Feb 272018

Episode 8: Learn How to Create Plants

Listen as host Randy Ellefson talks about how and when to create plants. Consider the purpose your plants will serve for you as a creator or for your characters in their lives, including products, food, decoration, symbols, and medicinal uses. Learn how plants are classified to better organize your inventions, determine what to create, and have a balanced portfolio. Finally, learn how to get started.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to invent plants you can actually use
  • How to decide whether you should create plants or not
  • How the classification of plants helps us determine what to invent
  • How to get started with inventing plants for your fantasy or science fiction setting

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Episode 8 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number eight. Today’s topic is how to create plants. This includes talking whether you should do it at all, how to classify them, and what uses we can put them to. This material and more is discussed in Chapter 6 of Creating Life, volume 1 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.

Should We Create Them?

The first question we should ask ourselves is whether or not we should create plants. One great thing about plants is that it’s much easier to do this than something like a species or a god. Even countries, governments, and other stuff about creating a place is significantly more involved than creating a plant. Even though it’s so easy to create plants, this is one of the most optional things in world building, because if your world is anything at all like Earth, people are not even going to question it if you refer to trees and other plants just by their common names like an oak, or a lily, or whatever else we have here on Earth. No one is really expecting you to create new plant life.

Creating plants is one of the easiest things to do but it’s also one of the most optional. Still, should you do it? Let’s take a look at this.

If you’re writing science fiction that takes place on a world that’s very far removed from Earth, then it’s definitely going to have plants that are different from the ones we have here. Even so, people are used to seeing what’s essentially an Earthlike planet. While this means that we can get away with not creating plants, maybe it makes more sense if we have at least a handful that are different. The primary reason for this is to make that planet seem like it is not Earth. It’s much too easy to just act like it’s Earth, but we’re calling it a different name, and there is no real difference. By changing the plant life or just adding a few new ones, we can help create the impression of somewhere different.

While this is also true in fantasy, science fiction has the option of having that story have something to do with the Earth, meaning characters from Earth have gone to another world. That world is not going to seem different if we literally don’t have something different about it.

Of course, there are other ways to make the world different, such as the number of moons, or the number of planets in the solar system, or even things about that planet itself. One of those would be the plants. This is not to say that we really want to be focusing too much on plants, because let’s face it, nobody thinks that plants are really interesting except for people who are into horticulture. We’re going to have a story that is about something else, and maybe the plants are just scenery, or maybe one or two of them actually impact the story in some way. We don’t need to go crazy this.

You’ve probably heard the expression that a little bit goes a long way, and this is true of plants and world building. Now if you’re thinking that the plants need to be wildly different from those on Earth, they really don’t need to be. We’re still going to have your basic trees, flowers, and bushes, for example. What we’re probably going to want to do is change some of the properties of the ones here on Earth to make them look different, or seem different. This is known as using an analogue, which was discussed in podcast episode number two. By just changing some details, we can save ourselves a lot of the work that might have otherwise happened if we try to create that plant from scratch, so it’s really a good idea to take something like a maple tree and then alter a few details.

Before doing analogue, do some basic research on what that plant is like, because you might try to invent one that’s based on it and is a little bit different, but the thing that you changed is actually something that does happen on Earth, and maybe you just didn’t know that.

For example, let’s say that you’ve never seen anything but a red apple. You invent the yellow apple, not realizing that we actually have those here on Earth. While that color change is still acceptable, you may have it in your head you’ve done something different from Earth when you actually haven’t. Do a little bit of research first.

One of the best reasons to create something new is that we might need something from Earth that has additional properties that it doesn’t really have. Maybe we want a plant that can be turned into a narcotic that works differently than anything that’s known on Earth. Maybe we want the plant to have healing properties. What if there’s a basic ailment that we also suffer from here on Earth, and that in modern times, use something like surgery to fix the problem. But in the world that you’re writing, they can’t do that. Instead, they use this plant to solve the same problem. Here we have antibiotics. Maybe there they don’t have the actual antibiotic, which is created by chemistry, but instead we have a plant that basically does the same thing. Having a goal like this is a great reason to create a plant.

To help create the feel of something different, plants will help, but they should not be relied upon exclusively. It might help to have three or four plants, a few different animals, a different number of moons in the sky, and use this is part of a bigger picture for differentiation. We should then choose wisely if we’re only inventing a few plants. Try to think of ones that can be referenced often, such as a medicine, or maybe there’s a kind of wood that is especially good for bows and arrows, for example.

If we also make these plants somewhat rare, then it’s more worth it for us to mention it in the context of our story. On the other hand, if the plant is an everyday occurrence, then our characters are not going to notice it and therefore there’s less reason for us to mention it. Make sure that your plans count.

In film and television, it’s relatively easy to have a number of plants in the background and not make any mention of them. We just need to give them a different appearance and we’re good to go. This is also true in gaming. But if the audience is going to be reading our work, then we might want to keep the mention of minor plants to a minimum. Otherwise, we can overwhelm them with many details and make it seem like it’s really important when it’s not. I have a good example of this.

I have a story called “The Epic of Ronyn.” This is available for sale. In this story, there’s a moment when the character Ronyn is being pelted with vegetables. When I originally wrote the scene, I named a half-dozen different vegetables that I had created. Some of my beta readers, when they read the scene, said it was just distracting because they had no idea what any of these vegetables were. In reviewing what they said, I decided that it wasn’t that important and I just removed that and I replaced them all with the word “vegetables.” Obviously, the word “vegetables” is not terribly descriptive. It’s not giving you a vivid picture, but I kept the reader from being distracted by something that wasn’t that important.

Another option was to explain each one of those vegetables, but it really wasn’t the time. If someone’s being hit with a bunch of food, this is an action scene, so no one wants to stop and read about them. You have to pay attention to whether it’s worth it in any of it seems that you’re doing. This is one reason to avoid overdoing it. We might also need to really carefully look for an opportunity to use something and explain it in just a few words, and I have another example of this.

In another story of mine called “The Garden of Taria,” two characters have a number of conversations that are important to the plot. These talks take place during a meal. This allowed me to briefly mention some of the food that they were eating. All of the plants and animals were not of Earth. They’re all imaginary ones. However, they were all based on Earth. In fact, when I was thinking of what they were eating, I basically decided they were having pork, vegetables, and rice, and I didn’t just call them that. I had to use the different versions that I had created.

For example, there’s an animal call a tosk. This is the same animal as the one that results in pork (i.e., pig). When the character is cutting into the food, any liquids that were running were clear, as opposed to steak, where it might be red. This allowed me to give a little bit of detail that made the scene a little bit more vivid but also created a sense of somewhere else.

In that same story, there’s a scene where the main character comes home to find that another character has made a mess in her home with various foods. I’m going to read a sentence from the story because I want to give you an idea how you can carefully drop words here and there throughout a sentence to get across the idea of a food without just doing an explanation. As I read this sentence, listen for the moment when I emphasize those words.

“She saw a line of yellow drops reading from kitchen to couch, discarded juna peels discarded here and there along the way, the perpetrator licking the running juices from dirty fingers as he popped another fruit into his mouth.”

The alternative to doing that was writing something like, “He ate a yellow citrus fruit called juna.” Either one of these is acceptable, but one of them is a little more to the point, and the other one is a little bit more vivid and gets across that they point without having to just explain something.

More Resources

Let’s take a quick break here and talk about where you can get more useful world building resources. Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes links to more podcasts like this one. You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

And the thing that you might find most useful is that by signing up for the newsletter, you can download the free templates that are included with each volume of The Art of World Building series, whether you have bought the books or not. All you need to do is join the newsletter. You can do this by going to artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. Sign up today and you will get your free templates, and you will never miss an update about what is happening in the great world of world building.


When creating a plant, we need to know what climate it is found in. That said, unless our world is made entirely of ice, we can probably assume that every climate exists somewhere on the surface. This means we don’t have to figure out what region of the world it is actually found in. We can just decide on its climate, and then when we are working on our world or continent map, and we choose a climate for a region, that will determine whether the plant is there or not.

However, if we already have some idea, this can help us name the plant if we want it to be associated with a given region. This is not to say that it will be found in other places, but sometimes the plants gets a name from one place, even though it’s found in others.


Let’s talk about classifying plants. This might not be the most glamorous subject, but by doing this, we can be a little bit more organized and make sure that we don’t create 10 of one thing and nothing of another. More importantly, we might think of ideas for one of these categories. That may only happen once we become aware of them, so let’s go.

First up are the plants without seeds. This includes algae, liverworts, mosses and ferns, with only mosses being something we’re likely to use in our stories, because few people think algae or ferns are very interesting, and hardly anyone knows what a liverwort is, and even if you do, it’s not terribly interesting.

As for algae, if we have a sea dwelling creature or species, then we might be able to do something more useful with this. For example, maybe there’s a type of algae that is especially deadly, but maybe not to that species, but to humans or other land dwelling species. This underwater species could make use of the poison, such as putting it on their arrows or the rocks they fire from slings. Poison algae doesn’t sound very fascinating, but once you turn into a weapon like this, it becomes something more useful. It’s also believable and different.

Of course, we could have the algae be something that does impact the species. This could be a positive or negative. Maybe this is poisonous to them, but maybe it’s something that heals wounds. We can research algae and decide what circumstances cause this other type of algae to grow. We can also decide that wizards use this algae in their spells. In science fiction, we can give this algae medical properties that have been harvested.

Algae grows in the water, so that’s where we’re going to find this. By contrast, moss does not grow in the water so much as near the water. This means it will be found on land. Moss tends to grow on things like rocks and trees, or maybe discarded items.

Moss has a tendency to be green, and in the cases where it’s covering a lot of rocks, it can make the landscape look like it’s covered in this soft green vegetation, so if we are looking for a reason to have a different color, like purple or red, we can decide that there’s a kind of moss that grows that way and therefore it gives this otherworldly appearance to the ground. Let’s say we decided we want red, and that this is poisonous.

We can have a famous idea that if the ground has run red, that this means it’s going to result in your death. Of course, some people would think of blood, but what they could be referring to is actually this kind of moss, that if you find yourself walking through it, you’re going to die. With some creativity and poetic license, we can do this kind of thing.

The other kind of plants we want to talk about are those with seeds. This includes cycads, conifers, and flowering plants. If you’re wondering what a cycad is, so was I the first time I heard the word. Those in tropical and subtropical climates are the ones who are probably more familiar with this. A picture really is worth 1000 words. I would look this up if you can.

To me, it looks kind of like a short palm tree where the fruit is not hanging down from the bottom, but growing on the top. On Earth, these tends to live a long time, such as 1000 years, but on a fictional world we can change this. The fruit that grows on the top, it’s easy to imagine a predator wanting to go up there to consume them. And we can give that fruit any property that we desire.

As for conifers, you know the name of a lot of these trees, such as pines, Cedars, Douglas firs, junipers, redwoods, and spruces. Most of these trees are shaped like cone. The reason for this is so that the snow falls off more easily.

I’ve saved the best kind for last: the flowering plants. These are the vast majority of plants that you think of when someone says the word “plants.” Look out your window and this is what you will see. As a result, this is most of what you’re probably going to want to invent. This includes flowers, shrubs, and vines, and trees like the Maple, Elm, Aspen, Birch, and Oak. The deciduous trees are the ones that lose all of their leaves at the same time in the autumn. Now some of you might think that the evergreens never lose their leaves, but they are actually losing them continuously all year such that they always have leaves.

What does all of this classification get us world builders? A better understanding of what to invent: mosses, conifers, and flowering plants. We may have some use for algae and cycads.


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Using Plants Effectively

Let’s talk about the ways we can use our plant. You could almost say that there are two types of uses: how we are going to use it and how our characters will. These often overlap. I touched upon this earlier, but one of our uses as an author is to have a plant that has an additional property that an Earth equivalent doesn’t have. This could be just wishful thinking on our part, and what I mean is that maybe there’s a plant that we wish could do something that it doesn’t do. We may have no reason for this other than thinking it’s a good idea. And that’s fine.

On the other hand, we could be doing it for a story need. This is especially easy in fantasy when we don’t have modern medicine, but we wish the characters were able to achieve the same result. We can do that with magic or we can have the gods intervene. Or we can have a plant that achieves the same result. We can do the same thing in science fiction. It’s just that the doctors will be extracting whatever properties from a different plant than the ones we have here on Earth.

Medicinal uses are one of the best reasons to invent something. Milk of the poppy from Game of Thrones is a good example because this is something that comes up repeatedly, where it’s used to treat characters. They get wounded in fantasy and science fiction far more than in other genres. Making up a plant that had medicinal properties is a great idea because we can have reasons to mention this. And we can also do what George RR Martin did and have a character refuse the treatment because the character is tough and we are characterizing them through this. Or it might not be that the character is so tough, but maybe this drug causes hallucinations and they don’t want to experience that because they want their wits about them. On that note, when we are inventing something that has a good property, maybe we also give it a negative side effect like this.

We should also play around with how addictive this substance is. This is a great use for a plant, because we can have characters who are known to be addicted to it. Maybe they are fighting their addiction, or maybe they have lost control to it. Maybe have a character who has become wounded many times and has become addicted to it, or they keep refusing it because they don’t want that to happen. We can name friends, family, or others who have had this happen to them. We can even decide that this is something that happens throughout society and that there are people who abstain from it. So now we are starting to create culture that originated from a plant that we created.

Something we can do in fantasy in particular is give some of these plants supernatural properties. This might mean that this plant, or at least part of it, can be used in spellcasting or to make more powerful potions, for example. Such a plant might be considered dangerous. We have a decision to make. Do we want the plant to grow somewhere that it’s very hard to reach, and that it’s rare, or do we want to have that plant everywhere? Imagine what would happen if this plant was something everyone had easy access to but it was dangerous. Maybe the plant is somewhere heavily guarded as a result.

We might also have one kingdom that has the plant in its territory and another that does not. This could be the reason for war, so now this plant is causing us to create history. Do you still think plants are boring?

Some uses for plants are indeed less interesting, such as decoration. Plants are often used for symbolism. This is true whether the plant is dangerous or associated with peace. We could decide that this plant is known as an aphrodisiac and maybe women wear the plant in their hair at certain times of the year, such as a festival when people are trying to meet their life partner. Once again, we are creating some culture from this.

We should also consider that not all parts of a plant are special. We could decide that it’s just the seed, the stems, or the flowering part itself. Decide which part of your invented plant makes it special.

Another basic use for plants is as food. I would suggest making a list of vegetables that your characters might want to eat. Just look in your refrigerator for ideas. Then do a little bit of research on each of them. You might be surprised what you learn and what kind of food is actually made out of something. We don’t necessarily eat them raw. We can boil them, fry them, and whatever else. And as I mentioned earlier, we can also have our characters throw them at each other.


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How to Get Started

Finally, let’s take a quick look at how to get started. I highly recommend starting with an analogue. No matter what you are intending to invent, there is probably something similar here on Earth. You just need to remember the Rule of Three: make at least three important changes. This means not something superficial like just the color. That said, I do believe that changing the color is one of the basic options. It can be hard to think about things to change about a plant. After all, plants are only so complicated.

One way to get started is to create a list of products that might result from plants. This gives us a goal. Maybe we want a poison or an antidote. Maybe we want a medicine to treat a specific problem. There could be weapons that cause certain types of wounds and we only want this type of plant or medication made from it to heal those wounds. We might want a flower that is used during certain kinds of celebrations. Maybe we want an aphrodisiac. Maybe we want a plant that gives someone temporary special powers.

We might also want it to grow in an out-of-the-way location and be very valuable for some reason, such as its supernatural properties, and therefore our characters have to travel to get it despite the great risks of doing so. As far as we know, such a plant might not exist on Earth, and therefore we have to invent one.

Another approach is to create a list of plants that are here on Earth. In this case, we’re talking about something specific, such as a rose, nightshade, or a lily. Maybe we are talking trees, like the weeping willow, or pine, or maple. And then of course there are the vegetables, like a tomato, potato, and corn. Do a little bit of research on these and decide if there’s any property of them that you would like to remove or add to make them something unique, and how you can use it.

Because let’s face it, if you don’t have a use for it, there’s no reason to create that plant.


All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album Now Weaponized!, called “The Thrill of it All.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!


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