Volume 1 Archives - The Art of World Building

Creating Life Conclusion

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Mar 292018

I’ve often joked that I find it hard to believe that God created the world in only six days because it takes me forever. Hopefully this volume will speed you along in your own invention of life. It bears repeating that world building is optional and not everything in this series must be done. Try to avoid feeling overwhelmed. If this happens, take a break. You might be taking everything too seriously. As your world’s ultimate god, what you say goes. This includes a decision to skip over the invention of something because you don’t need it, don’t care, don’t have the time, or don’t have an idea. This book and the templates should help you flesh out forgotten areas of invention, but it’s okay to have blanks in your files where nothing is written about a subject; I have left things this way for over a decade. One day it will occur to you (or not) to write something for that subject, especially when you need it for your project.

Don’t let this become a chore. World building is fun.

Where Do Your Undead Live? Can They Eat?

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Mar 222018

If our corporeal undead needs to consume something to remain animated, is it really dead? Logically the answer would be no, but we accept the idea that vampires need to consume blood, as if a dead body has any ability to process liquids, not to mention oxygen in blood. What else might our undead need to consume? Souls is a good answer, as is energy of some kind. Maybe there’s a supernatural substance they need. In SF, this could exist only in space, causing the undead to be a traveler.

If we’ve invented plants or animals with special properties, perhaps our undead is compelled to feed upon them for some advantage thus gained. Decide if our undead can’t survive without it or just gains something else like abilities. Or maybe it uses narcotics to dull the misery it feels. Imagine a drunk undead. Finding that narcotic would give it a goal.

Our undead might be consuming out of habit, as in the case of a primitive, mindless undead. In this case, it may not even be aware that it can’t digest food, or that drink just leaks out of its innards. This can give our undead a typical, identifiable appearance—freshly stained with food and drink.

Spiritual undead have no body to consume with, but physical items aren’t the only sustenance available. Maybe the spirit wants or needs to feed on emotional turmoil it causes. Or it could drain the life energy from the living. Or devour their soul. It can feed on magic or energy from technology. Are there supernatural phenomenon that attract spirits? Can our species harness those and use them as a lure?


Corporeal undead have to be somewhere when not terrorizing people, so decide where it resides. We’re looking for a dwelling type more than a specific place, unless we’re creating something that’s only found in one region of the world. Do they return to a grave or spend time in caves or abandoned ruins? The latter is arguably the most interesting. Undead are sometimes depicted as being only a creature of the night, but they still exist during the day. There’s no particular reason they must be in hiding, with one obvious exception—if they’re hoping to do bad things without getting caught, fewer people are out at night and they could meet the goal more easily.

Spiritual undead have less need of a residence but are often thought to be tied to a place by sentiment. This is usually a home or the place of a big event, including their death. If they died long ago, other things could’ve been built there since. In space faring stories, an individual spirit could end up on a ship that takes it away from home but the desire to return home is a character issue, not an undead type.

Aside from the mortal world, is there somewhere they go when not haunting someplace? This is something few creators address. Are they in an afterlife? Do they have any sense of time passing? Are they just dormant like a hibernating bear? While this doesn’t need addressing, it could help us imagine something unique.

How Do Your Undead Move, Touch, and Speak?

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Mar 192018

The distinction between spirits and corporeal undead notwithstanding, when creating undead, the difference between one and another will largely come down to what they can and cannot do—or even what they tend to be doing regardless of capabilities.

Speech and Other Sounds

In theory, a corporeal undead would have difficulty talking due to a tongue and more drying out. If a skeleton has nothing to talk with, spirits are even worse off. We may opt to ignore all of this so that they communicate effectively, or give them telepathy. Try to be consistent; if the undead walks funny, it should have trouble speaking clearly. It doesn’t make sense for one part of the body to be impaired but another to be unaffected by decay. If we want an undead to speak fluently but have trouble walking, we can fix this by having a leg wound cause the latter.

Completely silent undead or those making tormented attempts at communicating can be more frightening. An undead might be able to say only a few words, and if so, those are probably the ones associated with a goal. This could be the name of their child they want to save (or failed to save), for example. Another option is for it to emit a sound meant to draw others to it or affect them, such as causing a trance-like state in victims. Such a sound would make this undead type identifiable.


Corporeal undead have no trouble touching the world they’re still physically a part of, but does their touch corrupt in any way? It can be poisonous, infecting a limb that must be removed. It can just cause unbearable cold that lasts. We can decide it causes the person touched to have visions of what the undead sees, like who its master is, or what it wants, or what horror it faces now. These results and others of our invention can be part of our undead type.

Since disembodied spirits don’t inhabit a body, by definition, it’s logical that their ability to interact with the physical world is compromised, and yet we’ve all seen movies where they can move objects or directly touch the living. Sometimes this touch is something they must learn or which takes a toll on them to perform; otherwise it’s too easy and they don’t have limits on their powers.

Decide how much our spirit can manipulate the physical world, how often, for how long, and to what end. Are they only able to pass through some kinds of objects and not others? Does the material something is made of affect their ability to touch it? Are they only hurt by something like silver? Can they touch people and if so, what affect does that have on the living or the spirit?

The ultimate version of touch is possession of a victim’s body. An appealing idea involves the victim gaining the inhabiting spirit’s skills—becoming an expert musician or gymnast, for example. A caveat here is that the body won’t have the training. The body simply wouldn’t be capable of it, but this again depends on how realistic we want to be.


The slow-moving undead of yesteryear seemingly paid more attention to realism but has given way to faster-than-humanly-possible corporeal undead. Assuming we want to justify anything, the latter can have either a supernatural, technological, or possibly genetic cause (in the form of mutation). Slow moving ones don’t seem frightening anymore unless sheer numbers have blocked escape routes. Today’s audiences expect better than victims who just stare in horror until undead surround them.

If we’re giving our undead superhuman abilities, a good rationale sells this better. Knowing their origins will help; if a spell designed to grant speed to someone killed them instead, then making them fast in death makes sense. An animated corpse is presumably powered by unholy forces that also allow it to experience little or no fatigue.

Spirits are often shown gliding around or just appearing as if teleporting; the latter suggests knowing they’re dead while the former suggests ignorance of this fact. Can spirits pass through objects? If so, this can be because they don’t recognize a change has taken place, such as a bookcase being placed in front of a door long after they’re dead; doing so might not indicate awareness of their death but being stuck in time, seeing the past instead of the present.

Undead: What Do Yours Want?

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Mar 122018

Even the undead want something.

Unfinished Business

It’s traditionally said that spirits stick around to finish an important task or protect someone or something. This might be more of a character issue than one about an undead type, unless the latter always has the same goal that is apparent in behavior. Perhaps their appearance and behavior are often the same so that when taken together, the undead type is more identifiable. However, this is a basic idea about ghosts and is nothing new. We’ll have to combine this with more unique issues to achieve something unique.

With unfinished business, two undead are unlikely to have the same tasks in mind unless they were created at the same moment and want retribution, for example. Two independently created undead might go about a similar goal in ways so different that this cannot be used to identify them. Revenge via murder will depend so much on their intended victim that the lack of patterns would make it harder to identify this undead as a given type.

Regaining Life

Being undead might offer someone a chance at returning to life. Logically, a spirit needs a new body to inhabit. Getting back the old one won’t do much good if it’s still dead and decayed, and yet you’ll find no shortage of stories where that exact thing happens and the body is magically (literally) restored. Technology can also be used to that effect. People don’t seem to question this, but maybe creators should. Decide whether body restoration is possible. If not, our spirit can forget about its own body. Either way we have some options, and so does our spirit. These can help us craft undead with certain capabilities that distinguish them from each other or standard ideas.

Body Restoration

First, decide what will heal a body and don’t just gloss over this without commenting on it. Is it a potion? A priest? A device? How much healing can be done? If the body is nothing more than ashes because someone burned the body, can the spirit still get the body back? That would be extreme. Less extreme is a body that’s been dead a couple days. It arguably takes less power to restore that one.

If the body can only be restored enough to support life but is badly wounded, the spirit will need to address that, and maybe know this in advance and have someone standing by to finish healing it. This would be a standard concern for this particular undead type. Imagine people sighting this undead and realizing that it must be lining up a doctor and how this might affect their decisions to stop it.

What kind of individual would be willing to help our spirit? Family? Someone in it for money? Or being coerced by that spirit? A spirit terrorizing someone into helping carries an interesting side effect—if the undead is brought back to life, it loses its newfound powers (if it had any), and can become vulnerable to the one who has just been terrorized into restoring it. Is the undead character smart enough to foresee such an outcome and take precautions against revenge, keeping leverage that continues into its new life?

Body Possession

Whether our spirit’s own body is available or not, it can try to take someone else’s. There are several options to consider here. First, will the new body need to be missing its soul? In this scenario, a smart spirit that is capable of jumping into a body should hover around places where young, healthy people die, like an army in battle. But there’s still the problem of inhabiting a body that’s now dead, unless this spirit is powerful enough to force locomotion and then get someone to heal it, too. This seems impractical.

Second, if the spirit can take over a body with a soul, what happens to the existing soul? It is ousted or still there but suppressed? The former case causes another spirit to be on the loose. The latter offers an internal struggle; will our spirit be powerful or forceful enough in personality to win or end up the one suppressed but now trapped within someone else? Or can they jump out whenever they want?

If Successful

An undead who gets itself restored to life faces an interesting prospect. Now what?

If they’ve got their own body (healed or not), how will people react to this? Will old acquaintances and family have some sense of what’s happened? Is this person known to have been dead and then resurrected or is he assumed to have been in an afterlife? The latter suggest a peaceful return and time prior to that. The former suggests sinister, unsettling issues. And what of all their worldly possessions, especially if they’ve been legally declared dead? Do they have options for restitution? Is our world a place where people return from the dead all the time and have certain rights they can expect? A Bill of Undead Rights is just what the world needs.

If they have a different body, what are they going to do? Embark on a new life as that person or try to reintegrate themselves into their old life as their old self? In the latter case, will anyone believe they’re who they say they are? How would people react? Has our undead done anything to prepare for such an issue? Wouldn’t it be better if a spirit attempting to do this has made plans for this while still disembodied, and that there’s a type of spirit that typically does these things? That makes this less an issue of that character and more a behavior of this undead type.

If they start a new life in the new body, might they run into someone who knew the previous owner of that body? Such a concern could have them moving far away, so have they planned for this? Would our undead be intending to start up a new life and therefore engaging in certain behaviors that are typical of this undead type? Imagine a spirit who can steal gold for their new life, and haunt a place they want to live once they have a body again, driving out the living so no one will take the home until they arrive in their new skin later, buying it with that stolen money. This can be a character, but it can also be a type of undead.

Finding Peace

Undead are considered damned to wander for eternity and likely want to be at peace instead. The longer they’re undead, the more this could be true, and the more upset they could be. It may not know how to reach this goal. Does our undead seek priests or family members for help? It may not realize the fear it will cause or naively think help will come when an attempt at destroying it might be the result instead, though this could achieve peace of a different sort anyway.

An undead may simply want to be left alone, lying in a grave until compelled to emerge, such as vampires that need to feed. Spirits might want to exist in a perpetual state of denial that they have indeed died, haunting their homes in a dream-like state where the passage of time doesn’t register on them, as if they died this morning when decades could’ve passed. Some might want to simply retrace steps from a happier time and be content with this existence, only to have frightened people interfere with them. Such an undead would be harmless but assumed to be dangerous by those unfamiliar with this type’s traits. These are standard ideas.

Causing Torment

In theory, everyone wants peace, but some enjoy riling up others in life. If they become undead, especially spirits that can appear and disappear at will, tormenting others is easy. This can be innocent fun or an attempt to mentally and emotionally destroy their victim(s). This can be for revenge against just one person or all humanity (or a species).

Undead: What Created Them?

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Mar 082018

Knowing the origins of undead is often a basic part of their identity and a good way to distinguish ours from what’s come before. A good story excites the imagination. In this case, we’re talking about an undead who wasn’t caused by the bite of another undead, for example, but an original undead of this type.

Accidental Undead

As with monsters, undead can be created by any number of accidents, whether natural, supernatural, or technological. This might be the most common cause because few people want undead to exist and have the ability to go around creating them. Undead created accidentally are likely to be few in number unless a large-scale event created many of them at once. How many accidents produce the same results? If we want many spirits that are the same, and in the same area, a large accident is one way to justify that; historically, our depictions of spirits have a tendency to show them as largely solitary. A type of spirit that works in groups could be a novel approach.

We might decide that there are certain types of phenomenon that are known to create specific types of undead. If those phenomena are rare but still somewhat widespread, the resulting undead can be as well. What if someone has harnessed that phenomenon and can unleash it on purpose? That could make this undead type more common; this works for monster creation as well.

Undead By Design

It’s safe to say that anyone who purposely creates undead is up to no good. Our perpetrator might be able to control the result. If so, we can decide who wants to do this and why, then figure out the resulting undead attributes, or do this in reverse. Once someone has created one, they don’t necessarily need to continue doing so for them to propagate. Instead, the undead may have the ability to create more of themselves, making them widespread despite having a single, original source.

If our perpetrator cannot control the resulting undead, he might be unhappy with the result. Did he try to destroy it? Chase it away? Did it retaliate and kill or wound him? Or best of all, turn him into one, too, possibly under its control?

Does the creator have control over his undead? Do they obey? Chafe at this? Or do they seemingly like it? Are they crafty enough to pretend to obey only to look for an opportunity to attack him? How does he control them? A device? A spell that’s still in effect and can be nullified by a zone where magic doesn’t work anymore? Or did the means used to create them make his control a given?

Undead: How Long Were They Dead?

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Mar 052018

This section talks about how long a corpse must be dead before it can become undead and why this matters. Also discussed are prerequisites for becoming undead and the impact of how many of this undead type have on, well, everything abut them.

Undead: How to Classify Them

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Mar 012018
Sentient Life

The first choice to make with undead is whether they have a body or not. If so, the term undead is often used, as it implies a body that it is animated once again. If there’s no body, it’s a spirit, which is a slightly more generic term than ghost. That’s not a rule, but I’m going with the following terms in this chapter:

  1. Spirits—it has no body
  2. Corporeal—it has a body, with or without a soul in it
  3. Undead—a generic word meaning both or either of the above
Spiritual Undead

The existence of a soul is debatable and outside the scope of this book, but without one, we don’t have spiritual undead. We may find it difficult to invent one that hasn’t been done before partly because, without a body, our options are more limited than with corporeal undead, who can touch and affect the world.

One way around this is to decide that our spirit can interact with the physical world anyway, possibly with limitations. Perhaps they can only do so for short periods or under the right conditions. Maybe they become vulnerable while doing so, or afterwards for a time. Maybe the spirits that can pass through objects (an advantage) can’t move them (a disadvantage), or the reverse, it can’t pass through objects but can move them. Inventing such details is one way to create something unique.

Where is the spirit’s body? This could be used for motivation or characterization. A popular idea is that destroying the body eliminates the spirit, which may know this and hide or protect its remains. The spirit might wish to reanimate the body. It might be unhappy with where the body lies, such as an improper burial, or if it’s being used as a trophy. These speak to motivation, covered later, but the corpse may be irrelevant.

For more details, see the section under “traits.”

Corporeal Undead

Corporeal undead come in two varieties—those with a soul and those without. There may not be much difference at first glance. In the above section about the mind, if we accept the premise that the mind goes with the soul, then a soulless corpse might be mentally deficient. Perhaps this explains depictions of zombies, though I don’t recall anyone explicitly stating they have no soul. The brain (not the same as the mind) is technically what allows for control of the body and it can be assumed to be impaired due to lack of blood supply, at the least, so this can be another explanation for traits. It’s all make believe, but our willing suspension of disbelief is aided by something plausible.

The existence of the body gives us more options than a spirit. Our undead could have super senses instead of worse ones, leading to an altered personality or character. For example, an undead with super hearing might be able to learn things they otherwise couldn’t by overhearing conversations not meant for their ears. The new knowledge might give them a feeling of power that might’ve been denied them in life. Consider how this might affect their minds, emotions, and motivations.

Being dead means a loss of body function, but this depends on our creation. In many recent works, vampires show heightened senses and don’t appear dead, so much so that one can question whether these are really vampires or super human people who can’t really be killed except by specific means like sunlight. We’ve even seen vampires having babies. The point is that we can decide on undead that are a vision of health, a rotting corpse, or just a skeleton. There are no limits, but each offers a very different experience for the undead and anyone encountering them.

In theory, a skeleton should be unable to move at all, having no muscles or anything else needed for locomotion, not to mention a brain to control limbs. This is largely true of a decaying corpse, as well, but at least the decay suggests movement is only hampered. Without the supernatural or technology to allow locomotion and more, corporeal undead are more nonsensical than spirits, so if we have a world without either, they may not make sense, not that anyone’s stopping us from doing it anyway.

We might think that a skeleton implies that death occurred longer ago than with a partially decomposed or preserved body, but this is not true. The rate of decomposition depends on many factors, including exposure to air, water, or earth, and the level of aridity and even water in soil. A skeleton could be a decade old while a body preserved under the right conditions could be a thousand years old, whether this preservation was intentional or inadvertent. For some interesting if gross reading (not for the faint of heart), read this article: http://www.memorialpages.co.uk/articles/decomposition.php

Non-Sentient Life

Undead plants? Sure, why not? We think of undead as having previously had a mind and soul (i.e., being sentient), neither of which apply here, but anything that’s alive can die. And come back to life while not quite being the same. The subject is underutilized in fiction, maybe for good reasons.

Without a soul, spiritual undead plants are not an option, leaving only corporeal undead plants. Plants aren’t mobile, typically, and are therefore even easier to avoid than the slow moving zombies of yesteryear. This makes plants not particularly frightening. We also assume they can’t grow, being dead, so they can’t even extend their range.

If we want undead plants that terrify, a predatory and mobile one has better options once dead and back to life. If there are walking and talking plants similar to the Ents of The Lord of The Rings, our options increase considerably. Wouldn’t it be interesting for plants to not lose attributes as undead, but gain them instead? What if one became sentient?


We see undead animals less often than humanoids, making this a ripe area for originality. If undead humanoids have reduced capabilities, animals might, too, but authors have often given undead animals augmented ones instead. What if it’s smarter now, even able to speak? The supernatural can grant this without explanation, as can technology. Great strength or speed are clichés but are done to make them more formidable, which could now be done with intelligence, too. An undead animal can continue with a behavior from life even if it’s no longer needed, such as eating or hunting. The obvious thing here is for an appetite that’s now sinister, such as preying on people. This can include swarms of insects who now do this and infect the living, who might in turn become undead.

Undead: Should We Create Them?

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Feb 262018

In a book called Creating Life, a chapter on creating undead might seem out of place, but if it’s still moving, we can consider it alive enough. A multitude of undead types already exist for our use, with most being public domain. These include vampires, zombies, ghosts, skeletons, and more. Most of them are excellent ideas that, just like elves, dwarves, and dragons, have stood the test of time. No one will roll their eyes if we use them.

Should We Create Undead?

The first question we must ask ourselves is whether we should create our own undead. And the answer to that is—probably not. Not unless we have a good reason or an idea that is substantially different. Most basic versions of undead already exist, leaving little room for new ones that aren’t rehashed old ideas with minor twists. If we create immortal bloodsuckers that burn to ash in direct sunlight and have superhuman strength and senses, and we call them something besides vampires, people will call us out.

Conversely, there’s a limit on how much we can change something and still use the original name. This is a judgment call. The first consideration is, how quickly does the way we describe and use it invoke memories of the undead we used for inspiration? The sooner it happens, the more we just call it what it is. We want to avoid the “Oh, it’s just a vampire with this and that added or removed” reaction.

The second factor is whether the changes we’ve made substantially alter the nature of the source. If our creation is a vampire but doesn’t drink blood, we’ve changed something too fundamental to call it a vampire. Some will disagree with this and say authors can do whatever we want, and while this is sort of true, there are expectations that can be defied and ones that shouldn’t be. If changing something fundamental, just change it even more and invent a name.

The Mind

This is an academic debate, but in death, does the mind go with the soul or remain with the body? Depending on our point of view, this can be used to determine the mental faculties of our undead. For example, we assume that if the soul goes to an afterlife, the mind goes with it and is fully intact. This would suggest that ghosts generally have their minds, whether those minds are impaired by their present state or not. Corporeal undead that have a soul would also have a mind, in theory.

But what about corporeal undead that have no soul in the body? Is that undead largely mindless? About as intelligent as an animal? It’s something to consider if creating undead, or at least use as a rationalization point. It can help us determine what our undead is capable of.

Either way, we can introduce mental impairment of any kind so that our undead is “not right in the head.” Such impairment includes denial of death. This might seem odd with a spirit. After all, a spirit doesn’t have a body, so how can they not realize they’re dead? Yet there are many ghost stories that include this idea. In such a case, the spirit is often behaving as if it’s alive, going about its usual business, such as housework or even rocking a baby’s crib. If confronted with the truth of their demise, these spirits can experience the usual wrath that even the living exhibit when an unpleasant truth is thrust upon them. The trouble with inventing this type of spirit is that we’re not really inventing it—it’s a standard ghost.

A generally accepted idea for undead is that they’re tormented. We speak of “rest in peace” and other phrases about the dead, the connotation being that anyone not lying still must necessarily be upset about that fact. Even Dracula, for all his seeming enjoyment of his state, is shown as tormented when no one is looking. If life is an ideal state and death is the worst we expect, then being undead is an unexpected half-life with even less of a training manual on what to do. Torment can be emotional or mental in origin but affects both. The degree to which our undead is upset about its state may help determine its goals and traits, discussed in this chapter.