Podcasts Archives - The Art of World Building
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

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 27.3 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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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.

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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.

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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!

Podcast Episode 27.1 – Creating Cultures

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Jun 022020
 

Episode 27.1: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture, defining what culture is and is not, how to develop a cultural vision, and the types of cultural depictions we’ll likely need.

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:
  • Where culture originates
  • The difference between culture and custom
  • The difference between customs and traditions
  • Why you should develop a cultural vision and how to apply it
  • Why we need to avoid “race as culture”
  • How much culture to invent
  • The different cultural depictions
Coda

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Episode 27.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part 1. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes defining what culture is and is not, how to develop a cultural vision, and the types of cultural depictions we’ll likely need. This material and more is discussed in chapter one 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.

Defining Culture

Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of every episode from this podcast. In fact, you can actually buy the podcast episodes themselves as audiobooks. You can just go to artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon and search for that title.

To get started with culture, we should have a good idea of what culture is. Most of us have some idea, but, at the same time, we’re also kind of vague about that. So, let’s get specific.

One way of looking at culture is that it is the lifestyle for a social group, and that social group could be anything. On Earth it could be Christians, another religion, metal heads, punk rockers, nerds, jocks or pretty much anything. Each one of these groups has its own culture. At the same time, they belong to a larger culture. So, we could have all of the groups I just mentioned living in the United States, which has a sort of broader culture that encompasses all of those. You can think of this as a culture scope. And when we are trying to invent culture, we should figure out what scope are we inventing it for. Am I just creating something for a little group like the metal heads, or am I creating a culture for a region or a country?

Culture is also a set of expectations about how people are supposed to behave. Anytime we have a culture clash between one character and others, what’s usually happening is those expectations are not being met. Anytime an expectation is not met, that usually causes a negative reaction. That negative reaction causes some emotions, and it also causes judgment about the person who is not meeting our expectations — whether those judgments are fair or not. A simple example would be that if you’re driving a car in the United States, you’re on the highway and you’re going to turn off, you’re supposed to use your turn signal. That’s what our expectation is. That’s part of our culture. So, if someone doesn’t do it, you’re behind them and you don’t understand why they’re slowing down, and then, at the last second, they suddenly turn off the road, sometimes we get angry that they were rude to us by not letting us know what they were planning to do. At its simplest level, this is basically what culture is.

Culture Origins

The next question, then, becomes, “Where do these expectations come from?” The answer is basically values, beliefs and morals. These are what we might call the origins of culture, and they manifest in specific ideas. For example, if the value is being polite to people, then in the example about the car driver, they weren’t being polite to us, or they weren’t being courteous. And if courteousness is a value, then they have offended that value. The important point here is that we’ve got the points of origin, which are these values, beliefs and morals, and then we have the manifestations. To some extent, they really do come in that order, and that’s the order that we’re going to talk about them today.

In other words, when we are trying to invent a culture, we should start with those beliefs, values and morals, and then work on how they manifest. That’s not to say that we can’t think of specific issues that are happening, the specific manifestations, but we always need to have some idea of what the original source is, otherwise we might be creating cultural aspects that conflict with each other. I think of that as cultural vision, and we’ll talk more about that in a few minutes.

So, let’s take a look at the points of origin for a culture. As we get started here, I want you to think about a kind of hierarchy where culture might exist at the sovereign power level, such as a kingdom, and then at the regional level within that kingdom, and then the settlements within that, and then within there you would have different social groups. That said, those social groups can exist across different settlements and regions. One reason we want to think of it this way is that there is a kind of inheritance from the larger picture, like the sovereign power level, all the way down to that small social group.

One reason to think of it this way is that we may want to focus first on the government type that this place has. Why does this matter? Well, a democracy is going to have a very different set of ideas that are being promoted by that government versus a totalitarian dictatorship. In Episode 14, which was actually three different episodes (14.1, 14.2, 14.3), we discussed in some detail the different types of sovereign powers. So, I’m not going to rehash those details, but I want you to pay attention to that hierarchy when you are starting to create a culture.

The Influence of Morals and Values

Let’s talk about morals and values. What’s the difference? Well, an individual’s values come from within and they can change in time. By contrast, morals are taught by society and are usually kind of deep-seated, and they’re slow to change if they ever do. Morals are like a guideline for how to live rightly.

Now, despite these differences, we can actually treat them as the same when we are trying to invent a culture. In the book, I have a list of traits that we might want to consider. And I’m not going to go through the whole list, which isn’t comprehensive anyway, but I’m just going to mention a few to get your head in the game here. So, we have acceptance, compassion, courage, fairness, honesty, integrity, justice is a big one, politeness, respect, self-control, and tolerance. A more high-minded society will value different traits than a barbaric one. So, which one of those would you think prizes dignity, equality, politeness and tolerance? Which one of them is going to maybe focus on things like self-reliance, courage, respect and integrity?

This is one way that we can start approaching the grouping of these values. A more democratic society, or one that has more freedom, is going to value many of these traits that I’ve listed, but a more oppressive one, like a dictatorship, might have a different set of things that they are concerned about. For example, that oppressive society might tell its citizens that they need to be obedient, humble and sacrifice themselves. It’s worth pointing out that the government will be pushing that as the culture, but individuals within that culture might have a very different set of traits that they value. For example, perseverance in those harsh conditions. All of this is why we want to consider the government type.

The Influence of Beliefs

Another source of culture is beliefs. Many of these originate from religions. When we are inventing a religion, which was covered in the previous episode, we can take some of those ideas and make them more cultural. A good example would be Christmas. This is obviously supposed to be about Jesus Christ, but, in our culture in the United States, at least, this has been turned into something that’s much more materialistic with all the presents and general celebrating of family, even if you are not a Christian. This has become such a big deal that the entire holiday season from Thanksgiving through the end of the year is considered an actual season of holidays as opposed to just Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s. This is a cultural phenomenon and it’s one that has taken over much of the United States during the last five or six weeks of the year.

There are other concepts from Christianity in particular that really permeate life in the United States, and that includes heaven, hell, the devil and many of our common swears, which I’m not going to repeat here in order to avoid offending any of you. But let’s take a look at heaven and hell. A basic idea here is that if you behave well and live a good life, you end up in heaven, and if you’re bad, you go to hell. This is a basic value idea that is part of a belief, and also, then, part of culture. In fact, this is actually part of the psychology and philosophical outlook of many people in the country. This is true even if you are not a Christian or you don’t believe in the stuff. You still like the basic idea of bad people get punished when they die and good people get rewarded. You’re one of the good people, and some jerk who just made you mad is going to get what’s coming to them sooner or later. Right?

One way that this can affect culture is that there may be a day of the week, for example, that is reserved for religious observances. So, for example, in the United States, for many of us, that is Sunday. For other people, it is Saturday. This depends on the religion. I know that many places might be closed early on a Sunday because many people are supposedly in church. Why does this matter? Well, if I want to go to the grocery store, I know that a lot of people are going to be at that grocery store on Sunday afternoon. So, maybe I want to go in the morning instead when there’s hardly anyone there. This is exactly the kind of thinking that characters of ours are going to do in their world.

So, even if we don’t intend on using religion, for example, in a major way in our storyline, part of the world is still going to be impacting the decisions people make and when they choose to do something. It’s also a really good way to slip in some world building into the storyline where a character basically says, “Well, I don’t want to go tomorrow morning to do so-and-so because it’s going to be so crowded. Maybe I’ll wait until people are observing this or that religion.”

Of course, what I’m talking about here is using an Earth analogue, or taking something that happens on Earth and we’re modifying it for our fictional world. If we do this in an intelligent way, it’s going to resonate with the audience and seem like our world is more believable. In this scenario, I would be thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I would do. I’m going to go to the grocery store Sunday morning instead of in the afternoon. I totally get this character, and they’re practical like me.” But if I’m religious, I might be thinking, “Well, this person should be going to church at that time.”

Superstitions

There are beliefs that are not religious in nature. They may be based on something like a superstition. For example, walking under a ladder is considered bad luck, as is breaking a mirror, stepping on a crack, or a black cat crossing your path. If we want to use an animal that we’ve invented the same way, then all we really need to do is something like give it a trait that is ominous, such as having a poisonous tail, and then making this animal somewhat rare in the location where this superstition has originated. For example, a black cat crossing your path is not going to be scary if that happens every day because there are thousands of black cats living in your area. On the other hand, if a black cat is rare, okay, now you can assign something strange to this.

Sometimes understanding the origin of a superstition can help us invent some of our own. Passing under a ladder is a good example because that’s basically unsafe for not only you, but the person who’s on the ladder. The black cat idea may have come from the association with witches. We can create these same kinds of associations ourselves. Bear in mind we don’t necessarily have to explain these to the audience because it’s actually better if we don’t. A little bit of mystery goes a long way. But when we’re trying to invent these, we can make a note of these associations in our file so that at least we have some sort of rationalization for what we are doing. And it’s not because we need to explain it, but because it helps us think of something in the first place.

If I have a world where wizards are considered dangerous, and wizards tend to have black cats, for example, well then, there you go. I can just decide the black cat is considered bad. Now, obviously, that’s too similar to Earth, but you get the idea. This is one of many ways we can leverage world building we have already done to create more world building. I’m not going to go over all of these, but there are other ideas in the book where I discussed some of the origins, such as Friday the 13th or the breaking of a mirror, and these can give us more ideas on how to go about this.

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Customs vs. Culture

Another area we should touch on is the difference between culture and customs. This one is simple. Customs are part of the culture. One way of looking at it is that a custom is one way in which culture manifests. For example, in some places it is customary to remove your shoes when you are going inside. When we talk about inventing culture, it’s almost easier to talk about inventing customs because most of us have a better grasp of what that means. To some extent, the two words are interchangeable and that is how I’m going to use them throughout the rest of this episode.

Two other words that are sometimes used interchangeable are custom and tradition. So, what’s the difference? It’s mostly the length of time that they are practiced. Customs are newer, but a tradition is something that is passed down from generation to generation. If we are inventing something that’s only been going on for 20 years, that’s probably a custom, but if it’s been going on for 200 years, that’s a tradition. Does it really matter? Not really. The one area that it might is that since a tradition is longer standing, it may cause greater offense if we defy the expectations that are embodied by that tradition. But this is mostly mentioned for clarity. We don’t really need to worry about this when we are inventing a culture.

Cultural Vision

Earlier I mentioned a term of mine, and that is “cultural vision.” That’s what I want to talk about now. The basic idea is that we should have a common element or vision from which we create things like greetings, dining and clothing expectations, because if we don’t, then we might create these manifestations of culture that seemingly contradict each other. For example, what if the culture has very formal greetings where there are multiple bows, gestures and elaborate phrases? And then we have a dining scene where we might expect similar fine manners, but instead we show people just shoving unwashed hands into food bowls, or licking their fingers and finally shoving that hand back into the food again. These two extremes contradict each other.

So, before we get too far into inventing cultural elements, we should determine a vision that seems appropriate, and these are always tied back to values, beliefs and morals. I’m going to give some examples here. We could have a cultural vision that prizes being refined, cordial, dignified, formal, high-minded and having controlled emotions. Or we could have one where the vision is hardy, boisterous, unrestrained, very familiar with each other and informal, maybe even crude and very open emotions. The first of those would maybe be appropriate for royalty, while the second might be something that barbarians exemplify.

Another cultural vision would be formal, overly apologetic, not being a bother to other people, being polite to a fault and maybe very restrained in affections. Where am I getting that from? Well, there are several movies that I watched in the 80s that depicted British culture to be that way.

Another vision might be people feeling entitled, or being very demanding and bold, proud, self-righteous and self-absorbed. As it turns out, that is what some other countries think of Americans. As with many things, we can borrow these examples from Earth and use them in our invented world. With analogues, I usually talk about my Rule of Three, meaning to make at least three significant changes. But we don’t necessarily have to do that with cultural vision because we don’t typically show the vision; we show it through manifestations as customs. It is those customs that should have a certain amount of them being different between Earth and our invented world.

What that means is we can steal a culture vision wholesale from Earth and just use it without changing it. This might even be considered wise because it’s difficult to create a culture. Nobody does this except for world builders. In the real world, a cultural vision kind of springs up by itself or is at least promoted from those in power of government. Even then, it’s going to be scores of people who are pushing something, not a single person who has to get it right. Well, I shouldn’t even talk about getting it right because that’s kind of a bad concept in world building. We don’t really need to get something perfect, especially something like culture because no one from our fictional world is going to show up and say, “Hey, you got it wrong.”

Race as Culture

Something else we should be aware of, especially if we have invented fictional species or races, is the concept of a race as culture. What do I mean by this? Let’s say we’re the ones who invented elves and we take a lot of time to invent a culture for elves. That’s great, but is it realistic that all elves are going to have the same customs? The answer is of course not, unless there’s such a small population of them that they’re all part of the same culture. But if we have elves living in one forest, and then 100 miles away there’s another group of elves in that forest, and 500 miles away from both of them there’s a third group, each one of them is going to have a different culture.

But one of the things we often see in both fantasy and science fiction is that a race is presented as having this kind of mono-culture that is exactly the same regardless of where anyone lives. This is not realistic and some people have pointed out that this is a flaw in world building, and it’s one that we should try to avoid. But there’s a problem with avoiding this. That might mean that we have to invent, in that example, three different cultures. Well, that’s a lot. Even inventing one culture is difficult. Now we have to create three or more? Well, I don’t think this is actually as hard as it seems. What I would suggest is that we create a culture for all elves, and then remember that hierarchy idea I was talking about before? We had sovereign powers, and then within that we had regions, within that we had settlements, like cities and towns, and then within those we had social groups.

Well, we should create a culture for all elves, but then what we’re going to want to do is create some variations between different regions, and then different cities, and then within different social groups. However, we only need to go so far with this because if we’re not going to use one of those other groups of elves, for example, then we don’t really need to worry about it. And when it comes to inventing those variations, well, world building, like a lot of writing, is the act of making decisions. It’s just decision after decision we have to make all the time. So, any time we can’t really decide between two choices for our custom or a culture, well, do both of them. Keep one of them for one group of elves, and make the other cultural decision for the other group. The more we do this, we end up with one overall culture for elves, but then if we have, say, wood elves in one forest, and high elves in another forest, whatever the names people use sometimes, we’ve got slightly different cultures for each one.

One way we can use that is if our characters are used to one group of elves, dealing with them, understanding their culture and how not to offend those elves, and then they’ve traveled 1,000 miles away and now they’re running into another group of elves somewhere else, they might try to give something like a greeting in a way that they think is not going to offend those elves, but it actually offends them anyway because the culture is slightly different. This is how we can use that. Again, we don’t have to go overboard with this kind of thing. A few touches will just get across the idea that not everywhere is the same.

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How Much Culture to Invent

One of the questions we always wonder about is, “How much culture should I invent?” So, let’s take a look at that. If we aren’t careful, we could spend the rest of our lives inventing a culture, which is also true of world building in general. So, let’s try to avoid that.

Asking why we are inventing culture can help us decide what to focus on. One of the reasons is that we are trying to portray a more engaging and realistic world. The more different it is from Earth, the more people become curious. And if we add enough details that are consistent with a cultural vision, then it can seem more realistic. Another reason is to make our story appear like it’s taking place somewhere other than the familiar. In other words, not on Earth. Lazy world building is all over science fiction and fantasy, and one of the easiest ways to spot it is when the culture is no different from anything on Earth, or from what we imagine medieval or renaissance periods were like here on Earth.

Another reason to invent culture is to cause a culture clash in the form of tension that happens from expectations and misunderstandings. In other words, if we need something to go wrong when our characters are traveling, culture is a great way to do that. We don’t need our characters to commit a crime to get themselves into trouble when they arrive in a new settlement or sovereign power. They can just do something minor that offends somebody, and maybe that person is too aggressive, picks a fight, and the next thing you know, people are getting arrested and we’ve got a story problem.

We can almost divide up these into minor offenses that might make two characters dislike each other and cause some difficulties, to more serious breaches of etiquette that can lead to ruined agreements, like a treaty, and then imprisonment or even death. All of those can alter the trajectory of our story, and this can be a great reason to invent culture.

All of this can help us decide how much culture to invent for any location, and then how much those cultures need to differ, and on what subjects they differ. One way to approach all of this is that when we are outlining a story, we can just make a note that we need some sort of culture clash to happen prior to a given scene, or right at the beginning of it, in order for it to cause the resulting calamity. We don’t necessarily have to have worked out the culture when we are planning this plot moment. It’s almost like writing “fight scene” into a fight. Instead of working out exactly what happens, we can just write in there, “Culture clash.” Then, later, when we do some more world building around our story, we can figure out exactly what cultural clash seems most appropriate for this story and for what we need to happen.

Another reason we might need culture is if our characters are traveling across a landscape and passing through many sovereign powers like they do in The Lord of the Rings, then each one of these is going to have some cultural differences, and if we treat them all the same, well, it’s not believable. But when we create a culture for each of those sovereign powers, we don’t necessarily need to go into every conceivable detail. What do we need? Well, in the next episode, we’re going to go into details about some of those items.

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Cultural Depictions

Another concept to cover is cultural depictions. What do I mean? Well, when we show culture, there are going to be items that are only seen, ones that are only heard, and then there are ones that are performed. I only mention this way of dividing things up for clarity as we look into what to invent and what to bypass. Some of this will also depend on our medium. If we are an author, the visual aspect doesn’t come up very often, but if we are a gamer or in the film industry, the visual aspects do come up. In those mediums, things like architecture, clothing, hairstyles and body language can be taken in with a glance. But for authors, a lot of that would have to be described, and that can often be considered too much exposition.

That actually gives us a good excuse to skip some of that if we are an author. We’re going to talk about all of that in more detail in the next episode. Rather than skipping visual depictions altogether if we’re an author, we may want to mention the impression that something or someone creates. That can be more important for the audience than a listing of, say, all the details of what their clothing looks like. We can sometimes combine both of these by talking about how those details gave an impression to other people or the character who’s observing them. When it comes to both clothing and something like architecture, we may want to avoid using terms for everything because a lot of people aren’t going to understand what those terms actually mean.

When it comes to audible depictions of culture, the words our characters say are most of what we need. Sometimes culture actually dictates that we not say anything, or it may dictate that we say them in a certain way. Some of this is, once again, easier to depict in gaming or film because the characters will actually be saying these things, but authors have to use adjectives to describe how someone speaks. This can mean that something like tone is something we comment on once in a while, but not all the time. Instead, we might want to focus our world building efforts on the actual words and phrases people use.

There’s also this idea that it’s sometimes not what we say and do, but what we don’t that is revealing of ourselves. For example, if someone gives us a compliment and says we’ve done really good with something, we’re not supposed to go, “Oh yeah. I know.” That can be considered a rude response to a compliment. It can also be considered egotistical, and we prize humility, so therefore you don’t react that way. Instead, the expected response might be just to nod at the other person, or politely say thank you and then change the subject.

There are other versions of audible depictions, such as the desire to be quiet in a library, or muting your phone when you are attending a meeting. Loud music in a bar is expected, and the result is that we often have to shout in someone’s ear in order to be heard. As a result, we are getting much closer to people than we are normally allowed to do in our culture. Even our voices or the way we speak can be part of our culture. Some languages are considered to be very flowing, while others are considered to be kind of grating and harsh. This style can be reflective of values.

Lastly, there are the cultural depictions that are performed. For example, eye contact. In some situations, we are expected to maintain it, and in others we are expected to avert it. Attitudes about respect, deference and domination all influence what we are supposed to do. There are also expectations about what side of the street people are supposed to walk on or drive on. Perhaps we are expected to remove a hat or shoes when entering certain places. Whether a cultural depiction is visible, audible or performed, many of them are combined into kind of hybrids that we’ll talk about more in the next episode.

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Where to Start

Even though there’s another episode about creating culture, I want to talk about where to start now. The order in which we create a culture isn’t that important, with one major exception. We really want to decide on the ideas and beliefs, and then come up with a unified cultural viion before we get too far into those manifestations. We will get the most mileage from the culture ideas that we’re going to talk about in the next lesson, including things like greetings, farewells, habits and other daily life ideas.

Despite what I just said, we don’t have to start with a cultural vision. We can think of a few examples of culture and custom that we want to have in our story, and then kind of work backwards from there and see if we can figure out what value, belief or moral seems to be behind that, and the use that to start creating other manifestations.

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 “Bach Prelude.” 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 26 – Creating Religions

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May 192020
 

Episode 26: Learn How to Create Religions

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a religion, including its all-important history, beliefs, worship practices, and traits of those who belong to a religion.

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 you should start by creating its history
  • How to determine a religion’s beliefs
  • What a religion’s followers might be like and what they need to do to join, exit, or remain a member
  • What the clergy might need to do to join and their roles
  • Considerations for how people worship and the impact on story
Coda

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Episode 26 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-six. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create religions. This includes its all-important history, beliefs, worship practices, and traits of those who belong to a religion. 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.

The Religion’s History

First, I want to mention that you can buy the transcripts of these podcast episodes by going into artofworldbuilding.com.

When we do world building, we are often focused on the present and we only need to do a certain amount of work on the past, but this is different with religions because so much of what is happening within a religion is based on the founding of that religion. So, we really need to focus on this first. More often than not, when we’re inventing our religion, we want one that is relatively old. It’s only rarely that we’re going to have one that has just formed in the last 10 or 20 years. The reason for this, as you’ll see as we go along here, is that so much of what’s going on in religion is about the past. So, unless our story is really focusing on a new religion being created, how that happens and the things that cause it to spread, we probably want to default to our religions being several hundred, if not a thousand years old.

The longer that history, the more artifacts and scriptures and other things that exist. These are the things that our characters are going to think about and that we are going to use as a creator. So, if the history is very short, we don’t have nearly as much material to use. Every religion has to start somewhere, and the usual culprit is a prophet of some kind. This is someone who’s either speaking on behalf of a god or is believed to be doing so. This perceived authority is what gives their words weight. And, of course, that is part of why people will follow them. Although, in many cases, people will also follow because they liked the ideas that this person is saying. But generally religions attribute everything to a deity; that all of these ideas are coming from that god. Otherwise, you’re worshiping a man or a woman or whoever that prophet was instead of the god.

If you’ve already created gods, as we talked about in a previous episode, and in the Creating Life book, then you have a lot of your work already done for you, and this is going to help you figure out what religions might exist on your world. An important consideration there is whether your god is real or not. If the god is not real, then your characters can pretty much make things up as they desire. If the gods are real and there are multiple gods, that means you’re going to have multiple religions. And because each god is going to have a different personality or things that they care about, then that’s going to control what their religion is like as well.

Just because the gods might be real, that doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to interact with people or tell people to go ahead and create this or that religion. This could mean that even though the god is real, that god hasn’t communicated to a prophet, and someone who is claiming to be a prophet is not really a prophet. They’re just someone who is espousing the beliefs of that god even though they have not directly received any communication.

This is another option that we have when we are inventing a religion, and we can look at this person as a kind of false prophet because they are not the actual prophet from that god because the god hasn’t told them anything. This, of course, means that they might be getting it wrong and they might be creating a religion that is not officially sanctioned, and maybe things don’t happen as they would like, such as trying to call on that god, but the god just doesn’t answer because that’s what that god is like.

The predictable result is going to be something more along the religions that we have today because, generally, most of us accept that god does not show up and say, “Hey, everybody. Do this or do that.” People are interpreting the supposed word of god from one prophet or another from thousands of years ago. We have to go on faith that these people actually were speaking the word of god. Your characters will pretty much have the same situation if the gods are non-communicative. But if the gods do communicate and they are in control of what happens in this religion or giving direction, then this gives us a certain definitiveness to what is happening in that religion, and we can leverage this to make creating it easier for us.

Of course, if the god actually does answer prayers, that’s going to eliminate the need for faith because we know that the god is real, the god is doing things and we’re not just telling ourselves something that we want to hear. My personal opinion is that when there is no evidence and that people are just telling themselves what they want to believe, that belief can often be extremely strong. For example, you might have a really strong belief in god and the message of god, and therefore that’s very important to you. On the other hand, the existence of the sun is not something we need to believe in. That is a fact. So, therefore, none of us are really investing ourselves in the idea of the sun because it’s real. It’s always there. So, a god that is real is going to be the same thing. It’s actually there. It actually does things. So, people may not be as heavily invested in a god simply because it actually is real and they’re not having to tell themselves what they want to believe about it. That’s my personal opinion about that and you’re certainly free to disagree.

If you do agree, then you have a world with real gods, people might not be quite as passionate about those gods and their choice of religion. On the other hand, because the god is real and actually answers prayer, they might be really grateful that they know they can call upon this god. And if that god has actually answered their prayers, that can cause devotion in a different kind of way. From a practical standpoint, I don’t know that there’s really much difference, but I just wanted to mention this idea.

Prophets

Let’s talk about prophets. There are some basic details that we’re going to want to invent regarding this person. One of them is obviously their name. They may have a new name now that they are a prophet. We want to know their occupation before becoming a prophet, and whether they are transformed by the experience. We also want to know when it happened.

When a prophet became one is actually very important because this is going to determine things like holidays. Calendars can actually be based on the existence of this prophet, the same way that today we have everything based on the life of Jesus Christ. We also want to know where they became a prophet because this can result in holy sites, and sometimes those are contested. We also want to know how they became a prophet because this can generate relics, symbols, and rituals that are prevalent in this religion. We can keep these pretty simple, and I’m going to read an example of this from the book.

“In the year 12 AK, the horseman Vinson rode into the Dark Peaks in what is the modern day Empire of Amarysh. He emerged as the Prophet Kier, chosen voice of the God of War, Arion, whose golden sword he pulled from a petrified lluvien tree, whereupon he heard Arion’s voice commanding him to return and form the Blades of Arion, an elite force of mounted religious warriors.”

It only took me a couple of minutes to write this, and what we have here are several potential symbols, like the sword and a specific tree type, plus a generally holy area, as in those mountains. And then there may be a specific location there as well, and of course there could be a petrified tree there. Details like this can result in people doing pilgrimages to go to this location at certain intervals of our choosing. The type of tree can be associated with this religion as a symbol or as one that is actually planted at holy sites like a church. If you’re a practitioner, maybe you have one planted in your front yard. When our prophet became one, perhaps he was eating a specific type of fruit, and that has been seen as a harbinger of good news. So, this fruit is also associated with this religion.

All we have to do is make up a story with a little bit of details and then people assign meaning to those details. We’re also going to want to decide how long this prophet lived and when he died because this can also give us dates that we use in our religion. Did he die naturally or not? If he was killed, who did it? Why, how and when? How did the religion react to this and what did the dod do? The reason we want to invent these details is, once again, to create aspects of our religion that are going to come up in the course of our story.

We should also consider how our religion comes to an end, if it does. The world does not have to end for the religion to go away, and we have seen this on Earth many times. It’s important to note that, as we mentioned earlier, maybe the gods are not real and people have invented these religions. This makes it easier for the religion to go away. This is also true if the god does exist but has no part in the religion because he’s non-communicative. Why does that matter? Because, in both cases, people can lose faith in the gods, stop believing in them, stop talking about them and, essentially, the gods go away. Of course, if the god is real, he doesn’t actually cease to exist, but if we have invented the gods, they do effectively stop existing.

There are various reasons why people can lose faith in religion, and one of these is if there was some sort of foretold event that does not actually occur. Smarter religions don’t choose specific dates for something for exactly that reason. Some of the reasons people can lose faith include that other practitioners are hard to live with, the religion may be too hard to practice if it’s really strict, the teachings may be too hard to understand, the individual might resist submitting to an authority like that, and they may crave an experience that they are denied because they are part of this religion. In the end, all we need is for people to abandon a religion and it effectively dies.

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.

A Religion’s Followers

Let’s talk about the people who become followers of this religion. Many religions have no particular requirement for becoming a follower. If we’re looking to speed up our work creating a religion, this is one way to do that. We can just skip that altogether. People can also be a practitioner without ever going to church, praying or giving any outward sign of their faith. Although, this is going to depend on your religion. You might have a god who demands some show. If we do want there to be requirements, there are some options such as donations of money, food or possessions. We could make visible adherence to any requirements for the way they dress, how they prepare, whether they eat or drink (or avoid eating or drinking) certain kinds of food and alcohol, and then maybe we require them to do missionary work to spread the gospel of that religion.

Or, of course, one of our favorites is sacrifice. Whether that’s a lifestyle and prohibiting something and following that, or actually killing something or someone. You’ll know if you have a god who requires the last one. When people perform these acts, that tends to make them invest more heavily in their religion and become more devoted. If you want really passionate members of a religion, then have them be required to do more. If you want them to be less interested and less passionate, then you can make the requirements be less.

When it comes to leaving a religion or no longer practicing it, those religions that don’t have a formal admission process will probably also not have a formal way of abandoning their religion. But we could reasonably assume if it’s required that they do a lot to get into their religion, that they also have to do something to get out of it. Or there may be some sort of price, like being banned from entry into any holy sites thereafter. If the afterlife is real, well, then maybe they’re going to be denied it. The most severe price is, of course, being killed so that you’re not actually allowed to leave the religion. Instead of leaving voluntarily, you might also be expelled from it due to certain offenses, or you could be killed for those same offenses.

A stricter religion might forbid you from knowing people from other religions, or having friends like that, or lovers, or certainly having children among them. Why would we want to do this sort of thing? Well, because it adds a good tension to our characters if we have two people fall in love, but one of them is from this religion where they’re not allowed to do these things, and they try to live in secret, but then they get found out. It causes all sorts of problems, tensions, and they’re just living their life in fear of this and living their life around being discovered. And then, of course, if something happens, if they get found out, now they have to find a way to rectify the situation and deal with a religion that might be coming after them to punish them in some way.

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.

The Clergy

The followers of religion are not the only ones involved in it, of course, because we have the clergy, and that’s what we’re going to talk about next. Just as with the followers, some religions will accept anyone as potential priests while others might have strict requirements. Maybe they need to be a virgin or maybe they need to have killed someone. It really could be anything, and that’s going to depend on the god. Some professions might be desired while others are actually forbidden. The ability to read and write is going to be desired, if not required, because these people need the ability to interpret scrolls and other written word. Unless, of course, those don’t exist.

Perhaps the ability to communicate with the god is required, or the ability to be a vessel of godly power in the sense of healing the living because the god has worked through you. This might be a requirement before you become a member of the clergy. It could also be an ability that happens after you become a member. Religions most often accept someone into it on a formal basis. You can’t just walk in off the street, walk up to the altar and start preaching to people, right? Once someone becomes a member of the clergy, they are often trained in more than one position. Not necessarily at once, of course, but in time.

Part of what I’m getting at is that there is a hierarchy and they will have to work their way up through the ranks. It is a good idea to decide what sort of hierarchy exists and do something about codifying that so that when you have a character who was a member of their priesthood, we have an understanding of how high or low they are in the food chain. I recommend borrowing some ideas from Earth, such as the pope, and then there are bishops, archbishops and then there are the priests who are more in charge of a local church or a shrine. And then, within each building, there are going to be people who are just kind of lower level where they just deal with more basic functions of church life. This could be something like a secretary or someone in charge of the paperwork.

We don’t necessarily have to come up with everything that allows someone to move from one rank to another because we may not need it. That said, there are some basic ideas such as someone above them in the food chain dying or being transferred to another position, so the position has been opened up, or that person could have been promoted and now this person is also promoted. There might also be service requirements, like you’re in a certain role for two years, for example. Or they may have performed a really good deed, whether that was on purpose or not, and this warrants recognition with the promotion. We should keep these simple.

An area not to overlook is whether there are saints, prophets or other religious leaders. Each of these people will have ideas similar to our original prophet that we were talking about earlier, meaning they may have a story to their life and what they did regarding this religion. That story could have produced more artifacts, more holidays, occasions and the other stuff that we can leverage in our storytelling. All we really need is for them to have exemplified some virtue of our religion by performing a deed in the past, and we can just quickly make these up.

Another issue is that a religion could have different sects that disagree with each other about interpretation of religious texts. This always reminds me of an idea in world building that sometimes we can’t make a decision between two different ideas, and I think we don’t have to. We can actually use both ideas. In this case, we would end up with two different sects of a religion. All we really need is for them to have a significant disagreement about important aspects of the religion. This is slightly more believable and easier to achieve if the gods are not real because that means people are making things up, and one a group of people will find it easier to disagree with another. But if the god is real and is actually directing the religion, I don’t know that we’re really going to have different sects unless each of them is sanctioned by the god.

This might be problematic, but the most likely idea that I can see is that one sect is specializing in certain aspects of this religion while another is focusing on different aspects. This would suggest that instead of being opposed to each other, they are working in conjunction to fulfill the overall god’s vision.

A related idea is what this religion’s relationship is like with other people. This includes various species, both genders and other religions. These are, once again, areas that we could invent or we could try to keep this pretty simple. I do think the one area you really should work out is how the religion views each species in your world and how those species have used the religion. The easy way to go about this is simply to compare the values of that species with the values of the religion. Are they in conflict or do they seem to match? Do they sort of match, but maybe the species has problems with some of the behaviors of the people in this religion? Maybe they sort of view the religion favorably, but have problems with some of those actions.

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The Beliefs

Let’s talk about the all important beliefs of this religion. There are some basic ideas that we probably want to decide on, and many of these will have something to do with the god. For example, where did the god originate and what does the god represent? What does the god want of the world, his followers and maybe even their enemies? How does the god want to be worshiped, or at least how do people believe that god wants to be worshiped? How does the god reward or punish people, and for what? How, and under what circumstances, does the god’s power manifest in the world? All of these ideas can help shape the behavior of practitioners. Generally, belief leads to behavior, so if we’re trying to decide how our followers act, we first start with the god’s virtues, then these beliefs, and then the behaviors of our religious people.

Beliefs are often centered on spiritual, mythological and supernatural elements of the god or the religion itself. The good part of this is that we get to use our imagination and make up little stories about things that have happened. We are basically talking about inventing myths. For each myth, we really just need a point that we are trying to create; a moral of the story. If it’s a god of love, we might want a story where we show the good things that happened to someone because they followed their heart. If it’s a god of greed, we might want a story where someone becomes a rich because they apply certain principles and they ended up with the result that the people who followed this religion hope to achieve for themselves one day.

Keep these stories simple and summed up in maybe a paragraph. The details that we add to this would be just like when we’re talking about prophets earlier. They could have artifacts that become associated with this religion. All we really need is a half dozen of these — not the artifacts, but these prophets and these myths — and we end up with a pretty detailed religion.

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How They Worship

Let’s finish up by talking a little bit about how people worship. A more demanding god or religion might require people to show their faith more often, and that could result in something like daily prayers. A more relaxed religion and deity might have less frequent devotion. Choose whatever seems appropriate. One question to answer is about the location. Do they need to go to a church, a mosque or other religious site in order to worship or are they allowed to do it anywhere? When people pray, do they need to get into any specific position, such as kneeling, or can they do so standing? One way to decide these is how much deference needs to be shown. A demanding or insecure god might insist that people go out of their way to show that they love the deity, whereas one that is maybe more secure might not really care so much about how they go about doing it.

People might also be expected to stand or kneel on some sort of mat, and that might be required to be made out of a certain kind of cloth. What kind of cloth? Well, if our original prophet was wearing some sort of cloth or type of material, or using it in some significant way when they became a prophet, then that, in turn, becomes the kind of cloth you use when you are showing your devotion. Does the religion require anyone to observe fasting where they don’t eat for a certain number of days or weeks, or just give up certain amount of food — well, not the amount, but certain specific foods?

There may be specific prayers that are said on a daily basis, a yearly basis, or somewhere in between. If we want to keep this simple, we can just give them a name, like “the Lord’s Prayer,” and not even specify what is actually said. If we want to build it out more, then we go ahead and we write down the actual words that they say. How far to go is, once again, going to depend on what you need to do in your story.

It’s about time to wrap up this episode, and I do want to mention that in Cultures and Beyond I talk about a few things that I’m not covering here today. One of those is the name of our religion. It’s important to come up with a cool one. We’re also not going to talk about locations and identifiers, the afterlife and the combat style, if any, of the members of this religion. If you’d like to know more, I suggest picking up a copy at artofworldbuilding.com.

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 “Bach Minuets I & II.” 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 25 – Creating Armed Forces

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May 052020
 

Episode 25: Learn How to Create Armed Forces

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create armed forces like the army, navy and air force. This includes how to become a member of one, their ranks, and how they’re viewed by society.

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 terrain impacts where armed forces exist
  • What special sites should exist for them.
  • The difference between various ranks and roles in the military (whether army, air force, or navy)
  • Why you should consider their place in society
  • How transportation impacts them
  • What to consider for how people join this military, including prerequisites
Coda

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Episode 25 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-five. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how create armed forces like the army, navy, and air force. This includes how to become a member of one, their ranks, and how they’re viewed by society. 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.

Location

Before we get started, I want to mention that if you would like to purchase transcripts of these podcast episodes, you can now do so directly from the homepage at www.artofworldbuilding.com.

The first thing we should worry about with armed forces is the location. The case can be made that the armed forces are going to exist whether we invent them or not, unless the location is one that does not allow for this. For example, if the civilization is not very advanced, it’s not going to have a formalized military. If the landscape is also something like grasslands, then we may have a more nomadic people where they don’t really have a formal military. The same could be true of somewhere that’s very mountainous, where the people don’t travel very far. In this case, I’m thinking of the fantasy dwarves. These places may be exceptions rather than the rule, where the terrain is really impacting whether something forms or not.

For the purpose of this episode, we’re going to assume that you have a somewhat more varied terrain and enough civilization that armed forces are going to be needed. Some types of armed forces are going to work better over one kind of terrain than another. A good example is the cavalry because they’re not going to be used in the mountains nearly so much as somewhere flatter. This is, once again, a kind of specialty group that can be operating on its own, and also, at times, be incorporated into a larger military as a specialized unit.

For example, a long time ago, in the United States, we had the infantry who were on foot, and then the cavalry who were, of course, on horseback. These were treated as different units within the army. When we are creating the armed forces, we should decide if we are creating a specialty group or the larger organization like the army. It doesn’t matter whether we focus on the smaller group or the overall group first, just as long as we go through what we’ve created more than once, paying attention to both the overall structure and then the usage of any specialty groups.

In both fantasy and science fiction, we have another issue regarding terrain, and that is that we have multiple species. So, we could have elves within our armed forces and, as a result, they might bring a specialty for operating within a forest that the overall army, for example, does not otherwise have. This means that an elf could be part of a specialized unit that is comprised mostly of elves, or the elves could just be part of the overall military. By the same token, we could have dwarves who specialize in underground fighting, or anything on the mountains, but then there might also be dwarves who don’t want to be part of that specialized unit, and are just part of the army, navy or air force in general.

This is an opportunity to put some racism and some bigotry in there because we could have someone like the humans see an elf who is part of their unit and object to this, saying, “Hey, why are you not with the elven unit that is supposed to be specializing in forest fighting? You’re here with us.” This is a believable aspect of the relationships within the military. Of course, we can do the same thing with any species of our own that we have invented.

One reason all of this matters about terrain is that this will determine, in large part, where this army or other group tends to be located. If they don’t do well on plains or in the desert, and they aren’t needed there much, they’re probably not going to be located there. If circumstances force them to fight on such terrain, they may have less training and experience. The opposition in a conflict might know this and try to take advantage of it by forcing the conflict to take place on that kind of terrain.

What if one army has elves who specialize in forest fighting and another does not? It would make sense that the one with the elves might try to force the conflict to take place near or in a forest. They might also use the forest for cover, knowing that they’ve got people who can navigate really well there, and the opposition does not.

Special Sites

Another aspect of location is whether this military group has any sort of specialized sites, and where these are located. For example, maybe they are expected to be super efficient at fighting a certain type of creature, and therefore they need to have experience fighting these. So, maybe they’ve got a training base located wherever that creature is. Generally, the military uses special training sites, and they don’t have the training available everywhere. So, one of the decisions we need to make is where this training is taking place. A large population center is an obvious choice, as is any sort of special terrain or nearby creatures that training is needed for.

This can be true with science fiction, as well, if we have training for something like pilots where they need to deal with certain kinds of space phenomenon. Naturally, training for certain things can happen in one location, and training for others can happen in a different location. We can also decide to give each of these locations a cool name, like “the Citadel” or “the Dark Abyss.” Therefore, characters can mention this. “Hey, in my time at the Citadel, I did so and so.” If we give it an interesting name, it just adds a little interest for our readers. It can create mystique about what the training facility is like, and make people curious what goes on there.

Beyond training facilities, we might also have special locations that they use as part of their duties. One example that comes to mind is if they ride giant birds of prey, like eagles or falcons, and when they land on the ground, they are vulnerable. And if they need to camp for the night, this could be a problem. So, maybe they do things like build special towers out in the wilderness that are large enough for the birds, for them to camp, and where these cannot be accessed from the ground. Using our imagination, we can think of other places similar to this.

Transportation

This neatly dovetails into another related subject, and that is what they are using to get around, whether they are walking, riding animals, or riding machinery. We should make a basic decision about what they are typically using. One reason for this is that the military will most likely be charged with supplying that. For example, horses will most likely be owned by the military, even if a specific soldier has a specific horse that he is typically using for the purposes of bonding. The reason for this is that military horses must, of course, be trained. The same will be true of any other animal that is ridden as part of a military group.

Machinery comes up a lot more in science fiction and, obviously, this is something that’s going to be supplied by the military. In a film like Star Wars, the only reason Han Solo gets away with flying the Millennium Falcon is that he’s not an official part of the military there. You’ll notice all of the other ships look the same, and they have the same capabilities as a result. For additional realism with science fiction, we should invent different kinds of machines that people will be using. They will have different capabilities. Whether that’s firing ability or defensive abilities, or even the kinds of terrain that they are designed for. One way that we can use this as storytellers is having the characters acquire a type of machinery that is not the ideal one because they’re on the run, or something like that. They have to just take whatever they can steal, for example. There is something that they want, but they can’t find it, so they have to take something else.

It helps us if we have already invented these machines, and if we’ve already created limitations so that our characters can complain about whatever choice they have to make. This allows them to get a vehicle that allows them to escape, but it may not do so in an optimal fashion. Therefore, they might have to travel from wherever they are now to some other location and hope that they can acquire what they really need there.

This is one way to not only be realistic, but create more plot points for us. If they can always acquire exactly what they need, that’s not very believable, and it doesn’t have a whole lot of tension to it. We need things to go wrong.

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.

How to Join

Once we’ve decided where this military group typically operates, the kind of transportation they have and what kind it is — whether it’s a navy, an army, an air force or a space force — then we can start thinking about the road to becoming a member of this armed forces, and what someone has to go through. Many militaries will accept people who have no particular training or skills before they join the military. Those people are put through what is called “basic training” in the Army in the United States. However, by the time they complete basic training, they are expected to have acquired certain skills. This can be a default decision that we also do for anything that we are inventing, but we might also want to decide that certain prerequisites are required.

Why would we decide this? Well, if the group is supposed to be elite in any way, they probably don’t want to waste their time training people who appear to have no talent or skill for something. This, again, brings up the concept of joining the general military group or joining a specialized force within that group. The latter is arguable more likely to have specific requirements. Expert swordsmen probably want a certain amount of skill with a sword and even a knife. Cavalry might require basic horsemanship skills. The air force might require a certain amount of flight skills. A space force could require the same of any time piloting in space, or possibly even doing launches from the ground, through the atmosphere and into space.

One way we can use this is that in addition to someone becoming an elite member of this specialized group if they pass all the tests, they were able to be recognized as being kind of special even before they joined because they made the cut. This can result in some snobbery, of course. There will always be people trying to act like they are better than you. Maybe this group even has a reputation for being haughty. That could, in turn, make some of our characters resent certain members of this group if they are encountered during our story. So, this is another way that we can leverage this kind of development.

So, what prerequisites might your group need? Think about how you intend to use them in the story that you are creating them for. What do they need to do? And are you just going to use them as a general army kind of thing where they’re just going to go out and be a nameless mass of 5,000 people who maybe all get killed, or a bunch of them do, or they win the war but you’re not really going to delve into the specifics of who they are? If that’s the case, then maybe don’t worry too much about creating prerequisites for them. On the other hand, if you imagine that you’re creating this group because one of your main characters is supposed to be a member of that group, or a former member, or even an aspiring member, then you probably want to think about the prerequisites. Not to mention, as we’re going to get to in a minute, the training they went through, or are going to go through, and then what the final tests are going to be.

So, the first question, really, is do you need to worry about prerequisites or not? As a final note on prerequisites, not all of them have to do with physical skills. It might be something like knights requiring you to be of noble birth. This is, of course, a kind of discrimination. We can leverage that to create some tension. That brings up the subject of characteristics. You may remember from the Creating Life volume in The Art of World Building series that we looked at things like intelligence, wisdom, charisma, strength, constitution, agility, dexterity and morale. Officers are more likely to require the higher mental traits, like better intelligence. By contrast, we could reasonably assume that the enlisted men and women might need more physical attributes because that’s what they’re bringing to the table instead.

A group like medieval knights are not really known for their agility, in no small part because they are wearing heavy armor. So, obviously, they’re not going to have a huge requirement for agility. They may require better dexterity, however, in order to wield a sword with expert skill. Military who wear less armor might have higher requirements for agility. So, we can use the typical armor that they have as a way of deciding some prerequisites. It’s always great when we can use decisions we’ve already made to help us make other decisions.

For any characteristics that we decide on, it can be difficult for anyone to test these. However, in science fiction, simulations offer a good way to do this. For example, we could have a scenario where wisdom is required to escape a situation. In another one, their morale might be tested by whether they flee or they stand up to the opposing forces. Physical skills are necessarily easier to determine with a test. So, if we want to have tests for these other mental traits or characteristics, we might have to think about that a little bit more. These tests can be famous, and they can also add some interest to our story.

Another aspect of initiation testing is that it can allow someone to bypass certain training if they show that they already have the skills required. Either that or the test can be so easy for them that they don’t really need to prepare for them, and they just kind of blow through them. One way we might want to use this is to have that character impress the leadership. Therefore, that person is tasked with a higher level of service than they might have otherwise been expected to get.

Someone who’s already an expert pilot or a sword fighter isn’t going to have to go through all of the training, and they may realize this person has a lot of potential. In both fantasy and science fiction, we tend to like characters who demonstrate that they are special in some way, partly because it allows us to live vicariously through them, and the idea that we would also be that special if we were in their shoes. This sort of escapism is one of the things that this genre allows us to do as an audience member.

Some of these tests can also be purposely unfair to see how someone reacts to that. Do they whine about it or do they accept it gracefully? Or do they simply point out that something wasn’t fair? If you were a military leader, would you want a whiner on the frontlines or in charge of anything important? Probably not. If we’ve already decided how these people are going to be used, that makes it easier to figure out what kind of training they need. The easiest way to decide how they’re going to be used is simply to imagine some scenes where they are doing whatever it is that they do. You don’t have to really write these, you just kind of play around with it in your head. What do you imagine them doing in your setting and in your story? What kind of impact are they going to have? Do these actions require a certain amount of skill for them to implement? If so, well, there’s your training.

Unless we have an understanding of how long it takes to be trained in something, like swordsmanship, in order to become an expert, we probably don’t want to be too specific about how long someone is in training. Granted, if we’re talking about a skill that doesn’t exist, then no one can show up and tell us that we’re wrong.

The last thing to mention here is that there are most likely going to be some sort of final tests in order for them to graduate and become a member of this military group. We can decide that these tests are relatively safe, or that they’re so dangerous that sometimes people actually die from them. Naturally, this will have an impact on someone who is about to take these tests. It can also impact the way that others view them if they know that these guys took tests that could’ve resulted in their death, but they didn’t, they made it through and now they’re a member of this group. This could cause some people to look at them in awe. To decide this, decide what kind of a reaction you want people to have to any character who is a member of this group.

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.

Military Ranks

Unless you have served in the military, there is one area of it that you probably don’t understand much more than I did, until I took the time to do the research. That is the ranking and the difference between commissioned officers and enlisted grades. That’s what we’re going to discuss now.

Like virtually all episodes of this podcast, this one is based on a chapter from The Art of World Building series, and, in this case, it is from Cultures and Beyond, the chapter on how to create armed forces, of course. I mentioned this because in the book I have a number of charts that lay out the different ranks and what that really means. I’m not going to go right down these charts, but I am going to cover the basics about this. Before we get started, I want to mention that we can use any of the existing rank structures that exist in the army, navy or air force. We don’t have to make up our own. Another option is to take the same ranks, but give them new names so that they seem different, but they actually aren’t. Why would we do that? Just to create a sense of another world.

Unless we are writing a detailed account of what it’s like to be a member of this military, we don’t really need to go into any kind of detail at all about most of this. It’s more that we should understand some of this. As it turns out, if we compare the army, navy and air force ranks to each other, they are pretty similar. They just have different names. For example, in the army, the field marshal or general would be the equivalent of a fleet admiral in the navy, or a marshal in the air force. At the opposite extreme of the officers, we have the officer cadet, which is called that in both the army and the navy, but is called a flight cadet in the air force. Otherwise, this is still the entry level rank for an officer.

I want to contrast the commissioned officers with the enlisted grades and explain what this means. A commissioned officer is appointed by a formal document that is issued by the head of state. That is the person who is running the government. You may remember from a previous episode, or from the Creating Places book, that we discussed heads of state in detail. The generic word “officer” actually means “commissioned officer” most of the time. However, it can refer to a non-commissioned officer. What’s an NCO, as it’s often called? That is someone who has not yet earned the commission, and they have been promoted from the enlisted grades. One thing that this can mean is that the officers went through special training to become officers, but the non-commissioned officers did not because they have risen through the enlisted ranks who did not go through that special training.

So, let’s talk about what it means to be part of the enlisted grades. In short, this is basically everyone who is not an officer. In the army, this would include your privates, your corporals, your sergeants and your sergeant majors. The commissioned officers are trained in things like management and leadership, and they often have a college degree — especially at the higher levels. In a world without colleges, we may be able to skip that and just say that they have a certain amount of experience.

The enlisted grades are the bulk of any military. These are the fighting men and women and anyone who is supporting them, such as pilots, engineers, technicians and more. The non-commissioned officers that we talked about a minute ago are considered crucial in the military because these are people who sort of have their boots on the ground and have a lot of experience, having gone from private up to whatever rank that they have. These are the primary points of contact between the enlisted grades and the officers who outrank them. In other words, an officer may not really understand what it is like to be one of these guys who’s got his boots on the ground all the time, and what it’s like for the basic military men and women. So, therefore, these NCOs do have this because they rose through the ranks. The NCOs, or non-commissioned officers, have practical experience being soldiers, as opposed to the commissioned officers, who may have none.

In the book, I also go into detail on the difference between a commanding officer and an executive officer. In short, the executive officer is responsible for running the military organization, and reports to the commanding officer. You may have heard them referred to as CO and XO, the XO being the executive officer and the CO being the commanding officer. This sometimes comes up in military shows or movies where someone asks, “Who is your XO?” or, “Who is your CO?”

Ranks and Roles

When it comes to a rank and the role that that person plays in the military, this can change from military organization to military organization, and from country to country. So, the good news here is that we don’t necessarily have to get this right, we just have to have a general understanding of the kinds of things that go on, and then we can invent whatever we need for the world that we are inventing and, of course, no one from our fictional world is going to show up and tell everyone that we got it wrong. What I’m getting at is that we sometimes have a tendency to want to get something right and, as with many things, that’s not really something we need to worry about. Plausibility in world building is the bar to get over.

Now, before I talk about the military ranks and their roles, I do want to briefly mention that in the book I have another very useful chart of all of the military units, how many people comprise those units, and who the typical commander is. For example, we’ve all heard of a platoon. Well, what is that? It’s got about 15-45 guys in it, and it’s commanded by a lieutenant. A brigade has somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 men, and that has a commander of a colonel, or maybe a brigadier general. In the air force, a flight, as it’s called, may have three to six aircraft and support crew, plus a squadron leader.

Rather than go through a whole chart for the rank and the role, I’m just going to point out some of the more interesting tidbits from these. For example, in each branch, there is a five-star rank that sometimes only exists in an honorary way, or during a time of war. So, under peacetime, it doesn’t exist  and a four-star general, for example, is the highest rank. That would also be true of an admiral in a navy.

One of the more interesting army roles is that of the captain. This person commands a company and is sometimes the second-in-command of a battalion. This can be the entry level rank for those who have an advanced degree, such as a doctor, a lawyer, or maybe someone like a wizard. This is usually the highest rank that is still in the field as a fighter. That means all the majors, lieutenant colonels, colonels and different kinds of generals above them are not going to be in the field. Below the captain is the lieutenant, which is sometimes called a first lieutenant, and a second lieutenant, which is an entry level rank for the officers. College graduates can sometimes skip that rank, and even others are often in it for less than a year.

In the navy, you may have heard of admiral, vice admiral and rear admiral, but not really understood what these meant. Generally, a fleet is divided into thirds, with the admiral being in control of the middle third. The rear admiral is what you might expect, the admiral of the lowest rank, a two-star rank, who is the least experienced and has control of the rear of the fleet. And that is opposed to the vice admiral, who is a three-star rank, and who is commanding the vanguard, or the front of the fleet. The admiral in the middle is the four-star rank, who has the highest rank, and he is the one who is in command of the overall fleet.

The commodore is the one-star rank, and this is someone who commands more than one ship at a time. This is typically a temporary rank. Normally, this person would be a captain, and that’s someone who is commanding the largest ships.

In the air force, we once again have multiple names that are very similar. For example, the air chief marshal is the four-star rank, and this is the commander of an air force. The air marshal would be the three-star rank, and this person is, again, commanding the vanguard of a fleet of planes. The air vice marshal is, again, a two-star rank that is commanding the rear of a fleet. As with a navy, the air commodore is someone who has a one-star rank and is commanding multiple groups.

If you need this kind of thing worked out for your story or your setting, I highly recommend either researching these on your own or just picking up a copy of Cultures and Beyond where I have already collected a lot of this for you.

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Place in Society

I briefly want to talk about their place in society and how they are viewed. This can have a big effect on how we portray them and how other characters react to them. Naturally, how they are viewed by one society or one settlement or sovereign power may differ from how they are viewed by someone else. As with many things, we want to generalize in our notes about them and then make up exceptions as we go along.

We can actually generalize those exceptions as well. For example, they could be highly valued in places where physical danger is a constant presence, but in places where safety is taken for granted, they also could be taken for granted. Maybe there’s not even a whole lot for them to do, but they must be kept around just in case something happens and, therefore, they are idle and not considered terribly worthwhile. Maybe some people even want the military to get smaller, and some of these people to essentially lose their jobs and livelihood and have to find another way to make a living, the goal being to reduce the amount of budget that is spent on maintaining this military force in that size.

Another issue that can come up is that sometimes the military, or members of it, commit war crimes, and they might actually be known for this. As a result, people could fear the soldiers quite a bit. This fear could cause some people to avoid them, of course, and they might also cause restrictions, such as these people only being allowed to dine in the back room so that people don’t feel uncomfortable around them. They may not be welcome in certain kinds of establishments. On the other hand, if they are honorable, they might be seated in a prominent place, and even have people say, “Hey, Knight So-and-so frequently dines here,” as a way of bringing in more customers.

Unless we have a need for one depiction or another, it’s probably best to go with a somewhat more moderate tone, where they’re neither loved nor despised. They’re just kind of there as a basic force that is needed. But, of course, you need to make your decision based on your story.

Review

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How to Get Started

While we didn’t cover every aspect of how to create a military organization, I do want to mention how we should get started. I think our first choice is to decide if we are creating a smaller, specialized group, like the U.S. Marines, or a larger force, like the entire army. This will help determine where they typically operate, and every subsequent decision we make. We should try to determine what sort of role we imagine them playing. Whether that’s a large scale conflict and world wars, or just something smaller. That could just mean that one of our characters is a member of this group, and that the group itself is not going to go to war in the context of our story.

At a minimum, we should also invent their symbols, their colors and any slogans. We can skip over something like history, but it is a good idea to have at least one or two historical figures that used to be members of this military group so that our characters have someone to aspire to or to fear being compared to. Another area that we can skip creating is worrying too much about the details of how someone becomes a member of this military, or creating ranks that differ in any meaningful way from the standard ones that are common on Earth.

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 “Rapid Fire.” 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 24 – Creating Organizations

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Apr 212020
 

Episode 24: Learn How to Creating Organizations

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create good and evil organizations, how people join and leave them, what power structures are like, and how to invent history for them.

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 to think about when creating an evil organization
  • What might happen when someone leaves an evil organization
  • What good and evil organizations are like and how to create one
  • Common elements across evil/good groups
  • How to create history for groups and use existing history to create them
Coda

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Episode 24 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-four. Today’s topic is about how to create organizations. This includes forces for good and evil, what they have in common, and how someone joins or get expelled. 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.

Forces for Evil

Before we get started, I want to mention that there are transcripts of every episode available, and you can now buy these transcripts. In fact, you can actually buy the podcast episodes, too, as an audiobook. You can find out more at artofworldbuilding.com, or on Amazon you can just type in “The Art of World Building” and these will show up.

So, what do I mean by “organizations?” Well, we’re talking about something like the X-Men or maybe The Knights of the Roundtable, or even Robin Hood and His Merry Men. We could also be talking about a guild, like a wizards’ guild, or maybe even an assassins’ guild. Even the mafia would be an example. Groups like these will exist in our fictional world, but of course, if we don’t invent them, then we’re probably never going to mention them, and we may not even be using them. But they’re still going to be there, and it can add an extra level of belief to our world if we take the time to create these.

Creating organizations is one of the simpler tasks. Let’s first talk about forces for evil. Now, in theory, some groups may not think of themselves as evil, but if you’ve got an assassins’ guild, obviously, these are people going around killing people. So, they may justify that in some way, but they probably have a sense that they’re basically doing a bad thing. Any mafia is likely to be the same where they understand that they are involved in organized crimes of various kinds. Whether that’s money laundering, killing people, bribes or the drug trade.

So, one obvious question for a group that knows it’s doing bad things: Why are they doing that? In the case of something like a mafia, they are, for the most part, trying to enrich themselves at the expense of others and take advantage of laws, loopholes in those laws, or simply circumnavigating them because they don’t feel like obeying those laws because their life is, maybe, not going to be very good if they do follow those laws. Maybe they don’t have economic resources available to them unless they go ahead and commit crimes.

Sometimes a mafia will validate what they’re doing in the sense of building up their own kind. So, for example, if they are from a certain ethnic group, maybe they feel like their ethnic group is being downtrodden and this is their way of getting ahead. One problem with that kind of justification is that its own ethnic group is often the recipient of the bad behavior. This is where you get some bad justifications where people will say something like, “In order to improve things for the most people, someone, somewhere, has to suffer.”

The point here is that if you want to create a group like this, you might try to come up with a justification mindset that they have, but then also show them betraying that, but continuing to do it anyway. Because this is realistic. People do that kind of thing where they are essentially a hypocrite.

When it comes to the crimes that they’re committing, hypocrisy is relatively low on the list of bad things that they are doing. So, it’s not really a deterrent to bad behavior. The way we can use that is if a character is essentially recruited by such an organization with those ideas, and then as they’re becoming a member of the group, they see that group betraying those ideas. As we all know, conflict is the heart of every story, so there’s one way to do that.

Some organizations will have a worldview that is based on religion. So, in order to do this, we’re going to have to have that religion worked out, and preferably a god that it is based on. This is one of the ways where we can use work we’ve already done in our world building. If your world has a god that is considered evil, like a god of greed, then the followers of that religion could be ones who are forming this organization. And even if they’re not particularly religious, they might just be using that as a justification. The thought will usually go along the lines of, “Hey, there’s a god who promotes this and thinks it’s great, and we’re just going ahead and following that god’s word.”

The real motivation for those people will not be to do something centered on greed for the god of greed, but actually for themselves and their own greed. But, of course, they may try to act like they’re not really doing it for themselves, they’re doing it for this deity.

There can also be social reasons for an evil organization. One way of looking at that is to take bullying and elevate that to an even higher level where they feel like they should take advantage of different kinds of people for their own personal gain. In these cases, the group is probably going to target another group that is a rival, or a type of person that they dislike, such as followers of a certain religion. Maybe these are poor people and they are targeting the rich for theft.

In such a scenario, people can often feel justified in what they are doing, and in that sense, they may not feel like they are doing something bad when they actually are. Any group of people that is also being oppressed by a society might form an organization to essentially thumb their nose at the people who are in charge of that society.

What we’re trying to do when we create an evil organization is find some sort of justification or guiding principle that defines their actions. This will not only help us determine what sort of actions they undertake, but it will also help us understand what sort of people are drawn to that organization. What does the group want? How far are they willing to go to get that? What means do they typically employ to achieve that goal? And do they bail themselves out of trouble, or members of their organization, if they get caught? Do they free people from prison or do they just say, “Hey, look, if you get caught, you’re on your own?”

This sort of outlook will really characterize what it’s like to be a member of that organization. Certainly, I would be more attracted to one who showed more loyalty to me and was willing to get me out of trouble. This can also really impact what happens when someone is captured because if you feel like you’ve been abandoned by the group, and you’re being tortured for information about that group, you’re probably more likely to give up that information. The organization may realize that this happens, but instead of showing loyalty, they might actually try to kill someone who is in custody.

Forces for Good

Let’s talk about organizations that are good in nature. Here on Earth, these seem to be few in number, if existing at all, and I suspect one of the reasons is that we have something like the police. That’s who we turn to for certain types of reinforcement of our values. On the other hand, there are a lot of organizations that are interested in promoting a good cause, or one that they feel is a good cause. Some groups promote the ethical treatment of animals, although, for some of us, the way they conduct themselves is not necessarily a good thing, even though they may have a positive goal that they are trying to achieve. There are other organizations that are also interested in protecting animals. There are also environmental groups like Greenpeace. Although, again, some people find their methods offensive, even if their cause is one that they could support.

The trick to creating these for our setting is to think of some pressing issue that is threatening either an economy or something like animals and livestock, or a way of life, or even the health of a planet. Are there organizations that are taking it upon themselves to try to correct these problems? Some of these organizations — in fact, many of them, if we consider them good — are going to follow laws. But, in some places, they may see those laws as a barrier to achieving their end goal. Therefore, they might do things that are illegal or, if not illegal, are kind of questionable. Just as with the forces for evil, we’ve got groups for good that want to achieve something, and their methods might be a problem for some of their members.

In fantasy and science fiction, we can also have groups that have taken it upon themselves to do things that something like a police force is not capable of or willing to do. Any police force, for example, is associated with either a settlement or a sovereign power, and therefore, there is the question of jurisdiction, whereas some groups, these organizations that we’re talking about inventing, can operate across these divisions and not have to worry about them. One interesting side effect of that is they can sometimes run afoul of local laws, getting themselves into trouble even though they are considered a force for good.

That said, one settlement and one sovereign power might have a very different outlook than another. So, they could be seen as good in one place, and as evil in another. This jurisdiction issue is especially interesting in science fiction, where the group could be operating over a whole solar system, or certainly multiple planets, and even bigger areas.

As for ideas on groups that we could create, another one is a group that is going around and collecting dangerous artifacts. This could either be in science fiction or fantasy. If they’re collecting these, then they’re going to need somewhere to store them, and that could be another interesting location in our stetting. We might have another group of warriors who take it upon themselves to show up and stop our bad guys from doing one thing or another. A character like Conan the Barbarian typically does this, but he’s not really doing it on purpose. He is just trying to steal something or enrich himself, and he ends up getting involved in these situations. We could make a character like him be part of a larger organization where he is going around doing this kind of thing on purpose. Of course, we might also have a group of wizards, or even something like from Star Wars — the Jedi.

One advantage to a force for good is that they might have acquired a reputation that allows them to do certain types of things, such as commandeering a vehicle. Why would a settlement or a sovereign power allow this? Well, because they’re doing something that’s supposedly going to help all of mankind or the other species. And they are sacrificing themselves and their livelihood, and they’re not really being paid — or maybe they are being paid. But there are perks to doing this and if there’s something available that’s going to help them do their job, then maybe a sovereign power is willing to let them just commandeer that.

This might be officially policy. Then again, there might be a policy where they are not allowed to do that in certain locations. This sort of deviation is another way to make our setting more believable. It can also cause problems when someone is expecting to be able to commandeer a vehicle and they can’t because of local laws. We may want a justification for that, such as someone having once commandeered a vehicle and causing a huge problem. Therefore, this has now been outlawed. This gives us another event in our history. Or it could just be that the local sovereign power doesn’t really support them, it only kind of sort of supports them and lets them do certain things, but not others, in their jurisdiction.

One point I’m making is that it’s not a good idea to have this organization we are creating be treated the same way everywhere they go. What we might want to do is decide some of things that are typical, and then open up every sovereign power or even settlement file we have and say, in a section we have about this group, “What are they allowed to do here?”

We can either plan that in advance or when we are setting up a story and we are trying to think of obstacles that they might face in one part of the story or another. This is something that we can throw in there and justify it with some minor incident that happened in the past. That said, we don’t necessarily have to explain it.

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Common Elements

Whether a group is good or evil, they are likely to have some common elements. As we were just talking about, they’re going to have a goal of some kind. One of those goals that I alluded to earlier is the controlling of objects. This can be objects in general, those of a specific type, or one very specific object. Naturally, if it’s only going to be one object that they are focused on, their activities are going to be somewhat limited and that object is going to be extremely valuable or powerful. This reminds me of the Indiana Jones movies where, in the first one, there is a group of Nazis, a subgroup, that is trying to get to the Ark of the Covenant. In one of the later movies, they’re trying to get to the Holy Grail.

Now, obviously, the Nazis were trying to do many things, but there was a group of them within that organization that was tasked with something smaller. This is another option that we have. As this example shows, these objects are thought to have not only a religious significance, but supposedly a power that can be conferred to the possessor. In both of those movies, there is a heavy moral element where the evil group is trying to get it, and a good person — in this case, Indiana Jones — is trying to prevent that from happening.

We can also have a group that is trying to prevent something like that from happening, and in fact, in the third movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there is such a group, although I can’t remember the name of them. That group initially tries to kill Indiana Jones before realizing that he is going to help them. If we have a group that is after an object, we should decide what they are going to do if they ever get it and if we are going to allow them to ever possess this. This is the kind of element that we can add to our world and it gives a kind of side story where some of the characters might get involved with that group. I’m also reminded of the Faceless Men from Game of Thrones where audiences became so enamored of the main character that was from that group that they liked having this guy on screen, seeing what he was doing and learning more about that organization.

Eventually, one of the main characters, Arya, actually joins that group for a brief time. If she hadn’t done that, it’s possible that the author could have just written a side book about that organization. That said, that group was not really interested in object control, which is what we were just talking about.

Another potential goal for our organization is the possession of land. Instead of land, it can also be something like a building or a space station. The goal of having this could be something like security for themselves and their people. Naturally, we’re going to want to figure out what is so special about this place that this group covets it. It might have a strategic value. Think of something like a castle that is guarding the entrance to a mountain range. In this case, there would be something in those mountains that is valuable, and whoever controls the castle controls access to it. In other words, possession of a place might be a means to an end. Sometimes religion is a reason for a group to covet an area. We can look no further for inspiration than the Palestinians and the Israelis.

That, of course, calls to mind another type of group, and that is the terrorist organization. Does your world have these, what are they after and what kind of means do they employ? We can probably assume they’re very similar to those here on Earth, and we might just be changing the type of bomb that they are using, from something magical or to a technology that doesn’t actually exist. In order to decide on these land possession goals, we’re going to have to have worked out some of our geography. If we’ve already got a map, we can just look at that and decide what sort of valuable resources are in a given location and decide that there is a group that wants to possess that. This has conflict built into it because a sovereign power or a city might already claim that territory, and there might be other groups that also want it. That can also create enemies for our organization.

In theory, power is another goal for a group, but that is usually a means to an end. And then there might also be the goal of upholding a philosophy or a religion, which we already talked about.

Another common trait for both forces for evil and good is that they will have enemies and friends. As we’ve alluded to, a sovereign power or a settlement can be one of those friends or enemies, but we can also use other groups that we have invented. Now, if this is the first group we’ve invented, then we can’t really set them off against another group yet, but we might start to imagine another group that will be in opposition to this one. Therefore, we can go back and forth, working on both of them at the same time and updating their relationship with each other.

It’s possible that one of these groups can spring up just to oppose the other group, which will also mean that if the first group falls, then the second group will no longer have any reason to exist.

We should also talk about the power structure of our organization. Is it run by one person or is it really kind of by committee, and one person is sort of nominally in charge or are they officially in charge? Instead of calling it a committee, we might want to call it something like the “inner circle,” for example. Within that inner circle, there will be some people who are more influential than others, and this can cause power struggles there, as well.

In fact, this can even be how a group splinters off and forms a subsequent group. There might be people who agree with the mission, but not how they are acting out that mission. So, if we are inventing a group and we can’t decide between two different choices on how they act, we can actually choose both and create these two factions of that organization. As world builders, we have a lot of decisions to make. Sometimes, we feel indecisive, but this is a quick way of getting around that, by using both.

Power can come in different forms. Whether that’s physical, some sort of supernatural or technological might. If you have the biggest ship in science fiction, then maybe you’re the most powerful one. Maybe you don’t have the biggest ship, but you have more of them or you’ve got access to more resources. Maybe you or your crews have personally saved many people who are also in this group now, and those people are loyal to you. Or maybe you have power just because you’re the smartest, the wisest or the most well-informed. Maybe you’ve proven through history that you have better strategies for taking on your enemies and realizing your goals — not only your goals, but the goals of the organization.

At the same time, someone who is doing bad with that sort of thing may find themselves losing power. Unhappy about that, they might be the one who defects and forms another group. We’ve probably all seen organizations that are seemingly ruled by brutality, where the most vicious killer is the one who leads the group. This is certainly an option for us, but obviously, that’s probably not going to be a group that is focused on good deeds. More civilized and good-natured groups tend to favor something more intellectual.

The kinds of organizations that we’re talking about don’t usually have titles the same way that the armed forces do. In that sense, they tend to be less organized and, as a result, we don’t really have to create all of that organization. This is one reason why creating them is a little bit simpler.

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History

Let’s briefly talk about the history of our organization. We could decide that it’s a new organization, but many of them are going to have some history. If it is new, then there is most likely a very recent event that has triggered their invention. Now, we probably don’t want to invent a recent incident if we don’t actually need one for the world, so this is the kind of scenario where if something has recently happened and we want to leverage that by saying that a group has sprung up in reaction to that incident, then this is a good option. Otherwise, we’re probably going to have an older group.

In order for a group to form, we need multiple individuals who feel the same way about something that has happened, or that they have the same goal in mind. For example, if an event affected the poor, then we might have a group of people from the poor who are good fighters and decide to form a group to go after the perpetrators of that event.

Wars that have happened in the past, and the fall of various cities or kingdoms can be incidents that we can leverage. To do this, we should think about who lost that conflict, and are there people who are leftover from that defeat who still want to do something about it, and form a new organization? It doesn’t have to be war either. It can be any group of people who are affected by something negatively. We can also have incidents that are much smaller than war. We could have a stockpile of magical or technological items that have gone missing and now a group of people have decided to go after them. Something like that could start off as just a mission by a group of people, but it becomes an organization when maybe decades pass and only so many of these things have been acquired. And in the meantime, some of those items are being used in destructive ways, and this causes more people to want to join this group and it becomes a bigger organization as a result.

You can make these up, just as I am doing right now while I’m talking about this. All we really need is an incident and a reaction by a group of people who are bothered by that incident in the same way.

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.

Joining or Leaving

The last subject I want to talk about is how people join this group or leave it. Exclusivity is something that makes any group more appealing. If this group is expected to do any sort of fighting, using magic or piloting spacecraft, then, obviously, a certain amount of skill with these things is going to be expected. We might want to choose some prerequisites that people must meet, but there probably isn’t going to be some sort of formal testing because that’s the kind of thing we typically see with something like the armed forces, not with a somewhat informal organization.

Instead, we might have one character vouch for someone who wants to join. If that can’t happen, we might have that new person join a group while they’re off doing some sort of mission, and have to prove themselves on that mission. In that scenario, someone else in the group, someone who is trusted, is probably tasked with keeping an eye on that person to prevent them from screwing anything up. So, they may be allowed to accompany them, and they might also be on probation when they do join.

The types of groups that we’re talking about are ones where people go out into the world and they try to accomplish something difficult, whether that’s good or bad. This means having some sort of skillset. A force for good might also want to test the character of someone who is being asked to join. This is where references come into play. Testing character is not the easiest thing to do. In a world with science fiction, we might want the test to take place in a kind of virtual reality to see how they act without actually causing any real harm.

What about leaving a group? In a force for good, you can probably just announce that you are leaving for whatever reason, and you may not even have to explain it. However, a force for evil might not want you to leave because you could tell people about how that organization works, and otherwise spill secrets. This could mean that once you are in, you are in for good unless you are dead — possibly because they killed you. If you know this, then when you’re planning your exit, you might want to fake your death, or somehow stage your disappearance so that nobody knows where to find you. This is an interesting scenario for a character who was bad but who has been redeemed, and now they’ve left and they want to take up a life somewhere, but they can’t live openly because they know someone’s going to come after them. And that seems like a good place to end this episode.

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.

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 same album called “Everlast.” 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 23 – Creating Names

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Apr 072020
 

Episode 23: Learn How to Creating Names

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create names, including tips and tricks we can use, the difference between given names and surnames, and both people and place naming considerations.

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 given names and surnames
  • How to invent place names
  • Techniques for altering common words into being names
  • Why we should keep it simple
  • Common mistakes to avoid
Coda

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Episode 23 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-two. Today we discuss how to invent names. This includes tips and tricks we can use, the difference between given names and surnames, and both people and place naming considerations. 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.

People Names

Before we get started, I want to mention that there are transcripts of every episode available, and you can now buy these transcripts. In fact, you can buy the podcasts episodes, too, as audiobooks that you can take with you. Just go to Amazon or artofworldbuilding.com and search for the series “The Art of World Building” and you’ll see books of the transcripts among the series books. Since episodes are based on chapters from the series, I group the transcripts that way, too. In other words, there’s a book called “Creating Life – The Podcast Transcripts” which has all of the episodes based on that book. Now, on with the episode.

The first thing I want to talk about is people names. As it turns out, it’s not until relatively recently, like the 12th Century on Earth, that people had a first and last name. These are also known as a given name and a surname. One thing this immediately suggests is that it’s optional for our world for people to have two names. In some countries, people have more than one surname, and hereditary last names are not universal. So, what this gets at is that we have a lot of flexibility on how we want to handle naming. And if we have multiple sovereign powers in our world, we may want to have it different in one than another.

Another area of variation is that in western countries, the given name is typically first and the surname is last. But in eastern countries, this is actually in reverse. In Spanish speaking countries, the given name can be followed by, first, the father’s surname, and then the mother’s.

Given Names

Let’s take a closer look at the given name and what this really means. The given name is just what it sounds like. Somebody gave you that name. Usually, this is the parents, but it could be something like an older sibling. In an authoritative regime, we could decide that the state is the one giving the name. These names are typically given at birth, but they could be at a later time such as an important event or a religious ceremony. I’ve seen some stories where someone is given a name at birth, but then when they become something like a wizard, they’re given another name.

The point of a given name is to distinguish one person in a family from someone else in that family. That immediately reminds me of George Foreman, the boxer, because he named most, if not all, of his sons George. But maybe they all have a different middle name to distinguish themselves from each other, and that’s what they actually use in day-to-day conversation. But most of us don’t do something like that. In the United States, at least the middle name is a second given name, and there are people who choose to go by their middle name.

There are various reasons that people give a name, and one of those is that they simply like it. But sometimes a name is given to suggest something for that child, such as Hope. Now, many of the names that we hear today actually do mean something, but most of us have no idea what they mean unless we’ve looked it up. We can also do this in our invented world, but, of course, then we’re going to have to explain that to the reader if they want to understand that a character’s name means a specific thing. We can also use an occupation for a first name, but this is especially true of last names like Smith for a blacksmith. Sometimes something that is a last name becomes a first name, like Harrison. Of course, it is possible to give yourself a new name.

Surnames

Let’s talk surnames. Unlike a given name, these are typically inherited from either your family or a clan, but not all surnames are inherited. Just like a first name, we can choose to change this. Government officials in the United States changed many people’s last names when they were at Ellis Island immigrating a long time ago. Surnames are another area where the original meaning of that name can often be lost.

But let’s talk about where surnames can come from because we can leverage this when we are inventing stuff for our world instead of just making things up out of thin air. Places are one of the most obvious ways to get names. Let’s say we have a character named Galen. If he is from a village, then maybe he doesn’t need a surname because there might only be one Galen there. If he lives in the town of Norin and then he goes traveling, he might become Galen of Norin, which in time could be shortened to Galen Norin.

When we do this, we may be implying that someone’s ancestors came from a certain city or area of our world, but Galen might be a little more enterprising or wanting to convince people of something that isn’t true, and he could just choose a name and maybe no one would realize this. Of course, in the real world, people will sometimes have an accent that might give them away. But maybe he’s good at changing that too.

Norin doesn’t have to be the town where he was born. It could be just where he has spent much of his life, or where he has most recently lived before going somewhere else and needing to adopt a surname. If there is a prominent land feature, like a mountain or a castle, then maybe they do that. So, let’s say he lives near Ardo Hill. He could become Galen Ardo. Or maybe we want to be more generic and we just call him Galen Hill instead of Galen Ardo, based on Ardo Hill. Of course, that name is pretty common on Earth, so that may suggest something here, but it still makes sense. We can use any place in our setting that we have a name for.

Another source of surnames is an occupation like blacksmith or ironsmith. Naturally, that’s going to result in Galen Smith, another name that really reminds people of Earth. In some countries, a servant might have to take the first or last name of the person they work for and add an “S” to it. So, if Galen has a maid named Suri, maybe she becomes Suri Galens instead of Suri Galen. We might also have an actor who often plays a king and becomes known as Galen King.

Another thing that we’ve seen here on Earth is that sometimes we can use the first name and that becomes a surname. For example, let’s say Galen has a son named Rogan. Rogan becomes Rogan Galenson. My last name is Ellefson. So, presumably, there’s a guy somewhere named Ellef and I am a descendant of his. We don’t hear daughter used as much in that context here in the United States, but in, I believe, Norse culture, that is very common. This means his daughter would be Galendaughter.

Nicknames can also be the source of a surname. So, let’s say we have a character who is famous for hunting down and killing trolls. He might be known as Galen Trollman. That sort of structure also reminds us of Earth, so we might want to go with Trollkiller instead. Sometimes people are essentially given a surname by other people who witnessed their behavior and decided that their behavior is just like a famous person who had a similar personality. So, for example, Caesar was known to be arrogant, so someone might end up being given the surname Caesar. We would need a situation where someone actually can have a surname forced on them, and it could be something like someone being a servant.

Going back to that Ellis Island example, maybe someone immigrating here was really arrogant, or behaved that way in line, and the government official decided to slap the name Caesar on them. Now, that immigrant may not have even known what it meant, but now it’s their last name and, of course, they pass it on.

There is one subject that’s covered in the book that I’m not going to cover here because it gets confusing if you can’t look at the names. That is the concept of the compound surname. This is very common in Spanish speaking cultures, and it happens more in the United States in the last 20 or 30 years than it used to. What we’re talking about is a child having the last name, or the surname, of both the father and the mother, often separated by a dash. This is simple enough when we’re talking about one child, but what if that person becomes an adult and is getting married to another person who did the same thing? So, now you’ve got two people, each with hyphenated last names. Well, what do they do? This kind of thinking can result in really long names, which we do sometimes see in fantasy books where our character just has a name that goes on for like a mile. If you want to do this, well, then learn about compound surnames and how to create these, and then it will become easier to do that.

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.

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Place Names

Let’s talk place names. Just like with people names, we sometimes have no idea what a word actually means. In the United States, many of us probably assume that anywhere named Washington has something to do with George Washington. But a place like Dallas, we just think it’s called Dallas. The reality is that is actually named after somebody. This is the kind of thing we definitely do not have to explain to our readers because they really don’t want that kind of exposition all the time anyway. A place name is just a place name, and that’s the end of it.

However, if we do have a historical figure from our world, we may want to leverage their name by using it for a place. When we use a place name, at least here in the United States, we often add a suffix like “ville” or “burg” to it. So, we might end up with Jacksonville or Harrisonburg. Sometimes we use the feminine version of a name. So, for example, Alexander the Great has his name on many places, but it’s always called Alexandria. To do that, you may want a naming convention such as earlier when we talked about adding the letter “S” to Galen to become Galens. The Cook Islands are named after Captain James Cook, and Saint Dominic resulted in the Dominican Republic.

There are many examples of this that you can leverage or use for inspiration, and all you really need to do is Google places named after people and you’ll find some of these lists. Of course, the big problem with doing this is that we are naming them after another character, and it might be one that we are using in our book. That’s unlikely to happen unless they’re something like 90 years old. This is why I mentioned historical figures earlier.

It can also seem like we’re being a little bit redundant to have a character in our story who also has somewhere named after them. It could seem like we’re just trying to not make up more names. The point is that you’re going to want a pretty good reason to do this. Sometimes it helps to modify the name. So, a character like Luke Skywalker from Star Wars could have a place named after him where it’s just called Skywalk. By modifying it, we make it a little bit less apparent, while also getting away with leveraging a name we have already used.

If we have saints in our world because we’ve worked out our religions, then we can use those saints for naming places. There might be other people who have done great things that we can use this way. Another option is to use events. For example, maybe a shipwreck happened nearby, and this was a while ago, but now the place is known for that because that’s what people think every time they think of this place. We can also do this in reverse where we name something in our world based on the setting. So, for example, the Ebola Virus is named based on the Ebola River. An obvious example of something like this is a battle being named after the place where that battle happened.

We can also use natural events like weather. There are places that are actually named things like Snow or Tornado or Frostproof. These literal names are a little bit less interesting, but sometimes we can do something a little more artful like Rainbow Springs. Something I mentioned earlier is that we can add suffixes and prefixes to names. So, we end up with something like Jacksonville and Harrisonburg. This is actually fairly important because there are areas of the world that have a certain naming convention, and we may want to do this on our setting. For example, “ton” is often added to something to make a place like Hamilton. We can use the word “ford,” which is a river crossing, and that ends up with something like Stafford. I’ve got a pretty good list of possibilities that I have in the book that you can check out.

The last tip I’ll give you for this is that we can also do compound names. You’re well aware of this because you’ve probably seen some of these such as Ironforge or Oakheart. All we really need to do is make a list of words that we may want to combine, and it’s good if we can choose some names from our setting and things that may be typical of that genre. Once again, I’ve got a list of these in the book.

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.

General Tips

There are some general tips I can share, and the first of those is to keep the names short. Longer names are harder to read, remember, spell and pronounce. In our modern world with social media, we always want people to be talking about our characters, but if no one can spell their name, then that’s going to be more difficult. One example of being too long is having too many names. This can also be true of titles. Lately, when I watch Game of Thrones and they introduce Daenerys, it sounds like they’re just going on and on and on with all of these titles. It actually keeps getting worse and longer the longer the series goes on. I keep waiting for someone to go, “Oh, god, this is taking forever. Would you just get on with it already?”

Now, if we do want our characters to have really long names, that can be fine, but I would suggest using that once when we introduce them to the reader. Otherwise, just stick with something like the given name that they will be using throughout the story. The only other time we might want to use the longer name is if someone is, for whatever reason, discussing their lineage, or if they are being introduced again in a formal setting, like Daenerys is with all of her titles.

Now, if we have a lot of introductions, like with Daenerys on Game of Thrones, we may, as an author, just want to start kind of skipping that and saying, “Okay. After all the introductions were done, blah, blah, blah.” We never want to lose our reader’s interest and make them start skimming over stuff, and that’s one of the ways we can cause them to do that. I always consider that a moment of losing the audience. In theory, we always want to grab them and then never let go. So, we shouldn’t do something that kind of makes them skip over stuff, just get annoyed with us, or do anything that ruins that hold we have on them.

Being annoying with names is one of the potential problem areas. Even if we have a single name that is really long, like 20 characters, most people are not going to take the time to sound that out. And, of course, in the real world, most people are not going to want to say that. They’re going to shorten it to something like a memorable aspect of that name, the way we might take Johnathan and shorten it to John. I’m not saying Johnathan is a really long name, but, in fantasy in particular, we sometimes get these really crazy names and people just tend to skip right over that.

Another option for using that long name is that sometimes a parent will say the full name when they are disapproving of their child. So, John might go by John all the time, but when his parents are really mad at him, they call him Jonathan. The reason people do that is that is the formal name and they’re trying to exert some formality because the person is now in trouble.

We should also strive to keep names simple. Part of what I’m getting at here is the use of apostrophes and hyphens. World builders typically want to create the sense of somewhere different with the names, but sometimes we can overdo it with too many consonants, hyphens or apostrophes. When we put too many consonants together, we sometimes make the audience unable to pronounce that name.

As I’ve already mentioned, hyphens are use to connect two names, such as someone wanting to keep both the father’s last name and the mother’s last name. We should have some sort of justification in mind when we do this instead of just randomly throwing out a hyphen. We can also make this cultural, just like with the Spanish where this frequently happens.

Now we come to the apostrophe. For some of you, you probably already have an attitude about this because this is a somewhat infamous subject where fantasy authors in particular make up names with apostrophes, and they just overdo it. It should be remembered that an apostrophe is there to take the place of a missing letter. Sometimes it’s actually more than one letter. So, when we do this, we should decide what letter has been omitted. And if the name seems fine with that letter, then leave it in. An apostrophe is also used for a contraction such as “can’t” instead of “cannot.” One problem with doing this is that people don’t understand what we are contracting unless we explain it. So, there may be no point to this and it can look random. This means that even if we have a rational worked out, they’re not going to understand it and they may still think that it’s kind of stupid.

Now, there is one good use of an apostrophe, and that is to suggest pronunciation. If you are following along with the book and looking at what I’m about to describe, it would be a little bit easier to understand. Let’s say that we have a name “Tourten.” Most of us might pronounce that as “Tourten,” but we might have intended it to be “To’urten.” One way to solve that is after “T-O” have an apostrophe, and then “U-R-T-E-N.” Therefore, it looks like “To’urten.” Even if this is why we’re doing it, we should work out what letters were omitted by that. So, for example, maybe there was a name “Tourney” and the last name “Urten,” and we removed three letters.

Another general tip is the issue of similarities. There’s an old idea in writing that we shouldn’t have two main characters who have a name that starts with the same letter. So, for example, on Earth, we could have Randy and Ralph. Both of them start with R and they’re both the same length. Why is that a problem? Well, because readers tend to not read that carefully, especially if they get excited like, of course, we want them to. So, they may just not realize that they have read the wrong name. We may want to keep this idea in mind when we are naming people or places for our setting. If we are inventing our setting for a specific story, it is a little bit easier to avoid this problem. We should also pay attention to the way the word looks on the page. We may not think that books are a visual medium, but they are. And, of course, we should pay attention to how the name sounds. It’s always a good idea to say your names out loud because if even you struggle with this, then someone else is probably going to as well.

One way to get around some of this is if you have a webpage for your book, you could put a kind of glossary on there with a recording of yourself saying each one of these names. But this is a kind of nice-to-have. A lot of the readers are never going to go there, play these files and hear these names.

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.

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

Naming Techniques

Now, for my favorite part of inventing names. That is using techniques to do this. I’ve been making up names for 30 years. Over those 30 years, I’ve come up with some pretty reliable tricks. One of those is the silent or repeated letter. The way I spelled was Galen was “G-A-L-E-N,” but there’s no reason I can’t add an “H” as the second letter. Or I can take the “N” at the end and make there be two of them. Sometimes doing this changes the pronunciation, but that could be fine if we are okay with the result. Another trick is to either substitute, add or subtract vowels. Instead of “G-A-L-E-N,” we could double the “E” and end up with Galeen. Now, Galen, spelled “G-A-L-E-N,” could be “I-N” instead. It would sound the same, but it would look different.

I should point out that one of the ways that I do this is that I take known words that are around me on a product, for example, and I will sometimes apply these techniques to those words, or parts of those words, to invent names. That is how I got the name Galen. It is on a product in front of me. There’s also the word “Solution” on another product, and I took that and just changed it to Lucion. I’m recording this in my recording studio and I have speakers that are made by a company called Alesis. I can just get rid of that first “A” and I end up with Lesis. If I don’t like that, then I start applying the techniques that I’m talking about, changing it up until it becomes something that I like. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. The great thing about it, to me, is that I’m still using my creativity to invent something rather than using something like a name generator. You can find name generators online, but I don’t personally find that to be very rewarding.

We can also choose to capitalize another letter. When we do this, it can make it seem weird unless we use an apostrophe like we were talking about before. Another technique is to switch out the first letter of a word. So, the word “woman,” if we put an “S,” “D” or an “R” on the front, we get Soman, Doman and Roman. When I do this kind of thing, I’m usually sitting there looking at my computer keyboard. We can also add a suffix or a prefix. Galen could become Galenor, Galendor or maybe Galenda, Glenda. We could add a prefix and end up with d’Galen. Remember to have fun with these when you’re doing this.

Another source of names is a foreign language, but, of course, we do live in a world that is pretty well interconnected. So, you could invent a name that you think is original, and it’s actually a word from another language. When we do this, we might want to apply these techniques to alter that name so that it is not exactly the same.

My final tip on this is to be consistent with your names, but not too much. For example, let’s say that you have decided to use “nor” as a suffix on the end of names. You don’t want to make every last settlement in a given region have that same suffix because it starts to look a little bit too planned. The reality is that places get conquered, they get renamed, stuff happens and so, sometimes, the name changes. Now, if we’ve already created a map and we’re already using a place that has names where everything has the same suffix, then there is an easy way to get around this. We can just decide that somebody somewhere renamed everything. So, for example, maybe that became a kingdom in its current form 40 years ago, and the new ruler renamed every last settlement. This is plausible, especially if it’s something like an absolute monarch who can do whatever he wants, but what we want to avoid is the impression that we have done too much planning. We always want to be realistic.

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.

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 same album called “Better Things to Do.” 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!

Transcript Books Coming

 news, Podcasts  Comments Off on Transcript Books Coming
Apr 292019
 

The Art of World Building Podcast has transcripts that are now being packaged for sale as volumes 4-6 in the series. This way, you can take them with you as eBooks, print, hard back, or audio books. The latter are actually the episodes themselves with the music and interludes removed.

Since most episodes are based on a chapter from a book, they’re organized that way, too, and the artwork is being reused with the additional text added in a banner.

Volume 4 and Volume 5 should be out in May and June 2019. Volume 6 will be late 2020 and is awaiting the completion of Cultures and Beyond, which is due out later this year.

Podcast Episode 22 – Assign Senses to Your Species

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Jan 082019
 

Episode 22: Learn How to Assign Senses to Your Species

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create your species’ senses, from the five basics to other real senses humans and animals have, to sixth senses (second sight).

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 make the five senses interesting and options you have for using them
  • Why a species might have special senses
  • Other senses that humans and real animals have on Earth and how to add them to your species
  • The different sixth senses and how and why you’d want to use each in a species
Coda

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Episode 22 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-two. Today’s topic is about how to create your species’ senses, from the five basics to other real senses humans and animals have, to sixth senses (second sight). Unlike the other episodes of this podcast so far, this material is not discussed 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 Five Senses – Sight

We’ll start by talking about the five senses. The first up is going to be sight. Our default choice is to make the sight ordinary, just like us, or we can make their sight much better or worse than our own. So, for example, we could decide to have their eyes see much farther than we do, with clarity, or maybe we can decide that they can read really small print without any aid. We might also want to give them night vision if they are a species that’s nocturnal, or if they’re one that lives underground where there’s not a lot of natural light. As I’m sure you’re aware, night vision basically makes it seem as though it’s much brighter, almost like there’s a full moon. This could have a consequence, as well, where turning on the light is suddenly blinding to them, or maybe even daylight is that way naturally.

It’s often a good idea to give a disadvantage when we’re also giving them an advantage over us. That makes it seem like it balances out. We could also decide to give them infrared or heat vision that would let them see heat signatures. This is something that could also be useful at night or underground. Something like a forest-dwelling species, like elves in fantasy, might also find that helpful because there are so many things in the forest that it would be hard to see things unless some of them are giving off a heat signature that can be detected to help those items stand out for them. The ability of prey to hide behind underbrush would basically be eliminated.

We could also give them supernatural sight, like the ability to see spells that are active, and the ability to see spirits without any assistance. We could also give them the ability to see into other realms, or maybe just the openings into those realms. A normal person might need a spell, but this species can just detect these things automatically.

We might also want to give them the ability to detect energy fields, like different types of radiation, without having to use a technology to see this. This is obviously something that might be more useful in science fiction than fantasy. Then, of course, there’s the infamous x-ray vision, like Superman, but I’m not sure that this is really practical or likely, and it could have a huge effect on that species’ attitude about modesty and clothing. The concept of modesty might be completely lost on them.

Now, eyes that have any of these special features, we often want to give them a different look to them so that people can tell, just by looking at the species, that their eyes are different and have another capability. This is especially useful in a visual medium like TV and film. One way to do that is to give an unusual pigment to the iris or to create different shaped pupils.

I’ve listed a lot of things we can do with eyes, but you certainly don’t want to do all of these. That would be overkill. You probably only want to give one special ability to a given species. In fact, in an entire setting, you might only want to have one species with unusual sight capabilities.

The Five Senses – Hearing

Let’s talk a little bit about hearing. Once again, we can make this ordinary, just like humans, or we can give them the ability to hear much fainter sounds, or even have them be bothered by sounds that we would consider to be not that loud, but to them it’s deafening. We can also give them the ability to hear sounds that are farther away than something that we would hear. We could also increase their frequency range so that they can hear sounds that are lower or higher that we would not even notice. They might also have the ability to tell which direction a sound is coming from in conditions where this is not so easy, such as a big hall where there’s a lot of reverberation. Sometimes, in the wilderness, it might be hard to tell which direction a sound really came from. We might have a general sense, but maybe this species has a much more specific sense.

Another issue that we can have in a place that’s pretty noisy is that sometimes we can’t isolate a sound, such as the person that’s talking directly to us. We might be hearing too much noise from other people and we just can’t focus on that person that we want to hear. So, maybe this species is better at that. This is more likely of a species that spends a lot of time in such a place, such as, maybe, dwarves because anywhere underground is probably going to have a lot of echoes to it.

Now, this one isn’t particularly exciting, and it may not even be that useful to us, so we should try to figure out what might benefit our story when we’re trying to think of any of the senses that I talk about in this episode. Maybe their ability to pick up a new language is improved because they have a better ability to pick apart the separate sounds into syllables and words. That’s another skill, and a very useful one. Maybe they can even understand what animals are trying to communicate to us with the way they make various sounds. And, of course, they could have supernatural talents, like the ability to hear spirits, voices or even other people’s thoughts. That last one seems to be more of a mental trait than an actual hearing trait, but it’s still something we can consider.

The Five Senses – Feel

When it comes to their sense of feel, once again, is this better or worse than humans? Maybe they’re supersensitive or hyperaware of certain sensations, or the opposite. And they may have a higher or lower pain threshold, which could certainly be useful in battle. Most of us probably think it would be great to not be able to feel pain, but I remember seeing a story a long time ago about a little girl who could not feel pain. As a result, she made herself go blind. Why did that happen? Well, because she kept sticking her finger up to her eye and scratching her eyeball with her finger. She was too young to understand not to do that and she did it so many times that she literally made herself go blind. There were other issues, too, such as hurting our self, but not feeling it. So, therefore, she didn’t know and her parents had to constantly check her for injuries because she would never tell them because she was totally unaware of it. Anything going on with an internal organ might also be a problem because that usually causes pain if there’s a problem. But if you don’t feel that and nobody can see it, you’re going to have no idea.

Another sense that we could give them is the ability to feel changes in atmosphere and pressure. As a result, maybe they would be able to tell that a storm is coming. They might also be able to sense vibrations. That could possibly work as an early detection of earthquakes. They could also possibly sense temperature changes more quickly, or be immune to them. I can tell you that, as someone who rides a motorcycle, when I go through a cool spot at 60 miles an hour, I definitely feel that. So, even a flying species, if it’s moving that fast, would probably be able to feel that more than I would if they’ve got a super sense for it.

Another thing we can do is have different parts of their body be more sensitive to either pain or pleasure. If memory serves me right, the Ferengi from Star Trek have these really large ears and they enjoy having those be stroked. We can do something similar.

The Five Senses – Taste

When it comes to our sense of taste, this is a hard one to make useful in a story because, unless our characters are eating or drinking something, or they’re going around licking a lot of things, we’re not going to have much use for this. However, we could decide that their tongues are more or less sensitive to various kinds of tastes, or that those tastes last longer or shorter for them. We could also reverse their tastes so that foods taste differently to them. Maybe something that’s sweet to us is sour for them, and vice versa. I think the only use we might have for such a thing is for someone to exhibit disgust at a meal, and inadvertently offend the host.

Something that might be more interesting is the ability to tell what ingredients went into something that they are either eating or drinking, with some level of accuracy. This could be especially important if something like a poison has been used. Maybe there’s even a potion and they can basically reverse engineer the ingredients of that potion by drinking just a little bit, or just tasting it. Obviously, with a poison, you wouldn’t want to ingest a lot of it, but, of course, a lot of poisons, you need to consume a certain amount for it to have an effect on you.

The Five Senses – Smell

The last of the normal senses we’ll talk about is smell. We can, once again, make this just like us, or better and worse than us. Maybe a smell lingers longer, or they can smell something that is fainter that basically originated farther in the past. Then there’s the idea of the bloodhound being able to follow a scent for a long time. Maybe they can smell something that we might not notice, and this is important. For example, we can smell smoke and realize that there’s a fire. Maybe they can smell something else and realize there’s a different kind of danger present. Maybe they can, once again, reverse engineer a scent from a food or drink and interpret the ingredients. They might even be able to tell how many people have left a scent in a room and, from that, they could tell how many people were present at a meeting. If they know the scent of those people, maybe they can tell who was present. They might also be able to tell which direction each person left from that room.

So, that concludes our talk about the basic senses. After this, we’re going to talk about some other ones you may not have ever heard of.

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Other Senses – Electroception

So, we’ve all heard of the five senses, which were made famous by Aristotle a long time ago. But, as it turns out, modern scientists actually think we have a whole bunch more of them. The first one we’re going to look at is electroception. This is the ability to sense electrical fields. On Earth, this is almost exclusively aquatic life. They’re the ones who can do this. If you watched enough nature shows about ocean life, you’ve probably run across this. Now, the reason it’s only in the water for the most part is that water conducts electricity much better than air or solids, which you’re probably aware of.

With this sense comes the ability to do electrolocation. In other words, this is finding objects in either the dark or in muddy water. This is almost like sonar in the sense that different types of objects reflect back electricity, or a lack thereof. So, for example, a rock is not going to show anything, but a fish will. So, if you’ve got a fish that has this electroception, it is going to be able to tell that there is a living thing there, versus something that’s not alive. Another way that this is used is to avoid predators by sensing that they are near and stopping their own motion so that they don’t give off their location.

There are two types of electroception. One of them is called active. Basically, that means that the animal can generate a small electric field that isn’t much bigger than they are. For example, if you’ve got a fish that’s two inches long, then maybe this field extends two inches from them in every direction. The other is passive, and that’s just the ability to sense electrical fields. All living organisms give off that energy. So, if I hold very still in the water, an animal that has this passive electroception would be able to tell that I’m there, even if I’m not moving.

Something else we can do with this is electrocommunication. Basically, what these animals do is they change the wavelength that is generated and use that as a way to signal other animals, which can be for mating or for a territorial display to make themselves seem like they’re more intimidating to scare away a dangerous animal, such as the electric eel. As a side note, the electric eel is able to generate a much stronger pulse, which is used to stun animals, but it’s not enough to hurt us. However, we can always give that ability to a water-dwelling species of ours so that they can hurt, and maybe even kill is. For the most part, if you’re going to use electroception, you probably want to use it for a water-dwelling species and not try to give it to something that’s on land.

Other Senses – Nociception

Then there’s nociception, which is the ability to detect pain. I alluded to this earlier. There are basically three major categories of pain. One is mechanical, which is something like cutting or crushing pain. Then there’s thermal, which is heat or cold. And then there’s chemical, which is any kind of toxin. This is a sense that we definitely have. We have it most strongly in our skin, followed by our joints and then in our internal organs. And we have responses to pain, which can include a pallor or sweating, nausea and, in more extreme cases, fainting. A way we can use this with our invented species is to change the reaction or the degree of these. We’re basically looking to make them different from us in some way.

Other Senses – Time Senses

And then there’s our sense of time, which we obviously have. But things can go wrong with this. In science fiction, with space travel, we can definitely leverage this. Our time sense has to do with estimating time intervals, and the duration of them, and whether events are simultaneous or not. There are some temporal illusions, and one of them is called telescoping. This is when we recall that events happened farther in the past than they really did. Another problem we can have is that sometimes we overestimate how short an interval is, or the opposite of that, underestimating how long an interval was. The most practical example of this that I’ve seen in films is when a witness to a crime is having trouble remembering how much time really passed.

Another interesting temporal illusion is that if a lot of things happen in a short period of time, we can perceive that as there being more time passing. But if almost nothing happened in a short period of time, we will overestimate how much time has passed. It goes back to that expression: “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Well, if you’re having a lot of fun, you can think that much more time has passed than has actually occurred. On the other hand, if you’re really bored, time can seem like it’s really dragging out.

You’re probably familiar with science fiction and space travel and the concept of time dilation. This means that two observers think that a different amount of time has passed due to them being different distances to a gravitational field, or their velocities relative to each other are quite different. Faster than light travel does not cause time dilation. Now, this is fictional, so that’s really just a theory, but we’ve got jump drive, warp drive and hyperdrive – which I talked about in a previous episode – and none of those cause this. On the other hand, slower than light travel is real and, if the velocities are high enough, this can cause time dilation. But we could decide that the species we are inventing is basically immune to this effect. Maybe they’ve even programmed their devices to counteract it as well.

Other Senses – Magnetoception

Another interesting and real-life sense is magnetoception. This is the ability to detect a magnetic field. This can be used for direction sense, altitude or location. This is one that we can not only give our species, but any of the animals that we invent. On that note, animals use this sense to mentally map a region. This is also why an animal can migrate really long distances without using landmarks, or even doing this in the dark so they don’t need to see where they’re going. Since humans don’t have that sense, or it’s very weak, we tend to use things like the position of the sun, or the moss growing on the north side of the tree in the northern hemisphere, or the opposite in the southern hemisphere, or an actual device like a compass. You could certainly give a strong magnetoception to one of your species so that they are like a living compass. Imagine how valued they would be by any traveling companions because they’re probably not going to get lost very often.

Other Senses – Magiception

The last sense I want to talk about is a fictional one. I’m just going to make up the name “magiception,” or, in other words, the ability to sense magical energy. This could definitely be useful in a world with magic. If you’ve got this sense, maybe you can tell what spell has been cast or how long ago it was cast. Maybe you can tell whether that spell is strong or weak, and whether it’s fading in strength. You may even be able to tell what type of magic it is if there is more than one type of magic in your setting. You may even have the ability to sense an anti-magic zone; somewhere where magic is not capable of being performed. You probably want to decide how far from the body this sense extends. Is it only a few inches, maybe a body length or even more than that? And how does their body react when they sense something here?

This is a possible trait for a species that is from a highly magical habitat because this would probably come in handy. Or maybe they’re a highly magical species that has been highly magical for thousands of years and, as a result, this sense of theirs has increased. Or they could be a species that has routinely been victimized by magic for thousands of years, whether that’s from their habitat or from others doing things to them.

My last note on some of these is that you generally only want to assign one unusual trait to one of your species because if you start giving them too many, it just starts to seem a little bit weird. We might also want to decrease one sense when we are augmenting another, again, for that sense of balance and fairness. We don’t want them to become overly powerful. And we may want to try to find a reason that they have that trait, such as it being caused by their original habitat.

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The Sixth Sense – Telepathy

It’s time to talk about second sight, which is also called a sixth sense. These include clairvoyance, telepathy, psychometry, precognition and mediumship.

Telepathy is the ability to communicate with the minds of others through thought instead of having to talk, use body language or anything like that. Despite what some might think, this is a fictional ability. It is often used in science fiction and fantasy, so you are probably familiar with seeing this depicted.

Before giving one of our species this ability, we may want to consider their habitat and their culture before deciding on it. Both their speech and their hearing being compromised might lead them to need an alternate form of communication. So, as I talked about earlier, when we give someone an augmented ability, like telepathy, we might want to reduce something else like, in this case, either their hearing or their speech to make them weaker in that area. This could make it naturally harder for them to communicate with other species who are not telepaths.

So, if they are pretty isolated, they stick to themselves, and they’re all telepaths, then when they interact with others, they’re going to have some issues. We don’t have to do that, but it’s one way to balance them out. I think if they can still speak and hear fine, then this implies that they still interact with other species quite regularly, or that they’ve only somewhat recently become telepaths and they don’t rely on this exclusively. The opposite is also implied. If they have suffered an impaired speech or hearing ability, that would suggest that they really are isolated and they’ve been telepaths for a long time.

A noisy environment might also put them in a position where they develop telepathy because it’s just easier to communicate that way. Another potential issue is that maybe predators use this for soundless communication so that it’s easy for them to sneak up on their prey, but they can still communicate with each other. We might want to decide if everyone in the species can do it or if it’s just certain individuals, and why that might be. Maybe people need to reach a certain age or have a certain experience, such as maybe the first menstruation for a woman, or maybe losing your virginity for either gender.

We should also decide if people can control who hears them, or are they an open book and pretty much anyone can hear them, the same way that if you were shouting in a loud room, everyone who’s present is going to hear what you’re saying. And then how far do they have to be from another person in order to do this? Is there a distance requirement? Can they not be more than 10 feet apart? Maybe they have to be touching each other. These are ways to give them limitations on this ability so that they’re not all-powerful and god-like.

The Sixth Sense – Clairvoyance

Clairvoyance is another second sight that we can give our species. This is the ability to witness future or past people, locations, events or objects. And no contact or association with that is needed. They can do it regardless of having never met those people, been in that location or touched that object, for example. However, if we are looking for a limit, we can change that and decide they have to have some sort of association. Distance is also usually not considered a factor with clairvoyants, but we can also add that as a limitation. And I do think that between worlds, this would be a reasonable limitation. But, on the other hand, we might want to have someone who is so incredibly powerful as a clairvoyant that they can even do this across worlds. This is something that’s probably going to come up more in science fiction than fantasy.

In one of the recent Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker basically projects himself from across, maybe, the whole galaxy, but this act is basically his final act because it essentially kills him. Or, at least, it appears to have killed him. We won’t really know until the next film comes out. This is a pretty severe limit to put on someone, and we could decide, instead, that it just weakens them. Although, of course, in the case of Luke Skywalker, he was doing that across such vast distances that it makes sense that this would be an even more serious toll. But we might want to decide that there are things that need to happen before someone can do this, such as maybe a ritual, or maybe they have to do it at a certain time of the day or month, or maybe the stars have to be aligned a certain way. Maybe they need to be submerged in some sort of special liquid, earth or even a gas, or possibly use drugs in order to enhance the ability to do this.

Now, there are some limitations that seem to be baked into the idea of clairvoyance, and one of them is that they cannot control how much they see when they are doing this far sight. They also can’t control how long they see an event. So, they might not see the entire thing from beginning to end. They might only see, maybe, the middle of this. Therefore, this is open to interpretation, so what they learn is compromised and they have to figure out the context of this without really having that. Maybe this leads to misunderstanding. So, that is definitely something that could happen to any of us if we were only seeing part of a story.

If we’re trying to decide what species should have the ability to be a clairvoyant, then one that doesn’t travel much is a good option because maybe they use this as a way to learn about the larger world that they seldom visit. So, a species that lives underground is a good choice, and so is one that is underwater.

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The Sixth Sense – Psychometry

Another sixth sense we can talk about is psychometry. This is the ability to learn information about an object upon contact with it. These objects are thought to have some sort of energy field that can be sensed. The things that can be learned are, maybe, who owns that object or who last touched it. We can also decide that they can tell how it came to be where it is. Maybe they know its origins or what its future demise is going to be. We might also decide that they can sense the role that this has had in past events, present events or maybe even future events if any of these are going to be significant. As with all of these senses, we might want to limit just how many of those options I just listed they can actually do, and how accurate their sense really is.

Then there’s the question of how things are learned when they touch it. Do they see images in their head? Maybe they hear sounds. Do they just get vague impressions or can they sense the emotions that are around this object? We can decide that any or all of these are present, but they could also just be fleeting images or sounds that can be very jumbled so that it’s very hard to understand, or we can decide that it’s kind of like a perfect audio and video feed of a clip somewhere and we have perfect sight into what exactly is going on. Now, if we do that, I would recommend making it a very short amount of stuff that they can see. Otherwise, again, they just become extremely powerful.

When thinking of limitations, you really want to think of how this can impact your story if this person doesn’t get it right. What if they have some misinformation and the characters act on that and then that causes a problem? In general, that’s something you want to do to some degree or another because, otherwise, it’s just too easy for everyone.

The Sixth Sense – Precognition

Let’s talk about precognition. This is the ability to see events before they occur. Seeing an event after it has occurred is called retrocognition. We should once again place limits on the ability to interpret these events. One of the reasons for this is that the events may not occur that way after all, partly due to misunderstanding and the future not being set because, of course, we do have free choice and free will, and things may not turn out as someone thinks they will.

The last question to ask about this, again, is who might have this skill. A species that is likely to cause significant future changes might have some ability to predict how those are going to turn out. On the other hand, a species that is going to be especially affected by such changes might also have the ability. Maybe the future is putting out some sort of energy, like Armageddon is approaching, and this could result in the birth of a precog to warn people to prevent this calamity from happening. It’s almost like the Earth itself is going to give some sort of warning through the precog, and this person can then go on to warn people, and this disaster be averted.

The Sixth Sense – Mediumship

The last one I want to talk about is mediumship. This is the ability to see, hear and/or feel spirits with or without spells, rituals, drugs or devices. It basically means communication with the dead. There are different variants on how this can happen, but in this case we’re really just focusing on whether a species can do it. I will leave it up to you to decide on how they go about doing so. As with many of these second sights, if your species has the ability to do this, they are probably going to be somewhat known for this. So, decide if that’s something you want.

So, what species might have the ability to do mediumship? Well, if your species does not have a written language, or it’s only got a kind of protolanguage where it’s just pictograms or ideograms, and it’s not an alphabet or a logography, that means that they cannot pass down details about the past to those who are still living. Therefore, if we want to learn about the past, maybe we use mediums to contact people who were still alive back then and who are now dead.

Another justification for a species having a mediumship capability is that they might have a really complex afterlife, which is really difficult to navigate and get to the place where they’re supposed to be. Somewhere like heaven. So, we might need to be able to communicate with the spirits of the recently deceased to guide them to their final resting place.

And, as with everything, you’re going to want to place some limitations on the ability to do this, such as requiring rituals, an artifact from the dead or just anything to make it not so easy to do this and just contact anybody. You’re going to have to place a limit so that they can only reach certain people and they can’t get complete information. That just makes it too easy for them, and that means there’s no drama in our story.

Closing

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Podcast Episode 21 – How to Create Maps

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Nov 202018
 

Episode 21: Learn How to Create Maps

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create maps like continents, settlements, and dungeon maps, and learn whether you should create any of this and why.

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 leverage places on Earth when map making
  • When you should and shouldn’t draw a continent maps
  • Why maps of wooden ships aren’t needed
  • Why maps of space ships are a good idea
  • How to create a settlement map
  • Tricks on getting started with map making
Coda

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Episode 21 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-one. Today’s topic is about how create maps like continents, settlements, and dungeon maps, and learn whether you should create any of this and why. This material and more is discussed in chapter 12 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Advantages to Map Making

There are some advantages to creating a map. One of those is that it makes it easier for our audience to visualize locations. That can, in turn, cut down on how much explanation we have to do about which direction various things lie in. That does not free us from acquiring the skill to quickly and succinctly describe the various locations of things, but, even so, it can take some of the pressure off of us. Personally, I find myself describing things in too much detail when there is not a map. But when there is, I feel comfortable just staying, “This kingdom is south of the other one, and next to this feature, like a forest or an ocean.” I know that the reader can flip to the map and just see exactly what I’m talking about. And there are various other details that I don’t need to go into if they are not relevant to the passage that I’m currently describing.

There is a tendency to try to describe a complete setting. The problem with this is that we’re just doing a paragraph of explanation. Depending on who you ask, that kind of exposition is not considered good style, but you may disagree and just go ahead and do it anyway. But it is still worth mentioning that cutting down on some of that explanation can be a good idea. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

For world builders, another really good reason to create a map is that when we have these blank areas on the page, it can help us think of things to include there. As authors, we’re all familiar with the idea of a blank page keeping us from thinking of anything, but that’s a little different when we’re talking about writing. When it comes to creating a map, it’s a little bit easier to think of things to place somewhere.

One of the general tips that I’m going to give you today is to base your maps on something that already exists on Earth, but also make alterations to that. For example, I, personally, have trouble thinking of interesting city layouts. I just draw a blank on this, if you’ll excuse the pun. So, one of the ways of getting around that is to use a program like Google Maps where you can just pull this up, focus on any given city, town or whatever, look at it and think, “Do I like the layout that I see here? Is there something that I want to borrow?”

Many people are not going to recognize it if you take that existing place and you create a map that looks very similar because most of us don’t look down on the place where we live, or even other places nearby, or ones that we’re very familiar with, from that vantage point and really pay attention to the layout and the way it looks from above. We typically know what it looks like more from the skyline, or just what it’s like to live there, not from above. But if you’re going to choose a place that’s extremely well known, like Manhattan, then yes, you probably want to switch it around a little more.

And this is very easy to do. You can just change the direction of things. So, let’s say that you have an island that is mostly north to south. You can just turn that to face a different direction. You can do the same thing with countries. If you model one on France, people are going to recognize it if it’s exactly the same. But if you turn it sideways, they may not. And, of course, the other thing that we can do, and probably should do, when we do this is to make more changes to it while we’re doing so. We can just chop off a whole section of it, add on another section, or maybe there’s something that we’d like from another region of the world and we want to add that to this continent or this region that we’ve created. It’s an easy way to alter that without having to generate something from scratch.

The same idea applies to any settlement map that we come up with. All we have to do is alter a few parts of it and no one’s going to recognize it. Many of us don’t have drawing skills, and we think of that as a negative when it comes to creating maps, but this is actually a way that this is a positive. Because if you could duplicate it exactly, well then, that’s going to be recognizable. If you can’t duplicate it anyway because you don’t have the skills like me, then that’s good because it’s going to look different and that’s what you want. So, some of us might think of taking out tracing paper to trace it exactly. I would say don’t do that. Just do it free-hand and see how close you come or what you feel like altering.

The thing about the shapes of countries and settlements is that they’re very specific. If it’s recognizable at all, there is something distinctive about it. So, all we have to do is change that. And we’re talking about even a minor amount of change can make it unrecognizable.

What I started to touch on earlier is that one of the advantages to making maps is that it can help us think of things to put there. If, for example, you draw a north to south running line and decide that one side is ocean and the other side is the continent, and then you put a city right in the middle of that continent/coast edge, now you’re going to be wondering, “Well, what else is near this? Do I have a mountain range? Do I have a forest? Is there a river right there? So, there’s a tendency to want to fill up the map.  The problem that we sometimes have is what do we put there? So, it becomes an issue of making decisions.

One easy way to get around that is to do what I was just talking about, which is basing it on something from Earth. But the other way is to understand some basics about how land regions form and things like prevailing winds and rain shadows, which we’ve talked about in a previous episode, but I’m going to briefly touch on that again here.

One of the points I want to make about this subject is that it actually makes it much easier to decide where to place vegetation once you understand it. So, rather than it being a burden to you and something like you feel like, “Now I have to get things right when I’m creating a map,” the reality is that once you understand this, this is actually going to make a lot of your decisions for you. Now, you’re still going to have artistic license, or you can kind of overrule things or play with the details to get what you want, but it solves that problem of the blank page where you’re looking at it and you go, “I have no idea what to put where and how any of this works.”

Well, once you understand how it works, it becomes really easy to think of where to place things. Since this is a podcast and I can’t show you an image, which would be worth a thousand words, I’m going to come up with a very simple explanation for you. For example, let’s say that we have a coastline that is running north to south. On the left of that is the ocean and on the right is going to be our continent. One of the things that’s likely to happen is that we could have a mountain range that is also running north to south. Or, in other words, it’s parallel to the coast. A good example of this, if you have a computer with you, is to look at a map of the west coast of the United States.

So, let’s say we’ve got our coastline and then, maybe two inches to the right of that, we’ve got this north/south mountain range. Let’s go ahead and decide that this mountain range is 10,000 feet tall. That’s the average height of the mountains. If you’re wondering why that matters, it will become more apparent in a moment. But what’s basically going to happen is that the winds, in our example, are going to be coming from the left side of this map and crossing over that mountain range. The higher that mountain range is, the higher the atmosphere is going to be pushed up and the more rain is going to fall. As you’ll see, this is going to cause some vegetation issues.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that our continent is located roughly where the United States is. That means that the prevailing winds are coming from the west, or from the left side of this image that we have in our head. In other words, all of the storms are going to be coming from the left, and they’re going to be passing over the right. This also means they’re going to pass over that mountain range. What is most likely going to happen is that we are going to have a bunch of lush vegetation, like a forest, in between this coastline and the mountain range. This is being caused by the prevailing wind and the location of this continent on our hemisphere on our planet. Basically, this is a certain number of degrees north of the equator. As a result, that’s why the winds are coming from the left or the west.

Now, once those winds pass over the top of these 10,000-foot-tall mountains that are running north to south, most of the rain has fallen out of those clouds, and, as a result, there is no rain, or very little rain, to fall on the right side of those mountains. The result is going to be a desert. This phenomenon is called a rain shadow. Now, further to the right of this desert, as the clouds continue to move, they’re going to pick up some moisture in the air because that’s just the way it works. There’s always going to be some. It’s just that most of the moisture is picked up over the ocean.

So, what’s going to happen is as these prevailing winds move further and further away to the right of this mountain range, they’re going to pick up a little bit more moisture, and more of that is going to fall. So, what’s going to happen is that desert is going to give way to a grassland on the right. At first, it’s going to be short grass and then it’s going to be taller grass. That’s going to give away to a savannah a little further to the right. A savannah is mostly grass, but more and more trees coming in. And then, even further to the right, eventually we’re going to end up with more forest because enough rain is falling that far away that this rain shadow effect has decreased.

This is a pretty simple and believable example. And, to some extent, it is based on the United States. If you look at a map of the U.S., you do see this. You see lush vegetation on the west coast, then you see the mountains to the right. Further to the right, you see some deserts, like Death Valley. Further to the right, you get the Great Plains. And then even further, you finally start getting more forest. However, this kind of process, it plays out across the Earth, and it would happen on any Earth-like planet that you have.

Let’s briefly talk about another scenario. We were already talking about this north to south running mountains. Well, what if they weren’t north to south but they were east to west? Well, basically, that’s not going to have any impact because the winds are blowing to the right and the mountains are also laid out in that direction. Therefore, the mountains are not going to be blocking anything. You could have plenty of rainfall north and south of this mountain range that is east to west.

This is something to consider. One way that you might use this when creating a map is that if you really want, let’s say, a really thick forest that stretches for 1,000 miles on this side of the continent, and you also want mountains, then don’t put the mountains facing north to south. You’re going to have to put them east to west. So, this is something you probably want to know before you draw those mountains on your map.

There are a lot more details like this that are included in the Creating Places book. So, if you really want to get into this, I recommend picking up a copy. Most of it really is not that hard. You just have to read about it. One of the goals I had in writing that book is that I collected a lot of that knowledge in one place for you when I did the research on the various scenarios that come up. Now, one thing about this is that we still have artistic license and we can still decide that things are slightly different for one reason or another, and we can also decide that there’s magic at play, or other phenomenon that don’t happen here on Earth. But, generally, we probably want to try to be realistic if we are creating a place that is roughly Earth-like.

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How to Create Continent Maps

When it comes to continent maps, one of the things that I find happens is that, as I’m drawing out these maps, I start to think of the different kingdoms that are going to be there, and reasons for conflict among them. This is a really good reason to create one, even if you don’t include it in your book. For example, I could have a forest that is capable of producing the right kind of wood needed to build ships. Perhaps this forest is inside one kingdom and, therefore, another one that is adjacent is unable to get into it without cooperation. They’re either going to have to work something out or they’re going to have to go to war. Now, you might not think that wood for ships is a good enough reason, but there could be a lot of other things. And, even when it comes to ships, that can really control who can be a seafaring power. And, as we probably know from the way the Earth is right now, one of the reasons Britain was able to get so far around the world and dominate so much, and why culture from Britain is all over the place, is that they had one of the greatest, if not the greatest, navy at the time.

But it doesn’t have to be that. It could be any kind of mineral, something like gold, or any other precious metal that is inside one kingdom but is not in the other. Or we could have decided that it is a situation where part of that mountain or forest is in two different kingdoms, and therefore it has always been in contention.

Another scenario that came up for me was that I once created a continent, that you can see on my Llurien.com site called “Llorus.” There is a sea that’s called, I think, “The Sea of Fire.” Basically, the opening to the sea is on the left side of the continent. So, if you picture this, you’ve got a coast that’s running north to south, and then there’s an opening into this sea, which is kind of like the Mediterranean if you want to use an Earth example.

One thing I decided to do, and which is fairly obvious, is that one kingdom was in control of the land to the north of that opening into the sea, and a different kingdom was in charge of the land that is to the south of that opening. Naturally, both of them want to control access to that sea. Therefore, both of them are seafaring powers and their ships are frequently spotted, both in the ocean and in that channel that leads to the sea. And, of course, in the sea itself.

Figure 2: The Sea of Fire

Figure 2: The Sea of Fire

So, this set them up as good enemies for each other. Now, as it turns out, inside that sea, there are multiple other kingdoms that have an access point to that water. They might also like to be able to sail on that sea. And, more importantly, they might like to be able to sail out of that sea and into the ocean, but doing so requires them to either get past the ships of both of those other countries, or to be an ally of one or the other so that they can get through safely.

One of the things that this allowed me to do was begin establishing friends and enemies. Now, as it turns out, I had done a lot of research into different kinds of government forms, and that’s also included in the Creating Places book. But, you know, ideologically, there are different ways of looking at the world, and different governments form as a result of that.

Sometimes, countries are opposed to each other for ideological reasons. I sometimes begin setting up the enemies partly because of that and partly because of where they were on the map. Once you have a certain amount of knowledge about various things, you can begin leveraging that knowledge when you are doing world building. That is, of course, the whole reason why I wrote The Art of World Building book series. In fact, if you really want some good examples of this, I believe the first chapter of Creating Places is called “Case Studies” or something to that affect. I basically showed you how you can use this knowledge in the act of creating a setting.

Now, as far as whether you should draw one or not, one of the reasons not to is that if your characters are not going to be traveling through the wilderness, from one place to another, like an epic quest like you would typically see in something like The Lord of the Rings, then you don’t necessarily need a map. On the other hand, the farther they’re going to go, the more helpful it is for both you and the audience to have one of these. If your characters are from a lot of different places, they’ve been brought together and there are cultural clashes and other things, and you keep referring to those various regions or kingdoms, people can become very interested in getting a better idea of where everything is in relation to each other. They might want a map.

Now, in a previous episode, Episodes 15 and 17, I talked about travel on land and on the water. In both cases, the ability to come up with believable time frames is helped by a map. But, on the other hand, the map can also constrain us a little bit if we feel like we’ve drawn it to scale, which is something that I encourage people not to do. It can help us and it can also be a hindrance, so you have to decide how much you want to worry about that. Personally, I find it to be very helpful because it helps me avoid making unrealistic estimates about how long someone’s going to take to get from one place to another. Just as importantly, it helps me avoid contradicting myself. This obviously matters more on a world that you intend to use repeatedly than one that you’re only going to use for a short story or just one novel.

One of the things I like to recommend to people is that you do create one world that you go more in-depth on and you plan to use for the rest of your career. And then, for the rest of the time you’re writing, you just create a setting for the particular story that you’re going to use. This gives you the best of both worlds as far as creating a lot of stuff that’s very detailed, for one, and then just kind of doing one-off stuff for another.

I also want to mention that you don’t have to create the entire continent map. You can just do the region that your story’s going to take place in. However, I do recommend that you have at least a rough idea of the other things that would affect that local region.

For example, figure out how far from the equator that area is. Figure out if there is a mountain range that is going to cause a rain shadow to happen. Just getting an idea for these kind of things is good. And you don’t have to draw them. You can just indicate, “Okay. There’s a mountain range off to the left. That’s where the ocean is. The equator is 400 miles to the south. Therefore, the prevailing winds are coming from the left.” Just kind of come up with some general parameters, even if you don’t draw them on the map.

One of the other pluses to map-making when it comes to continents is that if you do understand things like climate zones, as we discussed in a previous episode, it will basically decide for you where your climates are. That can help you figure out what kind of clothing people are typically wearing. Again, one of the biggest problems in world building is that you have so many decisions to make and we often can’t think of a reason to make one. Well, some of those decisions can be essentially made for us. If that sounds too restrictive, well, we still have creative latitude. That pun was actually not intended.

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Getting Started with Map Making

Now, there are a lot of programs that you can use to create maps. The process is basically the same regardless of what you use. The tool only determines some of the details of how you actually place things on the map. I happen to use a program called “Campaign Cartographer” which comes from Pro Fantasy. They have an optional add-on called “Fractal Terrains,” and I use this to generate a continent shape pretty quickly. You can just click a button and it gives you a new one. Or you can use some of the other techniques that I talked about in here, such as taking parts of existing continents and alerting them, flipping them around or even combining them with other continents. Once I have a shape that I like, I will pull that into Campaign Cartographer and then use the landmass tool, I think it’s called, to draw the shape of my continent over the top of that, and then hide the background image that I used as a source. My inability to draw is not a problem because I’m trying not to get it exactly the same anyway.

Figure 3: Erizon

Figure 3: Erizon

Once I’ve done this, I’m going to decide how far away from the equator this place is, and which hemisphere it is in if it’s only in one. This will tell me the direction of the prevailing winds. Once I do that, I can start drawing mountain ranges with an eye for what kind of affect that’s going to have on vegetation. That is the basic process that I suggest people follow.

After that, the details are a question of artistic imagination. Now, as it turns out, Campaign Cartographer comes with different color icons for different settlements, such as blue, gold or red. I tend to use that to depict all of the settlements that are in a given kingdom. This is one way that I use to indicate where one kingdom ends and another begins. One of the great things about that particular program is that you can create pretty large maps, and all you have to do is zoom out. And if you want a more regional map, you just zoom in more and you can just take a screenshot of that and use that with your book. And it does produce images that are professional quality. I have published those in many of the books, including the Creating Places book that we’re talking about here, when I made the examples for this book.

Now, if you don’t think you have the skills to do this, or maybe not the time or interest in acquiring them, you can certainly hire people to create maps for you, but you’re still going to probably need to at least describe what places look like, where they are and what life is like there to give people who are going to draw your map for you some idea of what to work from. But I would recommend learning how to do this because it’s fun and it really does spur the imagination.

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How to Create Settlement Maps

When it comes to settlement maps, these are included in books much less often. One problem I have found with trying to do a settlement map is that you only plan to use a few of the buildings in that settlement, and yet you’re going to have to draw so many of them. Once again, the challenge becomes how do you decide what to put where? This is one reason to base your settlement on something from Earth.

But another thing we can do is create something like an area that is considered old town. This is the area where this settlement first existed and, at one point in time, that was the entire town. Usually, this is going to form around or near the source of water. So, that’s one way to make this decision. Another way to get started is to figure out where a castle or similar fortification stands. Then we can start building outward from there.

Now, the idea of using an old town only works if this is a larger settlement, like a city, or if it’s an especially large town. If it’s a small town, then old town is the entirety of the town in most cases. Even so, you can still use the principle of starting where the water source is. I, personally, don’t usually create a settlement map, partly because I do have trouble envisioning that. But what I often do is, as I write the story, I start to have a mental image of how things are laid out, and that can actually help me. So, in that sense, I ended up doing it kind of backwards. What do I mean? Well, I start working on the story, or at least the plot of the story, and that helps me form the map in my head. I sometimes then start creating the actual map, fleshing out what I’ve pictured.

Village Map

Village Map

One reason to go ahead and draw the map, even if it’s coming after the fact, is that if you ever return to using the setting again, you won’t have to read your own book to understand where everything stands. I have this problem with a book I wrote about a decade ago where there was a pretty specific layout. I’m going to have to return to that book and my only way to know where everything is is to read my own book again. Of course, I’m going to do that anyway, but I might have to do it just to understand the layout. That particular city also had a really specific layout where it was important and it mattered to the plot where everything was. So, that is the kind of situation where you may want to create a settlement map.

Something else to keep in mind is the concept of zoning. What that means is that you’ve got commercial, industrial and, usually, residential areas. The residential areas are obviously where people live. The commercial is going to be all the stores. Those are typically near where people live and near the industrial areas. And, of course, the industrial is stuff like factories. One of the big decisions to make is that you want to keep the factories away from the living areas because factories typically smell, to keep it simple. Obviously, people don’t want that kind of pollution near where they live. This concept of zoning is something that can help you plan out a settlement on the large scale so that you have an understanding of what is where. Depending on the technological level of your settlement, it may make sense — and this often happens — where the industry is sometimes placed near the water. So, if you’ve got a river or a port, that tends to be where the industry is. If you’ve got a nice, little forest, or maybe a hill, that tends to be where residences will be. Then, of course, a hill is where something like a castle might be built upon.

I find that it’s often helpful to just have a general sense of where the rich people live and where the poor people live if they are segregated like that, and then where industry and residences are. Just kind of come up with a high-level idea before you start worrying about placing buildings.

Something you may also want to consider is whether you have multiple species there and if they are segregated at all. For example, elves tend to prefer trees, so there might be an area of your settlement that is heavily forested — maybe not heavily, but it at least has more trees, more parks, and that might be the area where the elves tend to live. If you had a species like dwarves where they often tunnel underground, you may have a castle that’s built on a cliff and the dwarves are allowed to build tunnels into those cliffs and have some of their homes there.

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How to Create Dungeon Maps

The last subject I’ll talk about briefly is dungeon and ship maps. These are something that we don’t typically see with books, but certainly come up with gaming. There is something about any sort of underground labyrinth that, for me as a reader, seems inherently confusing. I often don’t understand where the characters are in relation to where they were before. Even as an author, when I am trying to plan out what’s going to happen, once again, I often have trouble figuring out why does any corridor go this way or that way, or end up in this room, and what is that room for? In my story, the reason that room exists is that maybe I want them to be attacked there, but that room should have an actual purpose that the people who invented or created that place had for it. This can be even more difficult for us to figure out than why everything in a city is where it is.

Now, if you’ve ever worked as a janitor or a field like that where you are typically in the bowels of a building, you may have some better understanding of what’s going on with things like boiler rooms and other facilities that are required to operate that building in an efficient manner and in a comfortable manner for its occupants. Those are the kinds of functions that are most likely going to be going on in an underground area.

Of course, another one of these is the dungeon. When creating a dungeon, you may want to think about how something like a prison is laid out. I haven’t looked into this, but I would image that an abandoned prison, like Alcatraz, might have maps online where you can get a feel for how this place is laid out because it’s no longer in use, and therefore there’s not as much of a secret. When a prison is being used, obviously the inmates shouldn’t know all of the nooks and crannies of this place. So, a map of a currently used prison may not be available, but we can probably find one for an abandoned one to get some sense of the layout of such a place.

But one thing that immediately comes to mind for me is that most buildings don’t have these long hallways that go off into various tangents and there’s no rooms on either side of them. Every time there’s a hallway, there’s always a room immediately on each side of every square feet of these hallways. By contrast, it so often seems that in fantasy in particular there is some sort of underground hallway that’s going for a certain distance, and then it just branches, seemingly at random, at some location. And then that hallway also branches again. Eventually, here and there, they find little rooms. This sort of thing seems to be based on something like the Pyramids from Egypt where the impression is that these hallways do this kind of thing. But, even then, I don’t think that’s accurate because if you look at the schematics for some of these pyramids, there are very few passages inside them.

The point I’m trying to get at with any sort of underground area or dungeon map is to make it a believable space that was once used and which is now abandoned. Try not to create hallways that go off in seemingly random directions and there’s no rhyme or reason for them.

How to Create Ship Maps
Figure 58 Corvette

Figure 58 Corvette

Now, when it comes to ship maps, there are kind of two kinds here. There’s the wooden ships, like the man-o-war, and then there’s the space ship. For a wooden ship, there are pictures online, and even on artofworldbuilding.com where I have some links to this, where you can see the internal structure of a wooden ship. While it’s not a map, it does show you where everything is located. It can be a good idea, if you’re going to really use the interior of a ship, to take a look at one of these maps and just use that as your source. The average person has not seen one of these and they really don’t understand it, so you don’t have to make up something so much as you can leverage the way ships are actually built.

When it comes to spaceships that you are inventing, I think it’s a good idea to have at least a rough understanding of each deck of that ship and what is there on the port side, on the aft side, on the starboard side and at the front of the ship. One reason for this is that you’re going to want to be consistent when you have your characters travel from one area of that ship to another for a specific purpose, such as going from the bridge to engineering because something is going on in engineering. You don’t want to say it takes 10 minutes at one part of your book, and then, in another book you’re using that same ship in, now it takes 15 minutes to get there.

Having a map can also make it easier to decide that one side of the ship was impacted during a battle and, as a result, there are certain functions of that ship that have been compromised. You can, of course, make up that sort of thing on the fly, but that can lead us to doing things that are too convenient, such as deciding that all the food replicators have gone offline because that’s what your story needs. Well, if you’ve already decided that those are on the right side of the ship, and engineering was also on the right side of the ship, you can also decide that there was some sort of damage to engineering. But if we haven’t already decided that, we’re not going to think of collateral damage that might make it more believable.

In other words, when planning damage to a ship, try not to have the damage only cause the exact impact that you need for your story. There could be other impacts that don’t really drive the plot, but which are believable.

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 same album called “A Trill A Minute.” 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!