Aug 082017
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #8): 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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Jul 252017
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #7): Undead

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

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

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

Tip #2: “Determine What the Undead Wants”

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

Tip #3: “What Type of Undead Is It?”

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

Tip #4: “Decide Its Origins”

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

Tip #5: “Can It Be Killed?”

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

Summary of Chapter 7—Creating Undead

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #2: “How Will You and Characters Use It?”

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

Tip #3: “Research Earth Analogues”

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

Tip #4: “Understand Classifications”

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

Tip #5: “Know Your Limits”

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

Summary of Chapter 6—Creating Plants and Animals

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

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

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Jun 222017
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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Jun 202017

Ed GreenwoodI just received an endorsement from Ed Greenwood, creator of The Forgotten Realms® and dozens of other imaginary worlds:

Worldbuilding—creating a fictional setting—is THE biggest job of a storyteller. It can be done badly or minimally, but doing so risks robbing a tale of richness and impact, by leaving the audience uncaring or making “the stakes” less clear or dramatic.

So, after “once upon a time,” where to begin this devastatingly big job? With CREATING LIFE by Randy Ellefson, even the first volume of which is THOROUGH. This book raises ALL the points, and asks all the questions. Not just recommended: essential!

This is super cool! I consider Ed to be one of the Four Horsemen of World Building, along with Tolkien, Gary Gygax (“The father of role-playing games”), and Dave Anerson (co-inventor of Dungeons & Dragons with Gygax). Sadly, Ed is the only one still alive.

Jun 162017

PodcastI started recording The Art of World Building Podcast this month. I’ll be covering much of what’s in the three volumes but not everything (sometimes more, sometimes less). In addition to learning more about world building, you’ll have the chance to hear my lovely speaking voice. A transcript of each episode will also be available.

Most podcasters need to find royalty free music to use for opening and closing credits or other announcements, but not me. I’m just using my own!

The podcast will launch in July 2017 once I have a few episodes ready for release on day one. After that, the schedule will be every other week, usually Tuesday mornings.

Jun 132017
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #4): World Figures

This is the fourth in a series of world building articles! Today’s theme is world figures like heroes and villains. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 4, “Creating World Figures”, from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Decide Who the Heroes and Villains Are”

There are many types of world figures, some hated, others revered. In your world, what kind of people make good figures to reference? Warriors, explorers, inventors, and leaders come to mind. Determine what they did and what they’re famous for by deciding how you’re going to use them. As characters? Someone to mention?

Tip #2: “Determine Their Status”

Living figures provide ongoing opportunities for new fame, but dead heroes tend to be more revered. If they’re alive, decide what they’re doing now. Retired? In hiding? Imprisoned? Read Creating Life for more ideas.

Tip #3: “What Items Did They Have?”

Whether the figure is alive or dead, they might’ve had cool items, including ships or steeds, that are lost or in the wrong hands. This is a great way to make these figures still relevant if current characters have their weapons and armor, for example. Invent some items and reasons they’re famous. What can they do that others can’t?

Tip #4: “Who Were/Are Their Relatives?”

So often, the relatives of world figures aren’t mentioned at all, as if everyone was born in a test tube and raised by no one. Determine who their relatives are, including descendants, and how they feel about this figure. Don’t forget that every species probably has a different opinion on this guy, too; he might be a villain to one and a hero to another.

Tip #5: “Where Did They Learn?”

Most famous people have special skills. Where did this guy get his? This can be important if he was a villain who killed his master for knowledge, for example. A hero might’ve inherited knowledge from a mentor grooming him for great things. These aspects characterize our figure and make them “human.”

Summary of Chapter 4—Creating World Figures

Villains, heroes, and more give our characters admired or despised individuals who’ve shaped the world and inspired them. Using Earth analogues can speed the invention of such world figures, though it’s best to change some details to obfuscate the similarities. Living figures can provide ongoing usefulness but the deceased can cast a long shadow, too. Their possessions can be just as famous and offer opportunities for our characters to find something helpful or dangerous. Family, friends, and enemies also provide ongoing possibilities for their life to impact our current characters.

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May 302017
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #3): Species

This is the next article in a series of world building tips! Today’s theme is species. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 3, “Creating Species”, from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Decide Whether to Create Them”

Some SF and even fantasy (like Game of Thrones) has nothing but humans, so you may not need to invent a species at all. Or you might be writing a genre with public domain races you can use, like elves. We can do a mix of these, using the latter while inventing a few of our own, but this has risks, too. Read Creating Life to understand why and how to manage them. The best reason to invent is arguably that you have a great idea.

Tip #2: “Decide If They’re Species or Races”

We have leeway to call our humanoids species or race, but it might be best to use both terms and create a hierarchy that makes it easier to understand relationships. Decide which ones inherited DNA from others or which ones developed on their own, or were independently created by the gods. This is fundamental to creating relationships. Volume 1 explains how to structure humanoids for the best of both worlds.

Tip #3: “Determine How You’ll Use Them”

A race that’s just a monster in the woods is easier to create than one that must have a full culture and stand alongside classic races as a well-developed humanoid. Consider how your invention can be used to discover benefits and limitations that you can either accept or overcome. Maybe the “monster in the woods” version isn’t allowed in cities, so you create a tamer race that is accepted; this can cause complexity, realism, and fun plot points as characters aren’t sure which one they’re dealing with until too late. See Creating Life for more ideas.

Tip #4: “How Integrated Are They?”

A species that keeps to itself in mountains or forests will have different attitudes about others than one that gets around. Is it realistic that they’re so isolated? Invent a good reason if so, such as troubling history with others. Consider having them frequently live among humans and others, as this can create even more conflict than hiding away. A tension is where stories lie.

Tip #5: “Determine How Environment Affected Them”

Like dwarves, anything living underground is bound to be short. A forest dwelling species might not run well, while one on the plains likely does. Physical adaptations are probable unless the race lives everywhere, like us. Once this is decided, we can determine how that environment affected their culture, too. Giving thought to this makes our species more cohesive.

Summary of Chapter 3—Creating a Species

Audiences are familiar with using “race” to distinguish between humanoids, especially in fantasy, but species may be a more appropriate term. This chapter explores the meaning and implications of both words, with some examples of which one to use, when, and why.

Creating a species is challenging and time consuming, but the risks and rewards can be navigated and achieved, respectively. This chapter helps us decide on our goals and if the effort is worth it. SF writers might have little choice but to create species because there are no public domain species available like the elves, dwarves, and dragons of fantasy. The benefits of creating something different can outweigh the investment and help our work stand out.

An invented species must compete with legendary ones like elves, dwarves, and dragons; this chapter helps us achieve this. Starting with habitat helps us decide on physical adaptations that affect their minds, outlook, and society, and what a typical settlement might be like and even whether or not they live in jointly formed settlements. Their disposition affects their relationships with other species but can also limit their usefulness to us unless steps are taken to avoid this. Characteristics like intelligence, wisdom, and dexterity all play a role in how they can be used in our work, as does their society and world view, both affected by a history we can invent to integrate them with our world. Their familiarity with the supernatural and technology influences their prominence and how they compare to other life in our world.

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May 162017
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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