Episode 20: Learn How to Create Places of Interest
Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create places of interest, including catacombs, interstellar sites, ruins, monuments, and more. Learn how easy these are to create and how they can improve interest in your setting and story.
In This Episode You’ll Learn:
- Concerns about creating floating settlements, whether on water or in the sky
- How ruins can add tension to a story
- What step wells in India are like and how they can be leveraged
- How to make monuments and tie them to world events
- How you can use asteroids and meteors from the past or present to add intrigue
- How to quickly create event sites and what sorts of events you can leverage
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Episode 20 Transcript
Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty. Today’s topic is about how to create places of interest, including catacombs, interstellar sites, ruins, monuments, and more. Learn how easy these are to create and how they can improve interest in your setting and story. This material and more is discussed in chapter 11 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.
Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.
By “places of interest,” I of course, mean somewhere that your characters are going to visit or hear about, and where something interesting has already happened or is going to happen to them while they are there. They may know that something interesting is going on there or they may be en route from one place to another and they run across this place and something is going on. For anyone doing a story that’s action and adventure, this is something that we often need. If our characters are not traveling and they’re not in an interesting location to begin with, then maybe we don’t need to worry about this. But, for many of us, we’re going to need this. So, let’s look at some of these, and I want to start with some of the more ordinary places, for lack of a better word.
The first one I’ll mention is catacombs and hidden passages. This can also include things like bomb shelters, sewer lines, tunnels and subway lines. Hidden passages can also be anywhere in a city or even in just a building. These places by themselves may not be that spectacular, which is why I said they’re kind of ordinary, but sometimes we can place something spectacular inside them, such as a creature or a monster of some kind. They can also be used to interesting effect if a character is able to access one of these and get from one place to another without anyone realizing that they are doing so. We have all seen that kind of thing done in various stories.
There can also be lost items or items that were purposefully placed there, hidden there, and then, of course, somebody finds them and makes use of it, and havoc ensues. Another idea we’ve probably all seen is some sort of creature inhabiting these places and it uses it as a home or a base from which it emerges and then does unspeakable things that have been capturing people’s attention, and maybe the authorities are looking into this. They eventually track this creature back to this lair. This has been done so often that it’s something of a cliché, but if it’s done well it can be really cool.
Another thing we can do is a map that shows these places, and people didn’t realize that something was there, or the extent of them. Or maybe there’s a room that’s not on the map and this causes some intrigue.
When inventing such places, it’s usually a good idea to have some idea why they exist. This is something that we will want to reveal to the audience at some point. Even early on in the story, if we have approached it in such a way that this place is supposedly ordinary, as I’ve said, but then, as it turns out, other things are going on there that had made it extraordinary. In other words, sometimes it starts off ordinary, and then something else happens that makes it more interesting. Of course, we don’t need an elaborate reason for something like a bomb shelter, sewer lines or subway lines because it’s kind of obvious. And even catacombs, where the dead are buried, have a certain purpose to it.
Where we need to think of a reason is something like a tunnel or a secret passageway. And we can keep that reason relatively simple if we just decide that maybe the occupant of that home, if that’s where the tunnel is, was someone who is paranoid, or maybe they were, at some point, a robber baron or something where they were trying to smuggle stuff, hide it and not get caught. And, of course, we could decide that there is a nefarious reason for it all along, such as this is someone who wanted to murder people or kidnap them, and this is the place where they held those people.
Some locations may be military in origin, such as a place where some sort of secret research was being done. This is especially useful in science fiction. We can invent all sorts of phenomena that may not be supernatural but are something we don’t typically see here on Earth, or are something that we just made up, and where that was being used for experiments, or maybe it was something that needed to be dug out of the ground and processed somewhere, and that’s what the facility’s origin is.
A mundane reason for tunnels could be something like excessive heat in tropical locations where people have created tunnels so that they can cool off during the day. This is obviously something for a less advance civilization because, even our civilization, we have air conditioning, so we don’t need to do something like that. Now, such tunnels for that purpose could still exist because that could’ve been from 1,000 years ago when air conditioning, for example, did not exist. The idea of ancient tunnels and some sort of ancient evil within them is a fairly standard cliché, but again, if we use it well, it can turn out good.
If we have a world with dwarves or another species that is known for tunneling underground, then we don’t need any special explanation unless we want to figure out why they tunneled into this particular location. The obvious answer would be to access something underground such as gold.
The last point I’ll make about this is that sometimes these underground places are not known because they were created so long ago and, over the years, civilization has been built on top of them. And, as a result, modern people may not know, or at least very few people in the settlement may actually know that these are there. So, only a few people might be making use of them, whether that is for good or evil.
Now, I want to switch topics to something known as a stepwell. If you’ve never heard of these, I would Google the phrase, “Step wells in India,” and you will see some really interesting pictures. Basically, what these are, instead of the typical well that we might see in the United States where it’s just a kind of circular hole in the ground with a certain amount of brick wall around it on the surface, these are wells that are really large. I mean, they could be as big as a building. The reason they’re called stepwells is that you can literally walk your way down the steps into the deep recesses of this well. This is something that can not only be used for drinking water, but sometimes people used to do their laundry in such a place. These were so big that people would often gather in it. Some of them look like an amphitheater, almost, the way they steps are all around in concentric circles, or usually in a square or rectangular configuration.
When I first saw some of these pictures, I noticed that, sometimes, a certain number of feet down into this stepwell there would be an opening that led into an underground area. And, of course, that immediately sparks the imagination about what could be in there. Another good use for this is that if you have a water-dwelling species, that species might actually be found there and, in fact, this could be the opening to a home of theirs or a place where the underground species and those on land get together and meet because that’s the easiest way to get to these guys if they live in underground rivers, for example. I would take a look at some of these pictures, and maybe they will inspire your imagination the same way they inspired mine.
Another area that we just touched on that we should also talk about are monuments like statues, buildings and monoliths. Some of these are going to be kind of ordinary, but some of them will be kind of spectacular. One of the reasons for that could be the size. If most statues are about 10-20 feet tall, and then there’s one that’s 500 feet tall, naturally, people are going to think that this is amazing. Sometimes it’s the person who is depicted in something like a statue that makes it famous. We already talked about creating world figures in a previous episode, so this is one of the ways you can use these guys.
Now, if we’re creating a monument, sometimes these are celebrating an occasion like the end of a war, for example. So, we might want to think about why this thing exists. We can keep it simple. Another good reason is the foundation of the kingdom, for example. In another episode, we had also talked about creating history and events, and this is one way that we can use those again. We should also consider what condition these monuments are currently in, and how old they are because that will help us determine that. There’s a long tradition of badly worn and somewhat forgotten relics of a previous age. Sometimes these are overgrown and being reclaimed by nature. This can add a certain spookiness to them. Monuments that are buildings might house things that are considered valuable, and therefore they may be prone to people trying to steal things or to desecrating them if they are also religious in nature.
Now, why would someone desecrate a religious place? Well, if they are someone who worships in another religion or if that place has been conquered by a foreign power. Sometimes these monuments are still standing, despite the fact that they are somewhat ruined. Any discussion of this sort of thing would be incomplete if we didn’t talk about something like Egypt’s Great Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, or even the Seven Wonders of the World. Well, those are really the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and they included a temple, two statues, the pyramids, of course, and then a mausoleum, garden and a lighthouse.
Many of these were considered amazing architectural feats, so that’s one of the reasons why they were considered amazing. In a world with a lot of technology, like in scientific fiction, it might be a little harder to think of something like this. After all, the most advanced technologies are usually something that we are featuring in our story, such as a spaceship, for example. So, something that’s amazing on an architectural level may be simply dwarfed in coolness by something like a spaceship. Unless, of course, the spaceship is that thing, but then we’re not really talking about a monument, are we?
By the way, if you’re wondering why there are considered to be seven ancient wonders, that’s because, back then, there were seven bodies up in the sky. That included the sun, the moon and then the five planets that had been discovered at that time. This is actually the same reason why we have seven days in a week. So, if you’re looking for a different number of wonders in your world, well, you can do the same thing. If you decide there are six or eight heavenly bodies, then you can have six or eight wonders of your world. In science fiction, maybe it’s something like galaxies or nebula that we are counting.
The last relatively ordinary place I’ll mention is graves. Sometimes we have a mausoleum which can be enormous or uniquely decorated, or it could have someone famous buried inside it. Of course, this offers a good opportunity for grave robbing. Some of these might have guards, which could be ordinary or extraordinary, such as a ferocious animal, a monster, maybe a demon, something technological or even magical. So, if we have characters who are trying to rob this place, there’s a lot of pretty cool stuff that we could put in their way.
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Let’s talk about a few more extraordinary places. The first on my list is underwater settlements. This makes a lot of sense if you have a species that, of course, lives underwater. Why treat them like fish who are seemingly just migrating all the time, or who might use a coral reef as somewhere to hover around? We could actually have them building actual homes and settlements underwater. And these could be in various places. They could be actually at a coral reef or they could be created out of a cliff or something like an underwater mountain. In a setting with magic or technology, we could also decide that they have created this using that magic or technology so that there are places that have even pockets of no water inside the settlement so that visitors like humans can visit and be comfortable in a space that has been carved out for just them.
We could also use magic or technological portals that allow people to simply appear there and then leave. In other words, maybe they don’t actually have to swim there or use a submarine or something to that effect.
A similar idea is the floating settlement. Now, there are really two versions of this. One is floating on water, and then the other one is floating in the sky. Unless the physics of your world are different, such as in the Avatar films where there are actually things floating for whatever reason, we’re going to need magic or technology to achieve the effect of something floating in the sky. The great thing about that not being natural is that this can, of course, be sabotaged by someone and cause a major problem. As you might expect, whatever is holding it aloft is going to be under heavy guard to prevent exactly that kind of catastrophe.
Aside from the fact that this place is floating in the air, it may not differ from other places by that much. However, there are a few ways in which it is different. Obviously, you can’t just go wherever you want by walking off the edge of this, unless falling to your death is something that you really want. All kidding aside, that does suggest that the ends of this place are not only heavily guarded, but it might actually be impossible for you to walk off the edge. Of course, you don’t really need the edge. You could fall down something like that famous scene from one of the Star Wars films where, right when Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker, “I am your father,” he falls through that chute. The next thing you know, he’s hanging on the bottom of this floating city and he’s about to fall to his death. Except, of course, somebody comes by and rescues him. So, there could be other ways within the city that you could end up falling through the bottom.
On that note, that scene may not be particularly realistic because you would think that they would have some way to detect that there’s a heat signature on something, and maybe they should try to rescue whatever’s down there. Another issue that we should think about is that most likely the only danger to this place, aside from a malfunction that would cause it to crash to the ground, is going to be being attacked by something that can fly. In SF, we have ships that can attack this place, but there may be natural creatures like dragons that would exist in a fantasy setting, where they can also pose a threat. But all of those threats that might be on the ground, they’re not going to be able to do much. One of the problems that we might have is that doing any sort of trade with this place could be an issue. In fact, any sort of farming is typically done outside the confines of a settlement, but if it’s up in the clouds, what you going to do for food? You’re probably going to have to get it from somewhere else. Then the question becomes, how do you get it here? There are some logistical things that you may want to think about. These can add some interest to your setting.
Another concern is, what do you do when there are hurricanes or other strong storms? What kind of protection does such a place have from these? When it comes to realism, this is the single most realistic reason not to do floating settlements at all, unless we’re talking about a world where the weather is pretty much always calm.
Now when it comes to settlements that are floating on the water, we actually do have one of those called Venice here on Earth. However, it’s kind of an illusion. Most of the city I actually on stilts, but it gives the impression of floating on water. But since we are writing fantasy or SF, we can get away with one that actually is floating on the water. Once again, a water-dwelling species is the likely culprit behind creating such a place, or being very prominent there.
But as we were just talking about a minute ago, what happens where there’s a storm? Something that’s built underwater doesn’t experience this that much because it’s insulated from the effect of even a hurricane, especially if it’s deep enough, like a hundred feet down. But anything on the surface is obviously going to be pretty affected by waves. Now when it comes to Venice, it’s protected for the most part by a lagoon. If you’re thinking about creating such a place, you might want to think about putting a natural protection around it like that. Or it can be artificial, and once again, something can go wrong with that protection.
Another issue is, of course, the sea monster. This could affect both floating settlements and those underwater. If those monsters are known to be around, maybe these settlements don’t exist at all. They may provide too easy a target for something like this.
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Another kind of place of interest that we can create is one where there are strange phenomena. This is something of a staple in both fantasy and science fiction. Space offers the possibility for nebulas, radiation and even alien planet environments. Strange planets offer all sorts of possibilities that we can make up or base on something that NASA has discovered. One of the great things about space phenomena is that we can basically have them be wherever we decide to put one.
By contrast, any sort of weird phenomena that’s on a planet or another body, like a moon or an asteroid, is typically associated with a given location and it isn’t going anywhere. This means that while it can be discovered, it also could’ve previously been discovered and it is already known to be in that location. This, in turn, could mean that people are going there on purpose to make use of it in some way. How will, of course, depend on what the phenomena is. Making it something dangerous is often particularly attractive to us. This can be true, even if the phenomena could have a positive result such as being able to harvest something from it that can be used in a positive way, such as powering a space engine or, possibly, providing a cure for something. Just because it can be used for good doesn’t mean that something bad cannot happen when people are trying to collect it, or if they just encounter it by accident.
Speaking of accidents, that’s a really good way to create phenomena. We can have either magical disasters or technological ones. Having an explanation for a phenomenon is optional. Sometimes it will improve things, and other times we might want to just leave it a mystery. Sometimes we can actually do both and just leave it undecided for a long time, and then, eventually, someone figures out where this phenomenon originated. Experiments gone wrong, or especially a battle where something has happened, such as a ship being destroyed, are good sources of such phenomena. We can also use these phenomena to create monsters or other creatures who have come in contact with it, and possibly been transformed in some way. This is where superheroes in comics often originate.
While we’re on the subject of space, let’s talk a little bit about meteors. These can, of course, impact a planet and leave a crater that a less technologically advanced people might wonder what caused this, and they may assume that one of the gods did something. People can also attribute something supernatural to a meteor that is seen passing through the sky. This can be true if that meteor comes by at regular intervals, such as every 25 years, or if it’s only a one-time occurrence. Now, in science fiction, people probably realize more what’s going on, and they may not have this kind of myth anymore. But, even so, such an advanced civilization, or people from that, could be traveling around and come upon a planet where the technology is much less advanced. And, as a result, the people there do see this as something spectacular.
While we’re on the subject, we also have event sites. And the meteor crash could be one of these, but there are others such as a famous battle happening somewhere, or maybe the tide of war turning. Or there could be something like a species that was massacred somewhere, or maybe there was just a really high body count. Now, all of the examples I just gave are kind of gruesome, but we can create other positive ones as well. For example, there could be a place where a prophet revealed something, such as the way Moses is believed to have brought down the Ten Commandments. We also have things like a shrine, a church or a monument that may mark a special site that has a positive association. The monument could be somewhere where something happened for the first time, such as magic being discovered, or a type of magic, or something like the first contact with an alien species, or the first launch of a technology.
There are also natural phenomena like the Aurora Borealis, geysers or even sinkholes that sometimes gain special significance. Some of these places are a little bit more ordinary than some of the others we’ve been talking about, but we can make them more interesting by associating them with a cool story.
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Another type of area that we’ve touched on before is the ruin. These can be a bit of cliché, especially in fantasy, but these are places that are ripe for death by misadventure. We can have monsters there, treasure and other items that can lure people there, for one reason or another, including something like a distress call that is going out. Some ruins will be legendary, and some of them will be unknown and discovered by accident by our characters. Danger is often assumed to be in these places, at least if we are setting a story there, because otherwise what’s the point of having our characters run across it?
Audiences tend to enjoy watching people explore a place and wonder what’s going to happen next. One twist we can do is having our characters not be the first ones who have run across it, but maybe someone else just did so the day before and they are still present. And now we’ve got a bit of an issue going on between these two different groups of characters.
A good ruin is like a mystery where, as a storyteller, we slowly unfold the story of what’s going on now, and maybe where this ruin came from before. And one of the ways to do that is to place interesting places within this. You know, we’re talking about creating places of interest. Well, the overall ruin can be a place of interest, but within there we can create some of the things that we’ve already talked about, such as monuments. The trick is to figure out how we can have our characters discover multiple things of interest where the general interest of this place is continuing to rise as they interact with it. We may also want to figure out what happened to the people who used to live here. One of the obvious examples is simply that they were attacked, they were conquered, and then this place became abandoned. A more mundane reason is something like trade routes drying up or the local economy falling apart.
Now, no one typically does that kind of thing in stories because it’s not that interesting, even though that is a major reason why some places become ruins. It’s arguably better to have an interesting reason behind it being discovered than something kind of boring like this. We should also figure out how overgrown this location is. A rainforest or a swamp is going to quickly consume a place so that it’s almost impossible to find. On the other hand, a desert is only going to slightly bury the place.
Now, one of the subjects that I’m not going to cover today is shipwrecks and what we can do with these to make them interesting, and that includes the reasons they are famous. I’m also not going to talk too much about where to start with creating places of interest because they are relatively easy to do and it’s one of the things that we can create kind of on the spur of the moment when we are not in the midst of creating a story or something that’s more involved like a species. This is a kind of lightweight thing that we can just create, and we might even create some things that we don’t use in a particular setting any time soon, or we just create it in general and then, maybe one day, we’re creating a setting and we go, “Oh, I had this idea. Let me take that and put it in this setting because I now know how I can use that.”
So, this is a great way to just invent stuff on the fly. Spend 10 minutes here, a week later you do another maybe 30 minutes of working on an idea, and you can just accumulate really interesting things that you can eventually find a use for.
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