a resource under contention? Is that place a danger that one power wants to secure but which another wants to utilize?

Remember that former enemies can become allies later, sometimes through government upheaval, defeat, or just the passing of time. We’ve seen this on Earth, where in as little as a few generations, animosities have given way to mutual aid and reconciliation. Don’t be afraid to decide two friendly nations today weren’t enemies as little as decades ago. The speed of change may depend on technology and information; worlds with less, as in fantasy, might harbor animosity for far longer.

“Ethnic cleansing”, one group trying to eradicate another, has caused some of the worst wars; this sort of animosity won’t quickly disappear. A power might try to unite ethnic groups that have become split across nations. For example, Russia recently invaded Ukraine with one justification being that the Ukraine has regions with mostly ethnic Russians, who want to be part of Russia. There were also natural resources at stake.

Pride is yet another reason for war, as a new dictator must make a show of power. Or the dictator feels pride in their nation and heritage and feel they and their people have been oppressed or wrongly scaled back in a previous war. Starting a new war to right wrongs from a previous war is a classic. Leaders may have a grand vision of superiority or desire a fate different from, and better than, their current reality, for themselves or their kingdom, and the stress of this simmers for many years before leading to open war.

Taking back territory, resources, or something else believed to rightly belong to a kingdom is another reason for war. Sometimes these are perpetual disputes—until an empire absorbs both opponents.

Groups Forming

We might want to indicate when a special military group was formed. Use this for famous knight orders or naval/space forces, even dragon riders, spectral groups, elite guards, horsemen, archers, or whichever groups you’ve created. If there’s a wizard or warrior order, like monks of a certain region, note their formation date, or when a powerful leader rose, influenced, disappeared, or fell. Did this group or someone from it accomplish something? Is there a force for good or evil, like the Justice League from comics? Cultures and Beyond (The Art of World Building, #3) goes into more details about groups we can create.

Artifacts Discovered/Invented

Creating magic items is one of the fun things about writing fantasy. For SF, legendary devices or ships are equally fun, particularly when they disappear, creating mystery, intrigue, and excitement when they show up in a story. These can fall under the protection of a sovereign power or individual and be contested. They can be feared or admired. They can come with a prophecy about the sort of person who might wield them one day, causing dreams and struggles. Each time you create an important item, add its invention date to the history, though lesser objects don’t need an origin date.

Missions Undertaken

Missions to explore, rescue, kill or kidnap someone/something, or investigate strange phenomena can be listed in our history. Be sure to indicate the outcome, whether this is known to the characters or not. This history is for your files, so it’s okay to drop the truth in here and only reveal that to an audience in a story. Those who undertook a mission might be famous, giving us world figures. They might have also triggered an event, such as a war or new phenomenon, or discovered a new item or material.

Historical Event Categories

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Sep 192019
 

There are different types of entries with which we can fill an imagined history. This list isn’t exhaustive but can provide inspiration.

The Gods

In some story worlds, the gods keep to themselves, but in others they interfere with life and cause events. This could be fathering children with members of mortal species, resulting in monsters or demi-gods. They might have sacred places that are built or destroyed. Perhaps most fun is that gods sometimes have very powerful magic items that fall into the wrong hands, causing events with long-term consequences. This can include the invention of new species or monsters that proliferate. A god can even be killed or otherwise inhibited (imprisoned) due to some event, whether they acted badly and were punished by the gods, or because a mortal somehow did something to them. Maybe some of these incidents are celebrated or otherwise noted, like an anniversary, by the species.

Technological Events

Many technological events are possible, especially in SF. These include failed or successful missions, rocket/satellite/ship launches, explosions, discoveries, weapons tests, and first contact with other aliens/species. The latter is especially important; the longer the history between two species, the greater the odds of conflict and familiarity breeding contempt. Or those who’ve been hostile can learn the other isn’t so bad, possibly due to help needed against a mutual threat. Disasters of technology, like America’s space shuttle tragedies, often spur innovation and memorial; a main character can be a descendant of someone lost in one. Classes of vessels might also be invented, used, and then retired. Another event is the discovery of special ore needed by ship engines or to forge metal in fantasy, or even the creation of famous items. Ships, fleets, and items can also disappear, be destroyed, or be captured.

Supernatural Events

For fantasy worlds and some SF, no history is complete without the supernatural. Phenomena must start or be discovered, and possibly wreak havoc, and then be neutralized. We might have famous expeditions to deal with somewhere or something. Magic (in general or specific spells) can be discovered, expanded, and proliferate or be squashed in one region or sovereign power. Famous practitioners or victims will come and go. This is true of items, whether armor, weapons, scrolls, potions, or jewelry. Perhaps a useful material is discovered or exploited into nonexistence (or restricted by law). Monsters might result from events, too. Did something of the gods fall into mortal hands? Celestial events like a conjunction, eclipse, or comet can be assigned supernatural significance.

The Rise and Fall of Sovereign Powers

No sovereign power lasts forever or retains the same government. The bigger events, such as the power signs an important treaty, or collapses can be noted here, but most internally relevant events can be kept in that power’s file. How a kingdom came to be doesn’t really require an explanation in our world history, and few will question this. However, its demise benefits from an explanation (see Chapter 5, “Creating a Sovereign Power”); these include being conquered, revolution, and a coup. Its fall will impact neighbors, but we might not need to comment on this unless an empire has fallen, as other powers that fell under its control will enter a period of instability.

Creating Universal Time

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Sep 092019
 

In our modern world, we’re used to the Gregorian calendar being accepted worldwide. This wasn’t always true and in some places it’s not official and is only used when trying to correlate dates between different countries. We could invent a datebook for every kingdom, but that’s a lot of work for little gain. A universal calendar, meaning one that’s acknowledged across a planet, has both advantages and disadvantages.

Benefits

In stories, we might have little reason to mention the year, but this depends on our needs and the world’s technological level. A fantasy setting might be less concerned with information in general, not to mention date, but some SF frequently mentions this, such as the well-known “star date” for a captain’s log entry in Star Trek. What’s important is that, whether we mention dates or not, we need a universal calendar for our notes even if not used by our characters. Otherwise, we can’t reconcile two differing calendars and understand when events occurred. There’s no way to tell that year 734 D.C. in Kingdom X is thirty years later than year 343 O.E. in Kingdom Y.

Each sovereign power may have its own time measurement. Year one will be an important event, such as the kingdom’s founding or the life and death of someone important. There could be a technology that shapes life, or a supernatural event or discovery. It should be something that resonates with society or which the power wants to champion, such as the first ruler in a dynasty. While we’re free to invent these internal calendars, we need a universal one.

Whether our universal calendar is recognized on the planet is another matter. For this to happen, there must be a globally accepted event. On Earth, we use the birth of Christ, with years before that counting down like a timer and the years after counting up. However, this scheme wasn’t recognized for hundreds of years and didn’t become standard for hundreds more. Christianity slowly spread, and with it, the calendar. For an invented world, we might need something like the birth of magic or a new technology to occur and slowly spread, too. A swifter way is a cataclysm, which is especially viable in post-apocalyptic fiction and which will quickly dominate minds and ways of life. A mass exodus from a planet might be, too. We need to think of an event that most people in the world will think is a big deal.

If we want our story to be directly impacted by the event, by which I mean the characters and world are still recovering from it, the event should be recent, within the last few hundred years. Otherwise, place the event farther in the past. The invention of a technology might impact modern life, but the moment of that invention doesn’t have to be recent.

Deciding no universal calendar exists is also fine, but be sure to choose one for your private notes if you’re building a world intended to be used a long time, and which has multiple sovereign powers with differing calendars. If you can’t decide, then go with a believed creation date rather than the timespan required by evolution. It took millions of years for life to evolve on Earth, but according to some religions, God put us here less than ten thousand years ago. We can also decide that the first civilization is a marker, as that might’ve been much closer; years longer than five digits (10,000) can seem unwieldy.

When it comes to the initials like A.D. and B.C., whether for a universal calendar or not, we’ll want a naming convention of some sense, such as B.M. and A.M., as in “Before Magic” and “After Magic.” We don’t need to use this style. Terms such as Heisei 12 in Japan means it’s the twelfth year of the current emperor, named Heisei. People might want a positive spin on the years, but in a dystopian setting, a negative sounding term can be accepted.

Challenges

If we’re inventing a world for long term use or might use both hemispheres, there are some issues to consider for calendar names. On Earth, January is a winter month to some and a summer month to others, and since the word “January” has nothing to do with a season, we’re okay. But what if it was called “Snowtime” instead? That would only make sense to areas which receive snow in January.  Tropical climates may never get snow regardless of hemisphere, polar areas always have snow, and some areas have no seasons.

If we want to do it anyway, regional terms can add dimension. A character from such a place can express how different things are back home, now that they’re away. On Earth, there’s no shortage of people from the northern hemisphere saying how weird it is to celebrate Christmas in summer while south of the equator. Some holidays, like Christmas, have nothing to with a season but have become associated with it.

It’s tempting to decide the year starts with spring, but this is once again only true for certain areas. For others, it would be the first day of winter or not associated with any specific season. How likely is it that everyone north of the equator likes that spring idea and everyone south of it likes the winter idea? Not very. The likely result is a different calendar, which might be local in focus.

So what do we start the year with? An event that has nothing to do with weather, climate, or seasons. In this chapter, the “Historical Event Categories” section may provide ideas.

Measuring Time

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Sep 052019
 

How is time measured in our invented world? This is a subject we can ignore if everything is Earth-like and we’re fine with the audience assuming time is similar, as they probably will unless we remark on it. Markedly different time measurement is an area of unnecessary exposition that is best avoided unless it matters for our work. Readers don’t want to remember how many minutes there are in an hour, hours in a day, how long the week is, how many weeks there are per month, and how many months the year includes. Each time we mention that two characters will meet in an hour, but that’s really two Earth hours, is an annoyance.

Should we create different time measurements? That depends.

Minutes and Hours

I recommend leaving minutes and hour lengths alone. Changing them offers an audience confusion with no payoff. There are better ways to make our world seem different. Even if we mention that an hour is ninety minutes, for example, but then we keep writing “hour” in our story, the reader will forget the different length. This is especially true if this alteration is arbitrary and has no rationale that makes it easier to remember. We can invent other words instead of “hour,” but then those require explanations that must be remembered, too, doubling down on the encumbrance with which we’ve burdened the audience.

While it’s true that time is likely measured differently on other planets, our audience is on Earth and needs to quickly understand time references in Earth terms. A workaround in SF that has characters from Earth is to have one mention “that’s 1.5 Earth hours” to another person; the characters should likely go by Earth measurements for their comfort and that of the audience. In SF, a briefly visited planet is a good time to use different minute/hour measurements for a story impacted by this.

One reason to leave minutes and hours alone is that this unit of time measurement will be more frequently mentioned than days, weeks, or months. Story scenes take place in minutes, hours, and days. Having “minute” and “hour” be too different just messes with our audience’s understanding of time. But scenes are less often separated by weeks or months, and once we’re working in bigger units, does it really matter if “three months later” is one hundred days instead of ninety? Only a little.

As an example, on my world of Llurien, there are twelve months of twenty-eight days, resulting in 336 days. That’s twenty-nine days, or a month, shorter than Earth. This means someone a year old on Llurien is eleven months old on Earth. But after ten years, a ten-year-old on Llurien would only be nine years old on Earth. While the gap has widened, the difference between a nine and ten year old isn’t great. This is again true at 22 vs 20, and 33 vs 30. I don’t need to ever point this out to my audience, but if I do, it doesn’t matter unless characters from Llurien come to Earth (or vice versa).

On this note, it’s important to figure out how long a year really is on an invented world. Once we’ve decided on all our measurements, do the math to figure out a scenario like the above.

We could name the hours of the day, but this can be another encumbrance that gains us little and requires exposition. Do so with a good reason that impacts your story or skip it. We can do these things and seldom mention them, however.

We can change the number of hours in a day, but it’s recommended that day lengths be similar to Earth if we’re building an Earth-like world. This means being off by a few hours at most, not having only twelve hour days unless we really mean for this to figure prominently. In SF, the life forms from a planet with different length days will have different sleep and eating cycles, but this will matter more when life forms from worlds with disparate cycles are brought together.

Days in a Week

The number of days in a week is another area we can change. There are seven days on Earth due to ancient civilizations naming them after seven celestial bodies that were visible (this included the sun and moon, which are Sunday and Monday respectively). With planets named after gods like Thor (Thursday), we also acquired the names. We can do something similar on an invented world, using whatever rationalization we can make sensible. There could be eight moons that cause eight-day weeks. There could be six gods, each getting a day in a six-day week. We can depart from deities and decide the days are named after the six schools of magic in a world dominated by supernatural power. Or maybe there were six great heroes from long ago. Or six dragons. In SF, the days of the week are likely decided long before technological advances that could have days named after technology (or related scientists, explorers, etc.), but maybe a later empire forced change on everyone.

In the above examples from Earth, you’ll note that Thor is spelled differently for Thursday. Most of the god names were altered in time from different cultures misspelling things, or just altering the spelling for their native language. We might want to do this, too, to make day names easier to say. For example, I could call a day Llurienday, but that’s kind of a mouthful. Shortening it to Llurday or Rienday is a little better.

Regardless of our decision, we should take strides to minimize the use of day names in our writing because our audience will have no idea what we’re talking about. This is true even if we explain it once. We can provide charts on a website, like a glossary, but skillfully handling this is the best approach. Our characters (as opposed to our narration) should be the ones most often using the day names, because they would. Take this example passage:

Kier asked, “When will the sword be ready?”

“Next Rienday,” the blacksmith replied.

Kier nodded. A week and a day. Plenty of time to run it through his beloved’s heart. (italics)

If we change the number of days in a week, we might want to go with six or eight. The reason is that when we narrate “a week and a day” as above, this is still close to a week on Earth and the audience’s sense of time passing is only slightly off. By contrast, if a week is twelve days, we throw the audience off quite a bit more and might have to keep reminding them of such a thing. In the above scenario, I would instead write, “Thirteen days. Plenty of time…”

Weeks in a Month

How many weeks do we want in a month? On Earth, this isn’t set. Instead the number of days in a month is what determines how weeks are laid out. A month with thirty days could span four weeks one year and five the next, depending on what day of the week that month began. We might choose to standardize the weeks more, in which case the weeks might get names. On my Llurien world, every month has four weeks of seven days. Those weeks are associated with the four elements, resulting in Fireweek, for example. The fourteenth day is always the seventh day of the second week. No one needs a calendar to figure it out.

Months in a Year

How many months do we want in a year? Once again, and for the same reason, it’s recommended to be off by one from Earth, meaning eleven or thirteen months in a year. Earth months are named and our invented world will need month names, too. Once again, our audience will have no idea what we’re talking about, so they should be used sparingly and explained succinctly. Take this example passage:

Kier asked, “When will the dragon give birth?”

“In Dicerimon,” the dragon keeper replied.

Kier nodded. Three months, just in time for the winter sacrifice.

In this passage, note the use of the suffix “mon” on the month name. On Earth, we have “uary” and “ber” to denote half of the months. We might want to choose a similar approach to indicate to our audience that we’re referencing a month. A common prefix or suffix can assist their understanding. As with Earth, perfect uniformity may not happen or be advisable and can even look like too much planning on our part. Feel free to make exceptions.

When revealing the number of months, we can also work this into narration instead of writing exposition about it. See Kier’s fate for guidance:

Kier asked, “When will I be executed for my crimes?”

“Two years from today,” the judge replied. “One for your beloved. Another for the dragon.”

Kier hung limp in the chains. Twenty-two months to agonize over his mistakes.