World Building: The Importance of the Real World – by Paul Hardy
World building should be easy, right? After all, you’re freeing yourself from the constraints of the real world and making the whole thing up out of the fathomless space in your own head. Creating your new world – whether it’s fantasy, science fiction, alternate history or just some simple speculative modification to our own world – should just be an process of making stuff up.
Ah, but no. It’s not that easy. Not if you want it to feel like a living, breathing place. There’s something you really need to have a handle on before you start building a new world.
You need to know how our world works.
Those of you making up epic fantasy worlds that bear little or no relation to our own planet will likely be thinking that our world is hardly a useful guide
when trying to build the background for a story about sword-wielding badgers. But it is, for one simpl
e reason: your sword-wielding badgers are still, essentially, people. They’re born, they have children, they struggle to survive, get hold of food, deal with social problems, and eventually die in the expectation of whatever afterlife their religion has promised them. People don’t live in a void; the mightiest warrior and the sharpest cybernaut have to contend with the society in which they live. And it’s difficult to come up with a good, real-seeming world for your characters, because there’s huge amounts of detail to fill in.
But you have an example right in front of your eyes: our world. We only have the one, but it’s been through a lot and it’s the perfect sourcebook not only for ideas but also to give you a sense of how different elements of society, technology and everything else interconnect. And knowing how things interconnect is what will help you create an interesting world: everything rests on something else, and following those lines back through society will begin to give you a sense of how that world works.
For an example, let’s get back to those sword-wielding badgers…
The first temptation for these badger-warriors is to make them into imitations of human warriors – so we end up with badgers standing on two legs in some kind of armour that may or may not have stripes, wielding the coolest swords the writer can think of (doubtless katanas). This kind of thing is fine when they turn up for a few moments as a joke, but on any closer look, they fall apart: all they are is a few bits of cobbled-together tropes grabbed from the books, films, comics and TV that the writer’s seen.
They can be much more interesting, though, just by the application of some real world knowledge, and a general understanding of the interconnections that every society must have. So you must begin to research the real world (Wikipedia will do just to begin with). Two obvious avenues present themselves: real-world badgers, and the technology of sword production. Badgers live underground in ‘setts’, which can be quite deep – up to 2 metres – and very extensive. They’re social – 2-15 badgers in a sett – and often have more than one in the area to use as a refuge. And badger setts are in demand: rabbits and foxes use them too, if they can.
Which is one of those details you stumble across which gives you a clue about why they need to be carrying swords: they have enemies who want to steal their territory, that they’ve created by their own hard work. Perhaps the woodlands are a battleground, above and below the earth. And if badgers carry swords, what would foxes and rabbits resort to?
Then we need to consider sword production: swords don’t come out of nowhere. They require some sophisticated technology, and considerable resources. You’ll immediately find that two elements are the basis for ancient weapons: copper (later alloyed with tin to make bronze), and iron (later alloyed with carbon to make steel). Our badgers are tunnellers, so maybe they’re miners as well – unless they get the raw materials in trade, which seems possible as their natural woodland environment doesn’t necessarily put them in close contact with the right ores, or even ‘natural copper’ (who they trade with presents another avenue for exploration all by itself). But the badgers would have access to a lot of wood and therefore charcoal, which is needed to create the level of heat needed to smelt and forge, so perhaps this puts them in a position to be the ones who turn the raw materials into useful goods – maybe a lot of their society revolves around their subsurface forges, with chimney holes that make them easy to find in the woods – but they’d be well defended, of course, given all the foxes that want to invade, and the rabbit squatters on the lookout for a new home while on the run from the terrible foxes that have been breeding them for food – okay, now I’m just letting my imagination run away with me.
But then that’s the point: after only a few minutes of research on Wikipedia, a vague outline of a bronze-age epic with woodland creatures fighting among tunnels and trees is starting to take shape. Research hasn’t just filled in gaps to make the place feel more real; it’s fuelling the creation of a whole world, and the story that will take place in that world.
All of this is only possible if you have a general idea of the incredibly complex web of connections that exists in our own world, giving you a guide to what kinds of similarly complex networks will exist in your fictional world. Everything in your fictional world has to come from somewhere; figuring this out will not only make the world seem more real, but spark your imagination for the story itself.
Guest Post by Paul Hardy