Volume 3 Archives - The Art of World Building
Jun 172021

We often benefit from questioning what goal we hope to achieve with our world building. This is true of inventing languages. Clarifying our motivation will help determine the degree to which we do this, if at all.

One reason to invent a language is vanity—we have a language all our own. This is arguably a poor excuse. Having a successful writing career or writing a bestseller will impress more people, if we care about such things. Time spent on our writing/gaming craft (or how to promote our work) is probably wiser.

Creating a naming language, discussed later in this chapter, is among the better reasons to craft a language as, at a minimum, it prevents every location or character in our world from having similar names. That said, if we look at a map of Earth, many names are similar across countries. One reason is the influence of Greek and Latin, which influenced not only English, but French and Spanish. We can therefore use a similar naming style in different sovereign powers.

A good reason to invent languages is that we may have different species in our setting and they sometimes greet others in their own language before switching to a common tongue. They might mutter under their breath in their language, or talk openly to members of their own species, thinking bystanders won’t understand. It can be good, and natural, to show (italics) these words. The other option is to tell, such as narrating, “They exchanged words in their own tongue right in front of the humans, not realizing that some of them knew enough to understand.” However, storytellers tend to not show greetings, etc., after initially showing some because they don’t advance a story; people who are often together may not bother greeting each other at all anyway; when was the last time you really greeted your friends or family in more than the most cursory fashion?

Creating the feel of another world is another reason to create a language, which lends credibility to the idea that this place is real. After all, it’s even got its own language (or several). This also makes us seem serious about our work. However, there are many other ways to do both, with a better return on our time investment.

We may feel that a language is expected, but that depends on medium. Book audiences don’t necessarily expect one whereas gaming, TV, and film probably do; a studio is likely to hire an expert for this. People may understand that this is a significant time investment for an author, but a studio has tons of people working on a project and money, too. Many authors just throw in phrases invented on the fly and which do not originate from a working language. This can give the impression that we’ve made a language when we haven’t. For some of us, this is enough.

But if our work is ever turned into a film, etc., much more language will be needed. Are we prepared to supply all of the phrases and train actors? Can we even do so? Because if we invented the language, no one can do it for us. And if we just made up junk phrases that don’t work, it can cost us respect among real conlangers. Most of us don’t have the luxury of worrying about this (our stories are unlikely to be optioned for film, etc.), but it’s something to consider. If a conlanger is hired to take over what we’ve done, they may have a hard time creating a complete language because our work is unusable.

We should also think about how often we’ll use the world. If it’s for one book, we could spend more time inventing the language than writing the book. By contrast, if this is the only or most in-depth world we’re going to create, one that we intend to use for decades, then the time or money investment is much more worth it.

Jun 142021

Constructed languages, known as conlangs, are a staple of fantasy and science fiction stories and gaming. Creating a language is one of the most optional subjects in world building. It has a limited positive return, given the difficulty of the task, the learning curve, and the time-consuming nature. And no one will be able to understand it; we need to translate everything anyway. For authors, this relegates the words to a visual display, one that’s generally incomprehensible. For those in film, TV, and gaming, a constructed language can at least be spoken and go a long way to characterizing the speakers, but in those situations, it’s likely that the studio has hired an expert to do it.

If an author has an audiobook made, they will have to speak the language well enough to narrate personally or teach a narrator. Some narrators may be unwilling to do this or charge extra for it.

This chapter will not teach you how to create a language. There are books on the subject, written by experts, and it is recommended that interested readers consider them. What this chapter will do is look at what is involved at a high level, what we might be getting ourselves into, and the cost to world builders of skipping it.

As of 2020, the following books about the art of inventing languages are available and are recommended resources to start your journey. I have read the first two – and they convinced me not to do this.

  1. The Art of Language Invention, by David J. Petersen, inventor for Game of Thrones, Star Trek, and more.
  2. The Language Construction Kit, by Mark Rosenfelder
  3. Advanced Language Construction, by Mark Rosenfelder
Jun 102021

We can start in one of several places with inventing items, including how we intend them to be used and how we want characters to think of them. Is it a plot coupon they need to acquire to accomplish goals? If so, decide why they can’t reach those goals without it and how they’ll use it to be successful; it helps to think of what can go wrong, too, because tasks that go as planned offer less drama. Its function determines properties, which can then help with form. Origin is optional but adds a good detail that can also determine where this item is now and why, a little history adding depth. A final decision can then be which one of our characters has the skills or attributes to use it. But all of these can be done in whatever order works, and starting with an idea is always best, wherever it leads.

Jun 072021

An Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) has become a staple of SF, particularly in the form of a ship that can be controlled via the A.I., which typically gets a name for ease of reference. Let’s call ours Surance, which sounds female, and that is a decision to make. Is the gender fixed or can users change it? This arguably matters more in TV/film because every change of voice or appearance means another actor, plus a brief explanation, which can be as short as someone answering raised eyebrows from crewmates with a shrug and saying, “I changed her.” This change matters less in books because the reader won’t notice, which begs the question of why we’d do it.

And the answer is that Surance may have the ability to impersonate others, both visually and vocally, because it can be useful for the crew (and us). We live in a world where genders are not viewed and treated equally despite attempts to change this. What if our crew welcomes aboard a race, hostile to females, which takes offense at Surance? It’s both a storytelling decision and a character one for whether the crew changes the A.I. gender to be sensitive, takes a “too bad for you” attitude and leaves it as is, or splits the difference (leaving gender unchanged and explaining to and “educating” the visitors on their own cultural views). We can think of other scenarios for gender changing, with the caveat being that gender is theoretically irrelevant with a non-living being, but we all know that most of us look male or female. We can choose a neutral one to bypass the whole question.

We must also decide where the A.I. “lives.” These are often shown as part of a vessel or structure like a house, but there’s no reason Surance can’t be portable and as small as a pendant. Think of how we use Siri or Alexa devices and the possibility of having it everywhere if desired. Surance can manifest as a full body projection standing near a character (decide on the range of this), or maybe she’s a floating head, or just a voice, one that maybe only the wearer can hear (via a matching earpiece). If Surance appears, is it apparent that she’s an A.I. or can she seem real? Can she appear as more than one person at once? Imagine needing to give the impression you have more fighters by your side so that someone pursuing you backs off.

We should decide if there’s the equivalent of an internet or if all of the A.I.’s data store is local to them. How much info can they take with them? With the advances in memory storage on Earth, we can give them everything but the latest changes. But this may not be true in a universe unconnected to us. Then again, a society capable of producing some A.I.s must surely be able to create portable memory storage? They can likely connect to other systems unless we decide to restrict them.


Personality is another major area to invent, but we’ll do so in much like any other character. While we can make them human-like, we can also assign the A.I. another race and culture, which makes sense if an alien species designed the ship. This can make them less cooperative unless hacked and altered (with one degree of success or another). Unless Surance has been programmed to respect something like modesty or secrets, this can result in awkward situations, including being watched or listened to without permission. Decide how much of a conscience has been included.

An A.I.’s personality can be used as a counterpoint to those on the crew. Being more serious is likely, even a default. Think about it from a manufacturer’s point of view. You might like a sarcastic A.I., but plenty of people don’t. If I’m in the market for a ship and you’re a spaceship dealer, you could lose a sale over an obnoxious A.I. This certainly suggests that Surance is modifiable, possibly with aftermarket parts or programming. Consider this and the age of an item (a ship for example), not to mention its origin, to determine the status of the A.I.


An all-powerful A.I. is as problematic as anything else, maybe even more so. They’re designed to control an entire ship, house, or wherever they reside, deeply impacting living beings, even sustaining or killing them via environmental controls. It’s important to determine a way they can be turned off while leaving the item (let’s say a ship) still controllable, albeit with minimal systems? This has been done before but it’s an obvious plot device to have someone hack the A.I. or for it to suffer other problems. This is as realistic as a computer bug or car maintenance problems, so don’t avoid it. Just use it when it permits a new spin on the story. In our modern world, virus attacks are constant; they will be in a world with A.I.s, too.

Decide what tasks the A.I. is designed to do and to what degree. What can’t it do? What does it need living beings (or at least physical machines) to do for it? How many backups are there and how robust? A spaceship would likely have more than one, given its importance, but of course doing so is less fun for storytellers because restoration can happen quickly enough to ruin the tension introduced. An A.I. with less important functions is more likely to have one or even no backup.

Can Surance’s abilities be augmented? It’s a program after all. Maybe there’s a crew member tasked with maintenance and enhancements. As a professional software developer, I see tons of poor work and processes resulting in bugs. Cocky coders make mistakes, and the geniuses often shown in SF are likely worse. Prudent design requires teams of people, with a project manager and others in oversight roles, involved in any such effort. This would likely be true on a large vessel, so keep this in mind. Imagine living in a ship where everything about our life is on the line if someone codes a mistake into the A.I. The idea of a single coder is not believable in many situations.

May 312021

Unlike with magic items, technological ones are unique, rather than repurposing an everyday item, like a ring, to have technological significance. Both can be done. A smart watch is more than just a watch but was created to have those extra features, rather than being repurposed. With all tech objects, we’ll want to balance the good with the bad so that few items are without their issues. How to do this is covered throughout this section but amounts to altering properties, forms, and origins to produce pros and cons. Characters complaining or praising these details adds believability, as does their avoidance of some things and pursuit of others.

Technological Prevalence

How common is technology in the setting? This will have an impact on how it’s perceived and the likelihood of our characters having technological problems. Many objects will be taken for granted, but how often does technology fail or get in the way? We notice a failure more than expected results. The frequency of technology ruining plans may be on par with how often they help. This can be a story issue, but the more technology that exists, the more likely things are to fail and affect lives.


Aside from what purpose this item serves, we should determine considerations such as battery life (and if its rechargeable), reliability, durability, usability, its interface, and data connectivity abilities. Technological items almost always have an “on/off” switch, and possibly a battery that will eventually die. Decide that most can be switched on and then we only need to decide which ones miss this feature – or have a flaky one.

Reliability doesn’t need an explanation because we all understand that some items are great and others aren’t. Just decide some manufacturers produce items at one extreme or another, based on what we know about the species/race, sovereign power, or company involved. Battery life may be an issue at the item, product line, manufacturer, or species level. It’s less common that everything by a race, for example, has poor battery life.

For durability, higher priced items are typically better, but manufacturers know that if an item lasts forever, we’ll never buy another from them, so the conspiracy theory that some are designed to break down after a given time – right after the warranty expires, say—is quite believable.

Usability and the interface are major areas for us to characterize. Who hasn’t complained about how something is designed? Give every manufacturer a reputation and our characters will have an attitude about their other products. The interface can mean how intuitive or cumbersome it is and is a way to give a good item a flaw. Maybe it’s powerful but hard to use.

For connectivity, our default should be that a technology does not play well with technologies from other planets unless someone has purposely built that in, which requires previous interaction with species from that world, or at least acquisition of and familiarity with their technology and language. This is a believable limitation. Even on Earth today, if we travel from Europe to the U.S. or vice versa, we need an adapter for something as simple as electricity. The tech for advanced systems is interdependent and simply hooking up to something shouldn’t be as easy as it’s often shown in SF.

May 272021

The more commonplace an item is, the less we need to decide its origins, but the more unique it is, the more audiences will wonder. Are there people who specialize in creating magic items? If so, these are presumably for sale. Their items are likely higher quality as they are more experienced. They and their store likely have good protection, physical and supernatural. How common is this? Depends on the prevalence of magic; if magic’s rare, these would be correspondingly unusual, probably located in the populous and wealthiest cities. The profession for these people can be named for ease of reference, possibly by the type of magic. By doing this, we can create more highly prized items that characters are thrilled to find or possess.

Some items may originate with the gods, whether for their use, for use by demi-gods (like Cupid’s bow), or for mortals. If it’s for the gods or demi-gods but a mortal possesses it, it’s likely been misplaced or stolen. Why would deities create items for mortals? The mischievous or villainous ones might want to give their followers an edge. Benevolent gods might subsequently try to counter that by granting special items to their own, but they may just wish to reward someone. Or perhaps use of the item benefits the god in some way, such as attracting followers eager for it to be used on them. The recipient is likely a member of their religious order, but needn’t be. Consider the god’s aims.


The item’s physical form has implications that render inventing them easier, but form often has little to do with function. A magic broom may be used as transportation, which has nothing to do with its form and function (to sweep). Rings and wands have little to no impact on how they’re used, but a weapon or tool does. Consider our use for the item and if it makes sense to marry function to form.

Wearable items have the advantage of seldom being left behind by accident. They’re also with us when we suddenly need them. This is why jewelry is so commonly used it’s become a cliché. Jewelry often serves no real purpose, making it ideal for magic properties that have little to do with form. A ring that makes the wearer invisible is more plausible than one which bakes cookies, as the spell applies directly to the wearer. Worn items typically affect a person for as long as activated. Whether magic or not, some weapons can be worn but might not be allowed in certain places, which can pose a problem if characters must leave behind a crucial item. They might just skip going in.

Some items are not expected to travel much if at all, like a tea pot or genie’s “lamp” unless an existing one elsewhere won’t do. Smaller magic items lend themselves to being carried in hand, bags, or pockets; transporting others might not be feasible. This is truer with freestanding items, such as furniture, transportation, or magical doorways. Such items tend to be guarded. What sort of protection does it have?


We should decide who can use each magic item. Knowing the item’s purpose and our story’s need for it guides this decision. If the item accentuates a wizard’s power, like a staff or wand, then it may not work at all for others or only provide simple functions, like casting a light. Generally, a wizard wouldn’t want a non-wizard from gaining much ability from their items.

Can someone without magic talent use it? Without a “magic word” to control some, even they might fail. Some items could be activated or deactivated only by wizards but be functional for others. If there are different types of magic in our world, are people able to use all of them, or only the types for which they have affinity, talent, training, or skill? When inventing a magic system, we will decide on such rules and can apply them to items. Worn items can be lost and used by someone else, while anyone can come across a freestanding item, depending on where it’s located. Consider the likelihood of someone else using it and whether the inventor would’ve inhibited this.

May 242021

Any item can be turned into a magic one by assigning it supernatural properties. We have some standards to choose from, such as rings, bracelets, and other jewelry, and the stereotypical wizard’s staff. By contrast, a wand is something no one has unless they’re a wizard (or a classical music conductor). Every item we see around us can be given magical properties, but we shouldn’t make everything magical unless it dominates our setting (even then, moderation is best). How do we decide on a limit?


One way to create limits is to invent problematic items. For example, a cloak that always makes us invisible is an issue because we must securely store it somewhere when not in use. Make an item difficult to control and people will avoid using it. Study how real-world tools you use malfunction, then imagine how the invented item does this. Is the item defective? We can have fun with this, such as that cloak making our body disappear but not our shadow and the character not realizing the cloak doesn’t take care of both. Does it sometimes go on by itself? Is it expected to deteriorate in time? Does it have the coveted “on/off” property?

Not all items are created equal and we can have different versions of anything. Poorer characters might get by without features while wealthier ones expect them. The existence of some features might not be apparent to some users, or they could assume one exists and be disappointed that it doesn’t. Maybe they even counted on it and found out at the worst time that their assumption was wrong. We can use such things to aid story, as tales where everything goes as planned offer less tension.

Limit an item’s unique powers through quantity and quality or our characters have too much power. Most magic items have one or two related uses, which is sensible, but a wand or wizard’s staff are exceptions because it’s seemingly their nature to provide assistance on a wide array of matters; they’re also controlled by those with talent, skill, training and more, which may be untrue with other items. For everyone else, dividing up abilities helps us focus and not create the equivalent of a Swiss army knife.

Some items are sentient, but the infamous talking sword has become a symbol of unimaginative writing; some magazines immediately reject a story with one. Getting away with such things has much to do with originality and whether it’s downplayed or in the audience’s face. We may have better luck with SF where an AI can be the source of that speech.

Creating Items

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May 202021

Our world can benefit from important items that are neither supernatural nor technological. In the former case, people can attribute supernatural properties to objects that don’t necessarily have them, as is the case on Earth. Religious ones come to mind. Something associated with a prophet can be considered holy. These include the Shroud of Turin, the Holy Grail, and even John the Baptist’s head. But we also have items that were present at an important moment or which were memorably used, such as a weapon that killed a famous villain, or a possession of that villain or a hero.

Our regular items won’t have unique properties quite like those of magical or technological ones, so we don’t need much more than its description. A unique appearance makes it more identifiable in visual mediums, even if that was achieved not by design, but by usage. An example would be a sword that had no special properties but was used to kill a powerful villain and is now revered.

The origins are likely as mundane as the item itself, but needn’t be. Sometimes people like the idea that a seemingly ordinary item was special all along, but it only revealed itself to be when someone did something with it. This is mythological thinking. People may later decide that a sword which slew a victim had a property incorporated by the forging blacksmith, when he hadn’t. We can even have such characters build a reputation on this. Maybe our current hero wants a sword forged by that blacksmith, thinking it has an advantage that it doesn’t. This adds realism.

When creating a regular item, the form may matter if our characters will use it. A coveted decorative wall hanging may be anything, but if we need them to wield it as a weapon, then it needs to be a blade. If our characters won’t use it, consider making the item a less expected form, like a tea pot. If poison was in that, or it was the last one from which a ruler was served before death, this can make some think it’s special.

Creating Items: Ownership

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May 172021

There are three main categories of items we can create: magical, technological, and ones that are neither. In this chapter, “technology” means SF items that don’t exist on Earth, as we don’t need to invent things that do (italics) exist. Such items are in their own section, “Regular Items.”


Regardless of type, the question of ownership matters for world builders. We need to know who’s got the object now and whether they’re considered the real owner or not. Lost items add intrigue, especially if someone’s got it and doesn’t know what it really is or who owns it – and how much peril this may place them in. Even an item created for someone may never have found its way to that person. Decide if the current possessor is the rightful owner; if not, invent another character and a story about how it transferred. It’s likely that the owner, if still alive, wants it back and may appear in our tale. Or the item might be famous, and others covet it.

Games like Dungeons and Dragons are full of items our characters acquire and little is done with origins, but storytellers should pay attention to where they found it. If characters are in a ruin, long abandoned, this suggests any claimants are long gone. But if they find something lying in the middle of an alley in a thriving town, that means someone (who is still around) owns it. An ancient item covered in rust is likely the discoverer’s to keep, but a freshly oiled blade may provide conflict.

Magic Systems: Where to Start

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May 102021

Early decisions to make in creating a magic system include what types of magic we want to include in the setting, how prevalent each is, what the source is, and whether mortals need spells to do it. These choices will guide everything that follows. Then we can consider the cost of magic to a practitioner and other limits. We should also decide if we’re inventing more than one type of magic for the setting and the limits of each, adding a name. With this in mind, we can then decide on training. We can invent specific spells, being careful not to craft many, if any, that solve a plot problem in a story we’re planning. Finally, we can invent local laws.