Thursday, 24 April 2014

World Building 101

It's a disheartening experience to be part way through editing a first draft to find you haven't actually written a whole section.




Worse, you realise that the reason you didn't write it was because you had no idea what you wanted to say. You knew it had to be said, but the content, the very basics of 'this is my topic sentence' never came.

I faced this problem a few weeks ago with one of my new books; The Five Day Writer's Bootcamp. The purpose of the book is to build up the strength, endurance and necessary technical skill for a particular project before actually starting to draft. And reading through the draft, there are a lot of good ideas in there, if I do say so myself.

But on Day 3, when creating a framework for the tone, setting and characters of the soon-to-be novel, I had the heading for a vital subject, world building, but no content.

Where do you start in developing a quick and easy method for world building?

Well, thank you for asking. Since I'm rather proud of this piece of cross-discipline work, I thought I would share it with you today.

First I should mention that I'm talking more in terms of the characters' everyday world, rather than the more technical physical world building, where you are deciding between two suns or three. As I challenge my reader in the book, it's about understanding if, how and why your characters buy milk.

So where did I start?

Well, don't let anyone tell you a degree in archaeology is useless, for what does it spend a lot of time doing? Defining and categorising civilisations. And luckily for us writers, it has a very neat systems for doing so.

All major aspects of a culture can be considered under one of four headings. Thus, by taking the time to define and enumerate these four areas, an author can get a quick and easy in depth understanding of the characters' society, and possibly culture clashes they might encounter.

Ok, enough teasing, the four categories are ... economical, religious, political and social.

Now, let me expand these for you a little bit.


There are a set number of ways people can trade goods within a society. There are also requirements and restrictions on these different forms. Break these fundamental rules, or ignore them, and your book will be less believable. For example, it's not possible to have a purely barter based economy in very large societies, mainly because it's too difficult to connect with all the people that can supply your needs. Similarly, it's unlikely to have a free market economy with a very controlling government. The main basic systems available are: barter economies, traditional economies (resources distributed by the same groups in the same ways as they have for a long time), command/planned economies (government decides), and market economies, (individuals and companies decide), mixed economies (part market part command).
 (In the book I go through in detail what's involved and how it can be used by writers, but that's why it's a book and not a blog post. Sorry.)

Exercise: to get you thinking, describe how your main character buys milk in the morning, or if they can't, why they can't.


This field does not necessarily need to refer to beliefs in a higher being. Some science fiction might have societies that have no ritual practices. Regardless, you need to think of what religion does: answers the big questions. Every society that has conscious beings should be asking and finding some answers to the 'why's of life.

For example, in this culture, what do they believe happens after death? What is the ultimate purpose to life?

These are important questions which you need to know your character's answers to. Even if you never write a word of their beliefs, their actions should be dictated by these beliefs. Can be awfully useful if you get them into a situation where you aren't sure what they are going to do.


So, it turns out there are a multiple different ways to approach defining a culture's political systems, depending on which aspects you're interested in. Sociologists and anthropologists have both studied political systems but with different focuses. 

Anthropologists are particularly interested in the size and grouping of the systems, so categorise political systems into two uncentralised and two centralised types; band and tribe, chiefdom and state.

Sociologists, on the other hand, are more interested in the figure holding power, and the relationship between the government and its people. They consider three types of political systems: authoritarian, monarchies and democracy.

Try mixing up different elements of the two and see where your main character is in the political structure, what power they have, and how the system effects them.


This is a very vague term in the English language which can include all the elements we have discussed already; religion, economy and politics. In fact, all the different aspects or features of societies include: communities, culture, economy, education, government, identity, infrastructure, institutions, land, law and law enforcement, military, natural resources, people, politics, social control, social structure, technology and wealth. I decided to list them all, because they might spark off ideas of areas you could differentiate your society, such as an abundance of a particular natural resource, or a peculiar form of social control.

While that long list hopefully sparked some ideas for you, an easier to define model has been created by sociology. It identifies six types of society based on their levels of technology and how they subsist. These include: hunter gatherer, horticultural, pastoral, agricultural, industrial and postindustrial.

Of course, these levels are based on the societies that have developed on this planet, and as you will see the last few have been recent creations. Therefore, it is entirely possible that a completely different system can and will develop, or might have already in your world.

And those are the basics of creating your own world. If you can outline the political system, and from that the economic, the religious and the social, then you can get a very good feel for how your character lives their everyday life.

So why not pick up some basic sociology books to add to your reading list (until my brilliant Bootcamp comes out, of course)? You never know when it might come in handy.

ROW 80 Check In:

So, first week of my term down and dusted, yah!
How did I go with my goals?
I completed at least 2 hours of editing everyday since last check in. Go me.
I went to the gym Tuesday and Wednesday (as it was closed Monday, and I've flown down to Melbourne today/Thursday). So, pretty good.
Didn't write anymore blog posts, some technical failures can be used as a vaguly plausible excuse.
Um, okay, so 1 out of 3 tweets is better than none, right?
And don't even ask about visiting other sites.

But I'm very happy with the editing I've gotten done. Still on track at the moment to get my 1920's romance published Sunday, maybe Monday.

In great news, my GoodReads pre-launch giveaway just finished, and over 1,300 people signed up! Furthermore, over 500 people have added it to their 'to read' list. Now, I just need some of those people to actually buy the book and write reviews. Will you be one of them? (stay tuned for actual publish date, and introductory price).

Why not add it to your 'to read' shelf? After The Winter, it's coming soon. (The Winter Is Coming... no, that's another series, sorry.)


  1. Congrats on your editing progress, Buffy! I just finished a draft of a story, so I'll be joining you soon in the Forest of Revision. :)

  2. Neat grouping for World Building. I have seen a number of these sorts of lists over the years mostly in Role Playing circles, but another one is always a good reminder, especially with the basis in science.