A Fantasy Author's Adventures in Fiction & Life

Category: World Building

World Building Culture

Many writers study writing. I studied history, archaeology, politics and religion in my Bachelor of Arts, to inform my world-building. I don’t just want to build worlds that mirror eras of ours, in the past or present. Or to write only speculative fantasy that challenges flaws of the present. I want to write alternate worlds that differ from ours. To develop culture and elements like Tarlahn attitudes in my Ruarnon Trilogy, where the term ‘gender diversity’ doesn’t exist, because the male, female and midlun genders have always been. So before you begin borrowing societal and cultural inspiration for your fantasy or SciFi world wholesale from ours, take a speculative lens to things. Think about aspects of society and culture you want to write alternate realities of.


Alternate Worlds

Consider a Bronze Age matriarchy. A queer-positive iron age. Different races who interact not with racism, slavery or colonisation, but perceive each other as equals, in war or peace. Don’t import patriarchy, monarchy, democracy, monotheism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, liberalism or capitalism just because they thrive in our world. I challenge you to begin considering every aspect of society in your fictional world from ground zero (this being my personal goal in future series).

I began world building Umarinaris (in my Ruarnon Trilogy) by considering the progress of western history and tweaking it. The first humans arrived from Earth during the Bronze Age. Umarinaris’ combines bronze and iron age technology and it has sailing ships like those of the western colonial era and monarchy and sexism. But feminism is on the rise, and nonbinary people are established. Multiple gods are worshipped, as are ancestors. There are deists (who believe the gods created the world but had no further impact upon it) and atheists. I’ve cherry picked features from different eras of western history, and written nonbinary people’s status in society speculatively. I invite you to cherry pick for or alternate your SFF world similarly, as we unpack many features of society below.

History

Is it written? Do cave paintings, frescoes or statues with engravings recount major events?

Do bards recite poems or songs of legends and myth?

Is history written by the winners (winning throne or religious leader claimant/ conquerers/ winning political ideology etc)? What lies does any group’s history tell? Will these be exposed in your novel?

Literature

You might not think of fantasy civilisations having pure fiction, as opposed to recalling myths and legends. But by the early second millennium BCE, hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt morphed into a linear script and stories, like fanciful tales of adventure to the mystical land of Punt (an actual trade location near the Red Sea) were written. So when your characters make references to people they admire, abhor or whose actions they are inspired by, are these references mythical, historical or fictional?

The Arts

Do roaming bards sing of the past, or bands of musicians travel? Or do the rich act as patrons to orchestras or bands? Will we find musicians serenading a feast scene, or are their marching bands in your world’s parades?

Do painters and sculptors have patrons who supply their materials? And perhaps provide them with board and meals, in exchange for favourable art of their patrons? (Like in Rome?) Or are the arts valued and paid for as civic entertainment by a republic or oligarchy, like in ancient Greece? Or can only the ruling class afford to employ artisans to build monuments, paint frescoes and proclaim their patrons beauty and great deeds to the world? (As was the case in ancient Egypt, where the arts differed in style and some critics would say degenerated in skill when the kingdom wasn’t united under a single ruler).

Will we see actors in your world? Are they travellers moving from inn to inn, or from one wealthy home to another to perform?

Do the arts portray and reinforce the values, ideals, myths and heroes of your cultures or their rulers?

Sciences

The meaning of the word ‘Science’ may vary a lot in your civilisations, depending on which era of scientific understanding or Dark Age superstition they parallel. But there are two areas of science I think very relevant to world-building —medicine/ anatomy, and natural science.

Anatomy

Human knowledge of what various internal organs are for, how the body works and how to treat wounds may depend on religious beliefs in your world. The belief in ancient Egypt that a physical body was required to house the spirit of the deceased meant important organs required to sustain life needed preservation after death. Dissection and mummification taught the Egyptians that the heart causes blood to circulate through the body and the basic functions of the lungs and kidneys. But they believed the heart was the body’s centre of emotional feeling and the seat of the mind, lacking an understanding of the brain.

So if your culture practices mummification or permits autopsies, does your world have at least a rudimentary understanding of most organs? Does it know that losing too much blood is fatal?

If you have a Dark Age civilisation where study of the human body is banned, you might have absurd notions like those of medieval Europe/ Roman hangovers. For example, that the four humours –blood, bile and white and black phlegm must be equally balanced for good health. Or that getting leaches to feed on the blood of a sick person will ‘purify’ their blood and ‘make them stronger’ (as oppose to weaken them from blood loss). If it suits your plot for people to die of medical complications/ suddenly, ignorant, superstitious beliefs and traditions about the body could be a handy plot device/ killer.

Medicine & Medical Procedures

Again, depending on how enlightened your civilisation is, some medical conditions may not plague characters as much as you think. For example, in ancient Sumer (a civilisation that began around six thousand years ago in modern day Iraq), physicians could remove cataracts. They had the knowledge, tools and skill (but alas not the anaesthetics). Your civilisation may be able to perform simple operations on people. But medical procedures may require a blow to the head or strong alcohol, if the opium poppy or its equivalent isn’t known/ doesn’t exist as an anaesthetic.

Whether soldiers survive battle wounds may depend less on medical procedures (stitches etc), and more on knowledge of hygiene. If, like medieval Europe your culture lacks Rome’s custom of bathing (or worse thinks water makes you vulnerable to sin), doesn’t keep wounds clean, or use alcohol for sterilising them, infections may be the biggest killer of soldiers after wars or of injured workers.

Medicines & Herbs

I mentioned opium already. It might be worth researching real-world herbs used for poultices, healing teas etc. Do women or ‘witches’ administer herbal remedies? Or is there an educated, enlightened society that trusts nature and researches it, studying anatomy and reads books to obtain medical knowledge?

You may have other plants which are useful too. As an Australian, I’m aware that the eucalyptus gum when crushed and inhaled can make it easier to breathe with asthma, or a cold. I was surprised to find eucalypts growing in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese use its oil for all sorts of things, including insect repellent. What medicinal or other uses can people put plants to in your world?

Another thing to consider is medical treatments that are the only known cure for an illness, but have disastrous side effects. Mercury is effective in treating syphilis, but not only can it kill you because it’s poison, it can also trigger hallucinations and delusions. Meanwhile, many plants are effective cures in small doses, but poisonous and even fatal in large doses, another plot device for accidental deaths or murder.

Religion & Culture

Carved, circular yellow pillars rising to slabs with painted hieroglyphs inscribed on their underside beneath a clear blue Egyptian sky.
The Temple at Karnak/ Thebes, Egypt from my 2009 travels.

The first thing I’d consider about religion in a fantasy world is the role it plays. Is religion just collection of creation myths no one pays much attention to? (Like one civilisation in my Ruarnon Trilogy). Do people give offerings to the gods of the house, inanimate objects and abstract principles, and pray to them for guidance (as in pagan Rome). Will people try to divine the future from the stars, flights of birds or goat’s entrails? Does religion otherwise have little impact on daily life?

Do people in your world believe divinities, demons or magic are responsible for scientific occurrences they do not understand? Eg. pestilence, natural disasters, crop failure, human sicknesses? Is religion in your world an attempt to explain gaps in human knowledge?

Does religion mean ancestor worship? Or worship of the spirits believed to inhabit all natural things or of a pantheon of gods? Is any civilisation arrogant enough to proclaim they worship the ‘one true god’? Is anyone disaffected and atheist? Or do they accept that gods creating the world is a likely enough explanation, but see no divine impact in the world ever since (deist)?

Are differing religious identities a cause of war in your world? Or is it like the pagan world, in which each culture excepts that the others have different names for the sun god? And have different traditions and stories about the sun god, but everyone accepts that there IS a sun god? And he doesn’t have a dogma so no-one kills anyone in the name of dogma?

What is religion’s relationship with morality?

Does it have one?

If you have a pagan civilisation, ‘good religious practice’ may mean making offerings to the spirits as you trespass through their forest/ stream etc. In the western world, it wasn’t really until the last two thousand years BCE that personal religions, saviour gods and the idea a god had moral standards they expected you to adhere to personally A, existed, and B became popular. So while we may see religion and morality as inextricably linked today, they weren’t always, and they may not be in your world.

Does religion in your world have doctrines, and dogma?

Can people be shamed and publicly shunned for their ‘sins’? Can they be stoned to death or burnt at the stake as a heretic? Do people live their lives in fear of the judgement of a jealous, angry god who may send them to hell? Or do they have spells or means of tricking the gods who judge them, to avoid a second death and enter the afterlife (as they did in ancient Egypt)? Does religion prescribe what role people will play in life by gender or social caste? Does it suppress certain sexualities? Is it used to oppose racism or bolster it? Does it oppose slavery or legalise it?

Or do people have loose moral beliefs associated with their gods?

Do people try to live up to these beliefs to get closer to their god, and hope that will unite them with their god at death? (Like the mystery religions of western antiquity which often involved saviour gods, resurrection etc.)

Religion and the State?

What is religion’s relationship with the government? Do you have priest-kings, like the earliest civilisations of the ancient Near East? Or a Pope-like figure vying with medieval kings and queens to dominate hearts and minds and govern the life of a continent? A theocracy? Do priests/ diviners/ fortune tellers advise the rulers of your world?

Christianity dominated the west utterly for centuries, but at times South-East-Asia had Hindu rulers, a Buddhist empire and now it’s largely Muslim. A transition between religions may be a fascinating time to set your story. And like South-East-Asia, you could have two or more prominent major religions in one region, at the same time.

What is Religion’s Relationship With Science?

In ancient Greece, religion was fairly liberal. Worship of an entire pantheon of gods flourished alongside the birth of scientific study and theorising. The first theory of the atom was produced and the first rudimentary steam engine invented, though never utilised, because slave labour left no need for it. But even the ancient Greeks had a notion that the gods only wanted humanity to know so much. It tended to be philosophers who, when they questioned too deeply about the gods, were charged with ‘corrupting the youth’ (like Seneca) and censured by the state.

Christianity was more extreme, early Christians burning the greatest collection of literature in antiquity (the Library of Alexandria in Egypt). Even the bible was written in only Latin for centuries and only ranking members of the church were permitted to read it. (Yes, I blame Christianity and its mindset for the European Dark Ages as much as the fall of Rome). To what extent does religion ignore science, contradict or smother it or sponsor an intellectual dark age in your world?

Or do your gods intend for humanity to learn and develop? (Which is considered the path of salvation in my Timbalen Empire). If you have a pantheon, is for example, study of botany considered a form of respect, even communion with Mother Earth? Do learning and respect for divinities go hand in hand in your world?

History & Religion?

What does history say after your world’s religious creation myths? Does religion agree with history, or re-write it to conceal a rival religion/ sorcerous power/ a sect dismissed as heretics? Or did someone use religious texts to calculate that the world was 4000 years old and argue history that disagreed should be discarded?
If your world has more of an ancient leaning, its culture may not have a clear distinction between history and myth or between science, religion and magic.

The Culture of death

Is there an afterlife? If so, how is the body prepared? Is there mummification? Do mortuary practices return the body to the embrace of a mother goddess via burial? To the sky gods via exposure? Or carry its embers to the sky gods with smoke from cremation?

If there is mummification, is it common to visit the site with offerings to nurture relatives in the afterlife? If cremation (or mummification because this did happen in Egypt in Late Antiquity) is the urn or mummy kept in or near the house so the deceased can partake in or witness family activities?

Or does the spirit of the deceased (as in Tarlah in my Ruarnon Trilogy) transfer to an image of the deceased by a ritual performed by a priest?

After death, can the deceased be prayed to for guidance? Or for the comfort of the mourners?

What’s the Afterlife Like?

If the deceased go to an afterlife, is it heaven? Hell? Or will the spirits of those judged by the gods as unworthy suffer a second, eternal death and be fed to a monster, as in ancient Egyptian mythology?

Do they ascend to the Pole stars like the Egyptian pharaohs (in one tradition)? Or join Re on his celestial journey through the sky to light the world by day, and through the underworld by night? Do warriors go to an eternal feast with the war god, as the Celts believed? Or can you envision your own afterlife inspired by any or none of these?

Does the deceased (as many ancient cultures seem to have believed), have the same social standing in the afterlife as in life? Or is their equality in the afterlife?

Is the deceased united with their deceased loved ones and a god or gods in the afterlife?


This is the last of my blog series on Worldbuilding. I hope it’s been helpful! If you missed any, they’re linked below.

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Further World Building Reading

Power & Conflict considers types of government, religious, technological or advisory powers, rebels and the ways any of the above could contribute to conflict in your world.

Geography considers how geography may influence everything from general and defensive architecture, to water supply, heating, farming and how geography may connect to religious beliefs, sacred spaces and magic.

Humanoid Life offers suggestions on physical things like clothing, food, work, pastimes, family life, legal status and opportunities may differ among social classes and offers food for thought on sexual and gender diversity.

Where Fantasy World Come From, a multi author interview on what inspired their fantasy worlds.

World Building: Power & Conflict

When I develop ideas for a new fantasy series, I think first of the overall conflict, the positions the point of view characters occupy in their world, what forms of power they wield, and what role they can play in the story’s epic conflict. (Yes, I very approach this from an epic fantasy perspective, so you may need to adapt how you apply these ideas). In discussing power and conflict in world building, I’ll walk you through my thought process of identifying multiple forms of power and influence various characters, traditions, international bodies and more your world may contain and help you start thinking how these may impact on your story’s conflict.

Power and Tradition

Approaching world building as a history major, I’m very much aware of the contribution tradition can make to the status quo. So how much weight do societies in your world give tradition? Does it determine whose head of households? Or people’s seniority based on birth, or skills they utilise in the home and or village? Does tradition govern gender expectations? Are attitudes towards people of different skills, social classes, nationalities or religious beliefs determined by tradition? And what are the social and political consequences for anyone who defies traditions?

Specific Traditions

Is government based on traditions of patriarchal or matriarchal dynasties? Does your world include regional governors or nobility who inherit their positions due to traditions of feudalism/ monarchy/ imperial rule?

Do traditions protect or prohibit slavery, serfdom or indentured servants? Does it preserve a hierarchy of increasing privilege for a few elites, or equal rights and or opportunity? Are rights equal and opportunity available to everyone, or just people of certain skills, abilities or political, religious or magical status?

Is there a tradition of Elders or Town Councillors gaining status via their life experience, and local or cultural knowledge? Does tradition determine who teaches the young in the village/ family about their people’s ways?

How does tradition impact on foreign relations? Does it promote fair trade and treating foreigners as equals, or is it imperialist, viewing foreigners as inferiors or worse as subhuman?

In what ways do traditions in your world benefit or disadvantage each member of society? eg. who has the road of least resistance to career choices and positions of power, the path of least resistance to personal and social content, and how has tradition shaped either path?

Resistance

If tradition, whether by social class, gender, religion, foreign conquest or other disempowers any one group, do they organise? Do they gather and form a resistance? To whom or which interests do such groups appeal? What resources, knowledge and experience do they gather? How much power do they have? Whom do they wish to improve life for, and what forms of persuasion and or power do they wield as they seek it? How does tension between resistance groups, people who are neither resistance nor in power, and people in power play out?

Two long-necked, wide-winged birds locked in aerial combat above the sea.
Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

Power Through Religion

What’s the power balance between religion and the state? Do priests advise the ruler/ government? Does organised religion have its own rival agenda to politicians? Or do you have a theocratic government?

Are gods a real, physical presence in your world? How does their presence increase or decrease the power of their ranking and ordinary followers?

Republics

Whether a region of your world is small (eg. a city-state), or whether its intergalactic, is there a republic? And if so, is there radical democracy like ancient Rome, where any ordinary citizen can be elected to a council which passes laws, determines policy, declares war etc? Are their gender, religious, social status, ethnic, national, magical or other limitations on who can be elected to a democratic body which governs people?

Is there a tendency for a certain social class (perhaps a wealthy or well resourced one) to dominate the elected governing body? What tensions does this cause within the government? What tensions does it cause among the governed? Eg, do government policies tend to favour people of a certain rank, or who inhabit certain regions, and neglect others? Is it all about exploiting the regions, the outer territories/ outskirts of the empire for the good of the imperial capital/ centre/ planet?

Regional Power

Are some territories in your world wealthier? Are some militarily strongly or technologically better equiped? How do differences like these influence the balance of power across continents? Is there an empire or colonial power who dominates wherever they travel? Do some rulers greet each other as equals, and are some client rulers to more powerful rulers?
Are some countries dominating trade and or control of natural resources? Are there countries with failed governments who cannot control their borders, and are being exploited by other powerful countries, or criminal organisations?

How do differences in power between cities, or countries, foster international co-operation (and between who and excluding who)? And between which countries do power imbalances generate tension and lead to war (hot, open war or cold by proxy or guerrilla warfare)? And should war beckon, which geographical entities will ally with whom, against whom?

International Bodies

Political

Was there a time when multiple nations had cause to unite with a goal of protecting human rights across nations/ countries/ continents/ galaxies? Is there an international body representing people of all countries —a U.N. equivalent? What kinds of decisions is it authorised to make? Does it have a police force? An army? A judiciary? Is it symbolic and paying lip service to international values, is it hindered by powerful countries or other entities, or is it the greatest power in your world? What powers does it have -if any- over individual countries, and what tensions and conflicts of interest can this result in?

Religious

Do religions have international organisational structure? Is there a hierarchy and any one place considered to be that religion’s capital? Is there a single person who heads any one religion? What influence do religious organisations wield internationally in your world? Who funds them? How well resourced are they? Do they come into conflict with, are they endangered by or a threat to any particular country or group within it?

Magical

Is there an international magical or technological body that governs magic and or technology? How it is organised and where is it based globally/ galactically? On what terms is it with each nation? Are their nations who fear and reject magic or technology, and who refuse to have anything to do with such an organisation? Can its members be hired out, to work for countries or groups within them? Whether that’s legal or not, does it still happen?

Organised Crime

Is organised crime limited to cities, and countries or do some crime groups organise, resource and expand to the point they become international organisations? Are they in conflict with particular countries or authorities? Eg. a country’s government, an international body, or a particular religion?

Power Through Magic

Is a person’s magical ability what determines their status, legal and other privileges in life? Do you have an institution which trains people in magic? Is it controlled by politicians or religious authorities? Or is it autonomous?

Are powerful magic wielders pawns of the state, privileged state employees, or did they rise up and seize power for themselves? Or can everyone wield magic of some sort? Do the government and police have magic wielders among them, and is it an aid, and or cause/tool of warfare and conflict?

Power Through Technology

Do you have an empire with chariots, bronze suits of armour and iron weapons fighting naked soldiers armed with weapons of wood and bone? Bronze armour combating catapults, long bows and iron armour? Or higher tech vs. low tech? Does technology give a particular kingdom or empire the advantage and lead to attempts at a mass expansion and conquest or colonisation? Does space age tech lead one particular nation or group to dominate space colonisation in any region of any galaxy?

Power To Influence Through Advising Decision Makers

Having written a main character whose a ruler, I’m very aware of the importance of these side characters and their influence on events in Umarinaris, my fantasy world. So does anyone in certain positions have the respect of their people and or leaders? Do magicians advise rulers in how to combat magic? Do physicians or healers advise how to combat plague? Is there a person in each household versed in basic first aid, and homemade cures consulted for medical support? And in any of these situations of advising and influence, do any of these people exploit their position or distort advice they give to pursue their personal interests?

Masters

If your world has slavery or servitude, how much power does your legal system grant masters over slaves? Can they beat them? Kill them? Is the latter a crime? Is the penalty for killing a slave merely a fine (as it often was in the ancient world)? Are slaves well treated and considered part of the family, or are they mistreated and likely to seize the first sign of family weakness to escape, or rebel?

Same question for servants -are they treated with respect, decency and loyal to the family they serve? Or do they serve with resentment, fear or anger? How does this impact tension or conflict in your fantasy world?

Educators

Who educates the young? Are the children of wealthy people privately educated by scholars? Are schools open to all children, or —if you have a more Bronze Age civilisation— is literacy only required for people working for the government, and do only the children of the ruling class go to school? As I suggested in the Tradition section above, is it stories by Elders or certain members of the family who teach most children how to behave and the ways of their people?

Privately or publicly, who are your educators? Scholars? Governesses? Priests/ priestesses? Do they have political or religious teachings, or do they encourage the children they educate to decide for themselves which side they think is ‘right’ in societal, political, racial, religious or familial disputes?

Allies

Whether your main character is a servant or works for national government, do they have allies? Is it a single person of the same status and power? An organisation? Individuals of different rank and power within the same government/ kingdom/ organisation? Do alliances threaten or force power structures in your world to adapt? Whether that be a middle class allying with people of higher political or religious rank to campaign for more rights, or international alliances ganging up on another country or forcing an international body to make concessions, or even going to war with it. And do allies continuously support, or splinter off and become enemies where conflicts reach a point when point when their goals and or needs differ or conflict?

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Further Reading/ Viewing

Just in case I haven’t given you enough food for thought, here’s some more world-building blogs.

Geography considers how geography may influence everything from general and defensive architecture, to water supply, heating, farming and how geography may connect to religious beliefs, sacred spaces and magic.

Humanoid Life offers suggestions on how physical things like clothing, food, work, pastimes, family life, legal status and opportunities may differ among social classes and offers food for thought on sexual and gender diversity.

Cultures asks probing questions about The Arts, Science, Religion and death.

Six Sources of Conflict for Your World gives you more ideas on what people in your world may be fighting about.

Where Fantasy World Come From, a multi author interview on what inspired their fantasy worlds.

World Building Geography

If you want to build a rich world for readers to immerse themselves in, geography is your friend. By selecting specific geographical features, you can authentically shape everything from land and architecture, to transport and trade, farming to food and fashion and your characters potential jobs. This world building geography blog lists possible geographical features, ideas and prompts to help you use geography to shape the physical culture of your world, including its impact on religious beliefs.

Choosing Somewhere Different

What’s the most inspiring geographical location you can think of? Where don’t we expect to find cities, towns, homes etc?

One of my favourite locations in Final Fantasy was a ruined, underground city. Its floors split or cut off and gave way to gaping chasms. Occasional daylight beamed down from the highest points of cavern ceilings, onto fallen beams and broken off pillars. In choosing a setting, consider, what’s the most evocative place, with the strongest cultural and or technological ties to your human or other races?

If your civilisation is industrial, is it built on ledges carved from the mountainside, using water wheels or hydro to operate steampunk technology?

Or is it built on the shores of the ocean, harnessing the tide to power the city?

How does Geography Impact on architecture?

If you have jungles full of bamboo, are houses made of bamboo? Or bamboo and fabric screens?

If, like in ancient Egypt, your people have access to limestone, is there a tradition of monumental public building created from stone blocks?

And if there are lots of forests, are timber cottages with thatched roofs common?

Are roofs slanted for rain to run off with gutters and drainage pipes? Or is your city near a desert, built of mud-brick, with flat roofs and courtyards with rooms built around and shading them? Alternately, does the roof slope to the ground so the weight of snow doesn’t cause the roof to cave in, like in northern Europe?

If the climate is extremely hot, do people dig their homes into hills and under hillsides, like in Coober Pedy, Australia (yes Hobbiton too, but Coober Pedy is an actual, inhabited town). Or have extreme heat, endless war, persecution or other calamity driven your people to dig a city inside a mountainside, or connect natural caverns to inhabit them?

Geography and Defensive Architecture

Sure, lots of castles throughout history have been built on hills, and you could do that. But you could also make the geography more interesting, and the site more defensible. Put your castle on the edge of a cliff, or halfway up a mountainside. Or make it a mountain on a peninsula or an island, surrounded by water and ‘unscalable’ cliffs. Place it in a desert, underground, watered by springs and with limited passageways to enter, each defended by its own array of booby traps. Build it in a jungle with a mountain behind, two rivers becoming waterfalls flowing either side and a cliff on the forth.
Consider every kind of geographical feature which could be an obstacle -hills, mountains, cliffs, rivers, waterfalls, seas, a dense wild jungle with no roads inhabited by man eating creatures -be creative!

Freshwater, Sewage & Hygiene

A lot of cities in the real world, especially premodern ones, are located on rivers, lakes and places where there’s usually fresh water. Medieval Europe may have had wells, buckets and limited hygiene, but you can have more advanced, yet also ancient plumbing and irrigation. Think ancient Egyptian style canals to redirect water from a river to water crops. Consider using hills and fired clay pipes (or the more perilous Roman lead pipes) to plumb fresh water for bathing into homes. Have clay pipes direct waste water into sewers of fired clay, mortared Roman (or Indus Valley) brick or stone sewers under ground.

If your city (or farms) are isolated, do you have Egyptian style canals redirecting water to the fields? What about Roman style aqueducts transporting water to towns? Or are the farms based on mountain sides, on terraces through which water is piped, like East Asia?

Do you have floating cities or townships like in Vietnamese Ha Long Bay? If so, do you have waste boats or waste disposal, or is the waterway bath, washing machine, dishwasher and toilet?

Volcanic island on horizon, blue seas and black basalt rock pools in foreground, sand among them nearer foreground.
Beach off the coast north of Auckland, New Zealand, photo by me.

Does your city’s water source have to be boiled before its safe to drink or hygienic to wash in? Are your people aware of this or are water based diseases like typhoid rampant?

Do your people have a culture of bathing -immersed, standing and pouring water? Or do they have steam or sweat tents and laver sweat and dirt off their bodies? Alternately, are they unwashed barbarians (like the Georgians) with no understanding of how poor hygiene can foster all sorts of disease?

Farming

What is the farming system and how does geography influence it? Is it a dry land fed by canals, mountain terraces fed by pipes from mountain lakes, or European fields watered by the rain? If the former or latter, do people harvest one field and leave another fallow (making them prone to famine if crops fail, like in medieval Europe)? Do they have a three plot system (more likely to produce enough, or surplus grain like early modern Europe)? Or do they slash and burn the jungle, plant and harvest a certain number of crops, then let the jungle regenerate and slash and burn elsewhere (like in Indonesia)?

Waterways, Mountains, Deserts and Travel

Do you have riverine, island or coastal based cultures? If you’re writing a civilisation set between the Neolithic and the invention of steam power, shipping down rivers and along coastlines will be the fastest (non-magical) mode of transportation. Without a Roman style empire build roads everywhere, the ‘roads’ may take days to travel just a few kilometres by horse and cart -especially through muddy, rain-prone, hilly and mountainous areas. Meanwhile, if you have people traversing deserts, they either need access to semi- regular oasis to restock their freshwater, to sail around the desert or to fly. (Yes, you could have an army march across a desert, but Alexander the Great lost a lot of men to dehydration crossing the Gedrosian Desert that way ?.)

Bearing all this in mind, do you need characters to move swiftly across terrain? How might poorly maintained roads (or lack of paved or maintained dirt roads), deserts, mountains, wild forest or other geography slow people down? Can magic, sea or air travel speed things up, how much, for how many characters?

Thermal Heating

If, like the Romans, your people have discovered thermal heat, do your buildings feature tunnels and vents guiding hot air up through floors? Or if your civilisation colonises places where thermal heat is lacking, do they dig fire-pits deep bellow buildings, and channel the hot air up through pipes to floors?

How are Geography and Afterlife Beliefs Intertwined?

Inhabiting an island but lacking ocean-going ships, Celts in Ireland envisioned the afterlife as the distant, unreachable for the living Isle of the Blessed. In ancient Egypt, a short journey east or west of the Nile brought you swiftly from lush greenery and palm trees to desolate desert sands. So one of multiple Egyptian afterlife beliefs viewed the Land of the Dead as the desert beyond the western banks of the Nile, the direction of the setting sun (whom Egyptians worshipped as a god Ra/ Re).

If you have a civilisation based in the mountains, do they worship the gods of the skies? Do they have notions of a sky burial -like in Tibet- where the body is place on a mound of stones and left to the birds? Or like, the vikings, for whom boats were a treasure producing treasure through raids, do your people bury their dead in boat burials, so they can row across your River Styx in the underworld? Alternately, will they join Re in his daily voyages across the sky, and nightly voyages through the underworld?

Magic Meets Geography?

Is magic present in the air itself, in physical objects or cursed lands in your world? Are there bubbling pools of power atop mountains, or buried in the deepest caverns? Is magic guarded by ancient beings, controlled (and exploited) be a select few? Or forgotten or not properly understood until your story begins?

Is there a forest oozing and poisoned with dark magic? Are their magical curses which effect forests, crops, or wild or domestic animals? Are there areas of mutant plants and monsters effected by magical wars, curses or powerful magic gone badly wrong?

Do you have locations only accessible by magic? Have you gravity defying islands floating in the sky? Islands only reachable by crossing cursed seas or streams (like Voldemort’s horcrux in the seaside cave)? How about cities inside mountains (or atop them) surrounded by geographical barriers -solid rock, cliffs few dare to climb- reachable only by magical transportation?

Sacred Spaces

Are there spaces beyond settlements of cultural or religious significance to your people? A cave where a prophet had a revelation? Mountains believed to be inhabited by gods, angels or elves (as in Iceland). A garden of Eden? The place where Hercules performed one of his labours?

Are there locations associated with cultural or religious myths which make them sacred? For example, do local creation myths narrate the story of how goings on between the Ancestor Spirit Beings (from whom the local people are descended) shaped local geography, and the animals which inhabit it (as with Indigenous Australian myths)?

Do sacred sites have shrines? Or religious buildings -even if they’re in the wilderness?

Are sacred spaces open to the public, to only those in power or only to priests/ priestesses? Or, like among Indigenous Australians, are some sites linked to rites of passage -to becoming a man, woman or nonbinary adult- and sacred to and only to be entered by a particular gender?

Alternately, are your scared spaces known only to local people, without fences or gates? Do they have earthworks, like neolithic barrows in Britain and Europe? Or are they marked only by flowers, or trinkets -offerings to the spirit of the spring, the forest or the mountain?

Gods/ Powerful Magical Beings

Are gods/ spirits/ magical beings associated with geographical or natural elements? Do spirits flow in the streams or Ride the winds (like in the Stormlight Archives), or dwell in the trees? Are local volcanoes seen as gods? (Are they actually?) Is that forest wild because Mother Nature lives at its heart? Do the skies above those plains attract hyenas and birds of prey because the god of death dwells nearby, ensuring food for them all? Occasionally, so people glimpse objects in the clouds because a ‘divine’ being actually lives in them, receiving the occasional visitor?

How has Geography Shaped Religious/ Philosophical Beliefs?

This may sound like an odd question, so let me use ancient Egypt to explain. Along the Nile once lay the geographically largest kingdom in the world. Every Spring, snow melt brought fertile soil down from the mountains via the Nile, depositing it in Egypt and watering and enriching crops. One king ruled the length of the Nile, but beyond its banks and canals the kings built and maintained lay a vast desert. A desolate space of heat and death. A space roamed by nomadic, ‘savage’ tribes in the west.

In the north east there were other cities, ever at war with one another, falling to empire after empire for several thousand years. To the ancient Egyptians, Egypt was a land of order, blessed by the Gods. And foreigners were agents of chaos, their god being the god of chaos. These geographical realities seem to have resulted in the belief that it was the sacred duty of every Egyptian king to extend the borders of the kingdom, thus extending the sacred world order of Maat. This was a worldview, a belief about kingship and a conscious and deliberate foreign policy of expansion, all influenced by geography and its impact on human life.

So think of your own fantasy peoples. Where do they live? How easy or hard is life for them? Do they, like the Chinese emperors, believe their rulers to be sons of heaven, the sacred Middle Kingdom blessed by the Gods because of its geographical blessings? Conversely, do they live near a volcano and believe its periodic eruptions are punishment for their sins?

Ruins

Do you have majestic ruins where a combination of geography and climate change has forced people to abandon their civilisations and move on? Ancient cities left adrift -like some in Egypt- in the desert, as the waterways move, the city dries out and is buried in sand? Does an expanding polar icecap in an ice age bury your northern mountains in snow, and force people out of the mountains, seeking new lands to farm? Will the snow one day melt -during global warming- to expose their civilisation to your characters? Then, will oceans rise and flood coastal cities, and be visited by foot during low tide?

Or are oceans retreating, revealing strongholds of magic or lands of myth -does Atlantis rise again from the sea? Alternately, does an empire like Rome collapse, government becomes localised and impoverished, and great buildings are abandoned in favour of small towns? Does stone from grand monuments of the past become a quarry (like in Egypt)? Or does the empire collapse and do people move on, leaving brick temples buried by the jungle -like the Mi Son temples in Vietnam?

Geography and War

The opposite of the kingdom blessed with fertility by the gods would be kingdoms experiencing severe famine. A famine in the Russian steppe once led to a displacement of starving people. They pushed south, driving people south of them further south. Eventually, the Mediterranean Sea was overrun by displaced pirates raiding for a living (the Bible’s Philistines among them). Does a poor harvest due to people farming unforgiving landscapes, drought, or subsistence farming push populations to war because they cannot sustain themselves?

Or does the advantage of geography and greed of rulers or entire people’s fuel war? For example, in ancient times, Cyprus’ location in the Mediterranean Sea made it an excellent base for controlling sea trade. So Cyprus has experienced a great many invasions throughout its history.

Other geographic reasons for war include geographical disadvantage. If the majority of trade and the fastest transportation in your world is sea trade, a landlocked kingdom with the power to seize its own patch of coastline is going to want that coastline. Alternately, if you’re Kuwait -the West is going to want your oil. Whereas, if you’re Australia or New Zealand -England has run out of farmland and wants your land.

If you want to have realistic reasons for war (beyond the exhausted trope of ‘power corrupted whoever and made them an evil megalomaniac’), consider who has geographical resources, or controls strategically important land -mines, trade routes, farmland, forests etc. If physical objects, materials or sites are associated with magical power in your book, these may also be factors in war.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it!

For the curious, yes, I studied archaeology at university, and that’s the very much the lens I view world building through. Its also the source of many historic references I’ve made in this article. I’ve also travelled widely. I heard that up until around fifty years ago belief in elves occupying the higher parts of the mountains was still popular in Iceland while I was in Iceland. I’ve also seen many locations I’ve referred to in this article with my own eyes. If you haven’t had the chance to travel much, I’d Google images of or search Pinterest for pictures of different geography for world building inspiration.

Further World Building Reading

Power & Conflict considers different types of power individuals and organisations may wield, be it personal, social, political, religious etc and how different power wielders may come into conflict with each other, or the general public.

Humanoid Life offers suggestions on how physical things like clothing, food, work, pastimes, family life, legal status and opportunities may differ among social classes and offers food for thought on sexual and gender diversity.

Cultures: asks probing questions about The Arts, Science, Religion and death.

Food & Fashion

Geographical Inspiration

10 Houses Built in Weird Locations, 3 min youtube video by Earth Titan.

10 More Houses Built in Weird Locations, same as above.

12 of the World’s Most Beautiful Deserts -illustrated blog by Trips to Discover.

Beautiful Forests Around the World, illustrated blog by The Active Times.

Most Beautiful Rivers of the World, illustrated blog by The Better Vacation.

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World Building Life

What’s life like in your SFF world? What sort of housing, jobs, accommodation, work and family life do people have? What are your civilisations’ attitudes to birth, death, marriage, gender and sexual diversity? And how may aspects of life vary depending on the social, political and economic status of your characters? In this post, I’ll provide prompts to help you unpack and answer these questions for your cast, focusing on world building life. I’ll also prompt you to consider whether specific aspects of social, economic and material differences between characters cause family/ societal/ international tensions.

Class/ Wealth Differences

I’m assuming your world mirrors most eras of human history in having vast wealth -if not also social and political- inequity. To help you think about how varying levels of wealth impacts character’s choice of and access to clothing, food and housing, their work prospects and hobbies, I’ve divided the sections bellow based on 3 classes/ levels.

Fashion

Ruling Class/ CEOs

In considering how characters at the top of the ladder dress, I’d think about which materials are rarest in each part of your world. Which materials/ dyes/ accessories are imported and or take the most manual labour to produce?

Silk tunics?

Fur cloaks?

Elaborately decorated hats/ turbans?

Gold, & precious stone jewellery?

Ivory/ bone/ enamel decorated ornamentation?
(This could be jewellery, but also weapons your character carries.)

Artisans/ Middle Class

For the middle class, I’d consider specialist clothing crafts people may need, such as:

Leather aprons

Boots/ sandals

But I’d also consider whether the ruling class places restrictions on middle class clothing, so it doesn’t ‘mimic the status of their betters’.

Even if the middle class can afford gold, are they only allowed to wear bronze or silver jewellery?

Can they wear expensive materials?
Or is the clothing of a wealthy merchant or shop keeper more finely woven or embroidered than that of a labourer?

Does the middle class have access to tailors (like the ruling class), or do they buy pre-made or make their own clothes?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

When I say farmers, I’m not thinking ones who own lots of land and are commercially successful (I assume they’d dress like the middle class). I’m thinking of peasants with barely enough land to produce food for their family from one season to the next. I assume they, labourers and slaves wear practical, homemade, simple clothes and own few pairs, such as:

Coarse linen/ homespun wool

Carved wooden or copper and glass jewellery

Sandals/ barefoot/ boots

Food

In considering visible differences like clothing and food, which of your characters accepts wealth inequity? Do they do so because of religious beliefs like divine kingship, or nationalism, ideology or other loyalty? Or has a ruler actively served their people in living memory, for example re-distributing taxes to alleviate famine? Do different characters varying levels of acceptance, rejection or active resistance of inequity cause tension between your characters/ families, or create circumstances ripe for sparking social and or political revolution? Could another single meal-of-the-day be a catalyst for a rift between a teenager fed up with being oppressed and parents just trying to help their family survive an oppressive system?

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Again, I’m assuming those at the top have access to rare, imported and expensive food products. These could be:

Regular consumption of meat & vegetables.

Anything fancier than bread and or rice/ potatoes.

Spices/ rich sauces

A selection of seasonal fruits

A, deserts and B ones including things like honey, or if it has been invented, sugar, or chocolate.

The rarest and best quality seafoods (if they live near enough to the coast).

Wine/ opioids/ whisky

Artisans/ Middle Class

Can a successful middle class person afford meat or vegetables once or even a few times a week?

How about the odd fillet of fish? (if they live near rivers or the coast).

Do they have access to urban food-stalls -street meats- or even public dinning rooms?
(I’m thinking ancient Rome here).

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Bread and beer/ ale? (The first two typical of soldiers and labourers whose meals were provided as part of their pay in ancient Egypt).

Rice and a little veg (self produced)?

Gruel

Can their food be subsidised by hunting or do the rulers lay claim to the forest?

Can they fish, or do rulers/ traders claim rights to the catch of the sea?

Do they have enough food, live under threat of or are they already starving?

Accomodation

Here, you may like to consider whether property is mostly inherited, or if anyone has the wealth or time and resources to build their own housing, and whether extended family or communal groups assist each other with construction. Also, can property be given away, for example like Caesar granting farmland to veteran soldiers? If land is given away, is it obtained via politically motivated confiscation or colonisation? And how does land ownership or land and housing shortages influence social tensions and conflict in your story?

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Most likely have palaces.

May also have multi story town houses and or countryside/ beachside villas.

May live in gated communities.

Artisans/ Middle Class

Generous sized home & workshop/ sales floor.

Possibly a country house, if they’re doing very well.

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Do slaves/ servants/ labourers/ farmers families live in communal bedrooms/ dorms?

In a cottage/ hut/ log house?
Do slaves have their own/ paired/ communal quarters in their masters house? Or in out-buildings?

Character Diversity

You may be thinking, my civilisation is based on the Iron Age. People had no idea what ADHD was back then or cerebral palsy, so how do I include neurodiverse characters, or characters with disabilities or mental health woes? —without perpetuating harmful and or historic stereotypes?

I suggest: pick a particular type of neurodiversity, disability or mental illness. Read up on how it presents externally.
For example, does it impact a character’s mobility? How? What physical supports could that character have in the time period/ society you’re creating?
How does that character respond to loud noises or too much visual information? How does their neurodiversity or mental illness impact that character’s behaviour when they’re alone or in social situations?
What understandings can society develop based on observing these things? (Assuming you don’t have modern science). What names would your societies give different forms of diversity, based on culture, values, beliefs, etc?

Even if your civilisation doesn’t have a label for different types of diversity, how can you show them in ways a modern audience will recognise? Eg. does a character struggle to navigate the marketplace because it contains too much sensory information to process and overwhelms them? Must their morning routine always be in the exact same order? Are they forever leaping from one activity to the next, without necessarily finishing anything?

If you’d like some resources to begin research on including diverse characters, including LGBTQ+ and POC, I highly recommend Writing the Other’s Resource Page, Writing With Colour and White Writers Writing POC. A list of these and other key resource can be found on my resource page.

Work

Before deciding which job your characters have, I suggest considering how cultural values, attitudes to gender, magical abilities or their absence, LGBTQ+, neurodiversity, disability, religious, immigration or other discrimination may impact which jobs your characters are permitted to undertake.
Also, who has access to education? Is it possible to obtain an apprenticeship or education to qualify characters for a range of jobs, or are most people learning from their parents, with their only career option being to do what their parents did? And how do obligations and or duties to family impact characters’ work choices and family tensions?

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Whether the rulers are a royal family, and or palace of government officials, they may actively participate in forming policy, arbitrating in noble disputes, declaring war etc.

A land owning class/ provincial governors may play a similar role at a local/ duchy level.

Artisans/ Middle Class

May be full time crafting/ running a shop.

Managing servants/ labourers.

For merchants, purchasing, organising transportation and sale of goods.

For scribes/ palace officials/ scholars: record keeping/ writing treatises.

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Sowing seeds. Tending livestock.

Mending own tools. Mending own clothes. House repairs. Gardening.

Cooking. Cleaning.

Grooming animals & masters.

Passtimes

Before considering what characters do in their spare time, let’s work out when they have spare time. Is there a Sabbath or weekly day of rest? How long is the working week? (It was 10 days for Egypt’s pyramid builders, with two days off.) How many hours a day do people work? Does every social class have recreation time daily? Are there religious or secular festivals which are public holidays -for everyone or just for free people (excluding slaves/ indentured servants)?
Are the ruling classes largely people of leisure (like British aristocracy), or do they have regular duties and set leisure times? Do differences in leisure time and choice of leisure activities generate resentment, tension or conflict between characters?

Below are some ideas to get you thinking about what your characters may be doing when they interact in down time scenes.

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Attending/ leading religious festivals/ parties/ feasts/ balls

Private musical/ theatrical performances/ poetry recitals

Exotic pets/ private zoos? Circuses

Shakespearean plays -box seats
Gladiatorial contests -box seats, meals & alcohol served

Gladiatorial/ other Games -participate to show off their prowess?

Chariot/ other races? -participate to show off/ for fun?
Dice/ board/ card games/ gambling
Wooden/ ivory toys, Pets

Artisans/ Middle Class

Attending religious festivals

Standing room at Shakespearean plays?

Watching gladiatorial contests. Can they choose to fight?

Attend circuses.

Chariot/ other races. Can they sponsor a chariot if they’re rich enough?

Olympic/ sports athletic games? -can everyone attend? (It was only men in Greece).

Dice/ board/ card games/ gambling

Wooden/ bone toys, Pets

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Attending religious festivals

Standing room at Shakespearean plays? Or not allowed time off work?

Standing room at gladiatorial contests? -are slaves forced to fight?

Watching circuses/ chariot races/ athletic games or no time off?

Dice/ board/ card games

Stuffed toys, Pets

Social Mobility

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Can royalty/ upper classes marry ‘below’ their status if they want?
Can poverty (as a result of gambling, financial mismanagement/ poverty) or falling out of favour with the rulers reduce someone of high class to Middle Class? Or do they retain high legal standing, but have to live within lower class means and cling to friends to borrow money or gift them what they can’t afford, to keep up appearances?

Artisans/ Middle Class

Can a labourer undertake an apprenticeship to become a craftsmen? Must the labourer/ their family pay and be able to afford the apprenticeship?

If an artisan/ shop owner/ merchant does very well, or their are banks and a banker gets very rich, can they marry into the upper class? Can they attain legal standing and privileges that way, or purchase them, or take up a position within the government and so become part of the upper class?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

If a farmer produces enough of a surplus, can he purchase more land, expand his farm and become wealthier? Will this give him higher legal and or political standing?

Can slaves be freed?
Are they serving a sentence of slave labour to pay off debt and be freed when their time is up? Is there a mandatory period after which slaves captured by conquest must be freed? Can a master free slaves when/ if they wish? Or does a slave earn money or have other chances to obtain their freedom?

Legal Status

If the law enters into the conflict of your story, its worth considering: who was it written to protect? The rulers and landowners? Priests and temples (out of fear of divine retribution)? The community (at the expense of the individual?). Or corporate powers (at the expense of everyone else)? Its also worth considering whether corporal punishment exists. If you have a social hierarchy, its likely your characters will face difference sentences for committing the same crime, so I’ve suggested how those may vary.

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Do they just face fines for breaking the law? (Unless its high treason, in which case they’re humanely executed or forced to take their own life?)

Artisans/ Middle Class

Do they have an option of being fined, or spending time in prison if they can’t pay? -but not beaten, because their work is valued by society and beating them will impair it?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Beaten, and or executed more readily, as example aimed to deter others of the same rank from disobedience, and because they and their work are not actively valued?

Gender

Your fantasy world may be based on or inspired by a particular historical era, but the rights, roles and responsibilities of any particular gender may be completely divorced from that era. For example, my first trilogy is loosely based on the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages of ancient Egypt and surrounds, yet my MC is nonbinary and their people have a name for and understanding of that identity (middlun, meaning ‘between female and male’). In considering the impact of gender on your character’s lives, I’d also consider the extent to which you want your world building to mirror reality, past or present, or to imagine a world with greater gender equality than ours. To pin down what either world may look like, I’d consider:

Is the society a matriarchy, patriarchy, transitioning out of either, or can people of any gender attain positions at any level of power unrestricted by gender bias or discrimination?

Are there notions of “women’s work,” “men’s work” or “gender neutral work”, or can any gender take on any job with no eyebrows raised, no jokes made and no questions asked? Or does this vary from place to place/ culture to culture in your world?

Are clothing, hairstyles and accessories designed for binary females, binary males and or dead-centre gender neutral people? Or is clothing organised in a spectrum ranging from hyper-feminine, through gender neutral to hyper-masculine, with people presenting as either biological gender dressing wherever on that spectrum they feel comfortable?

What level of gender awareness does your society have? Does it acknowledge the existence of and have its own name for nonbinary characters? Does it recognise a range of specific genders, such as gender fluid or a-gender?
Is it aware of transgender people? Is it possible for trans people to medically transition? If not, can they dress and live in accordance with their gender identity, without facing discrimination or harassment?

Do people stare, wonder and comment when they see trans or nonbinary people? Or does your world normalise the existence of these characters and their genders by the way other characters respond to them?

Sexuality and Romantic Relationships

What is your society’s attitude to relationships?
Are flings a thing? Is dating a bit of fun, or a serious quest to find a life partner? Are all adults expected to marry? What do the moralities of religion and or secular culture have to say about romantic partners and the role of relationships in society?

Is marriage primarily a financial arrangement (with a financially dependent spouse keeping house), or about love and or producing an heir? Is their gay marriage? Can queer couples adopt children and raise families?

What about asexual people with no interest in romance or marriage?

Is polygamy a thing? Is it a religious belief or a freely made choice?

How aware of the existence of diverse sexualities/ queerness is your civilisation? Do people of diverse sexualities use real world or fantasy labels to describe their sexuality? Or is awareness and knowledge of sexual diversity so widespread, and equal rights so well established that no one needs labels to understand their own identity, to promote public awareness of their identity, or as banners under which to fight for their rights? (Disclaimer, as an asexual, nonbinary person who hates labels, I’d love to read about such a society).

Marriage

Ruling Class/ CEOs

Do some get married off as children/ teens to secure political alliances?

As the above implies, are marriages determined by parents for the sake of the family or kingdom or do characters have a say in who they marry and why?

Artisans/ Middle Class

Can they be married off young to secure trade/ production or political alliances?

Do characters have a say in who they marry or do families choose for them?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

Do slaves need their masters permission to marry?
If they marry and have children, are the children born free, or as the masters property?

Do servants need permission to marry?

Do farmers kids choose who they marry, or do their parents?

Divorce

Ruling Class/ CEOs

If you have a marriage that’s the result of an alliance, do the characters stay together for the sake of the alliance or under family pressure? What tensions/ conflict does this cause?

Artisans/ Middle Class

Does religion allow divorce?

Are both partners allowed to seek a divorce? On what grounds?

Poor/ Slaves/ Labourers/ Farmers

If a slave/ servant is living with their spouse in their masters house, can they live in separate rooms if they divorce? Do they still bump into each other? What tension does this cause?

Family Life

Who can attend a birth? Are doctors available? Mid wives? Is there a high mortality rate for women in childbirth and for new borns? And if so -is pregnancy and birth an occasion of joy, or of great uncertainty for the pregnant woman and her family?

What is considered a family unit? A nuclear, extended or other family?

Who lives with who? Nuclear families together? Elders alone, or with one of their children?

In any building, are sleeping quarters divided by gender? Just single people, or couples too -aside from conjugal visits?

Is there a ‘head’ of the family? Are there gender roles?

How does the age of different family members alter what behaviour and or duty is expected of them?

What is expected of family members generally? -does everyone contribute to housework? Must everyone practice the same religion? Is their ancestor worship/ household gods/ spirits?

Is their prejudice, jealousy or other tension within the family?

Does the family have its own particular take on ethics or its own philosophy?
Eg. do they run their own business and have strong notions of being hard working or self sacrificing? Are they traders, always on the road, who see the rest of the world as their backyard?

Can anyone choose any career they want, or must they work within family owned business/ within family and friendship connections?

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Further Reading

My World Building Posts

Geography considers how geography may influence everything from general and defensive architecture to water supply, heating, farming and how geography may connect to religious beliefs, sacred spaces and magic.

Power & Conflict considers different types of power individuals and organisations may wield, be it personal, social, political, religious etc and how different power wielders may come into conflict with each other, or the general public.

Cultures: asks probing questions about The Arts, Science, Religion and death.

Food & Fashion

Writing Diverse Character Resources
Writing the Other’s Resource Page and Writing With Colour.

Seated woman in green crushed silk dress wielding large knife, with dark red headress.
Photo by Ferdinand studio 

Introduction

To write civilisations comparable to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, I’d need to draw on my double major in archaeology and history to break down every major component of world building. My world building blog series will attempt that, and explore how different factors within a world can influence and shape each other. Today I’ve paired Food with Fashion, because both are closely linked to plants and animals, all of which is influenced by geography, climate and trade.

Farming & Irrigation

Let’s start with the basics -what food do people in your world eat? How are different crops grown and irrigated? Is your civilisation set in a fertile part of the world where regular rainfall is sufficient to keep crops and herds alive? Are crops and livestock watered by canals and aqueducts channelling snow-melt from mountain rivers across land/ desert? Or are crops grown on mountain terraces through which water is carefully drained?

Does your civilisation have enough water and arable land to feed itself? Or is it like Rome -dependent on the breadbasket of Egypt? If your civilisation depends on regional trade to feed itself -how does that impact on internal and regional conflict?

Diet

Is your civilisation small-island or coastal based, with a the local diet of predominately seafood? What are the staple crops in the region? Does your civilisation have vast trade networks allowing them, for example. to locally grow potatoes from South America in Europe? Or are the crops grown and livestock reared limited to what is locally available/ native plants and animals? If so -what region of the real world and what era of history might you need to research to write this plausibly?

Climate & Geography

Is your civilisation’s climate hot in summer and mild in winter like Australia? Or cold in winter and mild in summer like England? Can it be 30 degrees Celsius in summer and -30 degrees in winter like Toronto? Is climate determined by the existence of a frozen northern or southern pole? Is there a latitude of tropics like our world? Or is your civilisation’s climate determined by mountains with freezing temperatures, or the desert deprived of rain because it all falls in the mountains? How does climate determine which crops can grow and which livestock for food or trade can be raised in your civilisation?

Seasons

What impact does geography and climate have on seasonal change in your civilisation? Does your world have summer, spring, autumn and winter? Or just wet season and dry season, like countries in our world near the tropics?

In Australia, most trees are evergreen -native leaves don’t change colour or fall off and some native flowers predominately flower in winter -not spring. So do plants in your world behave according to the same seasons as ours?

Geography & Cultural Fashion Influences

There’s a good chance this will be heavily influenced by climate and geography in your world, but that won’t necessarily be the case. Traditional clothing of the First Australians was scanty because of our hot, dry climate. But in the 19th century, Victorian British fashions had men and women wearing stiflingly hot, conservative clothing, causing fainting in Australian summer. A few deaths from heat exhaustion failed to change these fashions. So, in your civilisation, is fashion locally developed and suited to local climate, or is it the product of an influential kingdom, a distant empire ruling a locality, or colonial motherland? If one of the latter -what is the geography and climate of the influencer and what do their fashions look like? Linking back to seasons -does climate vary much between your seasons and do fashions vary accordingly?

Fabric Availability -Trade & Fashion

In answering the above, consider what plants/ fibres are locally available. If your civilisation is European influenced, do they wear woollen garments from locally farmed sheep? Does your Americas inspired culture have people wearing cotton from cotton plants? If the ancient Middle East is the influence, do people wear linen from local fibres or silk from Far Eastern silkworms? When deciding what your people are wearing, think about (or research in a particular region and time period of our world) what fabrics are available locally, and what can your civilization import from elsewhere in your world?

Costume and Social Class

Whether people in your world have access to different materials to make or buy clothes won’t just depend on regional or international trade networks, it depends on social class and wealth. In any civilisation, it’s likely poor people will wear the cheapest, most readily available clothing in any era. Then in some eras, like the Egyptian Middle Kingdom in which only the pharaoh had the wealth to personally fund foreign trade expeditions -it might only be the wealthiest classes who can afford clothing made from imported materials. So aside from asking what material is available in my civilisation? You might also need to ask, how does what is available vary from class to class or rank to rank?

I’d also ask are there restrictions imposed by people in power on fashions? In Egypt there was a sudden change from elaborate pottery at all levels, to only the wealthiest having elaborate pottery around the emergence of the Old Kingdom. This is the time kings and an elite class first appeared and that even types of pottery became a status symbol. Is there anything that only the ruler or only the elite can wear in your civilisation?

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Related Reading

My other World Building posts:
Humanoid Life
Geography’s Impact
Power and Conflict
Cultures

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