Peggy Bechko Blogs: World Building for Writers


by Peggy Bechko

Here’s what writers face every day. It’s simple really. If they’re creating a world that is known, that is, some version of the earth or the country you live in or the town, or whatever, research is necessary to fill in the background of your story. Experience, webcrawling, visiting libraries, whatever it takes. It’s still pretty straight-forward.

The hitch comes in when a writer sits down to create any kind of what is referred to as ‘speculative’ fiction. That’s when it gets to be great fun. Or at least it better be fun or I advise you not to do it.  Here’s where the writer has the opportunity – even the necessity to create fictional worlds, cultures, languages, the whole shebang. Think about writers like J.R.R. Tolkien  Orson Scott Card  Edgar Rice Burroughs and others.

So, how does a writer go about creating a whole culture? Well, the industrious writer can simply steal one. By that I mean he or she can use an event in history, say the fall of the Roman empire the characters can be ‘renamed’ and recycled; just keep the core values and what’s at the base of the culture still there and plunge in. Only problem is, if your skeleton is too visible lots of history buffs are going to say, hey, this isn’t original – it’s a remake!  And another thing to think about is if you want to add something to the mix, like the paranormal or magic or some such and don’t think it thorough as to how it would affect the underlying skeletal culture things get complicated.

On the other hand you can construct a whole new world by borrowing bits and pieces of various cultures that appeal to your storytelling instincts and add dollops of your own unique elements.  But beware, you’re now on your way, on that slippery slope to creating your own worlds and cultures – gasp, building fictional cultures from scratch just like JRR Tolkein did.

Admittedly this is the toughest route to take, but it’s very cool. Problem is (isn’t there always one or two or …. Well, you get it) the writer has to keep everything straight as the story is created. This creates a literal minefield of problems that can explode in the writer’s face.  You think you can mess up a story with plot holes? Just try holes in story background when you’re creating your own whole culture. Think about it. If no one is allowed to harm a bird, why are they sitting at the table eating turkey? Why do your characters fear the terrible dragon if each village has its own ‘hero dragonslayer’? If they live in verdant, lush farm country why are they starving and not farming?

The examples are a bit extreme, but you get the drift. The writer must be aware at all times of these little things, keeping track of them, finding ways to work them into the story or work a way around them.

So the writer, in beginning to create a culture from scratch, such as the rich and varied world of Lord of The Rings really should plan things out in broad strokes from the beginning. Ask himself questions like where do the people live? Mountains, desert, forest? Is it hot, cold, mild? Scorching heat or blizzards or both? Are they near lakes, rivers, creeks, the ocean?  It needs to be taken into consideration what types of resources they have. Is the soil fertile? Farming? Do they have the wheel and/or metalworking? Do they have a buried asset like gold, diamonds or something with the worth of oil even if it’s black and yucky?

Where do they live? In caves? Houses? What kind of dwellings? Straw, clay, brick, wood?

And what kind of food do they eat? Deer and rabbits? Fish? Do they have rare and exotic spices? Do they raise livestock like cattle, chickens, etc.? Or maybe they fish farm. Or perhaps they eat some fruit/veggie/meat the writer has created from scratch as well.

It isn’t easy this culture/world-building. The writer has to consider things like if using the paranormal or magic or SciFi elements, how does that work in and does it make sense throughout the story? If the main character can ‘see dead people’, i.e. paranormal, is that character feared? Courted for his abilities? Messed up because this is driving him crazy?

And that would lead into what the people of that culture believe in. If very superstitious they might well shun the Seer of Dead People as being some kind of threat. If that’s the case is there an organized religious leadership that would come out against the character?

If advanced, curious and intelligent, they might seek his guidance. Or, they might not believe in anything, so then where does the culture/story go?

And what do they have at their disposal? There’s quite the debate about vaccination right now. What if the society had no access to anything like it, no vaccines, no way to fight infections?  What kind of a society would that be?

And who’s in charge? In the Harry Potter books it certainly seemed the magically inclined were actually in charge despite what the ‘muggles’ might think, yet of course the magically inclined did not rule in that series of books.

On the other hand, governing might be left to that guy who Sees Dead People as he the small population like him are privy to information the ‘normal’ person of that culture is not. And if they are the ‘governors’ then what kind of governing? Tyranny? Monarchy? Representative Government?

Take into account things like who their friends and enemies are, do they have trade, is there a war (if so what are the weapons and how are they procured?) or are they in the wake of a previously fought war?

When building a new culture there is a lot of extrapolation involved and a lot of follow-through.

Truly it is a very difficult task, yet a very rewarding one.

Peggy Bechko is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.