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Podcast Episode 33 – World Building Strategies

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Oct 202020
 

Episode 33: World Building Strategies

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses approaches to world building, how to organize final and folders, ideas on partnering with others, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What a World Building Coalition is and roles to define
  • How to leverage top-down, bottom-up, and random approaches to world building
  • Ideas on getting organized with your files
  • Where to store files for easy retrieval and work at all times
Coda

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Episode 33 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-three. Today we’re concluding the podcast with some final tips. This includes approaches to world building, how to organize final and folders, ideas on partnering with others, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 11 from Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

Approaches to World Building

Before we get started, a quick reminder that you can now buy transcripts of every episode of this series from Amazon.com or Artofworldbuilding.com.

This will most likely be the final episode of the series because, as you know if you’ve been following along, each episode is based on a chapter from the books, and this is the final chapter from the third volume. It’s possible that, in time, I might interview some other world builders or find some other topics to talk about, but right now I don’t foresee that, so this could be the final episode. Now, if I change my mind and another one comes up, all you have to do to be notified is to subscribe to this podcast, which we’ll talk about later.

The first thing I want to talk about is how we approach world building. One way is what might be considered the top-down approach. What this means is that you start at the biggest picture and work your way down into increasingly smaller elements. For example, maybe we start at the solar system, then work on the planets, then a continent, down to a sovereign power, a region within that sovereign power, and finally, a settlement.

That, of course, applies to the physical environment, but what about when it comes to life? In that case, we would start with the gods and then start worrying about animals, plants and other species. One reason we would do this is that the bigger picture tends to impact the smaller ones. If you’ve been following this series from the beginning, or especially the episodes from Creating Places, you know that something like the hemisphere that a continent is found in is going to impact the prevailing winds that are hitting that continent, and the mountain ranges. This combination is going to determine where precipitation falls, and that, in turn, is going to determine where forests are, grasslands and deserts. If we don’t consider that big picture first, then we might do something like place a forest somewhere, and then later, we decide to change which hemisphere this continent is in and it no longer makes sense that there would be a forest there. Granted, only a certain number of people may realize this, but that’s not the point. The point is that if we do things from that top picture down, we can do a better job of world building. This will be caused by using the knowledge we have gained from this series or any other resource on world building.

Another good reason to do this top-down approach is that it creates cohesion. If we need to create a handful of sovereign powers on the same continent, they can fit together in a way that makes a little bit more sense when it comes to variety, for example. There are some disadvantages to this approach, and one of them is that the whole project can seem like one giant homework assignment. We’re doing things in a specific order, and we may not have an idea for something. Do we let ourselves continue even though we haven’t made a decision on something like which hemisphere the continent is in? Hopefully, this series has given you plenty of ideas so that it’s easier to avoid getting stuck. Regardless, we could end up with a pretty big to-do list and just get overwhelmed and stopped working on it.

So, there’s an alternative, and that would be the bottom-up approach, which is basically the exact opposite of what I just said. In this case, we might start at a city and then worry about the sovereign power that it’s in later. And after that, where on the continent it is, and so on. The advantage to doing this kind of thing is that if our story is only taking place in one or two cities, we can focus on just creating those locations because those are the ones we’re going to be using. This will save us a lot of time and aggravation, and might also keep up our enthusiasm level. It can also make it easier to focus on our story needs. The bigger picture of something like how the solar system is laid out may have little to do with the story that we’re telling, and therefore it could be harder to make a decision about that. Creating something like that could feel like we’re just untethered and we’re sort of creating in a vacuum with nothing to guide what we decide on.

One of the problems with doing this, at least when it comes to places, is that we may not have worked out all those landscape features and other things that are definitely going to impact this city that we’re creating. We might find ourselves thinking that certain land features are in this or that direction, and incorporate that into our story, only to then work on those features later and realize it doesn’t make sense. However, this series may have given you enough options on this that you can find leeway. And, as I’ve said more than once, there’s often no such thing as getting it right in world building so much as getting it plausible.

The other disadvantage to the bottom-up approach is a lack of scope where we may focus only on what we need and not the bigger picture. However, this is only going to happen if we don’t follow through, but there is a bigger risk that we won’t follow through if we’ve already created what we feel like we really need.

There is a third approach, and that would be the random one where we just do it in whatever order we think of stuff. There’s no plan at all to this. One of the advantages of this is that it can really lead to some quick invention where we aren’t feeling like we have to get things right or that there’s any sort of rule or something that we have to do first before we’re working on the thing that has captured our attention at this particular moment. This is almost like stream of consciousness invention, and it’s a great way to work. The big problem is that we might create some things that don’t really work together, so we have a lack of cohesion.

Fortunately, there is a fourth alternative. That is basically to do all three of these approaches simultaneously. This can get us the best advantages of all of them and mitigate the worst disadvantages of them. In order to do this successfully, there is a way that I would recommend going about it, and that’s what I’m going to tell you now.

One of the tricks is to do at least a framework of the biggest picture. This would be from the top down approach. In other words, we want to decide if this is an Earth-like planet, and that means stuff like it’s rotating in the same direction, so the sun is still coming up and going down on the same sides. And we can make a quick decision about which hemisphere the continent is in. One reason to care about that is, of course, these prevailing winds and the effect on the vegetation. The other reason is that either us or the audience is going to be more comfortable with colder climates being either north or south. We could either give them and us something more comfortable, or challenge us.

By starting with a continent like this, we have an overall sense of where everything lies. Now, if we have a map or not, the next thing we want to start doing is determining where settlements are. Generally, these are going to be where a significant source of freshwater is. A continent-sized level map is too big for us to be indicating anything smaller than a town, so we’re mostly looking at the major population centers. In order to determine where that freshwater is, we’re going to need those mountain ranges and have a sense of where the rainfall is coming from. At this point, we don’t need to be too specific, if we don’t want to be, about exactly what size and shape these mountain ranges or forests are. We just need to know, generally, where they are, and when we draw these rivers and lakes, we are indicating a flow from higher ground to lower ground.

If we really want a city on the coastline and we haven’t drawn a river there, this would give us a place to indicate where that river is coming out because, of course, many deltas have a city right there. The point here is that we can decide where we want a city, and that will sometimes help us decide where the end of the river is. If we already know where the mountain range is, well, then this gives us a kind of starting and stopping point to draw a wavy line from.

Once we’ve done this, we can kind of go to doing this free reign approach where we just create at random. If we have an idea where every sovereign power is, we can do that, but if we only know where one or two of them is, we can just do that and worry about the other territories later. These sovereign powers will certainly have one or more major cities, and now that we’ve got those on our map, if we have one, or at least a sense of where they are, we know the kind of territory that it may need to include.

Sometime during all of this, we’re going to need a bunch of names. One of the things that I will do after putting these names on all those cities and towns is I will create a file that’s basically a spreadsheet, and then it has rows for each city and then columns for things like the population, how old it is, the symbols and colors, and I will fill out that information for many of the major settlements all at the same time so that I can avoid doing something like giving two of them the exact same symbol or color combination.

This is, once again, a kind of top-down approach on creating many of the settlements, but we’re not doing a deep dive into each one of them. We’re just doing a basic look at all of them. As we do this, it gives us a sense of where the oldest settlements are and which ones are the biggest and, therefore, the most important. This way, later, we can do this more random kind of thing where if we want to set a story in one of those cities, then we go ahead and create the file using the template that I gave you, and you can just start filling that out as you need. It might be a long time before you ever fill out other cities. You may never do other cities if you’re never going to use them, but at least you know where they are and how old they are, what symbols and colors they’re using, and, generally, how many people are there. So, the general pattern with this is to create that loose framework and then fill in stuff at random when you need it.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

You can also join the mailing list at artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. This gets you free, reusable templates from each published volume in the series. You don’t even need to buy the books to get these. I also send out contest information, free tips, and other stuff to help with your efforts. Please note I do not share your email address with anyone as that’s against my privacy policy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Sign up today to get your free content and take your world building to the next level.

File Storage

The next thing I want to talk about is how to handle our files. We need somewhere to store our ideas, and the best scenario is one where we have access to those any time we have a device, whether it’s our phone, a tablet, a laptop computer, or even if we’re borrowing someone else’s computer.

There are two kinds of files that we need much more than anything else. The main one is any sort of word processor-like file, and then we may need a spreadsheet program. Only a certain number of us are going to get into doing maps, in which case we need special map-making software. Something like that needs to be installed on our device, and usually they don’t work as well on something like a phone, if they work there at all, or on a tablet. We might need a more powerful computer for them. So, what I’m talking about in this section is not that kind of program so much as the basic one where we need somewhere to write down our ideas.

Back in the day, the only option we had was the local computer hard drive. That was the only thing that was writeable. When I went back and forth from home to work and I wanted to take some files with me, I used to use a writeable CD, and then a DVD, and finally a thumb drive or pen drive. Some of those are still an option today, but one of the problems with those is that we have to take it with us and we could, of course, lose it. I’ve had a couple close calls with that, where one time it fell out of pocket in my car, but I didn’t know that, and I thought it fell out somewhere between my desk at work and my car, and I was kind of in a panic because my life’s work was sitting there on this pen drive. Of course, I had a copy at home, but if someone else found it, they also had a copy at home.

After that, I began encrypting those drives, but that was kind of a pain. Fortunately, I found it and let out a huge sigh of relief. Today, I don’t do any of that because I use Office 365, which I’ll talk a little bit more about later.

One of the problems with a hard drive is that they can fail, so we need another one to back up our content to. We used to have to connect another hard drive to our computer, but today we can have a home network where one is installed there, and we can even have a RAID setup. What that means is that there could be two drives in that backup setup, and when you copy something to one, it automatically gets copied to the other so that if one of the drives crashes, you’ve still got a backup. What this is not going to help with is if your house burns down because that’s going to kill all of your computers, including those backup drives.

So, it could be smart to take a copy, once every month or two, offsite to another location where you know it’s going to be safe, like your parents or someone else — another relative. Another option, and the one that I use, is to have a safety deposit box. This might cost me something like $60 a year, but that is a small price to pay for the peace of mind of knowing that if my house burns down while I am not there, I am not going to lose 30 years of work. This is not only a world building issue, but if you’re an author, it’s about all of your stories. And if you’re a gamer, it could be the same for all of that if you’ve got it digitally stored.

We have another option today, and that is to store our information on a website of one kind or another. They offer the opportunity to access our files from anywhere, and this is a good thing. However, we all know that websites get hacked, so there’s that. However, our local home computer and network can also be hacked. The question is how likely is it that someone’s going to target us? The answer is not likely, unless we’re famous, but it’s possible that we could get caught up in just a general hack. However, they probably weren’t looking for world building stuff. So, even if they find it, they probably are going to look right past that because they’re searching for our credit card information, for example.

But if we are on Google or Office 365, those are pretty big targets and there’s a decent chance that they could get hacked and our information could be taken. There are also smaller sites that are catering to world builders, and it’s much less likely that anyone is going to go after those simply because there aren’t going to be enough people there and there’s probably not nearly enough financial information, which is what hackers usually want, or something personal that they can compromise us with.

Another consideration about websites is the terms of service and whether or not we are the sole owners of anything that we upload to those sites. I think a while back, Facebook caused some controversy by basically saying they can do whatever they want with your information, and they acquired some copyright in it, and then people pushed back on this. It may not have been Facebook, but you get the idea. These sites can do this kind of stuff, and sometimes they insert language into their terms of service, and most of us just click the “OK” button, we don’t bother to read it, and then we’re hoping that somebody, somewhere will notice it if there’s something really offensive in there. Then, of course, we all freak out, we make a big fuss, and then a company like Facebook back walks on that. Creative people often worry, sometimes unnecessarily, about other people stealing their ideas. But if this is something that concerns you, it’s something you need to pay attention to.

Another issue about websites is that most of them cost money to operate, and so they may be charging us a fee that’s either monthly or yearly. For those of us who are already making money from any products released, this can be something that we can tolerate a little better.

Websites

I briefly want to talk about a few specific websites. The first of those is Microsoft Office 365. One factor to consider here is that you can access the online versions of all these programs, like Microsoft Word, or you can do it through the installed program. Well, the installed ones are usually the fully featured ones, and the website version is usually limited. What I have found is that I typically do my work through the installed version because pretty much every computer I use has it installed on there.

Another issue with Office that’s a good thing is that they have mobile apps. In fact, I’m actually looking at the mobile version of this chapter on my phone while I’m dictating into another computer. It is fairly seamless to transfer between each of these so that my updates on one immediately show up on the other.

Something I forgot to mention is that we need to also be worrying about whether the website does backups. A site like Office 365 is almost certainly doing robust backups so that if their servers fail, they’ve got a whole other server that has our information still on it. We might lose a day of our work, but we’re not going to lose five years or, in my case, thirty years of work if I choose to put it all on there — and I don’t. I only put on there the stuff that I am most likely to need on a regular basis and actually change, and I’m only going to want to do that if I’m away from my home. That’s the other consideration. I basically use Office 365 for my mobile files. When I was writing the book that this is from, Cultures and Beyond, that manuscript was in Office 365. The other two first volumes, those were removed because I didn’t need to access them regularly.

When it comes to backups, the great thing about Office 365 is that it automatically syncs files to your home computer, for example, so that you can still do backups the old fashioned way: two hard drives.

Another option that most of us have heard of is Google Docs, and this is one of the few that is free. I don’t believe this allows the same kind of synchronizing automatically, but you can click a folder and download stuff immediately. I used to use Google Docs, but one of the things that I don’t like is that I really do most of my work in Microsoft Word, and I found that the formatting of the fonts in Google Docs did not really line up well, and there was no easy way to convert it. I mean, they say you can download it and choose a format, but it never looked the same as my other stuff. So, I always had to use the format painter to fix all of the text, and this could sometimes be quite tedious.

However, one of the advantages to Google Docs is that it’s really easy to share a file with somebody else. They’re also, presumably, doing significant backups so that we would not lose much if one of their servers failed. They also have a whole bunch of mobile apps that you can work on through your phone or a tablet. However, there is no installed version of their apps, and one of the problems with this is that it’s not going to be nearly as powerful as something like the installed version of Microsoft Word. That said, we probably don’t need most of the features of Word.

In addition to those two sites, there are a number of world building sites that have cropped up in the last few years. I’m not going to list these because they could change at any time, and all you have to do is google “world building sites.” These are going to be websites, so they do offer the ability to log in from anywhere. However, I don’t think any of them have a mobile app. They may also limit your ability to download your files because they’ve got a specific format where everything is being typed into not an open text editor, but a field that has been set aside for you to enter that information. Some of them probably do have editor-like features, but I don’t think they’re going to be as robust as either Google Docs or Microsoft Word and the Office 365 platform.

Some of these sites offer world building advice or prompts to help you get going, but of course, you can get that from anywhere, such as this podcast or the series of books, or podcasts and books from other people. You don’t necessarily need it from a website where you are storing your ideas. That would appear to be one of the main draws of these sites.

Something else we must be concerned about here is how they are doing backups. These sites are being run by individuals, maybe a handful of them. Do we know if they’re storing all the information on a server in their basement or if it’s stored in a professional web service provider? This is something that may be spelled out on their site, and if it’s not, then I would strongly suggest that you ask before putting your material on there. I have heard of a few people saying that there was a server crash, and despite the best efforts by the site owners, they lost everything.

One of the advantages of these sites is that some of them are setup to allow you to connect a lot of your ideas on a webpage so that people can have a kind of interactive experience. But what I would suggest, and if I ever did this, what I would do is I would still work offline away from that site, but then if I wanted to give my readers that experience where they can click on a map and a little window will show up with a bunch of information about a city or a land feature, I would just set that up for each book and use it as something that’s cool for that book or a series. I wouldn’t necessarily store my personal world building files in there.

And I don’t mean to sound negative about these. You should look at them and decide if they work for you because a lot of people do love these sites. Personally, I don’t need them, and that’s partly because I was world building before some of those people were even born. In other words, aside from occasionally switching from my hard drive to Google Docs and then to Microsoft Office 365, I’m basically fine with word processing files, Excel spreadsheets, and then, of course, the occasional map program.

A final word on this is that most of these sites have a cost, although they sometimes have a free plan that can get you started.

World Building University

If you’d like to learn world building skills through instruction, I’ve launched World Building University. There you can find one free course you can take just by signing up, which has no obligation. Other courses are in development and available now. You can preview parts of every course, all of which include video lessons, quizzes, assignments, and sometimes downloadable templates that are even better than those found in the books.

To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.

Get Organized

Since world building can produce a lot of files, one of the things we need to do is get organized if we are not already. Some of those world building sites will basically take care of some of that organization for us because they’ve got a set way of doing things. One reason to check out those sites is that you might like the way they organize things. But, then again, you may not.

What I’m going to suggest now is a potential folder structure, and this is one that I have used before, and I’ve also changed it many times. I would suggest that you choose something and then live with it for a while, and if you want to change it, you’re going to know why. Something won’t be working about the way you’ve got it set up.

So, you may not like this idea, but what I do is, of course, I have a folder for the name of the world. Within that, I might have another folder for life. Within that, there could be another folder for animals, one for plants, monsters, the supernatural and species. At the same level as that life folder, I might have multiple folders, one for each continent. Then, within each of those, I might have another folder for the maps, another for the settlements, and another one for the sovereign powers.

But let’s talk about another way of doing this. I could have a folder for all of the animals, with each animal being its own file. Or I could put all of the animals into a single file. In that case, I wouldn’t need the folder. I could do the same thing with species, where I have 10 species files inside a folder called species, or I could just get rid of that folder called species and have all of my 10 species inside a single file.

One reason not to put so many species, for example, in a single file is that it can be hard to navigate within that file. However, Microsoft Word has something called the Navigation Pane, and this basically opens up, on the left side, a collapsible and expandable outline of where everything is. Basically, you can jump within your file very easily by clicking on one of the headings that you’ve used. This is a feature that I swear by. If Microsoft ever gets rid of it, I will likely storm their offices and demand that they put it back. What that feature allows me to do is put a lot of information into a single file and keep it easily organized and navigable. This is one reason why I didn’t like Google Docs because that did not exist.

When it comes to files, I’ve already discussed a few like that spreadsheet listing all the cities and giving high level information on them. In a spreadsheet, you can have multiple tabs, so I have one for cities, another one for life forms, like species, another one for animals, another one for plants and another one for, say, the gods. The information that I put into those is the high level stuff so that I can see, at a glance, a bunch of information about all of them at the same time. Otherwise, if I have, let’s say, 10 species, and I have 10 different files, then I have to open up 10 different files to see what’s going on.

But one of the things we need to try to avoid doing is duplication of information. So, let’s say that I’ve put the city colors into my spreadsheet, listing the city colors of every settlement, and then I have a file for that settlement and I’ve listed the city colors there again. There’s a likelihood that, at some point, I might change it, and I forget to change it in both locations. This is one reason not to do that kind of thing. Or we have to make a mental note that one of these is always going to be canon, or the master. That way, if they get out of sync, we know, “Okay. The spreadsheet, in my case, is the master. That’s the one. If there’s a conflict, I know that the most up-to-date and accurate information is the one in that spreadsheet,” and I am very diligent about this.

There’s another problem we can have with world building, and that is that sometimes we are not trying to do world building. We might be trying to work on something else, like a novel, and then we have an idea for the setting. And if we open up a file, like a species file, we might see other stuff in there that also attracts our attention, and the next thing we know, our attention has been taken away from what we were working on and now we have been pulled back into world building. To avoid this problem, I keep a file for each of my settings, and it has the name and it basically says, “Changes to make.” What this allows me to do is collect all of my ideas in that file, and that’s a kind of list of impending changes that I want to make to that setting. But I’m just listing it there temporarily so that I don’t open up my files in that setting and get sucked in.

I also recommend having a single file like that because I do something that you may be doing, as well. Sometimes I email myself an idea. Sometimes I open up a calendar item and I type it into there because I have a kind of daily schedule of stuff I need to do today. For example, today on there is “record a podcast episode.” But, you know, later today, I’ve got other stuff I need to do. I might have just opened that calendar item and jotted my note there, but eventually it needs to move to that file that’s called “changes to make.” I also sometimes jot notes down on the notes application on my smartphone. All of those places I consider to be temporary locations before they get moved to that “changes to make” file, and that’s also a temporary location, but at least it’s one where I’m not going to lose track of that. A note on my phone, or especially an email, is going to slowly get lost in time as I accumulate other emails and notes.

So, I try to be pretty good about taking those notes that I’ve made to myself and I copy them to my “changes to make” file. And eventually, when I make a conscious decision that I’m going to actually return to world building on that setting and I want to look at some of those ideas, I go back there, take one of them, open the appropriate world building file and I start fleshing it out.

Subscribe

So let’s talk about how to subscribe to this podcast. A podcast is a free, downloadable audio show that enables you to learn while you’re on the go. To subscribe to my podcast for free, you’ll need an app to listen to the show from.

For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

For Android listeners, you can download the Stitcher radio app, which is free, and search for The Art of World Building.

This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

World Building Coalitions

The last thing I want to talk about is a world building coalition. This is an idea that I brainstormed a few years ago. It’s a way of possibly partnering with other world builders. Consider this a thought exercise, and it may be something where you like the idea, and maybe you don’t, but at least you have some idea of whether this is even feasible for you. Since I haven’t actually done a world building coalition, I would be the first one to admit there are details that you would have to work out with others in your coalition if you decide to go through with this.

A world building coalition, or WBC, is a collection of people who have agreed to build a world together, sharing the labor and the fruits of that labor. Certain high-level ideas would be easier to share, such as the overall world feel, the gods and maybe many of the lifeforms that are on that planet. We may even be able to share sovereign powers, although I do recommend that each person get a sovereign power of their own that they can do whatever they want with, and they are the owner of that, basically. Such a person would be a world building owner, or WBO.

One of the things that would be needed for this to work is what I’m going to call a covenant, or kind of a contract or agreement about what is possible. I’m going to go into some details here, but the basic point is that no one wants to go in assuming that everyone’s going to be fine with everything that’s happening, and that if a dispute comes up, everyone’s going to just figure out how to work it out. An analogy that comes to mind is with rock bands where they don’t have any contract in the beginning, whoever’s writing music is just writing it, and then they become famous, for example. And then some of the writers are getting the money and the people who are not writing are not getting any money, and there starts to be all this tension about who’s making what More than one band has broken up over this, and more than one friendship has broken up over similar disagreements. So that’s something you want to consider and avoid right from the beginning if you can.

Let’s talk about a few potential roles. The most important of those is the world master. This is the person who has the overriding authority for that planet, or a group of them in something like a solar system if that’s the scope of what you’re doing. Maybe this person has tie-breaking authority, and they would have the responsibility of moderating disputes, laying out some rules and just general administration of everything in the world building coalition. In most cases, this would probably be the person who created the WBC in the first place. This person would probably need a backup person in case they are indisposed temporarily.

Another important role would be the continent master or CM. Imagine that your WBC has seven continents, each with a CM. This allows each person to have some ownership of something, and they are the final authority on that particular continent. So, if you’ve got a continent and I’ve got an idea for it, I can run it past you. And if it’s agreed upon, then it becomes accepted and any of us could use it, but if I’m suggesting a change to that continent and you don’t like it, you get to overrule me.

One of the things that we’re alluding to here is that anyone can use things in a kind of read manner versus a write manner. What I mean is that if you’ve created something, I can go ahead and use that. But I can’t make changes to yours, or at least I can’t do it without your permission. Maybe there is a 2,000-year history on your continent and you have decided to let me have the years 500-1,000. During that period, I can make various changes to kingdoms, making them rise and fall, as long as I don’t change the future that you have set up. There are various ways that this kind of thing could be done. You could have seven people in your group, and each one of them has a period of 1,000 years where they can do whatever they want. They are the owner of that timeline.

One of the things we’re getting to here is that the WBC must decide what items will be shared and what will belong to each world building owner. Anything that’s shared must be voted upon by the entire coalition, or however you decide to set this up. If it’s maybe just the majority rules and the change goes into effect, or does it have to be unanimous? We could also have other roles besides the continent master, such as a sovereign power master or even just a settlement master. Each of these roles is the final authority, and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world building coalition wants to do with one of those territories. Whether it’s a city or a sovereign power, they cannot overrule the master of that.

Something else that should probably be considered and spelled out in a covenant is the life cycle. World building can go on forever, and some of the people involved in that coalition may come and go. So, what happens when this happens? For example, if I leave your coalition, do I lose my rights immediately or do I never lose them? Can I transfer my stake to another world building owner? What happens if I get suspended, such as I need to go away for a long period of time? I won’t be around to cast my vote for any WBC business. What happens if I abandon my stake in the WBC? I just simply stop responding and no one knows how to get ahold of me. What happens to my properties? Is there a period of time where I lose my status as a world building owner of something? And, of course, sometimes people might get terminated. They might actually get kicked out of the coalition. What happens in this case? Does that person still own their property? Can they still use it, but they can no longer make changes?

In order to run a world building coalition, you would presumably need an ability to track the information that everyone is doing, and even stuff like the meeting minutes for any business that you’re conducting. Some of those websites that I was just talking about could be ideal for this. Now, I don’t know if a world building coalition would work. I’d certainly be curious to see what happens. If you ever form one and you’re running into problems and you want to talk to me about it, I would love to hear what happens and how you guys are resolving things and whether things are working out or not.

Review

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Closing

Well, we’ve come to the end of The Art of World Building Podcast. I hope that you’ve learned a lot from this and benefited from it. And if you have, feel free to drop me a line and tell me what you loved, tell me what you didn’t love. Feel free to tell other people what you loved and not tell them what you didn’t love. And, you know, if you want to leave a review, again, that would certainly help me. Part of me is excited to be finishing this because it is time consuming, even though I love doing it, but I have many other things that I want to do, such as going back to writing more of my own books that are not about world building.

On the other hand, this is a sad occasion because it is the end. So, we’re going to end with a different song of mine. This one is called “Tears” from the Serenade of Strings album. I’m going to end with two phrases that I thought of somewhere in all of this, and have been repeating. One of them is: “Build better, faster.” And, of course, the most important thing is remember this: “world building is fun.”

Goodbye, for now, and thanks for listening. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, signing off.

Podcast Episode 32 – Other Systems

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Oct 062020
 

Episode 32: Learn How to Other Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create other systems. This includes legal, health, IT, education, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to invent education systems and whether public or private ones are available
  • Why health systems should include mental health and what that might look like in a fantasy setting
  • How to create laws
  • The different kinds of legal systems
  • Different ideas on trial by ordeal and combat
  • How to craft easy-to-remember monetary systems and things we don’t need to worry about
  • What a unit of value vs. unit of weight is
  • Why information systems still apply to a fantasy setting
Coda

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Episode 32 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-two. Today’s topic is about how to create other systems. This includes legal, health, IT, education, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 10 of Cultures and Beyond, volume 3 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.

Education Systems

A quick reminder, as we get started, that you can now buy transcripts of these episodes from Artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon.com.

The first kind of system we’re going to talk about is one for education. If we are storytellers, just about every character we ever invent is going to go through an education system. Some of them won’t, but, of course, many of the other characters will, and this will put that character at a disadvantage. So, it is still relevant. The only time it won’t be is if every character has the exact same education. Otherwise, our interactions, and certainly our opportunities, like jobs, are going to be impacted by this. And if we’re trying to do a character backstory, this is something we really need to know about them.

Systems are typically public, and that means that the government is paying for them. There is private education, but that is not typically a system. Each of those schools is a sort of one-off. That said, a private school may still need to pass some sort of government regulation. It’s sort of part of the system and not part of the system at the same time. It’s definitely not part of the public system, which has expectations.

One point here is that since the government is responsible for public education, if the government is inadequate, there may not be one. So, for example, a tribe of nomadic horsemen doesn’t really have a system in that sense. They will still have education, but it’s probably going to be passed down in a less formal setting.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to break down education into basic and special. By basic education, I mean a lot of those things that most of us take for granted, like reading, writing and basic arithmetic. By contrast, something like getting a college degree in music, like I have, would be special education. Sometimes we may learn the basics of something like music when we are in, say, grade school or even through high school, but we don’t really do a deep dive until we decide to become a specialist and major in that in college.

So, basic education means having a basic familiarity with most things that are relevant in a society. If we have a space-faring civilization, then everyone is going to have some familiarity with things like warp drives. They’re not going to draw a total blank and have no idea what you are talking about because the school system would’ve given them this basic education in that. Someone who goes on to be an engineer who can work on or build warp engines is someone who has special education in it.

In a less developed world, whether it’s fantasy or science fiction, we may have a setting where the children are expected to work because it’s too hard to get the basics of life. Therefore, they don’t have the time and the luxury to go off to something like public school. Today, we have things like child labor laws, but in the past that didn’t exist, partly because children often were required to work. This is something that’s going to come up in fantasy where children may have to do an apprenticeship with either their parents, to take over the family business, or someone else within the same settlement.

The same can exist in science fiction, depending on the technological level and what’s currently going on. For example, the age during which spaceships were routinely being built might have recently passed, and we are now in a kind of dystopian period where things are not so great and the public system of education has fallen into disrepair. However, in this kind of scenario, a lot of knowledge is going to be shared by the public in general. Even though, maybe today, children are not necessarily receiving the same sort of formal schooling, there’s still a general knowledge of something like warp drive. We don’t need to invent an entire curriculum for what people learn. We can just decide on the basic level of education for most people in our setting. Unless we need a character to have a specific kind of ignorance compared to everyone else, this is usually fine.

From the book, I have a couple examples I’m going to read off to you of what we might want to write in our world building files for both science fiction and fantasy. In science fiction, we might write something like, “At age six, students are legally required to enroll at a public Kierdon school, named for the famous scientist, Kier, which they attend until age sixteen. After this, each student must enroll in a technical school for two years, learning space sciences. Advanced education beyond this is available in three-year stints, each resulting in a degree.” Part of what this gets us is the age at which people start and finish, and the kinds of things that they may be studying if it’s not obvious.

For fantasy, we might write, “At age six, students may enroll in a private Kierdon school, named for the God of Knowledge, Kier, if their parents can spare their work hours and afford the modest price. Students may work at the school in lieu of paying in gold. Enrollment is not required. School ends at age twelve, though students can leave at any time. Advanced schooling beyond this is only for nobility, or those considered unique or special, and who must pay with years of service, not less than ten, in their profession after graduation. Refusal will result in lifelong servitude.”

These examples give us a rough idea of the kind of thing we want to write in our files to indicate the basic education level. When it comes to special education, this is probably more likely in a setting where basic education advances at least through a good portion of the teenage years. The reason is that what we consider, today, to be advanced education usually requires a certain amount of that basic education. We probably find it easier to believe someone has a college degree in a science fiction setting than in a fantasy setting, or the equivalent amount of knowledge.

In a setting where school ends early, like that fantasy example where I had it ending around age twelve, if someone does get advanced education, it might not be in something like a public or even a private university, but more from something like an apprenticeship. So, we might have a wizard, for example, who is a sorcerer’s apprentice. When it comes to being an apprentice, this isn’t necessarily reserved just for advanced learning. This might be the only form of education that is available to people. This is not really part of a system unless something like a wizard’s guild is overseeing the sort of training the individual wizards prepare for people.

However, we could still consider that private or public, depending on whether the local government is funding the guild or assisting with these apprenticeships. Naturally, when taxpayer dollars are being expended that way, then something like a city council has some ability to meddle in how the apprenticeship is done. So, decide if this is a complication that you might benefit from with your story. We can imagine an apprenticeship where the wizard giving it chaffs at these restrictions and maybe they stop doing it through the affiliation with the government or with a guild, and they go off and do it on their own, somewhere out in the wilderness where they are supposedly not under anyone’s authority anymore. The government may disagree about that, but it sets up a nice conflict for us.

Wizards aren’t the only people who can have an apprenticeship. Obviously, we have more mundane ones, such as something like blacksmithing — no offense to blacksmiths. Then, of course, in science fiction, any number of technologies could be taught by individuals if there is no public, or an inadequate, education system.

We may need to decide on some rules for this, but this is, once again, only going to apply if that apprenticeship is being overseen by a governing body. One rule that we may want to come up with is what age an apprenticeship can begin at, and when is it expected to end? We should also decide if the apprentice needs to live with the master. That is one of several basic concerns we need to think about with all types of education systems, whether it’s public private, basic, specialized or an apprenticeship. We’ve all heard of the boarding school where students live at the school. This can either be during the day or it can be overnight. It can be something like the weekdays, or it can be all year round.

Another issue is whether students are required to go to school. In the United States, it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure that a child of eligible age is enrolled and attends. It’s actually illegal if they don’t, and it is the parents, not the child, that can get into trouble because children are believed to not be as responsible, but we could change that in our setting and have the children be the ones who get into trouble. This might happen if our culture values responsibility and wants to teach that at an early age.

Always remember to consider the culture and the value system. At first glance, that idea that the child would get in trouble seems a little bit odd to us, but if we think of it from the standpoint of what I just said, that they want to teach responsibility, then it becomes understandable. Have a rational for these types of changes makes it something that the audience can accept. Otherwise, something may come across as unfair when the culture doesn’t mean it to be so.

Another issue we should decide is if there are facilities that are part of the school or do students need to go off campus to get them? So, an example of that would be something like a library, a laboratory or even a gym. This may not seem important, but imagine a scenario where there’s no on-campus library, and at a certain time of the day, the students tend to leave campus en masse and descend on the local library. Then we have our main characters who are trying to get into that library to get something, and they find it really crowded. This is a really subtle way of indicating what’s going on. Maybe a character knows that they need to get to the library quick, before 12 o’clock rolls around, because that’s when all the local college students overrun the place. It’s a trivial detail that adds depth.

And, of course, another subject we should discuss is whether segregation exists, or even discrimination, which can be by gender, race, species, ethnicity, social class, bloodline and anything else we can think of, really. Some people may be denied education altogether, whereas some have to go off and get it in private or through an apprenticeship. This may have a consequence to how well-educated they are, which in turn is going to impact their relationships and their opportunities.

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Health Systems

The next system we’re going to talk about is a health system. This can be broken down into mental health and medical health, which we will talk about first. On Earth, life expectancy before the 1900s was seldom above 30 years old. But there is an idea that if someone made it to the age of 20, they could reasonably expect to live another 30 or 40 years. The reason for this was that childhood was the prominent time when people died. The obvious reason for this is that children are more susceptible to sickness. The high percentage of children dying young is what brought the overall life expectancy that low.

Sometimes the percentage of people reaching age 20 could be as low as 60%. That means that for every 100 people that exist under the age of 20, there are only 60 people above the age of 20. One thing this certainly suggests is that few of our characters are going to have living grandparents, and many of them may not have one or either parent still alive.

In a fantasy setting especially, the magical healing or laying-on of hands typically means that a god’s power has been channeled through somebody’s body, which is being used as a vessel to heal the wounded. We can still do this in science fiction, but typically, what we’re going to see is medicine that is far in advance of what we have today on Earth. But something we should avoid with either of these is making it too easy for someone to be completely healed with no real consequence to the person or the technology that did the healing. The reason for this is that if people can be healed that easily, then there’s really nothing for us to worry about as an audience member when they get hurt.

This is one reason why I, personally, don’t get all that caught up in any sort of superhero movie where the characters, who are all superheroes, are beating the stuffing out of each other because none of them ever seem to get hurt. Or, if they do, it’s for a few minutes. For me, these scenes lack any drama at all.

Something we should consider is that until relatively recently in human history here on Earth, the existence of germs was poorly understood or not known at all. Therefore, we’re going to have more issues with people getting sick in a setting that doesn’t understand this kind of thing. The result is going to be poor hygiene and things like not washing their hands after you’re going to the bathroom, or before eating. There is a reason that there used to be a lot of plagues, and that today there are not nearly as many of those.

As it turns out, while I’m doing this episode, the Coronavirus from China is running rampant. So, these things do, sometimes, still happen. Something we should consider adding to our setting is one or more plagues that have happened in the last 100 or 200 years because it most likely has happened if the medicine is worse than it is here in the early 1900s and beyond. It’s believable that multiple characters would have an ancestor who died from one.

This sort of thing is also true in science fiction when characters are planet hopping because the germs from one planet are non-existent on the other, generally, unless they’ve already been introduced. This is one reason why we see characters wearing space suits, and it’s not just because they’re trying to find out if the atmosphere is breathable. This idea of a pathogen making everyone sick is a bit of a cliche, but it’s also so believable that it would almost not make sense to never feature this.

This is one reason why the medicine is often shown to be so powerful that it can quickly eradicate this sort of thing. Authors do this because, otherwise, every single story would turn into a biological nightmare story. Rather than gloss over this kind of thing, we probably want to quickly show it or even, in something like a book where the number of days being passed is irrelevant because we can simply state it in a single sentence, we can decide that someone has been quarantined for something like a week, two weeks, and they’ve been inoculated against these things so that they can be there without getting themselves sick, and any pathogens they are carrying won’t get the locals sick. However, especially in that latter case of them not bringing something, and everyone on the planet being safe from it, that’s a pretty big stretch of the imagination, but it’s a caveat that we may have to do. We call it artistic license. Just be aware that it’s not believable, but people will accept it.

Many of us have heard of bloodletting, which has an interesting history behind it. Ancient physicians believed that the body had four humors, as they called them, and that an excess or deficiency in any of these, or a poor combination of them, resulted in an illness. The four humors were blood, bile, phlegm, and black bile, which is believed to be clotted blood because that appears black.

Sometimes people were made to consume a food or a drink to correct an imbalance in these humors, and bloodletting is another example of this because, in this case, too much blood, therefore you let some of the blood out. This practice was surprisingly widespread and lasted for about 2,000 years. These physicians were wrong, of course. These practices didn’t actually help anybody unless it was coincidentally, such as having high blood pressure, and reducing the amount of blood in the body temporarily fixing this. The practices could often be quite harmful. But what if we had a species where their body actually is like this, whether it’s those four humors or something else, and these practices work? That would be an interesting thing to do.

We’ve all heard of a quack, which is someone who uses questionable claims and practices to try to help people, or at least claim that they’re going to do so. They often sold something like a balm or an oil that had materials that were considered to be unique inside them. If we have a setting with unique plants and animals, then it’s easier for us to come up with something like the infamous snake oil salesman kind of idea.

Some of these substances were harmful, and some of them could be addictive. That could have been, also, on purpose. If you’re trying to con people, it seems like a good idea to make them addicted to whatever it is that you’re selling. Some of these people were not nefarious. They honestly believed that what they were doing would help, and they genuinely wanted to help people.

Regardless of our decision, in a society where ignorance is more widespread because of our educational system, then these quacks are also going to be more widespread. In science fiction, where we are more likely to have planet-hopping characters, we’re more likely to run into these exotic materials that may have a reputation, even if it’s false, for some sort of miraculous cure.

Mental Health

Let’s talk about mental health. On Earth, the field of psychology is a relatively young one. Long ago, people could be confined, possibly for the rest of their life, for having something that, today, we would consider to be a minor problem that could be treated with behavior therapy or possibly medication. It was even possible to declare someone mentally incompetent, or something to that effect, if they were disagreeable.

One of the abuses heaped upon women is that a husband could have her declared insane and get her committed. That’s obviously a little bit extreme, but we have these options in our world. As far as the confinement goes, most of us are probably thinking of something like a prison or a mental hospital, but these mental hospitals may not have existed. So, an option that we’re left with is someone in the community being willing to essentially imprison these people in something like their basement and take care of them. The quality of care is, of course, going to be questionable — or it could be. It really depends on who is doing this. If this person has no ethics and they’re getting some sort of payment from the town for doing this, then, of course, that money might just be going into their own pocket instead of helping these patients live a decent life. But if it’s someone who is religious, they might actually, genuinely care about these people and want to help them.

Consider where the people who are considered mentally unwell are kept if they cannot be treated in the society due to not having enough advances in mental healthcare. There is likely a well-known location, such as a building in just about every town where the crazy people are kept. In a more advanced society, it’s more likely that they will have medication and other things to help people, just as we do today, and that only a small number of people will end up being confined. But they still will be, so there’s going to be one of these places in a city. Maybe more than one.

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Legal Systems

Legal systems are one of the more important systems we need to invent. This is true even if it’s as simple as an eye for an eye because if one person kills another in revenge like that, maybe everyone else just lets it go. And if they don’t, then maybe something like a blood feud will start. In other words, we still need to know what the consequences of such an action are.

As it turns out, there are several types of legal systems. One of them is known as civil law. This means that a legislator creates and modifies an authoritative source that formalizes laws, and that source is either a constitution, which is at the sovereign power or federal level, or a statute, which is at a lower level, like the states in the United States.

The constitutional laws tend to be kind of broad, and they end up being interpreted at the lower or statutory level, like in the states. This is one reason why we may see different laws in different states because there are different interpretations. An example in the U.S. right now is that marijuana is illegal at the federal level, but it is legal in some of the states. If we want to do something like this in our fictional world, we just need to know that there’s something like a sovereign power, and then self-governing bodies, like the U.S. states or provinces, within that body. This is one way a character can get themselves into trouble when they’re traveling because they have moved between different jurisdictions with different laws.

Civil law is one of the most common types of law systems, and common law, as it turns out, is the other big one. It’s called common law because it was common in England among the king’s courts. Along with civil law, common law is the other most common on Earth. And, in fact, it’s about one-third of the Earth. This one is interesting because the primary feature is that a judge will look to any sort of past case that is like the one that has come before him, and if this past case is similar enough to the current one, he must abide by the reasoning that went into that previous case when ruling on the current case. This means that precedents are considered the law. If the case is unique, he will be the first one to rule on this subject, and his decision will go on to be the precedent that other judges must consider.

In other words, these judges are actually making the laws if there isn’t one for them to already follow. This is very different from civil law where a judge would have no authority to do anything if no law has been broken. But a judge in a common law system can essentially decide that there is a law that has been broken. This is true even if one doesn’t really exist. Another name for this is judge-made law or judicial law.

The other type of legal system is religious law. This is one where the Bible, for example, would be considered the legal text. The author of such a document is considered to be a god. However, sometimes a prophet, like Moses, wrote down those laws, like the famous Ten Commandments, and these are considered Mosaic Law, meaning they are named after the prophet.

Creating Laws

One of the things we all want to do is figure out how to create laws. I’m going to break this down into what might be considered moral laws and then incident laws. A moral law would be one that something like religion can influence. And that means where the values, morals and beliefs are promoted through restrictions on what is considered permissible behavior. An example would be laws about abortion or whether capital punishment is allowed. Morality is one of the things that causes the law to be one way or the other.

In Chapter 1 of Cultures and Beyond, the chapter on creating culture, we looked at the idea of cultural idea and vision. We should consider this when we are trying to invent a new law that has a moral nature. This is one way to use work we’ve already done. In the book, I have a bunch of examples — and I’m going to read a few of them — of what could be considered moral laws. This means that either a value, a belief, or a moral idea has led to the existence of this law.

For example, maybe black magic is forbidden, and the reason would be that it’s a morality question where you have to deal with unholy forces. A law could be goblins are not allowed near a treasury, and this would be based on the belief that they are thieves. Another law could be that fire wizards must assist with extinguishing public fires. This would be based on a value that they should help society.

Another type of law is what I think of as incident laws. This means something has happened and now there’s a law to inhibit that happening again. That’s pretty self-explanatory, so let’s look at some examples. Let’s say black magic is forbidden, and the reason would be that this leads to unsavory beings being in town, and the resulting problems they bring. You’ll notice this was also what I called a moral law. So, we could have both moral laws and incident laws where the two of them are essentially merged. So, we’ve got one law that satisfies both of these desires.

Another example of that would be the one about goblins not being allowed near the treasury. This could be again because they robbed several treasuries in neighboring kingdoms. So, there’s your incident, one that could have led to the belief I stated earlier that they are thieves. Another law could be that children may not perform magic because they’re too undisciplined and they’ve caused problems before.

The great thing about inventing incident laws is that they give us a little bit of history in small bits, and we can make these up as we go along, or just whenever we have an idea. It doesn’t take very long.

Trials

Let’s talk about trials. This is where we get into the fun stuff. As we all know, the point of a trial is to find out if someone is guilty or innocent. Today, we have a kind of boring version where people just listen to evidence. And that’s all well and good, but in the past, on Earth, we had some interesting ideas going on.

One of those was trial by combat. Typically, this was two people fighting, but sometimes it could actually be a group of people fighting. Generally, it was the accuser and the accused fighting each other because witnesses or anything else could not be found that would exonerate the accused. These were typically a fight to the death, and if they accused won, they were considered innocent, and that was the end of that. That might seem odd, but the trial by combat was an offshoot of a trial by ordeal. We’ll get into some details in a moment here, but in a trial by ordeal, if you’ve survived something, the idea was that God has spared you because you were innocent.

So the same idea applied to trial by combat. If you lived, you were innocent. This assumes that the god was paying attention. For that reason, trials by ordeal, and sometimes the combat version, were often held on religious sites. Some people were able to bypass this by either choosing a champion to fight for them or just going for the regular old boring trial of today. This could happen if they were too young or too old, or if there was some way in which the fight would be unfair because of something like a physical handicap.

When it comes to trial by ordeal, there were multiple versions of this. One version of trial by fire was to walk several paces while holding a hot iron bar. That wasn’t really the test. That happened three days later when the bandages were removed. If your skin was showing no signs of healing, you were guilty. If it was starting to heal, you were considered innocent.

A variation on this was to have a boiling pot of water, and you have to retrieve something like a stone from the bottom. The depth of the water depended on the seriousness of the crime. You could do something similar with something like magic fire in another setting. We could also do it with radiation.

Ordeal by water was another variation where someone would be bound, hand in foot, and then tossed into the water. The guilty floated and the innocent sank. With an ordeal by water, the hands and feet were bound and the person was tossed into the water. The guilty would float and the innocent would sink. Now, if that sounds like a death sentence either way, the reality is there would be a rope around the person so that the innocent could be brought back to the surface. These are all ideas we can leverage, and in the book I also go into punishments and how we can invent new ones, or leverage ones that previously existed here on Earth.

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Monetary Systems

A monetary system is one of the other areas where we should figure out what people are using for money. There’s a concept we should be aware of, and that is the difference between a unit of weight and a unit of value. Paper money has no actual value except for the denomination that is printed on its surface, and that spells out the value. This is a unit of value. On the other hand, the amount of gold or the weight of it determines its value, so that is known as a unit of weight. So, each time I say unit of weight, think of something like gold, and each time I say unit of value, think of something like the dollar bills in your wallet.

For units of value, it’s important to understand that a government is backing this. That dollar bill in your wallet is only worth one dollar because the government is supporting this. So, if that government collapses, that becomes worthless. If we have a setting where there’s a lot of volatility with governments coming and going, units of value may not exist because no one trusts them to last very long. Instead, they might be using units of weight.

The value of a unit of weight, like gold, is based on the rarity in the setting. That typically lasts across sovereign powers, for example, because the amount of gold on Earth, for example, is essentially the same. Granted, people are still digging it up from time to time, but basically there’s only so much of it. Even if more of it is found and that affects the price of gold, it does so almost uniformly across different sovereign powers. There’s more to it than that, but this is the simple way of looking at it.

In fantasy settings, it does seem less likely that units of value, like paper money, are going to be common. One reason is also that they may have not come up with a way to mass produce something like paper money. Something to bear in mind, especially with planet-hopping characters in science fiction, is that the value of an ore, like gold, is based on its rarity, as I just said. And if new plants are being discovered and new deposits of something like gold are being found, this is going to have an impact on the value of gold back home.

Like germs, this is another aspect of planet-hopping stories that people sometimes overlook because every story would turn into being an economic thing just as much as a germ thing when new planets are being discovered. But the reality is that new planets are going to change the economy of other planets. The easy way to solve that is to not have the planet be discovered during the timeframe of your story, but sometime recently, like 10 or 20 years ago, and this impact has already been felt, at least initially.

Another issue here is that it’s not just gold that’s going to be found in different quantities here, but all sorts of other things. That can quickly get complicated and overtake our story. We have several options we want to keep in mind when it comes to currency. The oldest form of this is basically trading one thing for another, such as me giving you my apple and you giving me your banana. But maybe I need to give you three of mine for one of yours. How do we determine this? The short answer is supply and demand. Since we’re talking about a fictional world that we made up, we can simply make up what the supply and demand is, and no one can argue with us. In other words, we can make this simpler than it seems. I have a couple examples of scenarios in the book, but I’m going to skip over that for now.

Another option is using metal coins. A long time ago, this was a unit of weight, but in more recent times it became a unit of value. So, something like a nickel doesn’t have that much actual value aside from what is actually printed on it. We can do either of these in our setting. One problem with coins is that they’re kind of heavy if you need to carry around something like 2,000 of them. This is why we need some sort of trading system within the coins. For example, let’s say that I decide that one iron piece is ten cents. Ten iron pieces would be one copper. Ten coppers would be one silver. Ten silvers would be one gold. Ten gold would be one platinum. This way, if someone needs to carry around the equivalent of 2,000 dollars, they’re not carrying around a bunch of iron pieces. They’ve only got two platinum pieces.

Generally, for something like this, we just want to keep it as simple as possible for the audience because we don’t really want to be explaining this, and they’re going to get caught up in our story and not remember it.

Another option is the gemstone. These may not be a unit of weight because the weight, by itself, doesn’t necessarily tell us how valuable that gemstone is. Most gem deposits here on Earth produce very low quality stones. High quality stones not only start off that way, but they can actually achieve more quality, or less quality, depending on how well that stone is carved. But when it comes to using gemstones as currency, we probably want to go with these low quality stones that can be turned into pieces that have a value stamped upon them. This might make a lot of sense for an underground species like dwarves because they are presumably running across these gems and metal all the time. Once again, we might want to come up with a trading system, such as one amber piece equaling ten cents, ten amber pieces equals one jade, ten jade is one topaz, ten topaz is one amethyst, and ten amethyst is one opal.

That example is using poor quality stones, but what if we wanted to use higher quality ones? We could do something like one pearl is ten cents, ten pearls is one emerald, ten emerald is one sapphire, ten sapphire is one ruby, and ten rubies is one diamond. Of course, you are free to make up your own hierarchy of this.

Another option we’re all familiar with is paper money. One problem with paper money is that it is easily destroyed by water, fire, and even being torn, but it is easier to carry around large sums than coins. Bills are typically for larger numbers, such as dollars, whereas the coins are for smaller amounts, like cents. However, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this.

Another option is that of credit, which we have here today. This is arguably more likely in a science fiction setting. Just like with a unit of value, the source of the credit is going to be some sort of government-backed agency that we feel confident is going to honor the amount of credit we have.

Two subjects about monetary systems that I’m not going to cover today are how to do currency conversion and the relative value of currency. What I do want to talk about is something that most of us are concerned with, and that is how to determine the value of anything in a fictional world. This includes how much people are paid for jobs that either don’t exist here or haven’t in a long time. The simple trick for this is to use the values of the country where you live, and then make some alterations.

For example, if I go into a restaurant and I buy prepared food, I know how much various things are going to cost where I live. I’m going to make some numbers up here, but let’s say that fast food is under $10, a cheap, sit-down dinner is under $20, a nicer outing will set me back about $30 for just me, and something above $50 would be expensive. That will be something like a rare occasion, like New Year’s Eve, and that’s partly due to demand on such an important day.

So, let’s say that I have a fantasy setting instead. Obviously, I’m not going to use the word “dollars” and “cents” there because those don’t exist. So, let’s just go with a generic term, coin, and that is my one dollar. A turkey leg or a steak-on-a-stick might be the equivalent of fast food and only cost me about five coin. A sit-down meal at a tavern is going to run me something like 20 coin. And if I sit down at a nicer restaurant, that might be 30 coin. And if I’m doing that on a major holiday, maybe I’m spending 50 coin. I don’t have to determine the values here because I’ve basically borrowed stuff from Earth. If we want to change the numbers more, I can just multiply everything by three or add a zero to the end or subtract something. We can do the same thing with products, services and wages.

If there is something that is not here on Earth anymore, we can substitute something that is here. For example, if I don’t know how much a two-handed a sword might cost, well, think about what that is. It’s a pretty big specialty weapon. So, maybe we want to research big speciality guns that are still being used here on Earth and compare them to find a price. We just need to be plausible, not be right because it’s a fictional world and we’re the ones who are deciding what the economics are. There are so many factors that are involved in this, and if you think about it, even around the holidays, there are major sales. So, what might seem really expensive at another time of the year is suddenly an incredible deal at that time. Prices and values change all the time, and no one can tell us that we’re wrong.

To determine how much someone will earn in any profession, we have to think about what that labor’s value brings. Local conditions will impact this. Maybe I can earn a meal by chopping wood for two hours in one place, but it will take me four hours to do the same in another. The reason for this difference would be that the labor has different value in different places. If there’s no one to chop wood in one place, I might get away with less labor because what I’m doing is more valuable. If everybody can do it and my services aren’t really needed, then I’m going to have to work longer. I might even be turned down.

In both fantasy and science fiction, there are things like supernatural phenomenon, or radiation and other stuff that’s unique to these settings, therefore these might provide interesting jobs that people can be paid for. What if there’s a wizard who needs help preparing potions, or needs somebody to drink one of them to see what happens, to see if they got it right? I would imagine that due to the danger, this could make you a lot of money, and it could also end up with you dead.

There could certainly be technological experiments that are going on that have the same issues. For all of these, we just need to consider how rare or common the job is, and how many people are willing or able to perform that job, and then think about what’s going on in our setting at the time and how much they may be able to get away with. The rarer the duty, the more likely they will earn. It’s that simple.

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Information Systems

The last system we want to talk about is information systems. In sci-fi, we can leverage any real-world technology such as radios, telephones, postal systems and, of course, the internet. We can also invent new systems. But I think the challenge here is that it’s going to be hard to come up with a result that is different from what we have today. What do we have? Well, nearly instant transfer of voice, video and data across vast distances. So, the end result is one of the things that we’re really focused on, but we can do something with the technology that delivers these results.

In another episode, we talked about creating items, and in this case, we really just want to think about the interface that we use. So for example with the internet, we’re going to need a computer that’s going to either have something like a mouse or the ability to do a touchpad, and we need some sort of connection. It also either needs a keyboard or some sort of voice control. So, we might want to do something similar, but replace all of these components with something else. The end result is the same because we have an almost ideal kind of scenario going on today, but the technology at least looks different when it comes to the actual pieces.

In fantasy, it may not seem like we have information systems, but we actually do. What I mean is that news has to travel somehow. One way it used to be done was that an important notice might be placed on the door of an important building, like the church or a town hall. That required everyone to be able to read it, so it’s possible that someone could be stationed there to read it off to anyone who was staring at it and trying to figure out what it says.

Then there’s the town crier who is someone that goes around announcing the news. This could either be done just generally when something important is happening, or at specific times of the day, and possibly at specific locations like the town’s water supply. Then there are the messengers who often travel on foot or horse. We might have rules in our setting about how these guys are supposed to be treated, and this could vary from sovereign power to sovereign power, and city to city. This is something that we want to work out.

We also have something like the ravens from Game of Thrones, or the carrier pigeons from Earth. We may also have winged humanoids who work in this capacity and which offer certain advantages over birds. Then we have magic devices that do the equivalent of our internet today. The crystal ball would be the obvious example from cliche. So even though it’s a fantasy setting, we should give some thought to how information spreads.

Closing

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 Now Weaponized! called “Promenade.” 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!

Podcast Episode 31.2 – Magic Systems

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Sep 222020
 

Episode 31.2: Learn How to Create Magic Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create magic systems. This includes a brief look at types of magic, the principles, creating limits, how to invent spells, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems
  • Ellefson’s Seven Laws of Magic Systems
  • Some magic types we can leverage
  • Why we need to know how common magic is
  • Principles of good magic systems
  • How and why we create limits to make more believable systems
  • How to invent spells
Coda

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Episode 31.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-one, part two. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create magic systems. This includes a brief look at types of magic, the principles, creating limits, how to invent spells, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

How Common is the Magic Type?

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The first subject we’re going to look at is types of magic. Once we decide there are different types of magic, we can start defining each of them and separating them from each other that way. For all of them, we should consider how many people can perform each type. Generally, the more rare something is, the more valuable and feared it is. It may not make sense if everyone can do magic, but everyone fears it. But we probably could find a rational for that. Then there’s the question of how easy is it to find someone who can do something if we need that, such as a necromancer. If we only have one of them every thousand miles, that’s quite a bit different than if there’s one on every street corner.

There are a number of reasons why a particular type of magic might be rare. The more dangerous it is, the less likely people will want to do it, even if it’s relatively easy to do. The magic could also be feared. This might be because it has a consequence. What if every spell makes you a month older? Or maybe you have to deal with demons. The practitioners of this could be feared, and one side effect of that is that friends and family could also shun you if you take this on. So, do you care about that or not? Do you want to take up this practice and lose all of your friends and family?

Another issue is that training might be rare or it might not even exist. Or it might be really expensive or just something that’s really hard to do. All of these would inhibit becoming better at this. Another reason for a magic type to be rare is if it requires materials to perform spells, maybe those materials are really hard to come by, or even expensive. This is the kind of scenario where you may have the talent for it, and maybe it’s even easy to do, but you simply can’t cast anything.

Another reason for rarity is that spell books could be rare or they could be poorly done. Not all spells are created equal. Some of them may just be bad spells that are inherently dangerous. Spells had to be invented by someone, in theory, so we could have different people who’ve invented a fireball spell, and some of them are safe to cast and others are not. Maybe you know that the spell you have is the bad one, but maybe you only find out the hard way. Not surprisingly, if there are people who are good at inventing these spells, their spell books are going to be more valuable.

An obvious reason for a rarity is that the talent is simply rare.

There may also be no money in it. What if you practice something where no one wants to hire you? This is not to say that all wizards require a job because, as we all know from adventuring games, you can go out and make your fortune by picking up treasure somewhere. So, there’s that, but that may not be an option for you. What if you’re not the adventuring type and you don’t want to do that or live that kind of life? So, if you’re good at something like witchcraft, but no one needs you to do it and you’re not going to go out adventuring, then it’s not going to bring in any money. So, are you really going to devote a lot of time to this?

Then there are some reasons why a magic type could be commonplace. For the most part, these are reasons that are the opposite of the ones we just talked about. For example, if it’s very safe, then more people will be willing to do this. If it’s very accepted, that’s another reason people will do it. By contrast, your family and your friends may not shun you. Maybe they’re even proud of the fact that you do this. Maybe there’s even the equivalent of a bumper sticker that says, “My kid made the honor roll at this particular wizardry school.”

If practicing this kind of magic gets you esteemed, that’s a pretty good draw because most people want to be admired for what they do, whether they admit to that or not. So, this can be a reason why there are a lot of wizards of that particular type. If training is available, easy and inexpensive, these can all make it easier for more people to do this. If any physical materials or spell books are easy to come by, that makes it easier for more people to do this as well. Then, of course, there’s the obvious reason that a lot of people have the talent for this.

Now, with all of these reasons, whether it’s a rare or common type of magic, something can outweigh another factor. For example, maybe everyone’s got the talent, but because the materials are rare, very few people actually become this type of wizard. Try to split these up. Come up with some pros for each type and some cons for it.

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Magic Types

Let’s get into our types of magic. The first one is white and black magic. Magic can be considered beneficial or harmful to others and the environment, and these are called white and black magic, respectively. We can also think of them as good and evil, and they may have a source that is also good or evil, such as a god. If that’s the case, then the attributes of the god are probably going to influence who becomes a wizard. Naturally, if the god requires something like a human sacrifice, they’re probably not a good god. That can attract people who have certainly personality traits and willingness to undertake certain kinds of actions when they’re performing magic. Similarly, the magic that’s available to such a person might be very much restricted based on who is the provider.

One thing about black magic is that it’s considered bad because people use it for selfish reasons as opposed to using it for reasons that help other people. Not surprisingly, practitioners of black magic are often feared and shunned. One issue with both of them is that practitioners of one can be confused with practitioners of the other. Misunderstanding is a great way to add tension to our stories, and we should also consider the option of grey magic — something that falls in between these two.

Alchemy is one of the more interesting variants on wizardry. This is the practice of turning one item into another, but it’s a little bit more than that in its historical context. The changing of one item into another is thought to be an analogy for personal transformation into a better and purer state. This is what alchemists on Earth were after when they wanted to change something. They thought that changing a specific material that’s physical from one to another would cause a corresponding change within a person. For example, if I turn a piece of lead into gold, then maybe I have made your spirit more noble and high-minded. So, this wasn’t simply about switching objects into something else and, for example, just making gold so that you can get rich. We can certainly use it that way if we want, but a great thing about alchemy is that this is an analogy for personal transformation, and we can use that as a metaphor in our stories.

When it comes to witchcraft, most of us know what is meant by this, but it actually is hard to define. It can be considered bad in the sense of using the supernatural to harm people, or beneficial using it for divination, for example. A long time ago, pagans were often assumed to be witches, and this has led to some associations with witchcraft. What I mean is that we sometimes think that witches are nude or partially nude, barefoot, maybe they’re wearing loose or flowing clothing, and they’re doing some sort of chanting or singing and dancing in the woods to conjure spirits. This might be at night or during specific moon phases.

All of that comes from paganism, but it’s become associated with witchcraft. Much of that was done to celebrate natural elements. That would include base needs like sex. As a result, along with fear, this led to the assumption of things like having sex with the devil or similar figures to gain supernatural powers. We don’t need any of that to be true, and we can actually do that kind of association with other types of witchcraft if we want. There is one distinction for witchcraft, and that is the use of archaic runes and symbols that are inscribed on a target, such as a person, a building, or an item that will be the focus of the spell. It’s almost as if witchcraft cannot target somebody without that. We can either use that idea, ignore it, or even apply it to another type of magic.

Now, since witches are typically dealing with spirits of some kind, we should probably define the afterlife and any other planes of existence that we might want them to be utilizing. That might also be true of necromancy. This is communication with the dead, of course, and that may mean bringing the dead to this world, or going there, or just doing the equivalent of a phone call. It kind of makes you wonder if they have FaceTime or Skype.

Since most people fear death and the afterlife, or anything like that, that’s one reason why necromancy is often assumed to be evil, and its practitioners up to no good, even if that is not the case. So, we don’t have to do that in our setting. One reason we need to work out the afterlife is that this will help us determine how these necromancers go about contacting someone, and even whether any gods allow that, or what sort of rules they place on it.

I go into more detail in the book, but I’m going to move on to Shamanism now. We can almost say that this is broader than necromancy because that’s only about contacting the dead. Shamanism is about contacting any beings that are believed to be in another plane of existence, which could include the afterlife. Shamans often use medication, trance, or even drugs to achieve an altered state. They may also do this equivalent of a phone call or bringing beings to them. One village or culture may have multiple shamans that have different specialities. One way to decide on that is if there’s a practice that’s physically demanding, that might be something a younger shaman does. This is one reason we’d want to work out how everyone’s going about their business.

One interesting aspect of Shamanism is that someone is expected to become so sick that they risk dying before returning to life in order for them to become a shaman. After all, if they can’t make the journey back to better health, then how are they going to guide anyone else in the process of doing so themselves? Naturally, this might result in some of them dying, and it could also result in someone having a demon or a physical scar. By demon, I don’t mean literally, but maybe their mind was affected by what they went through.

Let’s talk psionics. This is a group of different abilities that we’ve all heard the names of. What they all have in common is the ability to communicate or perceive beyond the five physical senses. These are usually depicted as being natural abilities, but there’s no reason we can’t have them be acquired. One of these is clairvoyance, which is the ability to see events or people beyond the range of normal sight. That can actually be broken down even further into precognition, which is the future, retrocognition, which is the past, and then remote viewing, which is the present. It can also imply clairaudience, which is hearing, but these can be mutually exclusive, such as someone who can see or someone who can hear, but someone who can’t do both.

Then there’s empathy, which is the ability to read or sense another person’s emotion, and that might even be the ability to influence their emotions. Such people are called an empath. Then there’s mind control, which is not only the ability to read someone else’s mind, but it could be removing thoughts or memories, suppressing them, or replacing them altogether. Psychometry is the talent for gaining foresight by touching objects. Sometimes these people wear gloves so that they are not constantly picking up information that they are not interested in. That would happen every time they touch something. Telekinesis is the ability to move objects with the mind, and telepathy is the ability to read thoughts or communicate directly with another person using only your mind.

The last type we’ll talk about is elemental magic. By elements, I mean the four physical elements of fire, earth, water, and air, but sometimes people include spirit in that, as well. We can also invent other elements that exist in our setting. However, most likely, they would really fall into one of those other categories. One thing we can do with this is have a practitioner be only capable of doing one of these elements, and it’s very rare for someone to be able to do all of them, and those people are, of course, more powerful. But we don’t have to divide it that way. We could have everyone capable of all of them if they have the talent, but maybe there’s low and high magic here. Low magic would be relatively simple spells, whereas high magic would be the really powerful ones.

One thing we should decide is whether someone needs that element in order to perform magic, or if they can basically conjure that element. The only element that is really restricted here that way would be fire because, unless fire is naturally occurring, or someone is carrying around a torch or something, they’re not going to have a source of fire when they need one. But earth, air, and water are plentiful, even if it’s sometimes not apparent. For example, you could be in a desert and think there’s no water, but there still is some in the atmosphere, and there may be some underground.

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Principles of Magic Systems

Let’s talk the principles of good magic systems. This is a really important section of this, and the book. We should consider these principles before and during the creation of a magic system. You may have heard of Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems, so I briefly want to cover this. His first law is that an author’s ability to solve conflicts with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands that magic. So, try not to give a character an ability unless we’ve already shown that they possess it. We should also determine how problems can be solved without magic. If we don’t do these things, then the magic can just make things seem too convenient.

His second law is that limitations are greater than powers, and what he means is that what characters can’t do forces them to stretch and make our story go in different directions. His third law is to expand what you already have before you add something new. One reason for this is that we might start adding things that can conflict with things we’ve already done. Naturally, we want to avoid this.

Something else that Sanderson proposed is the idea of soft versus hard magic. Magic that is not rigidly defined is considered soft magic. One reason we would want to do this is that it can preserve the sense of wonder in their books, according to Sanderson. By contrast, hard magic has very explicitly stated rules. The good part of doing this is that it provides structure and understanding of what can be done and what can’t be done. Therefore, we’re not surprised by the actions of characters. We know and understand that they are operating within a limit that has already been explained to us.

Now, Sanderson’s use of the word “law” led me to an interesting thought exercise that I thought added a lot of clarity to how to create a magic system. I’m going to read the definition of “law” from the 3rd New International Dictionary from Merriam-Webster.

“Law is a binding custom or practice of a community, a rule or mode of conduct or action that is prescribed or formally recognized as binding by a supreme controlling authority, or is made obligatory by a sanction. This edict or decree or ordinance is made, recognized and enforced by the controlling authority.” Laws tend to be authoritative, definitive, to the point, and the arguably avoid explanation to minimize the public arguing about them when accused of breaking one.

By calling his principles of magic systems “laws,” Sanderson has invoked a comparison to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in science fiction. He may not have done that on purpose, but that was the first thing that I thought of when I heard of Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems. But let’s take a look at this and compare them. Asimov’s Laws were invented for a specific story, or set of stories, and societies within those stories, meaning they are actual laws there. By contrast, Sanderson has proposed three laws for building magic systems, but no world builder has to follow another person’s ideas on how they go about building anything. Even Sanderson does not mean to imply that you need to follow these laws. In fact, he admits that even he breaks his own laws.

His laws don’t apply to any society, and they also don’t apply to any world builders. He can’t enforce them. However, we can choose to enforce laws on ourselves, whether those are his, some ideas that I’m going to give you in a minute, or some ideas of your own. One thing about his laws are that they are not declarative, and each of them leaves a lot of room for interpretation. In fact, he actually has an article explaining each one of them. By contrast, most laws are relatively simple and can be stated in a single sentence. Many laws are, of course, more complicated than that, but basically it’s simple because they want to be able to put this on a sign and not have you stand there reading whole paragraph after paragraph of explanation. There might actually be that much explanation if you were to look into the law book, but generally there’s a simple version of this that the public has been made aware of. Something like, “Don’t litter.” That only has two words, the way I just said it, so it’s kind of hard to confuse what that means.

Let’s compare Sanderson’s laws to some other types of laws and you’ll see where I’m going with this. His three laws, briefly stated, would be: an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the magic, limitations are greater than powers, and expand what you already have before you add something new.

Let’s compare that to some local laws that might exist in something like a city. For example, magic shall not be performed on the holy day. Magic shall not be used to inflict physical harm or death on a living person, except in defense of one’s own life or that of another. Each of these is short and to the point. They’re also enforceable due to the authority.

Those are what you might call local laws, but what about laws of magic? This would mean what is possible and what isn’t due to the equivalent of physics for magic or something like nature’s laws. Rather than people enforcing these laws, it is nature or the gods. These laws of magic would be discovered and defined by the species and races through experience and observation of what usually works and what doesn’t. Here are some example laws of magic: magic cannot be performed by virgins. Black magic and white magic cannot be performed by the same wizard. And magic can only performed by spells or by items imbued with spells.

Then there are what might be called world building laws. These are the kind that we should follow when creating a magic system, and this is the kind of thing that Sanderson intended.

Ellefson’s 7 Laws of Magic Systems

I decided to invent my own laws for building magic systems, and this is one of the results of this thought exercise about what is meant by the use of the word “laws.” So, here are my seven laws of magic systems.

My first law is that world builders shall decide what the laws of magic are. In other words, the universe, or another authority like gods, has determined what works and what doesn’t. Some examples would be:

  • Elves cannot perform elemental magic.
  • Naturally occurring places exist where magic doesn’t work.
  • There is a finite amount of magic energy, and once it is consumed it is gone.

My second law is that world builders shall define what makes someone capable of performing each magic type, and how common its practitioners are. For example:

  • The gods decide who can do magic and can change their mind, granting or revoking the ability.
  • Anyone who consumes a specific item at a specific frequency can acquire the ability as long as that item continues to be consumed.

My third law: If multiple types of magic exist, world builders shall define what is possible in each, the differences between them, and whether practitioners can perform more than one type, and under what circumstances. For example, we could say:

  • There are several types of magic.
    • Alchemists can only work with materials to affect personal change.
    • High wizardry, these people can draw on magic energy in the environment.
    • And for witchcraft, they must work with spirits or demons for power.

Now, yours would need a lot more depth than that.

My fourth law: world builders shall determine what happens when an attempt to use magic fails. We talked about that in the previous episode, but here are some examples of this law:

  • A spell either works within its parameters or fails, and there are no accidental results. Or
  • A failed spell produces an unexpected result of a different nature, but not extremely so.

My fifth law is that world builders shall decide what local laws exist in each location where a story takes place. For example:

  • Use of a magic item within the city limits is solely for those with a valid permit.
  • Wizards are killed on sight.
  • Wizards are not allowed on the city council.
  • Alchemists must register with the local guild.

My sixth law is that world builders shall follow the rules they set forth. Both fantasy and science fiction audiences tend to notice our mistakes. We need to not only decide on our rules, but abide by them. It’s a good idea to use a narrative trick for some flexibility. For example, if I narrate that most wizards cannot do something, well, that word “most” has allowed me the flexibility if I decide to change my mind later and have one or two characters do something. I have a couple other tricks like that stated in the book.

My seventh law is that world builders shall decide if magical training is available, what form it takes, what is involved, limitations imposed before graduation, testing criteria and what restrictions exist, if any, on those who graduate. I consider this one to be a little bit more of a suggestion.

With all of these principles, I believe that you can come up with better magic systems that are well-defined, and I have more examples than what I just said in the book for each of these laws that I invented. This is what I follow when I am inventing a magic system, the same way that Brandon Sanderson follows his three laws when he is doing so. You’re free to follow or ignore either mine, his or anyone else’s, but you should decide on some principles that you are going to follow. I’m calling my principles laws because Brandon did and I want mine to sound as cool as his, so that’s what I’m going with.

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Create Limits

Creating a good magic system is all about limits. There are arguably two sources of those limits: the universe or the gods, and those imposed by mortals. Part of what I mean is that it might be that a person has devised the magic system, not the gods. Let’s say we have a wizard named Kier and he has discovered and developed a series of spells that are now known as Kierzardry instead of wizardry. Maybe there’s another wizard, a woman named Taria, and she has invented Tariandry. Obviously, both of them are a little bit egotistical to name their wizardry after themselves.

Now, both of them had talent, knowledge, inventiveness, some research ability, and access to materials that they used to experiment. They also both ran into some problems creating their spells, and some of these they solved, others they didn’t, and they may have reached the conclusion that they had found a limit, even though that may not have been true.

This could result in two very different kinds of wizardry, and we should use their environment to help determine this. For example, if spell components are needed and Kier lived in somewhere that was the equivalent of the Amazon where there are tons of plants, he might have heavily used all of these in his spellcraft. But maybe Taria lived in a desert, and for her there wasn’t that much to choose from, so hers doesn’t rely on that. Maybe hers uses things like runes, gestures or words much more. This is one way to go about thinking of limits that exist in system.

Every system needs its pros and cons, and we talked a little bit earlier about some of these. One of the things that we really want to focus on are the benefits of doing this kind of magic because that’s what’s going to draw someone to it. But they may not have a choice, if they are only born with one type of talent, and talent cannot be acquired somehow, then that’s the only one they’ve got available, and either they choose to develop it or not. Some benefits of becoming a wizard, of course, would be the obvious ones like power, prestige, wealth, personal safety and maybe even gaining advantage over other people.

But there’s another reason. What if they can cause things to happen by accident, and they want to prevent that? They’re going to want training. For our story, we should think about the problems our characters can face and why and how this type of magic would be able to benefit them. We should also think about things that could go wrong. Any magic type that allows us to interact with something like the dead or beings from another plane of existence is inherently more dangerous.

Decide what can go wrong when someone loses control of those they’ve contacted. Those who are doing something like clairvoyance may hear information and get it wrong, or maybe nobody wants them around because it is believed that they’re in their head all the time. There may even just be misunderstandings as a basic problem with this type of wizardry. Someone might practice good witchcraft and be assumed to be doing black witchcraft.

The thing about these problems is that these are limits because anyone who devised a magic system may have imposed limits to avoid these problems from happening. So, spells might take into account this side effect and not allow that to happen. This is one of the things that we are after by defining these problems. It’s just like when you’re trying to decide how to invent a law. The reason a law exists is that something happened and now this law is designed to prevent that from happening by telling people they’re going to be punished if they do it.

Part of what we’re after with all of this is that we want to be organized about our magic systems. We just need to define things, and we don’t even need to explain them to the audience if we don’t really want to, such as in a soft magic system. But we should still have some understanding of what everyone can do and why.

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How to Invent Spells

Let’s talk about how to invent spells. As we all know, a spell is a combination of words, gestures and ingredients. One thing we can do here is define the role that each of these is playing in spells. For gestures, they could technically mean anything, but maybe we want to decide that they assist with determining the width of a spell, or even the distance from the caster. A more subtle gesture might be a smaller effect, and a more aggressive gesture might be a much bigger effect. We could also decide that this determines the power level of the spell. This can even help us figure out which gesture someone is making. A missile spell that’s targeting individuals might allow me to point at them, but one that’s supposed to affect a wide area, maybe I’m gesturing outward with my arm. What I mean is sweeping from left to right, for example.

When it comes to ingredients, we should look at these kind of like a recipe. This is a helpful way of deciding what is going into the spell. With any recipe, each item is there for some reason. For example, warm water and flour creates dough. Dough is typically a container of some kind for the rest of what we are putting in there. So, we would want to substitute some sort of liquid on our world and some sort of ground up plant. That’s where flour comes from. When baking, yeast makes the dough rise. We might want to do something similar with yeast. For a yeast substitute, we would do something like a ground plant that will alter or accentuate the ingredients. Water is often used to cook items, and it can be used to sanitize or breakdown or congeal the ingredient. Therefore, we might want to substitute some sort of liquid that is also doing boiling or purifying or, again, breaking down and causing the ingredients to bind together.

As we all know, spices are added to taste, so we could do small variations in the amount of power based on the amount of materials that are being added. Someone could be using any plant that has been ground up. Many recipes have some sort of meat, fruit or vegetable, and those are in there for nutrition or taste. Well, maybe any sort of meat in our spell is for strength, and the plants or other elements can be used for shaping the results. Naturally, we often use pots, pans and other containers of glass or metal, so we can do the same, sometimes with unique materials, as part of our spell-casting. This is obviously more true for something like potions or even creating a magic item.

Then, of course, there are certain tools that might be needed, such as tongs or spatulas, to handle hot items. Again, that’s going to imply more to potions and magic items. The point here is that all of these things have a purpose, and they are a tool to achieve what we are trying to achieve. So, when inventing a spell, we can look at it the same way.

When it comes to words, there’s a certain mystery to magic because we don’t understand what the wizard is doing, and this includes when they are speaking in a magic language that, of course, we do not understand. We can think of words as being the thing that brings everything together. Without the words, we just have some gestures and some ingredients. The words could be what activate magic. This could be how we start the process of summoning magic power, molding the items to do what we want, and then expelling that power out towards the effect that we want. It seems that much of the major control in a spell would be the words, and things like gestures might be a kind of fine tuning of the results. We don’t have to look at it that way, but I feel like breaking it down helps us envision good magic, and even the resulting magic systems.

Getting Started

So, where does all of this lead us? There are ways to invent magic systems, and what I would do first is figure out what types of magic we want to include in the setting, and then how prevalent each of them is. We also need to know the source and whether mortals need spells to do it or not. These choices will guide everything else. We should also decide what sort of cost there is to doing magic. We need limits on each type of magic, and of course the pros and cons of why someone would want to do this or avoid it. Then we can decide on the training.

Finally, we should start crafting some specific spells, although we can start with this. And just like with many things, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. These are all different things that we need to keep in mind when inventing a magic system. The last thing that we might want to focus on is inventing laws that exist in local places, and then any crimes and punishments. Hopefully, all of this information has helped you figure out how you can go about building a magic system.

Closing

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 Serenade of Strings called “The Joys of Spring.” 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!

Podcast Episode 31.1 – Magic Systems

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Sep 082020
 

Episode 31.1: Learn How to Create Magic Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a magic system, including whether we need to create them, sources of magic, whether spells are needed, a look at the life of wizards, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • When we don’t need to invent a magic system
  • The difference between a source and origin of magic
  • When spells might be needed
  • Why spells might not be needed
  • The potential consequences of not using spells
  • How to imagine the life of wizards so that it’s fully realized
Coda

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Episode 31.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-one, part one. Today’s topic is how to create magic systems. This includes whether we need to create them, sources of magic, whether spells are needed, a look at the life of wizards, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6 of Cultures and Beyond, volume 3 from Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

Do We Need a Magic System?

Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of these episodes from Artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon.com, and you can actually buy the episodes themselves as audiobooks.

Many people may assume that magic systems are only going to come up in fantasy, but even if you write science fiction, this can still be there right alongside the technology. One reason for this is that it’s possible for planet-hopping characters in science fiction to end up on a planet that does not have this technology, and instead they’ve got magic.

The first major thing I want to talk about is whether we need a magic system because we don’t always need one. One reason we should have a system is that we want to be consistent, and we also don’t want to suddenly give someone an ability that they need, right when they need it, when we should’ve given it to them prior to that, and possibly shown it to the audience so that the audience isn’t surprised later when they can suddenly do this.

It’s also possible, if we’re writing something like a series, to end up contradicting ourselves because a later book does something where we said earlier, in a different book, that it’s not possible for that to happen. Keeping notes is a good way to go about this, but so is creating an organized system. Another reason we might want a system is if we have more than one type of magic. This would allow us to contrast two different types. On the other hand, if we haven’t worked out a system so that we know what’s possible in one versus the other, this is harder to do.

But one reason we wouldn’t want a system is if we are only writing a short story. In that context, we’re probably not going to forget what we’ve previously done, and the story is short enough that there’s only going to be so much magic showing up anyway. If magic is very limited, that is another reason we may not need a system because so few people will be able to do it that it’s just not going to come up often. On the other hand, if magic is really prevalent, we’re definitely going to benefit from a system.

Just like with technology, we have to determine the prevalence of, in this case, magic. Anything rare is going to be more special, valuable and feared, while something that’s very common may get taken for granted much the same way that we take technology for granted. This is important for establishing people’s attitudes about magic, and we don’t really need to explain why magic is either rare or common. We can simply decide this is the way life is, and that’s the end of it. Most people are not going to question it.

The one time when we might want an explanation is if the prevalence has suddenly changed, such as everyone can do it, and then, suddenly, it’s very restricted or vice versa. In that case, we’re going to want an event of some kind, and that’s probably going to figure into our story.

So, how do we go about deciding the prevalence? Well, one way is to consider the impact on the setting and the stories, and what we really want. The more common magic is, the greater the impact is going to be. Do we want it everywhere the same way that technology is everywhere on Earth as I dictate this? We will have a sense of whether we want magic to be that common, so sometimes we don’t really need to think about this so much as make a quick decision.

When magic is common, we’re going to need to spend time thinking about how it could be used by society, and we’re talking about really mundane uses for magic. For example, if someone can simply cast a spell to make their dinner, then the entire restaurant industry might go out of business and not exist. On the other hand, maybe the wizards who can cast really good recipes are the ones who are operating these restaurants. One point I’m raising is that we can envision things in various ways. But, one way or another, it is going to have an impact on the way people go about their lives.

On the other hand, if magic is very rare, then life is basically happening without it, except for a few individuals. This is arguably easier to imagine because it’s similar to Earth a few hundred years ago. That’s not because magic showed up, but of course, technology did. And technology is one way to go about figuring out what people might be doing with magic. However, we should resist doing something like having an oven that basically works from magic instead of electricity. Ovens are a good example because if you think about what’s in your house for cooking food, you probably have a microwave, you an oven or even a double oven, a grill outside, and a stovetop. You might also have something like a crockpot.

A poor use of magic would be to decide that magic is powering each one of those devices. What may be a better idea is if there’s only one device and magic powers that and can produce food different ways in that same device. Try not to just use magic as if it’s electricity. Some of these obviously don’t depend on electricity, but you get the idea. You don’t want it to just be a power source or a replacement for an existing component of an electronics device. We need to reimagine such devices.

Now, aside from devices, if magic is really prevalent, then it’s possible that wizards are simply casting spells all the time rather than using magic items. An interesting example of this would be something like a teleporter where there are two people, two wizards, standing there operating this teleporter by casting spells in real time rather than doing the equivalent of turning on a dial or a power button, for example, that sends people from one place to another. They actually have to cast the spell. There may be people who do this for a living and employers that they work for. Imagine what kind of insurance they must carry because they might cause people to cease to exist because they don’t show up at the other side of the teleportation device. We can really have a lot of fun with this if we are so inclined.

A related subject is the social aspect of wizardry. Whether magic is rare or common, there will most likely be laws about whether it can be used. We can invent entire areas of law, crime and punishment for this. Laws often originate from problems that have already occurred, so all we really need to do is think of things that people have done wrong, and then come up with a law that tells people, “Don’t do that.” This can allow us to create laws that are either local or all the way up to the federal level, at the sovereign power level. This helps us create some history and some infamous incidents, and even perpetrators. We may also have famous victims.

Of course, one question is how can we inhibit a wizard from doing something if wizards are so powerful? There are always ways to do something like this. For example, they can be imprisoned in a place where magic doesn’t work. Or maybe there’s a kind of device that can be put on them that stops them from doing magic, or maybe even the talent can be removed from them permanently. Put on your thinking cap and imagine something.

There are bound to be laws about the use of magic. For example, if I cast a spell on myself ahead of our date, that might be considered okay, but if we’re going on a date and I cast a spell on you, that could be a crime. Generally, casting spells on other people without their permission is probably frowned upon. Another angle we can use to our advantage is the power disparity that exists between wizards and non-wizards. Not surprisingly, the people who can’t do magic will probably want to place a lot of restrictions on those who can. What if we’re playing a sport and I cast a spell to make sure that I do well? That’s not fair. Maybe sports are played in places where magic doesn’t work because people can’t be trusted.

Some communities might reject the use of magic altogether. Sometimes religious beliefs might be behind this, or maybe conservative values where people are resisting change and magic is becoming more common, or the more likely one is that magic has caused a major problem here in the past and, therefore, people are not trusted if they can do magic. That’s not really fair to people, but people, often, are not fair to each other. We certainly have words for it, like discrimination. If we like this somewhere, all we have to do is create some sort of past incident. If we want wizardry to be viewed positively by a community, then we can just have a wizard have saved the day, for example.

We can certainly have both good and bad wizards, or good and bad incidents have happened in this location and, therefore, people don’t decide that wizards are all one way or the other. If you’re doing a story with a basic battle between good and evil, you might want them to have a viewpoint one way or the other, but if you want a more realistic setting, then I would suggest having a mix of people.

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Sources of Magic

Another subject we should talk about is the source of magic. Where does it come from? The case can be made that there’s a subtle difference between the origins of magic and its sources. For example, the origin of magic is the answer to the question, “Where does magic come from?” One answer would be the universe. Another one would be the gods. There really aren’t too many other options than this.

Now, when it comes to sources, what I’m talking about is to perform magic, where does the wizard draw that energy from? For example, the universe might have provided magic as a point of origin, but when I go to cast the spell, where am I getting the magic from? Some options might be the planet or elements in that planet, like earth, water, air and fire, or it could be coming from magnetics. Or it could be coming from another body in the solar system, like the sun, the moon, a ring system around a planet or comets. It could also be other realities like the astral plane or a parallel dimension. Maybe I’m getting the magic from beings like a god, a demon, aliens or even regular things like plants, animals and humanoids — and possibly even from souls. Or we could have something like the force from Star Wars.

Part of what I’m getting at here is that when a wizard goes to summon this magic power from somewhere, it’s got to exist already in order for him to draw it from that place into himself, and then expel it outward as a spell. This is what I mean by a source of magic rather than the origins. If you’re wondering why this matters, well, let’s say that you’re an elemental wizard and you do things with water, and that’s all that you can do, but you find yourself in the desert where, in theory, there is no water. I say in theory because there is still going to be water in the atmosphere; it just may not be apparent to normal people. If you’re this elemental wizard, you may have the ability to sense it. But there can also be water underground and it just isn’t apparent to most of us.

This wizard might be able to draw the water from there and then do something like fill up everyone’s canteens so they have water to drink. Now, technically, that’s a source of water, but this person’s ability to do magic is related to water, so it would seem plausible that without a source like that, this wizard’s power doesn’t really work. They’ve got nothing that they can do. It doesn’t have to be that way, but part of what I’m thinking is a scene from a book I read a long time ago where a character who was a novice wizard, but very powerful, drew a lot of rain down on the opponents, the people who were trying to kill them, and the problem with this was that he caused a drought that lasted for something like a month after this. The people who knew better were yelling at him that he had done this, and he was offended that they were mad because he had just saved them. And they’re trying to tell him, “Yeah, but you caused this problem, or you’re about to cause this problem,” because they knew from experience that this was going to happen.

So, this is optional, but we can decide that magic has a source and it’s got to come from somewhere or the wizard can’t do anything. If magic is being drawn from living beings, then we have the ability to inadvertently kill them. Let’s say I want to draw water from your body. Well, I could kill you, of course. That may not be my intention, but maybe I was trying to do something else. Let’s say you were poisoned and I was trying to extract that liquid from your system, but instead I pulled out a bunch of water and now you’re really dehydrated or, worse, I actually killed you.

Now, some could say that this is not really a source, it’s just the element, in this case, that you’re operating on, and that’s a perfectly valid viewpoint. It doesn’t really matter what we consider it to be. What I’m after here is getting you to think about where wizards are getting the energy from, or what’s being affected by their ability to draw this magic to them, and then expel it outward. We always think about that expelling outward part, but do we think about where people are drawing this energy from in the first place? And is that supply inexhaustible? Is it forever? Is it something like the Sun where the odds of someone drawing all the power from the Sun and extinguishing it are pretty slim, even though they basically did that in one of the more recent Star Wars movies.

A related subject, and one that you’re probably familiar with, is the idea that there is a cost to magic. This is typically done partly because it’s believable, but it’s also a way to prevent wizards from having way too much power. One of the most plausible things is for magic to be physically draining, just like any other activity. I would recommend this as your default option because we have so many things that we need to do in world building that we might as well make this one simple unless we have another idea.

But we can think of other costs. For example, what if every time you do a spell, it makes you slightly more crazy than you used to be? Another limitation I remember is that if a wizard casts a spell, they’ve got to relearn it from scratch as if they’ve never seen it before and it’s difficult for them. We can also make wizardry cause premature aging. Take some time to think of a reasonable limit for your wizards.

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Are Spells Needed?

One of my favorite subjects about magic systems is the question of whether spells are needed or not. It may seem obvious that they are needed, but that sort of depends on our definition of the words “spell” and “magic.” Magic is considered to be powers that don’t exist on Earth, but, of course, in our fictional world magic is real. But this definition still holds up for us. The reason is that our audience is on Earth. Spells typically mean doing some combination of words, gestures and physical materials. And, of course, the point of all of it is to perform magic.

If this all seems obvious, there is a reason I am making the distinction here. In a fantasy setting, the gods are considered real and they are doing things that don’t occur on Earth. So, we could say that they are causing magic. But that raises the question, are they doing spells? We don’t usually show them using physical materials, for example. They might use words and make gestures, but it seems kind of like they’re just channeling their willpower rather than trying to summon magic from somewhere with a spell. If a spell is a kind of recipe for doing magic, it doesn’t seem like the gods are doing that, does it?

So, you may disagree with this, and that’s fine, but let’s say that there are two ways of doing magic: with a spell, like mortals, or by force of will, more like a god. Well, what if mortals can also do magic without a spell? That’s what we’re going to take a look at.

Let’s first start off talking about the option where spells are needed, since that’s what most of us are familiar with. Naturally, a spell would harness magical energy, but if the spell is performed wrong, we have two options: Either nothing happens at all, or magic still happens but in unintended ways. These are equally plausible. Failure could mean that the energy wasn’t harnessed at all, and that seems the safest bad result of a spell that didn’t work. But failure could also mean that the energy was harnessed and it is just improperly disposed of.

In a series like Harry Potter, they often go for a comedic result by having the spells doing something other than what they were intended to do. This has often bothered me because I always felt like the whole point of a spell was to achieve a specific result. If he didn’t do it right, why does something else happen? One thing to consider here is that spells were invented by somebody somewhere. It could be gods or other beings like them, but it could be more fun to decide that mortals are the ones who devised these spells, and since mortals are fallible, so are the spells. Someone who’s good at creating spells might have put in there some sort of failsafe so that energy is dispersed in a safe manner if the spell is done improperly. This would certainly make magic less dangerous.

In a setting where spells can still go off if they’re done wrong, it’s more plausible that there’s going to be a lot of law and fear about this. On the other hand, magic is going to be more respected if it is more controlled. Now, if I’m someone inventing spells, maybe I put the part of the spell that harnesses energy first, and then if someone messes up a later part of the spell, like the discharging of it, I’ve got that failsafe in there that kicks off. But maybe I’m a smarter creator of spells and I do that harnessing at the end, and the spell never even gets to that point if the earlier parts of the spell are done poorly.

We can decide that all of these options exist on the world because there’s obviously going to be more than one person who has created spells. We can also have a situation where these failsafes are considered limiting, naturally, and that some people feel like that’s a problem. They would like to cast more powerful spells, and in order to do so, they’re going to have to cast a version that doesn’t have that kind of failsafe built into it because that is taking some of the energy that could go into other parts of the spells. Naturally, it’s probably going to be the more dangerous wizards who are interested in doing such things.

Now, let’s take a look at the other scenario. The one where spells are not needed by mortals. All of those safeguards that we were just talking about are not going to exist. A wizard won’t really have this idea that, “Hey, if I do this, I’m going to get this result.” They may cause side effects each time, and one time they remember to safeguard against that, and another time they don’t, maybe because they’re distracted or they’re in a rush. So, maybe they know how to cast a fireball, but each time they do it there is something different about it, and sometimes it’s more significant than others, and that’s outside the parameters that they might be expecting.

Technically, without a spell, they’re not going to have any parameters, but you get the idea. There is a range of results that they’re expecting, and because there’s no prescribed way of going about achieving that result, the results are going to vary. And maybe more so than someone who is doing it through a spell. Naturally, this could make any magic they do more dangerous, and if they are drawing energy from beings that are around them, well, they may draw away too much because there’s no spell that limits how much is being drawn from people around them.

It would seem that doing things by a force of will is inherently more dangerous and uncontrolled. This would be one reason to reserve this only for gods or some other supernatural beings. For all of these reasons, a wizard might still use spells even if they don’t need to. In other words, the spells are optional. In this scenario, spells are placing limits on magic, not making the magic possible. Given this, does it make sense to cast a spell but have it go wrong and still do something when the whole point of that spell was to achieve a specific result? It seems like the answer would be no, and that this should be a pass/fail kind of scenario. This is certainly one option on our world. You’re going to have to decide for yourself which option makes the most sense to you.

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The Life of Wizards

The last thing I want to talk about in this episode is the life of wizards. One of the things I mean is making a decision about how the ability to do magic is gained and lost. A seeming default is that it is like talent, and either we’ve got it or we don’t. People sometimes don’t know that they have a talent, and they may not until they reach a given milestone. This could be an age or an event, such as losing your virginity or having a first period if you’re a female, or maybe the first time we kill someone or draw blood. Maybe we even need to die and be reborn first.

And what about the option to lose the ability to do magic? If a God has granted the ability, maybe they can take it away. The same kinds of events that caused us to gain the ability can also cause us to lose it. Maybe as long as you’re celibate you can do magic. That sounds like a hard choice to me.

If the ability can be gained and lost, we should decide if this is permanent or not. We all like stories of redemption, so someone losing the ability to do magic and having to do some sort of penance to get it back might be something to do.

Training is another element we should consider. This might be especially important if magic can be done without spells because training is going to be needed to control yourself and what you are causing to happen. On that note, someone without the training is going to be more dangerous, but maybe they aren’t as powerful because they have not learned how to capitalize on their strength. If magic is common, then we may have schools that teach this, or at least guilds. But if it is feared, then we are probably going to have a kind of master and apprentice scenario. There may be entire countries where magic is not allowed, but other places where it is, and as a result, people with magic talent travel to that place to gain their training.

All of this can be used to develop good character backstory. If we have the time and are interested, we can even come up with a curriculum similar to what might be studied in college. We can even use the Harry Potter books and movies as inspiration, although try not to rip off anything. Another element of training is what sort of tests are required, and what most be passed. What happens to people who have talent but can’t pass any of the tests? Are they restricted from doing magic? If that’s not possible, are they killed? Maybe people don’t want them going out into the world and doing all sorts of mischief.

Think through each of these scenarios in your setting, and what kind of life awaits those who do pass all of these tests? Are they able to practice magic lawfully? Are they respected or are they still going to be feared? Once someone graduates and goes out into the world, they are arguably at their height of power. This is not to say that they’re not going to be more powerful in 10 or 20 years, but they are in their prime now. Are they able to live in the open or are they someone who is still being shunned despite their training? Much of this is going to determine how their life is being lived.

This can certainly circle back to the social aspects we talked about before where if they are accepted, then this is a positive to becoming a wizard, but if they know that being a wizard is going to get them feared and shunned, maybe they don’t want to let on that they have this power. Maybe they’ve got the talent, but they never develop it. Imagine being really good at something, and it’s the only thing that you are good at or you have a talent for, but this will get you hated. This could certainly have an affect on your outlook in life. What if the opposite is true and you’re not good at it, but everyone else is and magic is very accepted? This could also make you very resentful that you can’t be like everyone else.

Something else to consider is that when someone gets older, in their later years, they’re not going to be as powerful, and they may have caused enemies that are now after them. This seems like it would be a good reason to have joined a guild when you were younger and made friends, some of whom can now, essentially, protect you. We often see the stereotype of the really old wizard who’s all powerful, but this isn’t really that realistic, especially if magic is physically draining. Are wizards really like wine and they just keep getting better with age, or do they eventually go bad? Which, by the way, does happen with wine.

The last thing I want to mention about all of this is that this idea of being viewed poorly or well might be reflected in the attire that people wear. This is obvious, but if wizards are hated and they’re required to wear a robe and carry the cliched staff, then this is a bit of a problem. On the other hand, if they don’t have to do this, then why would they? We can decide that such attire is something that is worn for formal occasions, but when they’re out in the world and they’re trying to do something like ride a horse, a robe is not exactly the most comfortable thing to be wearing.

Try to find more practical clothing for your wizards to wear. Now, when we do this, we may lose the ability to immediately identify someone as a wizard, but that might be something they want, especially if they’re going to travel somewhere where wizards are feared and maybe killed on sight. But there are other ways to give them a distinctive outfit, especially in a visual medium. For example, in Star Wars, everyone can tell what a Jedi is just that from their clothing. Despite this, some of their clothing is much more functional than in the original Star Wars Episode IV. In that, we see Obi-Wan Kenobi wearing a robe. That appears to fit with the lifestyle he’s living where all he does is walk around. He’s not doing something like riding a horse. But it still does evoke the cliche of someone who is kind of a wizard, an old man and wearing a robe. In some of the movies, like Episodes I, II and III, the Jedi are shown wearing much more functional clothing. They are also shown doing much more active scenes, flipping around and all sorts of stuff.

There’s an old cliche that we should probably try to avoid, and that is that wizards cannot wear armor for reasons that are usually not very specified. I think the primary reason people do this is that it’s one way to make a wizard more vulnerable. But one excuse that I have seen is that the metal somehow interferes with the ability to perform magic. That’s fine, but it would seem like wizards would go out of their way to have some sort of armor fashioned that does not have that side effect. Regardless of your decision, try to find a way that wizards can alternate between being recognized on sight as a wizard, and easily obscuring the fact that they are one.

Now that we’ve covered some of these basics to keep in mind with wizardry and systems of magic, we’re going to get into a lot more interesting detail in the next episode.

Closing

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Podcast Episode 30 – Creating Items

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Aug 252020
 

Episode 30: Learn How to Create Items

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create items, including regular ones, supernatural ones, and technological elements like an A.I.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to create an A.I.
  • Why we should create regular items
  • What to consider when creating magic and technological items
  • Why form and function may or may not matter
  • How to create imperfect items
  • Why manufacturers need a reputation
  • How to use story to decide what items do
Coda

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Episode 30 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty. Today’s topic is how to create items. This includes regular ones, supernatural ones, and technological elements like an AI. This material and more is discussed in chapter 7 from Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

Ownership

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One of the things we need to decide when it comes to items is who is the owner? Not only now, but who is supposed to be the owner if it’s not the rightful owner? Lost items, or ones that are in the wrong hands, are a good way to add some interest to our stories and our setting. It’s possible that somebody wants it back and is hunting for it, and if our main character has it, then this is a complication. Our character may or may not know that is really belongs to someone else, and this is especially true if they found it somewhere. And there’s the old idea: finders keepers.

That’s something that we say here in the United States, but the attitude might be quite different in another culture, especially among another species or race. You’ll have to decide what their attitude is. Do you want them to be the same or not? I think it would surprise American readers if a character found out the item really belongs to someone else and they just hand it over even though they found it somewhere. The more valuable or special that item is, the more surprising that would be. But it’s certainly one way to show a different attitude among another species or a culture.

If the item is in the wrong hands now, we may want to stop and think about how this came to be. We don’t have to write an actual short story, but create an owner and something simple about what happened to it. Was it stolen or lost, and when did this happen? Is that person even alive anymore? That obviously simplifies things, and if we don’t need that character showing up and being a hassle for our main characters, then that’s a good way to go. However, some items are famous and there might be other people who are interested in acquiring that.

We don’t have to create an origin story for every item, but it is a good idea because it’s too easy to just throw items out there and have our characters finding them all the time. This is something that audiences are used to from playing something like Dungeons and Dragons, or other games on computers, where you just find items and you go, “Hey, great. Now I’ve got this. In that context, we don’t have to worry about it. But for storytellers, it’s a good idea to decide where the item came from and to not have so many of these lying around.

I would go so far as to say that in a single, novel-length story, there might be one, at most two items that are found that end up positively or even negatively impacting the course of the story. And plenty of stories should have no such items. I’m specifically talking about ones that are lost or have come into the wrong hands. It’s okay to have more items that were not exchanged that way, but this whole thing of lost items and then being found, it’s a little too convenient. I’m not the only one who thinks that, so your audience may raise an eyebrow if too many of these start showing up. But in gaming, you don’t have to worry about any of this. You can just have tons of items everywhere and your players will love you for this.

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Regular Items

Let’s talk about regular items. What I mean are ones that are not technological or supernatural. Sometimes people associate supernatural properties with items that do not have this. A good example of this would be in religion. Any item that was used by a prophet can be seen this way, and we have a couple other items from Christianity, like the Shroud of Turin, the Holy Grail, or even John the Baptist’s head is consider a holy and interesting item. I forget the name of the spear, but the spear that supposedly was used to kill Christ on the cross to ease his suffering is also considered to be an item that acquired supernatural relevance as a result of that act. Even if it doesn’t have that supernatural element, people still revere it and it’s considered a highly prized item.

If we’re writing science fiction or fantasy, we can decide whether these items are only believed to be special in that way, or they actually are. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that they are not. Why would we want to create items that don’t have any supernatural or technological significance? One reason is that if every item in our setting does have that, it can be a little overwhelming so we might want to just have some simpler items around — ones that people still covet or think of.

One advantage to creating regular items is that they’re not going to have really unique properties, like a supernatural or technological one, so these are easier to invent. Some of these items could be ordinary in appearance, but we could add something unique to them, especially in a visual medium, so that they are more easily recognized. One way to create these items is to think of them in a mythological sort of way. What I mean is that an item could be ordinary until it did something extraordinary, not because there’s anything extraordinary about it, but simply because something very important happened and this item was involved.

An example of this would be the broken sword, I think it’s called Narsil, from The Lord of the Rings. This is the sword that cut the ring off of Sauron’s hand. There may or may not have been anything special about this sword, but once it did this, it became special, not because it acquired properties, but simply because of the significance of being involved in this incredible moment. We can do this with anything. I could smash a teapot over the head of a really bad villain and kill him, and the shards of that teapot are now famous. That’s a silly example, but you get the idea.

Along those lines, I remember reading a book where a character who was believed to be a murderer was executed, and right when he was beheaded, these women ran forward with bowls to collect the blood that was spurting out of his neck. It’s obviously a gruesome scene, but the reason they were doing this was that the blood of a murderer was considered to be powerful in witchcraft. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. As it turns out, that guy was actually innocent. It kind of makes you wonder if any spell they cast with his blood went awry because it wasn’t the right kind of blood. That story was set on Earth, by the way, and it didn’t involve magic in any way. It was just a myth that characters had. I believe it was set in the early 1800s in Norway.

This brings up a point that we don’t necessarily need these things to be true in order to assign something like that to an item. Going back to this idea of a sword that is special, what if the blacksmith who made that acquires a reputation for having made great swords just because one of his swords was used in a significant way? This is a way that that character can end up having, let’s say, a better business. Or we’ve got a main character who really wants to go get a sword made by that guy because of this association, even though it’s a bunch of bologna. This is a good way to take even regular items and make some of them seem like they’re more special, even when they’re not.

Something we’ll talk about with all of these kinds of items is whether the form and the function matter. For example, if we need a bludgeoning weapon, then obviously we need something like a mace or a hammer or a staff. If we need a slicing weapon, then it’s going to be a blade of some kind. But if it’s not something that people are going to use in that manner, like striking somebody, then the form doesn’t matter quite as much. This will make a little bit more sense when we talk about magic items because those often don’t matter what the form is based on the function.

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Magic Items

Let’s talk magic items. We have some standards that we can choose from, like rings, bracelets or other jewelry, and of course the wizard staff. A wand is one of the few things that someone’s only going to have if they are a wizard, or maybe a classical music conductor. That is arguably where that idea originated. But we can also give any other item in our setting magical properties if we desire. For any magic item, we of course have to decide on its properties. When doing this, we need to create limits.

One way to do this and be realistic is to create an item that has some problems with it. I don’t mean that there’s something defective, but an example would be something like a cloak that every time you put it on, it automatically makes you invisible. Well, sometimes you don’t want that to happen, right? If you’re going somewhere and you want to become invisible at a point in your trip, but not other times, you can’t just wear the cloak the entire time. You’re going to have to stash it somewhere, pull it out and then put it back later. In other words, this item is a little bit inconvenient as opposed to, for example, a ring of invisibility where, with a touch or a word, you can flip it back and forth and you’re not having to hide it or take it off.

So, sometimes we can make the item be less useful by giving it a form that is a little bit problematic. Another problem with that cloak is that if we’re not carrying it around with us, then where are we going to hide this? Maybe the cloak itself is always invisible, so it’s less of an issue, but if it’s not, then when we put it somewhere, there’s always the risk that someone else is going to take it.

One of the things that we often see in stories is that characters are not allowed to bring a certain kind of item, like a gun or a sword, into an establishment or an entire settlement, like a city, so they have to leave it somewhere. I always look at this and think, “There’s no way I’m going to do that.” I mean, I’m a musician and I’ve built my own guitars with a little bit of help, and I would never want to leave my guitar somewhere in the care of other people if I couldn’t trust them. When I move from one house to another, I actually take all of my guitars personally because I don’t want the movers to accidentally break anything. So, imagine that you’ve got a magic item, like a sword, and you’re told you’re not allowed to bring it into this settlement. This could be a pretty serious problem. In fact, this is such a problem that you might really want to consider not doing that in too many locations because it’s just something that your characters are going to have to work around a lot. In other words, this might take over your story a little bit more than you want it to. This doesn’t just apply to magic weapons, for example, but any of them. It just becomes a little more important to you to not leave it behind because you’re probably not going to be able to replace that as easily.

A minute ago, I mentioned the idea of a defective item. This is something that happens all the time with regular items, and certainly technological ones here on Earth, so why not with a magic item? I think the difference is that usually when something breaks, it’s because of a mechanical reason, and this isn’t necessarily true of a magic item. But there’s no reason we can’t have magic items that were poorly made. So, for example, with that cloak of invisibility, what if it only hides your body, but it doesn’t do anything about your shadow? This doesn’t matter if you’re skulking about at night, or at least it matters less, but during the day it’s certainly going to cause a problem when people see the silhouette of a person moving somewhere but there’s no actual person standing there.

We can have a lot of fun with this kind of thing, and we might even have a character who doesn’t realize their item is defective until they eventually discover that there’s one that works a lot better than the one they’ve been using. Feel free to invent magic items that have something wrong with them. And it might not even be obviously bad. It might just have something like a time limit. Maybe a spell that makes you invisible from a ring will only last for about 10 minutes, but better ones usually last indefinitely. Just take any element of this item and imagine the ideal state, and then figure out a way that it could be working poorly. Not all magic users are going to be good at creating magic items. Some of those might just get discarded, and they think it’s going to end up in the trash, but some guy goes through the trash and takes it, and now this item is out there in the world and people are using it.

Another property we should consider is the coveted on/off property. Can this thing be turned on and off? That cloak I’ve been talking about would be less problematic if you could make it go off, but you could still be wearing it. The version that I was alluding to earlier implied that it was always on. By on, of course, I mean that it was always going to make you invisible. You couldn’t be wearing it and have it not have that effect. By on, I didn’t mean that you were always wearing it.

This on/off property is another way to make items more valuable than other versions of that. So, for example, two cloaks, one that can be turned on and off, and the other one that can’t be. One of them is going to be more valuable than the other. The wealthier people in our setting might insist on such a property, but a lower level wizard might only create the other kind. Or even a better wizard might create both kinds and sell them to different classes of people for the requisite amount of money. On that note, would our character who was poor have the best version? The answer is probably not. Not unless they found it or stole it.

For most items, we should also limit the number of powers it has. An exception would be the wizard’s staff or wand. The reason we want a limit is that they can cause too much trouble if the item has too much power. Usually, it’s only the wizards who have items that have that many functions or that much power. After all, a wizard doesn’t necessarily need those items to be doing magic anyway, so they’ve already got a lot of power. So, having an item that has a lot of power seems to fit within that idea.

On that note, usually you must be a wizard in order to use a staff or a wand. All of this seems to suggest that other items only have one or two magical properties and that you don’t need to be a wizard to use them. This is not a rule, but it does make sense. If we think of these magic items as being like a tool, well, most tools only have one or two functions. So, for example, a hammer. You can either pound something in or you can use the other end of it to pry something, that you’ve already pounded in, out.

In most magic items, if they’ve got a magical property, it is usually accentuating something about the item. An obvious example would be a sword that does more damage. If you compare a hammer to the Swiss Army knife that has all these functions it can do, that knife is great, but it’s not going to do all of those functions as well as a dedicated item will. This is another way to think of these magic items and the properties we’ve assigned them.

Another important element is the form of that magic item. Something like a wand, a staff or a ring doesn’t seem to impact how that is being used, but a weapon does. One of the things we can do is take an item like a broom and use it for something like flying, even though that has nothing to do with its original form. These can be harder to come up with.

Another big thing about the form is that wearable items are much less likely to be left behind, and we can also be wearing it when we suddenly need it. But that does depend on whether it’s got that on/off property. It also depends on what it does. A ring of invisibility is kind of different from one that makes us less likely to suffer damage from an attack. Maybe it is making our skin harder. This is something that we could presumably wear all the time, unless, of course, maybe we were about to have intimate relations with someone who doesn’t like how rough our skin is.

One great thing about jewelry items is that even regular jewelry serves no real purpose other than dressing ourselves up a little bit. So, if a character is wearing jewelry that happens to be magic, it’s likely that no one’s really going to pay that much attention to it unless doing so is unusual. This is why it’s a good idea to use something like a ring, even though that is a cliche. It’s just such an obvious one that why wouldn’t you have a ring that has the magical property as opposed to something else, unless the form of it really mattered. For example, if I need a magic box that you can only open with a certain word, well then, obviously, a ring isn’t going to help me with that. So, if we want a magic item that’s going to have an effect on the person who has it, an item like a ring is a good idea. If it’s an item that’s going to have an effect on other people, we might want to go with something that’s more shaped like a sword or some other kind of weapon, or even a wand is the one that casts that spell on other people.

Typically, we assume that an item that’s being worn is going to affect the person that’s wearing it, not someone else. But there’s no reason it can’t. But it also seems like if it’s going to do that, then it’s going to do so within a certain radius or a certain direction from the wearer. But theres’ really no reason that we can’t decide that a specific person can be targeted by a ring that we are the one wearing. Maybe we have to make a certain motion with our hand or point a certain way and that’s how we’re signaling to the ring which person to do it to. Of course, anyone who knows about this is also going to realize that we’re doing this, so that’s a problem, but sometimes giving a problem is a good way to make something not be too convenient.

All of this brings up the idea of who the user of this item is intended to be in our story. We should always decide if someone who has no magic talent can use an item. As I mentioned a minute ago, it seems obvious that only wizards can use items specifically designed for them, like a staff or a wand, but most other items don’t usually require someone with magical talent to use them. Some of them we can just use automatically because they don’t have that on/off property like that invisible cloak, but others will need some sort of magic word that must be known to turn them on or off.

If we have different types of magic in our world, we could decide that these items only work in the hands of someone who is able to use that kind of magic. We could even decide that some people can be much affected by that type of magic, therefore if they’re wearing the item, it doesn’t act as a magic item. The likelihood of an item being used by someone else when we don’t want this is one reason why the manufacturer of that item might decide to place limits on who can use it. A worn item is much less likely to be lost, depending on what it is, than something like a freestanding chest that could be anywhere. The chest is going to be large and heavy, and not something we’re just carrying around all the time, so we’re going to have to leave it somewhere. As a result of that, it could always be stolen by somebody. Thinking of items this way is one way to decide on whether anyone can use them or not, and if the manufacturer has placed a limit on it.

The last thing I want to talk about with magic items is the subject of origins. We’ve touched on this a little bit in this section, but it’s always wise to have figured out who made this item. We don’t necessarily need a name, but we need to know what kind of purpose it was designed for, and the skill level of the person who created it. In some cases, these items will have been created for another person to use. In that sense, it sort of has two origins. The manufacturer and the original owner.

The more unique an item is, the more we should work out the origins. For example, Thor’s hammer is, well, one-of-a-kind. Therefore, people are more curious about this. But if everyone has a hammer like this, then nobody really cares. We can presumably go to the store, for example, and buy one. Even if we don’t explicitly state that, a run-of-the-mill magic item doesn’t need as much explanation as a one-of-a-kind one.

Our setting may have people who specialize in creating magic items and, if so, there are presumably stores where one can purchase these. Or, if not, we can track down this person and acquire one directly from them. Naturally, these people are going to have their own personalities that allow us to develop more interest in our story. Maybe they won’t sell an item to someone they believe is a bad character. Or maybe they really don’t care about this and will give it to anyone who pays a good price. They may even accept a commission for an item from one person, but then someone else learns about it, then comes along and outbids that person.

We can envision all sorts of personality flaws or attributes about the inventor that add more dimension to our story. We can certainly imagine that this person has considerable protection around them, whether it’s magical, supernatural or in the form of physical protection. If such people are really common, so much so that there’s a real profession of them, they may have banded together and formed a union of some kind. They may have something like a bank, essentially, where all of their magic items are collectively stored. Maybe even laboratories where they create these are located in that one place, and there is over-the-top magical protection and physical protection around this place. Take a minute to decide how much of this is going on in the world, and whether these people are really known and their identities, because this is going to be an issue.

Think about it like this: If there was somewhere on Earth where you could get magic items, wouldn’t you want to know where that is and how you can get in there? If you’re ethical, maybe you’re interested in buying one, but maybe they’re so expensive that you can’t. And if you’re unethical, you would certainly think nothing of going there and trying to steal something. Unless, of course, it’s so incredibly dangerous to do so. But then, maybe, you’re desperate.

Another source of items would be the gods. They could not only create items that are intended for mortals, but they could have their own items that they sometimes lose, at least temporarily. Truly powerful items that have fallen into the wrong hands is a good way to create mischief and even have one-of-a-kind events happen in the past. I don’t remember which story it is, but I believe there’s a story where this happens and the result is a whole race of creatures that are created.

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Tech Items

Let’s talk about technological items. Unlike magic items, technological ones tend to be created specifically for a purpose rather than repurposing an existing item. But both can be done. So, for example, we have a smart watch which is a lot more than just a regular watch. However, it was still designed to be like that from the beginning. It wasn’t a regular watch that had this property added to it.

Technological items often have the on/off property, too. It’s unusual that they are always on unless it’s something that can be plugged in or has some sort of battery that is indefinite. Something we should always decide on is whether this item is a good one or a bad one. What I mean is that we’ve all used items that we think stink because there’s something buggy about it. Manufacturers also have their reputations. Some of us might think that Apple is great while another guy thinks it’s terrible. We should try to do this kind of thing in our setting because characters will covet one item more than another, and they will sometimes complain about something because it’s not, for example, an Apple product because that’s what they love. I know that I frequently complain about software based on the manufacturer.  This sort of things adds believability.

Something we should also consider is the technological prevalence in the setting. Many items are taken for granted and we should have a sense of which ones are considered to be this way. This will form expectations and attitudes, especially when something stops working. Are people used to going without it? How would you feel if your smartphone stopped working or you had no internet connection for, let’s say, an entire week?

Technological problems are almost a given in any science fiction story. In fact, if we’re not careful, we can actually bog down our story with too many of these. It can almost become a cliche if we’re doing something like a TV series, because we have so many episodes, and we could have a formula cropping up where there’s some sort of technology problem. Do it too often and people accuse us of using a formula.

Another area to consider is usability because all of us have used an item that we thought was poorly made. This is another thing that manufacturers should be known for. In fact, we really should create several manufacturers that we have named in our setting. Try to think of at least three for pretty much every class of things, whether it’s ships, weapons, or even household items. The characters will certainly be noticing these things. The occasional gripe or pleasure expressed about them is something that is more believable.

When it comes to this usability, this is something that can be a con. So, we have an item that’s really powerful, but it’s a really difficult item to use, and therefore people avoid it despite the power it has.

Durability is a similar issue. Maybe people really like something but it breaks down all the time. There’s also the connectivity issue. I know that a long time ago I stopped using one phone service provider because their service was terrible. And I’ve done the same thing with my TV provider several times. Right now, I have one that I’ve had for years and I never have problems with it. So, I basically swear by it.

We should take a minute to think about how connectivity issues can positively or negatively impact any story that we create, and the characters and the items that are in there. A related issue is the power adapter issue. If we live in the United States and we go to Europe, we need to buy an adapter or our items will not be able to be plugged in. This is, obviously, a mundane concern, but this is another way that we can make things go wrong for our characters, especially when they arrive on other planets. It always seems like characters are walking around with fully charged items, and one reason people do this — you know, the storytellers do this because they don’t want to make that an issue in the story that they’re telling. They’ve got other things on our mind.

That’s good, but a realistic option would be for only one of the characters to have run out of battery, for example, so that the other characters in the story can still move forward despite this. But it adds a humanizing touch to our story. Or, in this case, it makes an item more believable because it has failed.

When it comes to the origins of our technological items, we are pretty much going to assume that these are coming from a manufacturer somewhere, and we almost don’t have to specify this unless we want to do this thing of giving reputations. In other words, people aren’t going to wonder where a character got something. They’re going to assume they either bought it from someone, stole it, found it or whatever. But it’s not usually something that’s so rare that there’s only one of them.

But this is not to say that we can’t have one-of-a-kind items in our science fiction stories. In those cases, yes, we will still have to think of this as far as who is the point of origin or what company did it? And is this, for example, a prototype? Or maybe it’s a really old item that is no longer being manufactured. As a result, there might be very few of them. Another important issue with origins is to figure out which species is responsible for inventing this item. Once again, one species could have a reputation for powerful items, or ones that have a lot of durability, or maybe they’ve got reliability issues, or connectivity issues or any of these problems. They might actually think their own items are great until they start using ones made by another species and realize their own kind of stink by comparison.

Every item in your setting should have a reputation. We can also decide that an entire species is only capable of producing, for example, unreliable items. Or we can decide that it’s only their plasma guns that are unreliable because they don’t seem able to harness plasma energy in a way that is reliable.

When it comes to form and function with technological items, they usually go together. But this is not always true. For example, your smartphone has so many functions in it that no one would realize unless they are familiar with such devices. Weapons are the obvious thing where the function will matter, but this will depend. A weapon that is shaped like a gun only makes sense when the projectile is a physical object. If it’s something like a beam of light, then why does the item have to be in that shape of a gun with a barrel? Try to think outside the box with these.

When it comes to users, it often doesn’t really matter who the user is. But many times it does, especially if some sort of specialized knowledge is required to use the item. But something else that we can do is decide that a species has input biological markers into their devices so that only their species can use those items. This can cause disputes where maybe they’re considered to be unfriendly towards other species in the sense that others will share their technology, but that species won’t. So, this kind of thing can be used to cause attitudes to come up in between multiple species.

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Creating A.I.

The last item I want to touch on is the creation of an artificial intelligence, or A.I. One thing to think about is whether the gender is fixed or whether this can be changed. In fact, maybe we want the species to be capable of change. This is not only the voice, but some A.I. are capable of projecting a 3D image or even a 2D image on a TV, and we may want them to be able to physically appear different. This matters a little bit less in a book because we can’t hear the voice of the character. We certainly can’t see them. Another question is if this character can change, then do they have the ability to impersonate other people?

We should decide where this A.I. lives. It could be part of a vessel, or a structure like a house, but it could also be portable. If the A.I. can manifest physically, does it look like a real person or is it obvious that it’s some sort of light projection? The way to decide this is really to determine what sort of uses you have for this character. Do you want someone to confuse them for a living person? We can also put this A.I. inside a physical body, such as a cyborg. And, of course, we can make a decision as to how realistic they look. Is it obvious that they’re a machine? And is it obvious because of things like skin texture or is it because of the way they act? We should also decide if all of the A.I.’s data store is local to them or if there is something that they are connecting to to gain more information. If they are portable, perhaps most of the information is on a ship because that’s where they normally are, but when they go elsewhere, they only have a subset of information available to them and must reconnect to the ship.

Personality is another major area to invent, but we can approach this just like any other character in our story. One caveat is to give them a reduced sense of human interaction, or other species, where they just don’t quite understand some of the things that we are saying to each other. There’s nothing original in this, and you have probably seen this portrayed in a variety of shows. It’s almost like the comedy of manners thing where people don’t quite understand each other. We should also decide if this A.I. has the ability to appear at pretty much any location in a ship, for example, because this could produce some awkward moments where you’re undressed and, next thing you know, the A.I. is on your screen and looking at you. Now, maybe you don’t care, but maybe you do and you might find this awkward. Maybe the A.I. has been programmed not to do this kind of thing or can be taught why this is considered an issue.

Basically, what you want to do is decide how you want this A.I. to be used, and then think of ways it can cause problems or be beneficial to the crew and their interactions with each other. We should also consider if this A.I. can be modified. Now, as someone who does software development for a living, I can tell you that bugs get introduced all the time. So, if there is a crew member, or several crew members, who have the ability to modify this artificial intelligence, they may do things that don’t work out as they intended. Imagine if this A.I. is responsible for maintaining all of the life support systems, for example, and then you’ve got crew who are able to modify this. They may really screw up and effectively kill everybody on board. I would imagine that in such a scenario, the testing that goes into something being launched is considerable.

Another issue here is whether or not this A.I. can be hacked. This is another idea that others have used effectively. This is one reason not to make the A.I. be all-powerful.

Closing

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 Serenade of Strings called “The Gift” 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!

Podcast Episode 29 – Creating the Supernatural

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Aug 112020
 

Episode 29: Learn How to Create Languages

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create the supernatural, including supernatural energy, magic paths, alternate realities, supernatural beings, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What energy types might be available to us and how to decide on their properties
  • How to invent magical paths and what to populate them with
  • How to create an alternate reality and what goals they can serve in our story
  • How to decide how common each supernatural element is and the impact it may have on setting and story
  • What supernatural beings we might want to create, using analogues from Earth as inspiration
Coda

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Episode 29 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven. Today’s topic is how to create the supernatural. This includes supernatural energy, magic paths, alternate realities, supernatural beings, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 5 of Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

Energy Types

Before we get started, I do want to remind you that you can now purchase the transcripts of all of these episodes from artofworldbuilding.com and Amazon.com.

The most obvious type of supernatural energy that we’re going to have is, of course, magic. But we do have other sources, such as radiation, dark matter or things that we invent in science fiction. There can even be energies that are not supernatural in nature, but due to general ignorance, such as in a fantasy setting, we may have characters thinking that it is supernatural when it’s just something like X-ray radiation. But even when something like gamma ray radiation exists, most of us have not been exposed to something like this in high enough doses to know what it really does to the human body, or another species. Therefore, we can invent side effects of being exposed to this. I believe something of that nature has been done with the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Spider Man. Regardless of what the source is, what really matters is that we want to figure out a number of things about it.

For example, what is the origin? What are the properties? Where does it occur? Can it be controlled, and if so, how? And what protection against it exists? And then, of course, it’s always helpful to have thought of past incidents that people have had with this energy.

When it comes to origins, we can sometimes skip this because, even here on Earth, scientists have sometimes not figured out what the source of an energy is. This means our characters may not know either. We can even invent an energy because there have been times in Earth history where we did not know about an energy. And, of course, later on, it was discovered. So, if our story takes place 1,000 years into Earth’s future, then maybe we have discovered more types of energy.

But something we do want to decide on is where this energy can be found because, of course, our characters are going to encounter it. Otherwise, there’s really no point in us inventing it. One reason to do this is that this energy might be in certain locations where a given species tends to live. For example, let’s say it’s a fantasy setting and it tends to happen in forests. Well, the elves are typically forest-dwelling, so, therefore, they may be more likely to be experts with this type of energy. This can easily result in a cast member who is an expert because of their race.

A fun area to invent are the properties. This can also result in a nickname for it. For example, if it looks like blue fire, then that’s maybe what people call it. We should decide if it gives off any heat or cold, and if it feels like anything in particular and if we are capable of touching it. We know that something like an electrical field will cause the hairs on our arms to stand up, so is this kind of effect something that happens? This can be good to work out because maybe some of our species have more developed senses than others, and, as a result, they’re the first ones to detect that this is happening somewhere nearby.

When it comes to controlling an energy, this is something that people pretty much always want to know if it has been discovered. This is especially true if it is dangerous. So, decide if it can be controlled and how, and who is capable of doing this? Do they need a technology? Do they need to be a wizard? What is it about them that allows them to control this? It’s possible that anyone who has a certain device will be able to do so. This is true in both science fiction and fantasy. With any energy, we’re going to have past incidents because people have most likely encountered it before, unless we are writing the story of the first time they do so. We can sort of do both where our current characters are first running into it, but other people have run into it, and maybe some of them don’t realize what it is, but one of them in the group does. That discovery could happen too late after some of them have already experienced it, possibly because the group has separated from each other.

As with any past incident, we can just make up a short story about who was involved, where it happened and what happened. Did people survive? What happened to their bodies when they encountered this? This can not only give us a famous incident, but give us a famous character.

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Magic Paths

Another area that comes up, especially with fantasy, is what I think of as magic pathways. While not original if we do the same, we can certainly make it original by adding our own stamp. These are typically presented as an alternate way of getting from one place to another, usually more quickly. But, of course, this comes at a price because there’s something inherently dangerous about this place. Those dangers are some of the most fun things for us to invent.

If you’ve read my free novella that you can get from my fantasy mailing list, called The Ever Fiend, that figure is someone who inhabits one of these alternate pathways and the land therein. I was able to think of all sorts of strange places, phenomenon, and items that people can create in there, or side effects of things that happen to items once they’re in there for too long, especially if they have been left behind. While working on that, I realized that sometimes a wizard might want to go in there and get some of these peculiar places because there are ingredients for spells that don’t exist anywhere else. In fact, this is what led to the story of The Ever Friend where the main character, Talon Stormbringer, is the person who was hired by a wizard to go in there and get it.

One of the other dangers that can be in these paths is that other people might be in there. They could be in there voluntarily because they’re after something, or maybe they have gotten lost. As a result, they might be someone who preys on anyone else who enters this place. In the real world, a path always leads to a physical place, but with these magical paths, they don’t have to. This could be the only way to reach the afterlife or the place where the gods dwell, for example.

We can pretty much do whatever we want, and one of the things we need to figure out is what do people need to do to enter these pathways? Can they do it anywhere with something like a spell, or do they need to go to a specific location, or one of maybe a few dozen that exist, and enter the pathways that way by doing something at the doorway? If they do, then, most likely, some of these paths are guarded, either by something like a monster or it’s in the control of an evil kingdom somewhere, and they don’t want anyone else to go in there because they’re going in there and doing all sorts of bad things while they’re in there, or harvesting items like I talked about a minute ago.

There’s a lot of fun that can be had with these. In Cultures and Beyond, I have a template that can be downloaded to help with the creation of a supernatural land, and anyone who joins The Art of World Building mailing list can download this once they do because it will be sent to you in an email.

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To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.

Alternate Realities

Alternate realities don’t really need any explanation because all of us have seen these, especially in science fiction. If we want to create one, all we really need to do is have several historical events that are very significant, and then change the outcome of these. Just as we imagined the existing event caused a certain timeline that is our normal reality, the alternate event will cause another one and we just have to think through what would happen if this event occurred.

In that sense, there’s not really a mystery to how to create one, but the thing we want to keep in mind is what point are we trying to get across to the audience or the characters by doing an alternate reality? For example, maybe our main character had a traumatic event and this has changed him in a certain way, but the version of him from another reality has not had that and our character sees how he could’ve been, how he could’ve turned out, and how he might actually turn out in the future if he is somehow able to let go of the demons that are driving him based on the event that happened in his own timeline.

The point I’m making is that a character can end up reflecting on their life and their choices based on seeing how things have turned out differently in another reality. So, what we’re after here is some sort of character transformation, and one that we couldn’t think of happening to this character in another way. But it doesn’t have to be about a specific character. There used to be a show in the 1990s called Sliders where every episode, they were in another reality. They would slide to that through a kind of portal. Always, something had happened that was different from their own reality. This was an interesting premise and it allowed them to comment on all sorts of social phenomenon, and even historical events.

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For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

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Supernatural Beings

Another subject to discuss is that of supernatural beings, like gods. However, I already discussed that in other episodes of this podcast, so I’m not going to go over that again. What we’re really talking about this time is lesser beings, such as demigods, or maybe a human who is half god, half mortal. We could also include figures like demons, angels or someone like Cupid. If we have a setting with gods, then it is possible for some of these to exist, and it would be a mistake, possibly, not to include them. If we were to look at any mythology, we would see that, typically, a lesser being, like a demigod, is serving a specific purpose, such as Cupid or a messenger. When we go to invent someone like this, we should decide whether we have a need for them rather than just doing it for no particular reason.

On the other hand, a messenger character is fairly universal and could exist in any mythology, including the one that we are inventing. But a figure like Cupid is a little bit more specific, so maybe if we were writing a romance fantasy, then this character might actually come up. This is not to say that Cupid, or a character like that, couldn’t come up in a story that has nothing to do with romance. But, generally, we want to think of someone that we’re actually going to use.

Another type of supernatural being would be a creature, for a lack of a better word. An example might be something like Medusa. Not only does she have the really weird snakes for hair, but, of course, she has the ability to turn someone to stone if they look in her eyes. Such characters could be considered a monster, and, in fact, that’s often how they were used, and I already discussed this in a previous episode. But we still want to consider creating these characters. However, you may remember that a monster is typically just a one-off. There’s only one of them. So, if we want a whole group of creatures, then that’s something that would fall into this category. That makes them something of a cross between a species and a monster, or even an animal.

There are other figures of note that we might want to create. An example of these would be Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek mythology, or maybe even Charon, the guy who ferries lost souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron. As I mentioned before, in my book, The Ever Fiend, there’s a character with that name who rules over a specific land. So, he’s another figure of note. If we have created any supernatural locations, including in the afterlife, these figures might be inhabitants there. To create these, just decide on a purpose for them.

Review

if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again, that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review.

Prevalence

Something else we need to consider is how prevalent supernatural items are in our setting, whether it’s energies, beings or anything else. Anything more common will be more easily accepted, and something that is rarer is more likely to be something that people don’t understand, and therefore fear. When it comes to energies and beings, we need to know how frequent they are so that we know how often our characters might run into these, or how difficult it is to escape from somewhere or just have any sort of interaction with something, and if the people know what to do when they are face to face with this phenomenon or being.

Most of us are probably going to opt for having these items be rare unless our story is intended to heavily feature them. If that is the case, then we may have to do a mental deep dive into how this thing existing has a big impact on our setting because it might be really pervasive. For example, if magic is really easy and everyone can do it, then it’s probably really imbued into daily life. Therefore, we’re going to have to seriously think about what life is like. On the other hand, if it’s very rare and few people can do it, then life is mostly going on without it. The same thing is going to happen with any sort of supernatural energy or being. We want to make a decision how prevalent this is while we are inventing it. This is especially important when we get to the moment where we start thinking about how other people are relating to this.

A final word on creating the supernatural is that this is one of those elements we can just create one of them at a time and then move on. On the other hand, creating something like a species could take months of working on it and refinement. So, this is one of the easier and more lighthearted ones to go about creating. I think the most important thing for you to do first is to decide on the prevalence of the supernatural in your setting. After that, it’s really going to come down to what you need for each story.

Closing

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 the album Now Weaponized! called “Ostinato.” 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!

Podcast Episode 28 – Creating Languages

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Jul 282020
 

Episode 28: Learn How to Create Languages

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a language, including whether we should, what’s involved, how to hire someone, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Why authors get less mileage from an invented language than screenwriters
  • Whether inventing one is worth the time and energy
  • How to evaluate your motives for doing it
  • What you’d be responsible for providing to audio book narrators and actors
  • What books you can use to dive deep into language invention
  • How to hire a conlanger to do it for you, how much they cost, and what you’ll get
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 28 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-eight. Today’s topic is how to create languages. This includes whether we should, what’s involved, how to hire someone, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter eight  from Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

The Responsibility Caveat

As we get started, I want to remind you that you can buy transcripts of all of these episodes, and the episodes themselves as audiobooks, from Amazon or artofworldbuilding.com.

So, I have a confession to make. I am not going to teach you how to create a language, either in this episode or if you were to buy Cultures and Beyond. There are several reasons for this, and one of them is that I have not created a language myself, and the reason for that is that I looked into it, and read several books I’m going to talk about in a minute, and I concluded that this was not something for me. One reason for that decision is that it’s very time consuming and it’s a complicated subject. This is also one of the few world building tasks that you can hire someone else to do for you. There are also, literally, books on how to do this, so there’s no way I’m going to teach you in a 30-minute podcast episode, or even the chapter of one book, when there are literally entire books on this subject — and those books are written by experts who have repeatedly created languages.

Naturally, this begs the question, well, what am I going to teach you? We’re going to take a look at whether or not we should build a language. We need to understand what we are going to miss if we don’t do this. The way I would break it down is that these books I’m going to mention can teach you how to do it. I’m going to talk about whether you should, how to go about that, and make up your mind — and whether or not you should hire someone, and how to go about that. Basically, I’m going to focus on the world building ramifications of doing this.

A constructed language is also known as a conlang, and those who create them are called conlangers. This is a relatively small field of people who do this. This small field of people, they’re the ones who are going to realize that you have done a poor job of creating a language if you don’t follow a lot of the things that they do when they’re creating one.

One of the considerations we should be aware of is that if we write a fictional story and we would like an audiobook done of that, we have one of two options if we have used a fictional language. Either we are going to have to speak that language ourselves, or the narrator that we hire is going to have to do that and we are going to be the person responsible for teaching them how to say everything. This is certainly something to keep in mind.

There is another alternative there, and that would be to simply translate everything into English, for example, if the rest of the book is in English, and not have them try to speak the foreign language. The side effects would be depriving the audiobook audience of the language. This would technically make the audiobook be slightly different from the printed or e-book. However, if we can’t figure out how to do this, or we can’t hire someone who is able to accurately say the language, this might be our only option.

On that note, the narrator we hire will have to be told that this is part of the job because some of them may not be willing to do this. This could also limit the number of narrators available to us. What if we really want someone to narrate a book and they are not willing to do this? I would say that this is how you solve that problem. It’s also possible that these narrators might charge more for having to do this, depending on how much of that fictional language you have in your work.

If we’re not doing an audiobook and we are an author, then this fictional language is mostly a visual display in our book. On the other hand, in audiobooks and TV and film, someone can actually say this language. Most authors would be fortunate if they have enough success that their book is being turned into one of these, and this raises another issue. If we are the one who invented the language and we’re the one who’s going to have to instruct the actors on what to say — and there might be far more lines that need to be said — this could quickly get out of hand if we aren’t prepared for it. And our ability to hire someone else to make more of these translations is going to be limited because we’re the only ones who really understand the language, so we’re the only ones who can do that work. But maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll be able to hire a conlanger to take over the language and do it for us, but they may also have serious problems with what we have done if we have not followed what might be called protocols for how to create a fictional language. In other words, they might find the task of doing this harder because we have made errors that stand in their way.

So, these are some of the factors to consider. One of the books that I alluded to earlier is called The Art of Language Invention. It’s by David J. Peterson who invented Dothraki for Game of Thrones, and I believe some languages for Star Trek and other series. Then there’s The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. I have read both of those books, but what I have not read is a third one, also by Mark, called Advanced Language Construction. Naturally, your reaction to reading these could be different from mine, but what I picked up from these was that this is way more involved than I thought it was, and it’s something that I just decided I’m not going to do. At times, it seems accessible, and at other times it just seems like I’m getting in way over my head. Sometimes we have to asks ourselves, “Do I really want a language created or do I want to be the one who creates it? And if I want to be the one who creates it, how badly do I want to do this?” Because once you read a book like this, you may reach the conclusion, as I did, that it’s just something that’s a little too involved for you.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m being very negative about this because, again, your reaction could be very different from mine. If you really want to create a language, I would highly recommend checking out these books, and maybe some of the others that are available, and seeing if you can get your feet wet on this.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

You can also join the mailing list at artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. This gets you free, reusable templates from each published volume in the series. You don’t even need to buy the books to get these. I also send out contest information, free tips, and other stuff to help with your efforts. Please note I do not share your email address with anyone as that’s against my privacy policy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Sign up today to get your free content and take your world building to the next level.

Should We Create a Language?

Let’s take a deeper look at the question of whether or not we should create a language. One way to help determine this is to examine our motives for doing so.

One of those motives would be vanity. Maybe we just like the idea of having invented a language, so it would stroke our ego. This is arguably a poor reason for doing this. One reason is that there are other ways to satisfy our ego, such as being a successful writer, or maybe writing a bestseller if something like that matters to us. And, certainly, something like that is going to impress more people, if we care about impressing others besides just ourselves.

So, if I tell someone that I’m a bestselling author, that’s probably going to get a better reaction than telling them that I created a language, which might make them think that I’m just a geek, which could be true, but that doesn’t mean I need to go around advertising that. One point here is that time spent on our writing craft, or even learning how to successfully promote our work, might be much better spent than creating a language. There are so many things that are competing for our time as world builders and storytellers.

A better reason for creating a language is to create something called a naming language. This would allow us to come up with more coherent or consistent names for both people and places. We can also avoid having names that sound too much like Earth. But I will make one observation about this. If we look at a map of Earth, many names are pretty similar across countries. One reason for this is the influence of English, but Spanish and French are similar. I think these are all called romance languages, if I’m not mistaken. But what this means is that they have some common ancestry to them. What does that mean for us? Well, we could have a bunch of different kingdoms on the same continent, or even across continents, that have similar naming conventions. When we look at a map of England versus France, we sometimes think that the names are specific to that country, but that’s partly because we live here and we have heard of these names before.

For example, York might seem like it’s very much an English word, but that’s because we know that. There’s really no reason why the word York can’t come from France. So, part of what this means is that we can get away with similar naming conventions across kingdoms.

Another good reason to create a language is to create the feel of another world. Certainly in a medium where people are speaking that language, that immediately gets across the idea that this is not Earth. However, if we are lucky enough to have our world being featured in something other than an audiobook, it’s likely that the TV show or the film has hired someone to go ahead and create this language. On that note, someone was hired by the producers at HBO for Game of Thrones, namely David J. Peterson, to create Dothraki even though George R.R. Martin had created a certain number of words in his books. Martin had not created an entire language. My point here is that even if we want a language to be created, someone else might end up doing that, depending on what medium we are working in.

If our world has its own language, that certainly gets across the idea that it’s another place, but there are many other ways to do this, and ones that are not nearly as time consuming. We might also feel that a language is expected, and, therefore, we need to create one. There’s obviously a difference between a need and a want. Again, in film, TV and certainly gaming, it may be expected, but book audiences don’t really expect one. We’re not surprised when we see one, but we’re not expecting one. I would say that authors shouldn’t feel compelled to create a language based on audience expectations that, arguably, don’t really exist.

Authors sometimes will throw in a few words here and there just to give the impression without going too far with this. And that’s fine, except that we can sometimes do this enough times within a book that we’ve created a number of words that don’t really make sense if someone who understands language, especially conlangers, looks at that. But then, that raises the question, do we really care that much what a small group of people thinks about the job we’ve done creating a language? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. There’s a big difference between a few dozen people criticizing us and a million people criticizing us. Even if those few dozen criticize us to those one million, most of those one million are going to hear that criticism and say, “What’s the big deal? We don’t really care.”

I mostly raise this point because we sometimes do things because we’re afraid of being disapproved of. It’s only a small group of people that are going to do that in this subject. In other words, I’m trying to give you several excuses here not to go ahead with this if you decide that those excuses are valid. And, again, I don’t mean to sound like I’m just being negative about the whole thing.

Another factor here is to consider how often we are going to use the world. I’ve talked before about creating a world that we can use for our entire career, in which case it may make sense to go ahead and invent a language because we’re going to have many opportunities to use it. On the other hand, if we’re inventing a language for a short story, that may not be a good use of time because we’re going to use so little of it. In fact, we could spend more time inventing the language than writing the story. That’s the kind of scenario where we might want to just throw out some made up jargon and not really worry about if it sounds like a real language to those who know better. Between these is something like a novel where it’s a standalone and we’re not going to revisit that book and that language again.

World Building University

If you’d like to learn world building skills through instruction, I’ve launched World Building University. There you can find one free course you can take just by signing up, which has no obligation. Other courses are in development and available now. You can preview parts of every course, all of which include video lessons, quizzes, assignments, and sometimes downloadable templates that are even better than those found in the books.

To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.

Consider Medium

Let’s take a minute to consider the medium. We’ve already touched a little bit on the difference between books, audiobooks, TV and film. Anytime the language is actually going to be spoken, this is pretty good because we can hear inflection and tone despite not understanding what someone is saying. The gestures and person’s expression can also help us pick up on the meaning. This is one reason why having a language in a visual medium is very useful. The gestures and expressions are obviously going to be missing from an audiobook, but certainly the tone and inflection will still be there. However, none of that is apparent in the written word.

This suggests that we will get less mileage from a fictional language in a book, unless it’s being read. This means that the time investment is a little bit less worth it. In all mediums, we sometimes have another character translating for the other characters who also don’t understand that language any more than the audience does. And then there’s the subtitles option in any visual medium. That said, subtitles can be kind of tedious, and if you’ve ever watched an entire foreign language film with subtitles, you know this to be true. This is one reason why we sometimes see a character start off speaking a fictional language, and then after maybe a minute or so, they switch over to speaking English. There is sometimes this implication that the universal translator that you see in science fiction has somehow been turned on via the TV, as if it’s now being translated for us.

Of course, what’s really happening, and the reason they’re doing this, is that it’s not only easier for the actors, but for the audience to not deal with this fictional language. Once again, this suggests it’s not going to be used as much. One advantage to subtitles is that at least at the same time that the words are being spoken, the words are being shown on screen. By contrast, in a book, you’re going to have to put the words in there twice, potentially, once in the fictional language and then once in English so that the audience can understand it. Either that, or you’ll have a character sum up what has just been said. The point I’m making is that the word count will go up slightly, but this is not something that’s really going to impact our work. I’m assuming you’re not going to have literally half of the book in a fictional language.

Something else to consider for authors is that if the audience has to stop and try to make sense of what we’ve written, well, they may just stop doing this and skip over all of our invented language. In which case, what was the point of inventing it? Some people enjoy trying to sound it out, but I personally don’t. Anytime I see fictional words, I pretty much skip right over them. If it’s one or two, like the word dothraki, then no. But if it’s an entire paragraph or several sentences, I really have no idea what this means. Aside from the visuals of it giving me a sense of it being eloquent or harsh, it doesn’t really mean anything to me and I’m not picking up much from seeing this.

Another potential issue here is that we typically don’t want to push the audience away and pull them out of our story, and looking at a fictional language and spending, let’s say, five minutes trying to parse out a sentence just to see how it might sound, even though we don’t understand what it is, that is definitely pulling somebody out of our story. For that reason, I would suggest keeping the use of fictional languages down to one or two sentences at a time.

Subscribe

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For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

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This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

Options for Inventing and Using Languages

Let’s consider our options when it comes to the use of constructed languages.

The first option is that we can ignore this subject altogether. That means if our book is written in English, every last word of that manuscript is in English. We make no attempt, at all, of doing a fictional language, or even throwing in the occasional word that’s made up from one of those languages. We may allude to other languages or state that they exist, and do something like say, “He said hello in his language before switching to common.” Some of our readers will object to that, but many of them won’t. In science fiction, the universal translator basically eliminates this option altogether. Well, it can.

A second option is to not invent a language, but just make up words and phrases as we go along. This is what many world builders do. The only real downside to doing this is that any linguist or conlanger, that small group of people I was talking about, they are probably going to realize that what we’re doing doesn’t really make sense. They may roll their eyes at us, but do you know something? They know how hard it is to invent a language because they’ve done it themselves. So, they’re probably going to understand why we didn’t do it more seriously.

The third option is to create a language to one degree or another, such as the naming language I mentioned earlier. I would only recommend this if you really have the time, if it’s something that you really want to do, if reading those books I mentioned does not intimidate you into not doing it, and, possibly, if you intend to use the setting for a long time and would really benefit more often from the time spent inventing a language. If none of those are true, maybe it’s not a good idea to invent a language.

And then there’s the fourth option. We can hire someone to invent a language for us. This is a good option if you are already making money from your books, or if you happen to just have the money lying around. Another good thing about this is that you’ll have experience dealing with an invented language that was created for you. This means if you decide later to just do it yourself, you’ll already have some experience dealing with one.

Review

if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again, that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review.

How to Hire Someone

So, how do we hire someone to invent a language for us? Well, as it turns out, there is a website by the Language Creation Society, and that website is https://conlang.org. There is literally an application you can fill out on this website. You would fill out what you need and by when you need it. Once LCS gets your application, potential conlangers will look at it and decide if they would like to work on your job. LCS recommends giving them about two to three months lead time before you actually need the language. One thing I will point out is that even when you are hiring someone, there are terms that you may need to understand in order to understand what you are getting from them. For example, the word “phonology” means “the sounds of the language.”

There are four basic options on their website. Option One is called a naming language. This includes the phonology,, it does not include any grammar, it will give you about two dozen names and it costs about $100 USD. For a comparison sake, as someone who has published multiple books in different genres, I can tell you that I have spent somewhere between maybe $300-600 for a book cover. Editing and proofreading each can cost somewhere between $200-400. And then there’s a ton of promotional expenses that could come up. There are plenty of people who have spent almost nothing on releasing a book, and then there are people who spent thousands. So, $100 is not really that much money.

Option Two is what’s known as a conlang sketch. This, again, includes the phonology. There’s not going to be any grammar, except for a few words. It’s going to have 50 lexical terms, which means vocabulary words, including names, and that will cost you about $200.

Option Three will, once again, include the phonology, it’ll have basic grammar this time, there will be 150 of the lexical terms, and then maybe 5 sample sentences. And that’s going to cost you about $400.

Then there’s Option Four. It, again, includes the phonology, this time a detailed grammar, 500 lexical terms, and about 20 sample sentences. And that one will set you back about $800. Note that these are the initial things that you get from them once they deliver what you have ordered. As you go ahead in your writing career, you are sometimes going to need translations from them, and you may have to pay a little bit extra to get that from them if you don’t do it yourself. LCS does not include pricing for that on the website, and, also, these rates are going to vary by the conlanger. But this should give you a pretty good overview of what the cost might be, and I would assume that any sentence or two that you need translated is not going to cost another $800, for example. It’s only going to probably be under $100. Now, I don’t know that for sure, but I would imagine so. It might be far less than $100.

How to Start

The final subject I’ll touch on is where to start with language invention. The first decision is whether we want to use a language, and for what, and how often. This will determine whether the time or money spent is worth it. We’ll also need to determine if we are comfortable with inventing phrases as we go along, and not really worrying about what anyone thinks or if we would like to have a more realistic language. One way to determine this is to go ahead and skim through or read those books I mentioned and see if this is something that intimidates you or if you feel encouraged and like you really want to get started. Some of those books are as little as $5 for the e-book, so that’s a small price to pay to get a sense of where you stand on this world building element.

The last note I would make is one that I mentioned before. This is one of the only world building elements that you can actually hire someone to do. The only other one that comes to mind is making maps. Consider what is the best use of your time and money.

Closing

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 Serenade of Strings called “The Joys of Spring.” 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!

Podcast Episode 27.4 – Creating Cultures

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Jul 142020
 

Episode 27.4: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture, including rituals, pastimes, daily life considerations, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to invent dining etiquette and meals
  • How to decide on bathing routines
  • What to consider for sleeping schedules
  • How to create transportation considerations
  • What rituals might exist and be useful
  • What sort of schedules to consider for anyone who works for a living and why this matters
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 27.4 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create cultures. This includes rituals, pastimes, daily life considerations, and more. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

Daily Life

Just a reminder that you can buy transcripts of these episodes, and the podcast episodes themselves, from artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon.

Daily life is one of the basics we should obviously pay attention to when building a world, but it seems like it gets overlooked a lot. One of the reasons for this might be that our characters are often off on some adventure somewhere and they aren’t really dealing with daily life. Even if that is the case for our characters, everyone they run into is going about their normal lives, for the most part. They are going to run into other adventurers, for lack of a better word, so those people are also not going about their daily life. But unless there is a major war going on where daily life has stopped for everyone, this is still something we should pay attention to.

Dining

But even those characters who are traveling around are going to deal with certain things. For example, dining. Everyone’s got to eat. Sooner or later, these characters are going to end up in a more formal setting, such as a tavern or eating with royalty rather than always eating at a campfire. There’s going to be an etiquette to these things, whether that is followed or not.

Certain parts of this are easy to come up with if we have our cultural vision. For example, to be stereotypical about it, a barbaric race is probably going to be a little more hearty about things, where they’re just very boisterous, loud and they dig right into food with their bare hands. On the other hand, we usually picture elves as being really refined and having these great manners. These might be the kind of people that have two forks — one for the salad and one for the main dish. Maybe even other ones for other things like dessert.

These are some of the easiest things to quickly decide on because one of them is going to strike us as the appropriate one for the culture we want to invent. The details are where it starts to get more fun. Let’s take a deeper look at this barbaric choice. What I really mean is a very hearty and boisterous culture. They may have meals at any time rather than at some sort of set time of the day, and they might even eat standing up or right after an animal was killed. They may not clean up beforehand, and will show up wearing whatever they happen to be wearing. There may be no table and no silverware. Dirty hands and mouths will just be wiped on whatever they happen to be wearing. If they want to let other people know that a meal is being had, maybe they aren’t saying anything at all because it’s on you to figure this out, or maybe they just give a holler once and that’s it. They’re not going to track you down. Belching, loud songs and stories might be common. If they need to relieve themselves, they may not have a bathroom and they may not go very far to do this. They may eat too much and they may not leave anything else for someone else to have if they’re not around.

None of this is particularly original. We have all probably seen this kind of depiction if we have watch fantasy shows. But let’s contrast this to the more refined approach that you might see with elves. Meals may be had at a specific time of the day, and if they change a little bit, maybe it’s by just a half an hour. People are probably told about these things in advance, and usually politely. If there’s going to be a guest, then we ask those people if they would like to join. It might be that no one is allowed to start eating until every guest has joined the table. The host might also provide choices for people. This could include deserts, side dishes or what to drink. The food may be presented well, and the people themselves will be presented well, having cleaned up. Naturally, there’s going to be all sorts of ornate silverware, china, crystal goblets and that sort of thing. If anyone belches, it’s by accident and they excuse themselves. Maybe no one ever takes the last of anything so that there’s always a little bit left over for someone else.

In between these two extremes are what we would typically experience in a modern culture like the ones that we live in. I don’t need to spell that out for most of you, but just to be clear, meals are roughly at the same time, but they’re casually announced. People are expected to wash up, but we often don’t. And we may show up wearing whatever clothes we were already wearing. And if it’s dirty, maybe we get a reaction, and maybe we don’t. There’s only one knife and fork per person, and you grab anything that you want yourself. People get up and leave when they need to.

These are three of the basic scenarios that we have. The more barbaric one, the refined one and then the in-between one.

A younger society is probably going to be a little rowdier, while an older one may be more refined. That’s a generalization, but that’s one way that you can make your decision. The point is that customs tend to build up and multiply in time rather than decrease, so things get more complicated and more refined. However, that is not to say that a very old and boisterous culture is going to be have a really refined dining etiquette or anything else. They could still be the same way after 10,000 years.

When we’re trying to come up with some dining etiquette, there are some questions we can ask ourselves. If you’re trying to invent a culture right now, think about what the answer to this would be for the culture you have in mind because it’s going to strike you as yes or no.

For example, can people invite themselves to dinner? Are impromptu guests accepted? Is there any expected attire, and what is it? When it comes to seating, does someone sit down first? Are the seats assigned or is it kind of random? Are the tables reserved? Does anyone do something before everyone starts to dine, like say a prayer? When it comes to serving, do people just help themselves or is there a certain person who gets served first or last? And is that based on gender, seniority or something like the guests? Maybe the host is served first. Is it okay to bring weapons to the table or is that forbidden?

Another area to think about is how many meals are typically consumed in a day. I remember watching The Lord of the Rings and one of the characters was complaining that they weren’t having second breakfast. On that note, you may have noticed that this is only mentioned once. The filmmakers did not repeatedly point this out. Is that an oversight or not? I would say that in a film it is not an oversight because if you keep reminding the audience, they’re going to wonder why you keep doing this. After all, a film is relatively short. However, in books, we may want to mention this again, or that the character is at least planning around it by grabbing extra food to take with them because they’re not going to get their second breakfast if they don’t.

Even if our readers don’t care about this, the fact is that the characters do and they’re going to be planning their day around this kind of stuff. When I take my kids out for a really long outing, I certainly bring snacks for them because I know I’m going to hear about it. Sometimes I buy lunch for myself and for them and bring it along with me so I don’t have to buy a really expensive lunch wherever we happen to be. We all do this kind of thing, but for some reason, fictional characters don’t. So, this can be an oversight. I just don’t think it is with films. With TV, yeah, it still can be an oversight because you have so many episodes where you can drop this kind of detail in everywhere. One smooth way to do that is to have your characters interrupt someone having their second breakfast, to use the Lord of the Rings example.

We may want to decide what sorts of foods are typically consumed at each meal. If you think about breakfast, lunch and dinner here, there are certain foods that come to mind. You really just need to decide on something similar for your setting. Cultural vision won’t help us here as much as the local setting of where this place actually is. In one place, it might be very different from another, based on the plants and animals that are traditionally available. This is a good way to distinguish different locations within your culture if that culture is very broad, such as an entire sovereign power that covers a wide geographic area.

Here in the United States, a simple example that immediately comes to mind is that certain types of foods are associated with Louisiana — specifically New Orleans. We can easily go overboard with this kind of thing, so just try to think of one or two dishes, or a style of dish, that is typical of local cuisine. This may be useful if we have a character who is from there and is craving that kind of thing when they are elsewhere. We don’t really have to make up these foods, either, because we can use anything from Earth and just give it a different name and no one’s going to know that we’re really talking about spaghetti and meatballs, for example. Well, that may not be a good example because it’s so basic. Swap out the noodles with a different kind, or maybe switch the meatballs to something else and there you go. Maybe change the sauce and say that it’s always a spicy dish because spaghetti and meatballs can be, but it is not always. This is starting to make me hungry. Maybe I shouldn’t be recording this around lunchtime.

Another thing to consider is that sometimes a big family dinner, or other meal, is associated with certain cultures. Naturally, a cultural vision where a lot of importance is placed on family togetherness is more likely to have this. Decide which meal of the day it is and whether this is every day or just certain days, like our Sunday. One way to decide is just to decide their viewpoint on these different meals and the days. Is starting breakfast on the beginning of the week important because it starts off the week on a good note? Or do people want to catch up at dinner every night to find out what happened during the day?

We may also want to consider how food is presented. Many of us have eaten at a Japanese restaurant where it is presented in a kind of minimal and very formal way. What I mean by minimal is that there’s not that much food on the plate. Other cultures may pile so much food on there that you wonder how you’re going to eat all of that. In movies, we often see Italians having their mothers, or someone else’s mother, insisting that they take extra food with them. What influences that may be a time in the history where food was not so plentiful. Or it could be a situation where larger women are considered very attractive, and therefore, that’s the kind of thing that people are pushing on you.

Lastly, we should also consider that there may be specific foods that are consumed at certain times, such as our Thanksgiving in the United States. When I looked into this, I was a little surprised that since the early 1970s, KFC is a traditional Christmas food in Japan. Why that is escapes me at the moment, but I certainly wasn’t expecting that. If we have invented plants and animals, we can decide that one of them, or several of them, are prepared a certain way, and this is a traditional meal that happens on important holidays. Once again, this doesn’t really take that long to invent, and we can almost do it arbitrarily and then just put this detail into a scene.

On that note, if we have not worked out our calendar and come up with some holidays, then we’re not going to know when our characters are traveling right through one, but our characters would if they were real and living in a real world. Have you ever traveled between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States and not realized that you were doing so? Probably not because the traffic is crazy and pretty much everyone plans around that.

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Bathing

Another daily life subject is bathing and how often this is done. This is definitely something that we notice if we encounter someone from a culture where the bathing is noticeably different from ours, especially if it’s far more infrequent. If we ever get transported back in time, this is one of the first things that we’re going to notice. I might fare better than most of you because, for whatever reason, I do not have a pronounced sense of smell.

In a modest society, bathing is in private, but some cultures have people bathing together, whether this is coed or not. Now, when I say “bathing,” we typically mean using soap, but there are things like the Korean bathhouse where people are mostly soaking in water of various temperatures. We should decide how often the average person bathes. A society’s understanding of hygiene will impact this.

In science fiction, people usually have a better understanding, so they might bathe more often than our fantasy characters. Technology probably also makes this easier. And in fantasy, it’s more likely to be a bath than a shower, again due to technology. If people don’t wash up regularly, then something like perfumes might be all the rage because of the smell, of course. It’s also worth noting that wealthier people have more opportunities to bathe, and this is one thing that can help them be set off from other characters.

We should also consider that parents typically bathe their children, but we should decide at what age this typically stops. If self-reliance is important, this probably happens sooner. If having children is somewhat rare in this society, for whatever reason, then parents may treasure those children more, and dote on them more, and this might result in them bathing those children when they’re still older. Does one parent assume responsibility, and which one? Or do both of them do it? Does the parent join the child in the bath? Bath water is often shared, as well, even if people are taking a bath one at a time. So, someone gets to go first and have the hot water. Who is it? Is it the children? Is it the man? Is it the woman? Who takes precedence?

One of the ways we can use this kind of information in our storytelling is having our character react to a situation. Maybe they never got to have the hot bath, and now they do. Maybe they have always bathed alone since they were very young, and as a result, they are very modest and shy. This could not only affect that character, but all of the characters in this culture. Many of them might be like this. We may also decide what time of day do people bathe. Morning or night? It’s usually not during the midday, but if the climate is unusually hot there during the midday, maybe that is when people are bathing and visiting something like a Korean bathhouse. If the climate is always cold, then maybe people warm up with a hot bath first thing in the morning because the fire has died down overnight and they’ve gotten a little cold. On the other hand, maybe there’s something about the culture that has people outside after dinner very often, and as a result they get cold and take a hot bath before going to bed to warm up.

Sleeping

Speaking of sleep, that’s another subject we should figure out. Every culture could be known for something about their sleep habits. A race that needs little sleep might have an active nightlife. We can certainly invent a species that is nocturnal, so that they are up at night and sleeping during the day. This would have a pretty significant impact on their culture. We should consider whether married people sleep in the same bed or not. This is a custom in many places, but not everywhere. As with everything, this can lead to judgment. If you are from a place where a married couple shares the same bed, and you find out that another couple is sleeping in adjacent beds, or even in different rooms, you might assume that there is trouble in the marriage when there isn’t.

Do children sleep with their parents, and is that in the same room, the same bed or not? At what age do they stop doing this? Is it considered weird for a child to still be sleeping with their parents at a certain age? Some cultures associate the bed with sex, and as a result, children are not allowed to sleep with their parents past a certain age. If we have a culture that is kind of sex-obsessed like that, then this is something we may want to duplicate. Or is our society more forgiving and non-judgmental? Some cultures also have a siesta, which is basically a nap around midday, and this typically happens in cultures where it is very hot at that time of the day. The siesta could be preceded or followed by a bath. That brings up the idea of employment, which we will talk about next.

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Jobs

Most people need a job, and our characters still need money even if they are no longer working because they’re out living the adventuring life. So, part of what this means is that they used to have a job, most likely, and they are no longer doing that. Despite this, they will still be well aware of the workweek that used to dominate their lives, and is probably still dominating the life of every character that they run across, except for other adventuring types. For example, in the United States, if you want to go to the bank in person, you’re going to have to do that during the week, between certain hours, and maybe on Saturday, but not on Sunday. Do we plan around that? Well, no. Not anymore, thanks to the ATM, but sometimes we still need to.

This is one of the many ways employment is still going to be affecting our characters and the stories we tell, even if they are unemployed. So, one of the things we should think about is how many hours in a day is typical? Here in the United States, most people work five days a week, eight hours at a time, for a total of forty hours. Naturally, some people have more than one job, but that’s not the point. There is still a standard, full-time workweek. However, there are lots of variations to this. Some people might get their forty hours by working four ten-hour days. We can really drive ourselves crazy with that, so what we really want to do is just figure out what is the basic for most people.

Maybe our culture has people working every day of the week for eight hours a day. This reminds me of the cruise industry where that is basically what’s happening, but it’s actually more than eight hours a day. But then they get something like three months off where they don’t work at all. What if an entire culture was like that? Now, it’s probably not going to happen on a regional level, or even bigger than that, or even at a city level because everything’s going to stop functioning. So, this may not be realistic.

We also need to consider that in a fantasy world, that kind of regimented schedule wasn’t necessarily something that came up. People did work as it was needed. Sometimes they got overworked and sometimes they didn’t have much to do. Naturally, that’s going to depend on what type of work someone is doing, so we really don’t want to go down into the weeds and figure this out for everybody. However, coming up with something like that siesta, that is a very good use for things because people might realize, “I can’t go to the store between, say, 11 and 1 o’clock because they’re all closed because everyone’s either taking a nap or they’re at the bath.”

We should also decide if people are starting their workday late or starting it early. And are they staying late or ending their workday early? Again, we’re not looking at individuals, but the culture. Do they prize being done with work by something like our 4 p.m. so that they have the rest of the night to relax? Or are they really driven to succeed, and therefore they get to work early because they just want to get moving?

In our modern time, we have a lot of laws about whether children are allowed to work or even be brought in to work, so this is something else we should decide on. We may think that we don’t need this, and maybe we don’t, but what if our characters go into a store and the store owner has their child there? Will our character be surprised or not? Is the child just there playing, or are they helping?

Transportation

Another daily life subject is transportation. This may not seem like a cultural element, but it is. There are cities like Los Angeles that are known for cars. It’s also known for some of the worst traffic in the United States. Venice is known for gondola boats. Another place might be known for motorcycles. In science fiction, we might have certain types of craft that are known to be in that particular area. In fantasy, this may be true when it comes to boats. In a previous episode, I talked about different kinds of ships that would exist, and some places might be known for one versus another. Cities tend to be known for things like pedestrians, bicyclists and traffic jams, not to mention very limited parking, and that’s something that people take into account when they are going to be living there or visiting.

The ease or difficulty of doing these things is something that is part of the cultural mindset. This is one way to characterize a particular settlement because it’s going to change from place to place. There are also subcultures that do all sorts of modifications to their cars. We have seen this here in the United States. Maybe in science fiction people do this to their spaceship.

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Pastimes

How people spend their free time is another element we should look at. This is true for the same reason that other people who are still working, versus our adventuring characters, are going to also be taking time off. Our characters may be looking for someone when they are not at work because of this. Or it’s someone’s day off and they don’t want to do what they’re being asked to do. But here, we’re really looking at what people are doing when they are not at work.

To use some stereotypes in the United States, men are typically watching a lot of sports on TV, or possibly playing them. They may be attending an event in person. Men like to say that women are always shopping, and that’s their pastime. Those who have a dog must walk the dog from time to time, or take them to a party. Som people are really big into fitness and do certain types of activities, which might be very different in our fictional world. Others like to dine out and others like to cook.

There are so many of these that we could invent that it’s yet another rabbit hole we could descend into and never emerge from. But there are certain things that are universal, such as watching events take place or participating in them. Fitness and dining events are others. All we really need to do is come up with variations that are specific to our setting, and this is especially easy if we have invented plants, animals and other species. What if instead of walking the dog, you had to fly your dragon? Maybe it occasionally needs to breathe fire on something so that it doesn’t burn down your house. Maybe instead of dog fighting, there is dragon fighting. You get the idea. Just swap out any animal that’s real for a fictional one. For exercise, we just need to think of new activities. These, once again, might be dependent upon the setting. Maybe people climb cliffs because that’s what’s there.

The great thing about a lot of these is that we can often make them up when we need them, and they don’t necessarily need to be done in advance. I would recommend creating a handful of activities for a novel-length work. These can be mentioned in passing, such as a character walking around and seeing someone walk their dog — or, in this case, walk their dragon. We can also have a character complain that they are not getting to do one of their favorite pastimes anymore. If they’re a fan of a certain sport, and their favorite team is going to win the championship, maybe they’re going to miss this. We can also have characters mock each other for their hobbies. Think about your own life and how these things come up. The fitness ones might come up for any character who simply doesn’t have the opportunity to engage in that fitness activity due to their new adventuring life. Maybe they’re getting out of shape and are not happy about it.

There is one type of pastime that people in fantasy and science fiction are particular fond of, and that is inventing some sort of game. This can be a lot of work, but can be really rewarding if done well. A smart world builder will take existing games and modify or combine them. Remember my Rule of Three. Make at least three significant changes, maybe more, so that people don’t recognize the game as easily. If we have invented fictional animals, this can really help set our game apart because we can employ them instead of something like a horse.

If we have fictional species or races, they may have unique abilities so that they are limited. For example, maybe you can only have one elf on your soccer team. Maybe a sport similar to basketball does not allow dwarves because they’re not tall enough. The advantages that these species or races bring may cause problems that result in rules, and this is another way to distinguish our game.

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Rituals, Festivals, and Ceremonies

Let’s talk about rituals, festivals and ceremonies. Do people observe and celebrate their birthday or not? We can make this more important to our characters if something happens on a specific birthday, like their 18th. Maybe they acquire more rights, just like we do in many cultures here on Earth, or maybe there’s an ability that suddenly shows up. In many cultures, the birthday is celebrated on the actual day of birth, but in some, everyone’s birthday is celebrated on the same day. We can do something like this to distinguish our book from something like the United States culture.

In an authoritarian regime, maybe they force everyone to celebrate on the same day. One reason for that is that such a regime is often trying to stamp out personal expression. Lumping everyone together is one way to achieve that. This could result in a scenario where, officially, people are celebrating their birthday on that day, but privately the family is also celebrating the actual birthday, but keeping that a secret so that they don’t get into trouble.

Holidays are another important item, partly because people will often have the day off from work. But certain holidays are more important than others because they are religious in nature. This can mean more pressure to do something specific during the holiday. If that holiday involves a pilgrimage, that obviously becomes a bigger deal, especially if it’s expensive to do that pilgrimage. This might impact that person for an entire year as they plan for this. There are some religions that have a pilgrimage that is supposed to happen at least once in your lifetime.

When it comes to inventing holidays, we sometimes want to do it for a civil rights leader who impacted the culture. Naturally, that’s less likely to happen in an authoritarian regime. There, many of the holidays might be reserved for those who are in power. By reserved, I don’t mean that they are the only ones celebrating, I mean that those holidays are designed to honor them. All we really need to do is look at our own culture for some ideas.

For example, in the United States, we have a holiday for presidents, we have some for the military, and in a fictional world we might have one for wizards. I discussed more events in The Art of World Building (#2), Creating Places. And in Cultures and Beyond, I talked a little bit more about things like ceremonies, festivals, and even architecture and how that is impacted by culture. But, at this point, I think four episodes about culture is probably plenty for you.

Hopefully, you are not overwhelmed. Culture is one of the most important and impactful things that we can invent for any story that we are creating. Especially in fantasy, many stories are presented as if they are right out of either the medieval or renaissance periods in Europe. This is so true that it’s become a cliche, and inventing a culture of our own is the best way to break free of this and make our world more believable and memorable for our audience.

Closing

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 Serenade of Strings called “The Joys of Spring.” 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!

Podcast Episode 27.3 – Creating Cultures

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Jun 302020
 

Episode 27.3: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture, including greetings, farewells, language, expressions, slang, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What consider when creating greetings and farewells
    • What elements are typically present
    • What can be omitted
  • Gestures that exist in cultures
  • How language is affected by culture
  • How to create expressions and slang
Coda

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Episode 27.3 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part three. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes greetings, farewells, language, expressions, slang, and more. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

Greetings and Farewells

Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of these episodes from artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon.com.

With world building, we are always trying to figure out what to do and what to skip. One of the most useful things we can do when it comes to creating cultures is creating greetings and farewells because these are things the characters will actually say to each other. If a work is a TV show and it happens repeatedly, sometimes fans of those shows will say these greetings to each other. An example would be saying “Namaste” from the TV show Lost. In Game of Thrones, people often say “seven blessings.”

Sometimes these expressions become popular enough that they enter into the common language that we often use, so this is one area that I do not recommend skipping. Greetings and farewells will exist in virtually every culture. The only exception I can think of is a culture that is so barbaric that they haven’t even evolved to that point yet. Even then, they are likely to at least grunt at each other. It’s worth noting that even animals will make recognition of another animal, especially those of their species. One reason for that is rivalry, especially among males, for females.

So, yes, at the very least, the greetings will exist. The farewells, maybe not quite as much. And if you think about it, we do make a bigger deal out of greeting someone, but often, when we are saying farewell, we may not say anything. We might just give a nod. We might even just turn and walk away. It depends on how casual the setting is.

One reason that greetings may be more prominent is that they really set the tone for the coming interaction. This is something to keep in mind. If we have already come up with our cultural vision, and that vision includes being very respectful to people, then the greeting is also going to be probably more formal and, of course, respectful. On the other hand, if the cultural vision is very casual, then we might end up with a very casual greeting, like, “Hey, what’s up?”

For both greetings and farewells, a general tip is to keep them brief. I remember watching Game of Thrones and it would take something like 30 seconds for all of Daenerys’ titles to be read off by the end. The first few times it was okay, but as this continued, the greetings just started to grate on my nerves as someone in the audience who just wanted it to be over with because I’d already heard all of them before. These technically weren’t greetings, but it’s the same idea. Keep them short.

Another reason for brevity is that a greeting is not exactly the heart of the conversation, now is it? We have much more important things that our characters need to say to each other. The case can be made that one of the most useful reasons for a greeting is to show culture, but another is to show that someone does it poorly, or skips it and causes a minor offense to another person.

When we’re inventing greetings and farewells, we probably want multiple versions of these. The reason for this is that some settings are formal, some are very casual, and others are somewhere in between. For example, in English, we have “hello,” “hi,” “hey,” “yo,” and then stuff like “what’s up,” which can even be shortened to “sup?” That’s a lot, so we don’t really need to go that far, but I would recommend at least two, maybe three of them.

It can be easier to start with the most formal and then try to come up with shorter versions of it. One reason for this is adults are usually the ones who come up with the way someone should be greeted, and then younger people tend to shorten things out of laziness. I doubt an adult over the age of 30 came up with “what’s up?” Very casual greetings like that can apply to a social group within the larger structure of a settlement, region or sovereign power. One way of looking at this is that the more formal greetings might be more widespread and universal almost, and then these more casual versions might be applied to one group or another.

Typically, the casual versions originate with one group, and then they sometimes catch on and spread to the wider population. This brings up a point that these more casual versions are often a kind of bonding mechanism and a way for peers within that social group to recognize each other. In addition to this social aspect, greetings sometimes have a practical origin. For example, the handshake originated from each person trying to show that they did not have a weapon. Sometimes people had a knife or a dagger hidden up their sleeve, and the shaking of the arm was supposed to cause that to come loose. Another version of this is each person grabbing the other person by the upper arm because, of course, you would feel the blade was in there.

Knowing the origins of a few of these helps us think of other versions, especially if we have a different kind of weapon in our world. We’ll talk a lot more about the physical gestures in a few minutes, but let’s focus on the words first. As we all know, in any greeting, there is typically a word that basically means “hello.” The words often include some sort of wishing pleasant times upon that person. Some examples of that would be something like “good morning” or “live long and prosper” from Star Trek. Technically, the latter one is a farewell.

Another thing often included in greetings is some sort of inquiry as to how well they are doing, such as “how are you?” You may remember in the U.S. there was a commercial running a few years ago where a guy would walk into a bar, or some other casual scenario, and someone would say, “Hi, how are you?” and instead of just letting that pass, because it’s a rhetorical question, he would actually give a really long answer to this. So, the point I’m getting at there is that this is, often, a rhetorical question. You’re not necessarily supposed to answer it. This would be an easy way to do a culture clash where someone from one culture doesn’t realize it’s rhetorical and does give an answer just like the guy in that commercial.

Greetings can sometimes include some statement about how happy we are to see them, such as “pleased to meet you.” Then, sometimes, there’s a title like “Sir,” Lord,” “Mr. Smith,” or even a really formal one like “Grand Master of the Seven Realms.” In some cultures, we may introduce ourselves first before asking the other person’s name, or vice versa. Then, using your given name, or your first name, as we call it in the United States, is less formal than using the surname, or last name.

So, when we are trying to come up with the words that people say, these are all elements that we can mix and match to come up with their greetings and farewells. To some extent, the cultural vision that we have developed for this culture may not have too much of an impact because there are a lot of universal elements, like the ones I just listed, that are incorporated into greetings. But if we do have a cultural vision, it’s certainly very helpful to leverage that, if we can, when doing this.

A final remark about the words is that sometimes a profession, like being a swordsman, may have something to do with what is said. For example, I might say, “May your sword never break,” or, “May your bowstring never snap,” if you’re an archer. If you’re someone who does scouting for the military, looking for dangers, maybe something to say to that person is “many sightings,” as in “may you see many things that are worth reporting on.”

When people belong to a specific social group, we should have already defined what makes that social group exist in the first place and we can leverage that to come up with these greetings and farewells.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

You can also join the mailing list at artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. This gets you free, reusable templates from each published volume in the series. You don’t even need to buy the books to get these. I also send out contest information, free tips, and other stuff to help with your efforts. Please note I do not share your email address with anyone as that’s against my privacy policy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Sign up today to get your free content and take your world building to the next level.

Gestures

Let’s start talking about physical gestures. The words are almost mandatory in that we almost always say something. It’s a little bit less common for us to only make the gesture, unless we are far enough away from the other person that they wouldn’t hear the words anyway. In other words, unless the situation prevents it, words are typically expected, but physical gestures are a little bit more optional — or, at least, that’s how it is in the United States. In another culture, like Japan, something like the bow might be required, and skipping that is going to be the thing that gets you into trouble. This is an important distinction to make. In some cultures, one thing might be expected a lot more than the other. But in the United States, we can really interchange the physical gestures with a word, so we can do one, the other, or both. And of course, in some cases, we can do neither. Which one of these is more prominent in your setting?

When it comes to these gestures, one thing to keep in mind is that throughout human history, we have had a different sense of the spreading of germs than at other times. Today, we’re very familiar with this, but even 200 years ago we didn’t have any idea about a lot of this. A culture that is not well informed about the spreading of disease might be one that is doing more physical intimacy, such as kisses on the cheek. A culture that is more aware of how sickness can be spread might have greetings that have physical gestures with more separation between the parties, such as a bow.

It’s worth noting that in science fiction, where there is space travel between worlds, the pathogens are going to be completely different and no one is going to have immunity from a pathogen that exists on another planet. Of course, our characters are usually wearing a space suit of some kind. In a show like Star Trek, this is one of the things that they kind of gloss over, the same way they gloss over people not understanding a foreign language. The universal translator took care of that problem, and there seems to be this implication that the doctor on the ship has some sort of immunization that he can just easily give to everyone so that sickness has been largely eliminated from science fiction — either that or if someone catches something, it’s relatively minor, like the common cold.

What we don’t usually see, because it’s pretty dramatic, is something like what happened when the British arrived on the shores of North America — and the other countries, like Spain and France, also did this — and all sorts of pathogens infected the American Indians and wiped out a lot of them. As a side note, in science fiction, if an alien culture really wanted to just wipe out the Earth, all they would have to do is release a pathogen that we have no immunity to. They don’t need to show up with all these space ships. Writers probably ignore that most of the time because it would make every sci-fi alien show the same when it comes to aliens discovering the planet.

Despite all of this, physical interactions are often part of any sort of greeting or farewell, and that includes the handshake and its variations. One thing we may want to avoid is the actual handshake that takes place on Earth. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it is so Earth-like that it’s just going to remind people of here. So, we can do some variations on this, like interlacing the fingers. Then, of course, there’s the fist bump that was popular for a while here. And then we can use two hands, or we can grasp someone by the forearm, the bicep or do this kind of shoulder clasp where you put their hand on their shoulder.

With some of these, we can actually keep the handshake itself, such as if I use my right hand to shake your hand and then I put my left hand on your shoulder at the same time. You, of course, would be doing the same thing to me. Then again, maybe you wouldn’t be. If I’m a man and you’re a woman, maybe you don’t do part of this. Or if I am subordinate to you, maybe I do not put my hand on your shoulder, but you do it on mine, almost like you’re some sort of father figure. The point here is that both people do not have to do the exact same thing. This is true of everything, not just the handshake.

There are some other details from Earth that we can manipulate. For example, these are typically done barehanded here. Not removing something like a glove could therefore be considered disrespectful. We should always be on the lookout for ways that we can make someone screw these up so that they offend somebody. Don’t just invent how it’s done right, but make a note about how it can be done wrong and what that typically means to people.

Sometimes one gender is expected to make the gesture first, but we can change this and have older people be the one expected to do it. That seems to suggest that those with higher social standing do it, so maybe it’s not age, but something else. Children are often not expected to do it the same way, or they’re cut some slack for not getting it right. They may have their own greetings.

Another issue that comes up is the strength of the grip. Some people us a weak one, some people do a strong one, and for some people it’s in between. Some people place a lot of importance on this, and I have had the experience where some guy has essentially crushed my hand in his because he’s trying to make a point about how strong he is. But that can actually be considered rude when it actually hurts, and that has happened to me where I have felt some disrespect for this guy for crushing my hand. So, that’s one way that this can go wrong — too much, or not enough, force.

Sometimes these gestures can also go on for too long. There was an infamous video, probably several of them, of Donald Trump shaking someone’s hand and essentially refusing to let go. When something like this happens, it becomes awkward for the other person and anyone who is watching it. This social aspect is important because we can be judged not only by the person that we’re greeting, but by anyone else who witnesses what we do.

As a result, there can sometimes be a lot of pressure on how we go about these, and that’s especially true if we are doing something like greeting royalty. Most of us won’t have the chance to do that, but our characters, in theory, if they are traveling and they’re going to save the world, they’re going to be running into some very important people. If they’re going to a specific kingdom to ask for help from the people who are in charge of that kingdom, then instead of just having everything go smoothly, one of the ways we can have it go wrong for them is for them to screw up the initial introductions. This is both simple and believable.

Either with a handshake or without it, another version is the kiss. Doing this on the lips is, of course, considered very intimate. So, most of the time, we may kiss the top of someone’s hand, for example, or one or both cheeks. If we’ve invented a species that has something like really sensitive ears, then maybe kissing them on the ears is considered going too far. Once again, we should figure out how long this is supposed to be so that we can decide when people mess this up. Even without kissing on the lips, it’s still pretty intimate to get your face that close to someone else’s where you’re kissing them on the cheek.

Now, if we’re going to have greetings like that, maybe the culture also prizes something like cleanliness and not having something like body odor because it might be a little bit more uncomfortable if you’re a little disgusted by that person, but you have to go through with this kind of greeting. If people in one culture, or from another species, have a different sense of how much cleanliness is appropriate, then this is another way to cause a kind of conflict. This is one of the funny things about greetings because the whole point is to make sure that our interaction goes well, and that’s what we’re hoping for, and yet it can go wrong right from the start.

World Building University

If you’d like to learn world building skills through instruction, I’ve launched World Building University. There you can find one free course you can take just by signing up, which has no obligation. Other courses are in development and available now. You can preview parts of every course, all of which include video lessons, quizzes, assignments, and sometimes downloadable templates that are even better than those found in the books.

To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.

More Gestures

For most of us, bowing seems like one of the more formal ways to greet someone. Naturally, our barbarians are not going to be doing this one. Or are they? It’s a way of showing respect. The degree of the bow also correlates to how much respect is being shown. Generally, the deeper the motion, the more respect. Similar to the bow is the kneel, where we get down on one or both knees. What both of these have in common is how long you stay down. Maybe the motion is quick, or it’s slow, and maybe you have to stay in that position until you are released by the person to whom you are bowing. In all cases, we should decide how touchy the culture is about how well this bow is performed.

Then there’s the salute, which we mostly associate with the military, but can exist in other scenarios. The number of fingers used is something that we can vary. We can vary the position of the fingers, as well, such as having them be straight or having them curved so that they touch the thumb, for example. This is another area where Googling this can give you more ideas as you see variations that exist here on Earth.

One anecdote that I picked up when I researched this is that in Poland they use two fingers, just like the Cub Scouts, and this led to the U.S. troops assuming that the Polish were being disrespectful to them. How far did this go? Well, the Polish troops were actually arrested until the misunderstanding was cleared up. That seems a little excessive because it is, but we can do the same kind of thing to get our characters in trouble. In some places, the salute is only done when a hat is worn. In other places, it’s only done when inside.

If you’ve seen any war movies about Vietnam, you know that officers were often saluted by others, but sometimes other people were told not to do that because it essentially identified an officer who could be then targeted by a sniper. So, a practical situation can lead to variations. We can also have the palm facing downward, outward or inward. Upward could be an option, but it’s kind of hard to pull that one off all the way. We can also close the hand altogether, such as when we make a fist.

These variations should give you some ideas on ways that we can make variations of our own. If you’re wondering about the origins of the salute, it is believed that knights used to raise their visor to identify themselves, and also show that they were not afraid of their opponent.

Most of the gestures we just described are somewhat formal, so there are other versions, like the casual wave that we give to people. Sometimes we just smile, nod our head at someone, or maybe even raise our eyebrows. Generally, we want to acknowledge the other person. Just decide on two of these: the formal one and the informal.

Subscribe

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For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

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This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

Language

Let’s talk about language. According to many, the way we speak carries as much meaning, if not more so, than the words we actually say. One of the problems with email is that it doesn’t carry tone as accurately as the human voice. It is, therefore, easier to get ourselves into trouble and have a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what we’ve said, or our intent, when we use the written word versus when we speak. This is not to say that people get things right just when they are speaking, but it’s a little easier.

Many of us take tone for granted, but what we want to focus on with world building is not the tone with which a specific person says something, but what sort of tone the culture in general uses. For example, are they eloquent or very casual? Eloquent language has a tendency to be wordy and have longer words in them. Casual has shorter sentences and shorter words. When we think of elves in fantasy, they often come across as being very eloquent, even though we can’t understand a word they say. This is partly the language that Tolkien created for them, at least in The Lord of the Rings. But other races, such as the Klingons in Star Trek, have a very harsh and guttural sound to them. So do the Dothraki from Game of Thrones.

Even if we can’t understand a word of the language they say, the tone of it comes across. When we characterize this, we may want to think of a relatively neutral audience, like ourselves, and how we would view these languages. It is from that vantage point that I would say that Dothraki is harsh and Elven is eloquent. But an elf would not only think that Dothraki or Klingon is harsh if they were in the same fictional universe, but they would probably think that something like English is harsh. This can be an important distinction to make in your notes, or we can just make a kind of general note to ourselves as a reminder that something like elves think all other languages are kind of harsh, and only certain ones are especially so. You could have an elf say something like, “Your language is so ugly, but at least it’s not as bad as Klingon.”

One thing about tone is that we judge people based on this tone, and one thing that can mean for us is that we can characterize a whole species, or a culture within that species, just on their tone.

Review

if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again, that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review.

Expressions and Slang

Within language, we should also pay attention to slang and expressions. Most listeners of this podcast have probably seen Star Trek and heard a certain amount of the technobabble, but that’s not really what I mean. We need curse words and related expressions. When I watched Game of Thrones, it bothered me for a while when people would drop the f-bomb. Not because the word itself bothered me, but because it reminded me too much of Earth. This may be one reason why Battlestar Galactica went with the infamous “frak” instead. Of course, that can also be jarring because you realize how they’re using it and that they’re still reminding you of Earth even though they’ve changed it. If memory serves, they did that, partly, to get around censorship.

At this point, the f-bomb is so universal that we can go ahead and use that the same way we can use various words for excrement. These are bound to exist in every language, and these one-word swears are very convenient to use. It’s important to note that some words can be a benign word in one language and something offensive in another.

For example, in the U.S., the word “bloody” doesn’t mean anything in particular, but it does in England. If I say, “This bloody car won’t start,” in England, that’s the same as saying, “This ‘effing’ car won’t start,” in the United States. On the other hand, if I say, “I’m not going to pick up that bloody knife,” in that context the word doesn’t mean anything like that. This is one way that we can take an ordinary word, like an adjective, and apply it to another scenario where it becomes offensive.

A good way to make our swear words stand out is to combine words, and we’ve done this on Earth. Two examples would be “dumbass” and “bullshit.” There are many others that I won’t repeat here to keep this more PG, but one way we can do this in our setting is if we have invented an animal, then we can replace some of these, like the bullshit version, with some other animal and then the word for excrement. Why do we choose a bull? Well, it sounds good to say bullshit, but a bull is also supposed to be a very strong animal. In theory, that would suggest that its excrement is especially nasty. Maybe in a fantasy world we would say “dragon piss.”

All we really need is something objectionable, including parts of the body. This is why anything involving your butt is considered bad. If we have an animal with an especially nasty horn, then we can use that horn plus something else to come up with a name. If the species is called “jack,” then maybe we say “jackhorn,” and that is the same as “jackass.” Maybe it suggests that you’re going to get speared by one of these because you’re the sort of person who deserves it.

Expressions can be a little harder to invent. Two of the ones we need are ways of saying that we agree with someone, or disagree. If I think you’re wrong, maybe I just say “you’re wrong,” but maybe I use the expression “you’re full of crap.” In the U.S., when we agree, we say things like “okay,” “sounds good,” “alright,” “yeah,” and “right.” And we all know what a pirate says.

And “pirate” seems like a good place to stop. In the next episode, we will complete our talk about inventing culture.

Closing

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 The Lost Art called “Lagrima.”  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!

Podcast Episode 27.2 – Creating Cultures

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Jun 162020
 
Episode 27.2: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture. This includes how the body is part of culture, from clothing to hairstyles, body modifications, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to create cultural body modifications, hair styles, tattoos, body language, clothing, accessories, and more
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 27.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part two. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes how the body is part of culture, from clothing to hairstyles, body modifications, and more. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three 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.

Cultural Appropriation

Just a reminder that you can buy transcripts of these podcasts by going to www.artofworldbuilding.com or to Amazon.

Now that we’ve discussed the ideas that lead to culture, it’s time for the fun part, and that is actually inventing customs. There are so many options that we could create that we’re going to try to focus on the things that are most useful to world builders. So, neither this episode or the corresponding chapter of Cultures and Beyond is going to cover everything. However, the things we’re going to do are going to get you the most bang for your buck, and the basic idea of what we’re going to do is something that we can apply to other items that I don’t cover here.

As we get started, I want to mention a term you’ve probably heard, and that is cultural appropriation. I talk a lot about using Earth analogues, so the question is, are we going to be accused of borrowing something from Earth and having that be cultural appropriation if we show it in our fictional world?

First, let’s talk about what cultural appropriation means. What we’re talking about is an element of a culture that is taken outside of its context and used by someone who’s not from that culture, but it’s done in a way that can be considered insulting or devaluing that, especially if it’s done in a shallow way.

For example, something like wearing a hairstyle from another culture could be considered that because it’s just your hair. An example of this would be white people with dreadlocks. Do world builders need to worry about this sort of thing? Well, I don’t really think so. One reason is that there is a limited expectation that world builders are going to invent a very detailed and thorough culture, and the reason for that is it simply takes a massive amount of time.

One way to avoid it seeming like we’re just doing it in a shallow way is to tie that cultural element we’ve borrowed back to the cultural vision of the culture that we are inventing. That will make it seem like it springs from a value, a moral or a belief. An audience member on Earth who comes from that culture may then see this as a kind of homage and actually be pleased that it has been included that way. In the end, it comes down to respect. I’ll also remind you of my Rule of Three. Make at least three significant changes to anything that we borrow.

This has a caveat with culture. If we want to borrow a culture wholesale, then yes, we need to make at least three changes — probably a lot more. But if we’re going to just take a single element, like the dreadlocks, for example, well, there’s not too much you can change about just that one thing. It’s really the combination of multiple things if they’re all coming from the same culture. As an example, when I watched the Avatar movie, as much as I liked it, I couldn’t help thinking — and I still think this every time I see it — that James Cameron basically took Native American culture wholesale and just transplanted it to a fictional world.

Japanese culture is another one that tends to get stolen wholesale, and there are very few changes from it, so you recognize it when you see it. And this is always bad partly because it breaks the willing suspension of disbelief that the audience has. It reminds them of something back here when they’re supposed to think this is another planet — and one that has no relation to us. And yet, there’s the same culture from Japan. One way to get around this is to divide things up. So, let’s say we like the Japanese culture around dining and we use that with a few minor changes. Well, don’t also take the way they dress or the way their bedrooms are laid out. Don’t take everything. Just take one section of it. The result will be that we may remind people of that culture, but we don’t look like we just took the whole thing.

Body Culture

Let’s get started with some manifestations. We’ll start with the body. This is going to include body language, things like hairstyle, body modification like jewelry, gestures, clothing, and, of course, accessories. Now, we may not cover all of that in this episode, but it is all in the book.

At first glance, the body may not seem like a cultural item, but it is. An example would be ageism, which does exist today, where we may not respect our elders. And then, a long time ago, larger women were actually considered more attractive because they were considered better bearers of children and that they would survive childbirth better. But today, of course, we expect everyone to be thin. So, this is a cultural idea.

This desire to be thin can result in eating disorders, and even models who are already fit are having their photos photoshopped for magazines covers. Whether they’re the one behind it or the magazine is doing it, it doesn’t really matter. From a cultural standpoint, there’s still this enormous pressure to be thin. While those are specific examples, there’s also the general appearance of someone in culture because, in business, we make ourselves look really presentable, but then if someone is dressed in a very casual way but they show up at a job interview, that is considered a negative. Unless, of course, the culture of that company is fine with people walking around in shorts and flip flops. When I worked at NASA, we had a running joke that anyone wearing flip flops, shorts and a Hawaiian shirt was probably one of the scientists because they could get away with anything. Could I have shown up like that? I don’t know. I never tried, but I certainly wore casual clothes to work. That was the culture there.

Let’s talk about body language. The way we walk, sit and stand are all influenced by our culture. Many of us have probably heard of that idea of someone being trained to walk by balancing a book on their head because this is supposedly going to make their posture upright. The desire for that erect bearing is a cultural idea. How many of us have been told not to slouch? The way we would use this is mostly to characterize an entire culture as having an erect, proud bearing, or most of them being very causal. That erect bearing may originate from a cultural vision of looking like you have your act together, and where appearances are important. Dignity might also lead to this.

The culture could be strict. An oppressive culture, because of the government, might have people walking around with their backs hunched. Walking tall in that culture might be something that gets you into trouble. The authorities could read into it that you need to have your spirit broken.

Another body language issue that’s very important is eye contact. How often have you been told, as a child, not to stare at someone, especially if they look different? Doing so is considered rude, but looking away in other circumstances might be considered weakness. If we make contact, are we expected to acknowledge the other person in some way? Such as an actual greeting or just nodding our head? The way we would use something like this in a scene is to have two characters make eye contact, and then have one of them look away, and maybe think to themselves that they did so too soon, for example.

The concept of personal space is another one that comes up in any culture. We don’t really need to define this, such as saying two feet is fine and less is too close. We can just have one character think to themselves that someone is standing too close for their comfort. That said, perhaps this person is creepy and that’s why this is happening, or the person who feels that the other is too close has some sort of issue that makes them feel that way about a lot of people. In other words, if we have the character think this, we may also have them think to themselves that there’s something about that person that makes them feel that way, or they’re like this about everyone. Basically, we can characterize one of the two people while getting across a cultural expectation.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

You can also join the mailing list at artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. This gets you free, reusable templates from each published volume in the series. You don’t even need to buy the books to get these. I also send out contest information, free tips, and other stuff to help with your efforts. Please note I do not share your email address with anyone as that’s against my privacy policy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Sign up today to get your free content and take your world building to the next level.

Hairstyles

Let’s touch on hairstyles. This is something that will definitely apply to social groups. For example, in the 1950s, in the United States, men were expected to have fairly closely cropped hair, but in the 60s and 70s, many of them grew it out long as a sign of rebellion. Hairstyles are a very good way to characterize a social group as opposed to the entire country, for example. But we can do it on that level. What if wearing your hair a certain way is done during a holiday season, or some religious event, and it means something to people? Maybe women usually wear their hair up in a tidy fashion, but then they wear it long and in a more flowing fashion at certain times of the year. A difference like that is probably going to come from a belief, and it may be religious in nature.

Something to bear in mind is that hairstyles change relatively frequently, so what was fashionable a decade ago might no longer be today. The main reason to care about this is only if we want to comment on someone wearing an old hairstyle. If it’s a tradition, it could last a lot longer because it’s going to go back maybe 100 years or more.

And then there’s the wig. Most of us have seen period films where men are wearing these really long, white wigs that have some sort of powder on them. This was definitely a cultural phenomenon. This got started in France by Louis VIII on accident because he was covering his baldness. Other people, of course, associated him and the wig with power because he was a king, and it spread to other countries and it just became the thing. This actually led to a taxation on the powder that they used on those wigs, and that is part of what led to the cultural change where that stopped happening. Another reason behind it, incidentally, was that it was easier to control things like lice by just shaving your hair and using these wigs.

On the subject of hair color, we often associate Asians as having black hair and Nordic types having blond hair, but this is not actually a cultural issue. This is obviously just something about the body and this naturally happens. But, that said, of course, for whatever reason, we talk about the prized blond hair and blue eyes. Some people really desire this, and as a result, they dye their hair that way. If we have elves that are known to have golden hair, and people are aspiring to be like them, then maybe humans are going around dying their hair that way. That could be considered appropriate for human royalty, but maybe not for a peasant. This is one way we can use this sort of thing.

And for men, facial hair can symbolize things like strength and manliness. Some guys will wear one for that reason, and maybe an entire culture is doing so. We typically see this with fantasy where all of the dwarves have a beard.

World Building University

If you’d like to learn world building skills through instruction, I’ve launched World Building University. There you can find one free course you can take just by signing up, which has no obligation. Other courses are in development and available now. You can preview parts of every course, all of which include video lessons, quizzes, assignments, and sometimes downloadable templates that are even better than those found in the books.

To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.

Body Modification

There are many ways that we may choose to modify our bodies, and these can be part of a cultural group. Sometimes these take place during some sort of rite of passage or a ceremony. This could result in a celebration if it has been done, and maybe some shame on somebody if they haven’t done it when they are expected to have already experienced this. For example, let’s say that you’re supposed to get your nose pierced when you turn 18, but it’s done by your family, but you were a runaway or an orphan and it didn’t happen. As a result, you’re now in your 20’s and everyone can tell you never had this happen.

Of course, you could get someone to do it, but maybe it’s part of the society where they don’t let you have that happen if it wasn’t done under the right circumstances. Therefore, no one will do it for you. Maybe you try to do it yourself and botch the job, and that leaves a scar that is visible. These are all ways that we can work this into our characterizations. We can decide that these happen at any sort of milestone, like a wedding or a childbirth, or just turning a certain age. We don’t necessarily need to explain it because it could just be an expected tradition. But, of course, explanations often help us characterize things.

The source of this expectation, instead of just being a cultural vision, could be that maybe someone important in the past had this body modification, and this was esteemed, the same way that Louis VIII had that wig and people associated that with power. Well, maybe this body modification is similar. All we really need is some reason for it to be desirable, and it’s always wise to make those explanations as short as a single sentence.

One thing to note about body modifications is that it often causes a judgment, and many of those are negative if that judgment is coming from someone who is outside the social group that is making those modifications. Those who don’t have a tattoo may be negative about those who do, especially if someone has a lot of them. Of course, doing so is shallow, but people are.

Let’s talk tattoos. While there are individual tattoos that anyone can have, sometimes a social group will have a specific tattoo that everyone is expected to get, whether that’s the tattoo itself or even just its location. These tattoos will always mean something to the group, and it will come from their vision.

Some tattoos are not permanent, like henna, and these may only be done during certain kinds of ceremonies where they’re expected to be washed off in the day or two afterward. We can decide that women have more feminine ones than men. We can make them be multicolored or primarily one color. A quick Google search on this will turn up various traditional tattoos that are done by one group or another. Some of these are hard to describe and a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Piercings are another area where we do have individual style, but, again, this could be expected by a social group. While just about anything can be pierced, here on Earth the ears and nose are the most widespread. They also go back the farthest, to ancient times. Stretched earlobes and lips are another kind of piercing that we often associate with Africa. The number of piercings, the material, the size of them and even the style can all be expected and represent some sort of value, and they might be something that is more expected of, say, nobility for their wealth. Someone could also wear a piercing to identify themselves in some way, the way that gay men used to wear only one earring to indicate their orientation.

There was actually a belief and a superstition in the Middle Ages that if you had a specific piercing, that would improve your long-distance sight. The origins of such a thing might be someone having great eyesight and having that piercing, and they become associated with each other and other people start doing that piercing, hoping that they will also have that sight even though these have nothing to do with each other. This is one reason why it can be fun to invent these.

Another body modification is branding, though on Earth this is really frowned upon because it’s too much associated with slavery. A brand not only marks property, but it can be used to humiliate someone. One way to do that is to put it in a very visible location. But there’s no reason this has to be a negative. We might have a religion that considers it an honor to have the god’s symbol branded into their flesh. Since that is very permanent, that could be considered a great sign of devotion.

Sometimes branding is done for punishment, such as for a military person who commits an offense like deserting. Basically, if the culture feels like anyone should know that this person has committed a specific crime, they might be branded for it. Today, child molesters have to register on a sex offender website, but what if they were branded so we didn’t need such a technology?

Lastly, let’s talk about implants, which is something that’s definitely going to be a big option with science fiction. We can make technology be part of the body. This can be done either to enhance an ability, a sense, or just to replace a lost or damaged area. It could be tradition that we receive a certain type of implant when we reach a certain milestone. Those with that implant would probably have an advantage of some kind. But it could be a negative. What if people are considered more likely to commit crimes once they reach a certain age, and therefore they get this implant to track their whereabouts? Such a scenario could certainly lead to a lot of cultural changes, such as people really valuing their freedom before they reach that milestone.

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Gestures

Gestures are another area of the body that is part of culture. While many gestures are part of something like a greeting (and will be discussed later when we get to that), some of them stand alone. There is one gesture that, for many of us, immediately comes to mind, and that is the raising of the middle finger. This is done to show displeasure, and it’s important to think of that when we’re trying to create an alternate version. How did this come to represent that? Well, it’s supposed to be representing the penis. The remaining knuckles that are bent are supposed to represent the testicles. This is why it means “fuck you.”

As it turns out, on Earth, there are cultures that do variations on this, such as having two fingers representing two penises. But it depends on which way the hand is facing, whether it’s considered rude or not. There’s another hand gesture that is supposed to represent a woman’s privates. I’m not going to go through all of these, but I did cover them in a little more detail in the book. There are times when a gesture is considered fine in one country and is considered rude in another, and this is something we actually run into here on Earth. For example, the “OK” symbol in the United States has the tip of the index finger and the thumb touching each other with the other fingers fanned out, but that gesture is considered to represent the anus in some countries, and therefore it is rude.

The devil horns gesture can essentially be an accusation that someone’s wife is having an affair with a man who is more virile like a bull. Even something as simple as shaking your head for “no” and nodding for “yes” is not universal and can lead to misunderstandings. Crossing your arms can be considered standoffish in some countries, but in others it’s considered arrogant. Shaking two fists at someone in Austria is supposed to be for good luck, but in other countries it could be considered a threat. The foot can be considered unclean, therefore showing the bottom to others is considered highly offensive.

Another interesting aspect of gestures is that sometimes it’s only offensive because of our location when we make that gesture. For example, doing that while you’re standing over the threshold of a doorway can be considered good or bad. The doorway is considered a transition, therefore a gesture that normally means peace could be seen as rude, as in you wish that something bad happens to that person. What we need to do this ourselves is just think about what a location means and how we can spin a normal gesture that is done somewhere else into having a different meaning there. Generally, we have a lot of leeway to invent gestures and what they mean, so this is an area where we can have a lot of fun.

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Clothing

Let’s talk about clothing and accessories. By itself, clothing is a subject that we could spend way too much time on, so we’re only going to cover the basic ideas and how these can be applied to other areas of clothing that we are not going to talk about. What we’re after is a general sense of style. Sometimes this is impacted by technology. For example, we all take the button for granted today, but while it was invented a long time ago, it wasn’t until the 1300s that buttons were used to fasten two pieces of clothing together, like the two halves of a jacket. Before that, they were just decorative.

How did this affect culture and dress? Well, people wore looser and baggier clothing, and if it was tightened it would’ve been with something like a string of some kind. A cloth being just draped around you like a toga was also a style. Once buttons were used to fasten clothing, then tighter clothing was also introduced. Imagine the affect of suddenly more form-fitting clothing having on people’s impressions. This could lead to resistance to that because it might challenge an idea of modesty.

So, one decision we can make is whether buttons exist for tightening clothes in one society or another, and how that affects dress. Just because it existed in one sovereign power doesn’t mean it exists in another, even if people from these sovereign powers mix a little bit, because we might have this cultural resistance to the button and the resulting styles of clothing. This is a good way to distinguish two cultures from each other.

We might think that only a barbaric society may not have buttons that are used this way, but even the Romans didn’t and they were smart enough to have aqueducts and dams. And, of course, they had the Roman Empire where they conquered so many lands, and yet they still didn’t use a button to fasten their clothes. It seems incongruous, but it happens. But even though that happens in the real world, we may get flack from an audience who does not understand that kind of thing.

Clothing can be used to indicate your status, your gender, your rank and your social class. It can also be used to indicate what you are doing at this particular moment. If I’m wearing a suit and tie, I’m probably not lounging around at home in that. Unless I just got home or I’m about to leave, we associate that with work. There’s no reason we can’t make up certain types of wearing our hair or styles of clothing that are only done when people are doing a specific activity. What we often see in science fiction works is someone wearing the exact clothing in every single scene. In books, this may happen because authors haven’t thought about it, but it also might be because it’s considered a waste of exposition to keep talking about what someone is wearing — and there is some truth to that.

In science fiction, anytime someone’s part of a crew, like a starship, they’re usually wearing their uniform everywhere, and therefore we can get away with it. But, in many cases, we really should pay more attention to this. More adornment on our clothing tends to be associated with finer people, or those who are rich. For example, in Ancient Rome, the tunics often had colored band, and the width, number and color of these indicated your social standing. We can pretty much make up any version of this that we want for ourselves. Naturally finer fabrics suggest more wealth, while coarser ones are for the poor. We can do the same thing with colors where richer colors are considered for the wealthy, and the plainer colors, like a drab green, is for the poor.

The more important an indication of status is to the culture, the more likely these visual elements of it will exist. Think about our modern world where many of us don’t really care about status, and therefore you could have people who are on the same experience, like a boating trip, and some of them could be making twenty thousand dollars and some of them could be a millionaire. You won’t necessarily be able to tell, by looking at them, based on their clothing.

Clothing can also reflect what is important to the society, a group or individuals. For example, if hard work is considered admirable, then maybe the clothing is kind of dependable, simple, and very coarse, and it’s mostly unadorned. On the other hand, the rich don’t need to work, so maybe they’re always dressed in finery. Modesty is another element that we need to pay attention to because women might not be allowed to show something like cleavage or a side boob. Maybe they can’t show the ankles, the knees or the thighs. How low must a dress go? Are they required to wear a dress or can they wear trousers? Pants were considered masculine for a long time, and therefore a woman wearing them was frowned upon because she was thought to be trying to act like men. We can leverage this idea and show how people are being judged for defying a cultural expectation regarding clothing.

Accessories

Let’s finish up by talking a little bit about accessories. This includes things like bags, eyewear, footwear, gloves, any headgear like a hat, jewelry and things like a watch. In both fantasy and sci-fi, we might have weapon holders, and in sci-fi we might have wearable devices. With any of these, we can have expectations about when it is okay to wear them and when they should be removed. Sometimes this is practical like the bottom of shoes getting dirty, and therefore you’re supposed to take them off when you enter someone’s house. Certain types of hats can be worn at some locations, and sometimes it’s unacceptable to wear the wrong kind of hat to the wrong thing.

One interesting tidbit is that a woman’s hat is often considered part of her ensemble, and therefore it doesn’t need to be removed. But a man’s is expected to be based on where he is going. Some cultures think it’s rude for a man to wear a hat indoors. Most of us don’t even know why, but we expect people to remove them. We might even be the person telling someone, “You have to remove your hat.” And if they question us, we may not have an explanation for why. This is funny because we can enforce cultural expectations without even knowing why we are doing them.

I’ll use wedding bands as another example. This is traditionally worn on the left ring finger in the United States and some countries. The reason for this is that the Romans believed that the vein in that finger led directly to the heart. Even though we know better today, the tradition remains. But it’s not universal. Other countries where the ring in different places, and for similar reasons where there is some sort of association with that body part.

Some accessories might result from a function. For example, maybe we have a winged species that is often used as messengers, and they carry the messages in scrolls. That scroll case might become an accessory that they are typically seen with. How do we use this for culture? Well, maybe there are times when they want to indicate that they are not working, and therefore they leave it at home. Perhaps wearing it gives the impression they are willing to take a message from someone, and therefore if they walk into a church with that, they’re considered to be trying to work and that could be frowned upon. Therefore, maybe it’s expected that they take it off at the door, just the same way that people remove shoes in some cultures.

This is the kind of thinking we want to do when we are inventing any sort of cultural item that has something to do with the body, or anything else, as we’re going to discuss in upcoming episodes. I ended up talking a lot more about the body, so we’re going to end up talking about other things in subsequent episodes about culture.

Closing

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 The Lost Art called “Villa-Lobos Prelude #1.” 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!