Posted by: Casey Lybrand | June 23, 2010

Worldbuilding, Culture, and Society: Thoughts in Brief

Working my way up to a major culture & society worldbuilding post. In the meantime, I’m reading this at Astrographer and this at Here Be Dragons, and I have some thoughts in brief. [a]

My world is Earth, with just a little nudge to the physics to make it interesting. To make it fantasy. There is one little change (a change inspired by this post by Ann Leckie, by the way [b]). I followed this change along to see what else would change as a result.

The change I made to the physics centers around how humans interact with the material world — a change that goes back to the moment there was human consciousness in the first place. Everything else about the universe (the physics) has been left alone. What this means is that the divergence of my built-world from the real world is — mostly — cultural. The materials, the geography, the planet itself: unchanged. [c]

In building this world I:

  1. decided on the shift in the physics (focused on how people interact with the material world; physics not involving people is unchanged);
  2. worked out how culture and society [d] would precipitate out differently as a result;
  3. threw together a couple of societies in close proximity to one another; and
  4. found people on the margins of those societies and got to know them. [e]

All of this amounts to pages and pages and charts and charts, before I ever stared writing the story. Not maps, though: I didn’t have to make those; we already have them, with maybe forestation and desertification shifted a bit. [f] Not geophysics. Not solar systems.

Just the entire history of the world, from when we became human, from scratch.

And that’s how I built my world. [g]

a: For some values &etc.
b: Inspired in
very broad terms. My people have, for example, no word for “magic”, workable or otherwise; it is a total non-concept to them. Yes, this is still fantasy. I think. Science fantasy is the term I’m going with for now.
c: Geography is susceptible to change by humans, of course. That whole “he will make a desert out of his home” thing. But there are humans in the real world and humans in my built-world: it’s not a difference on the scale of building a whole new planet.
d: On a meta-level. As culture and society in general: How do we hang together or not in this built-world, based on how we interact differently with the material world — what types of social systems could and would develop, what types of technology, that sort of thing. This is a longer post-yet-to-be.
e: Because this is what I’m drawn to; kings and princesses are fine, but usually not that interesting to me. And here’s what I said at Here Be Dragons, about finding people and their stories, a topic which will have a post of its own someday: “. . . I imagine (not vividly — allegorically) that I am going out among the people I want to write about, and finding folks with interesting and compelling stories, then getting to know them and what they experience in their world. Then I write it.”
f: Note to self: make some maps. Writing it out here makes me realize that the geography is different enough after all to warrant taking the time.
g: I am currently in the process of fiddling with the deep prehistory. We’ll see what happens.


  1. You worked out the world first, the decided on characters? Plot came to you third?

  2. Sonia, that’s it exactly.

    I was inspired by “what kind of world would it be if…”, then I figured out what kind of societies would arise out of that world.

    After that, I got more specific with the people — the characters — and developed what (I hope is) a compelling plot for them.

    Now I’m writing it. They’re having an adventure, in first-draft form!

  3. Interesting process. Have you considered the economic and moral implications of your world design?
    Sounds like it might be an interesting place.

  4. Characters are most fun when they want to have adventures! lol It works out that a lot of time for me too – that is, first I have the world, than character, than plot. But I never spend as much time on worldbuilding as you seem to.

  5. That they are!

    I have most often worked character-plot-world in the past. I am moving into something new in my writing, here. The next work I have lined up — it was outlined and all ready to when this worldbuilding inspiration took hold — is world-plot-character. (Well, the character-plot trajectory is complicated in that one. I’ll write about it someday.)

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, Sonia! I hope your writing is going well, with lots of fun adventures!

  6. Cassandra,

    That is an excellent and thought-provoking question. I am trying very hard to consider those factors.

    On economics: my characters are traders. I have considered, for example: what would commodities be — and why; how would trade operate — barter, abstract economy, etc; who would hold economic power in these societies — and why; who would be at the margins of the economic system — how did they get there, and can they achieve a more stable economic status, and if so, how?

    Morality is more complicated, I think. I don’t have an easy example of *how* I am considering this, but let me share some *general areas* I take into account: human rights, civil rights, sexuality, loyalty, how disability is addressed, how inter-racial/inter-societal relationships (of all sorts) are addressed, the concept of self vs. the concept of other . . . I’m going to have to get my thoughts in order and come back with a more detailed answer!

    Thank you for raising this topic. It will probably become a post soon!

  7. It’s always very intriguing to learn about a fellow writer’s creative process! I first find my plot, then my characters and the world comes third :)
    For me, trying to figure out what is going on and who my characters are the most fun part of the whole thing; I’m an outliner, I write detailed outlines and long character profiles… But you inspired me to pay a little more attention to ‘my world’ Casey :)

  8. Thank you, Lua. I’m glad you feel inspired! Worldbuilding is part of the joy to me.

    I love reading about other writers’ processes as well! I can easily see all the attention you pay to your characters from your story for Story Monday at your blog.

    I did plot-character-world once at the novel level (it’s one of the drawer novels), but it was a parody! I’m still figuring out how I approach writing, and I am loving the journey.

  9. I love this Casey. It shows that not two writers have the same way of creating. I created a history, going back to pre-history and further, down to the evolution of the my main character’s people. I needed to create that world in order to know what made him different. I spent months studying that history and even studying him physically as if I were a doctor giving him a physical, perhaps this is my scientific background that lead me to work that way but it worked for me. Sounds like you think along similar lines though I think your approach is even more detailed, very interesting indeed.

  10. Agatha, thank you very much. Your approach sounds very interesting. I like your analogy to a physician and your scientific approach. It is so interesting what writers’ backgrounds bring to their writing, especially in how we go about developing our works.

    I would be very interested to learn about the evolution of your character’s people.

  11. Darwin’s thoughts about natural selection and the theory that isolation leads to speciation were my starting points. As you say, we all bring different things into our writing and I spent two years studying natural sciences so it’s no wonder I did this.

  12. That is very cool, Agatha! I have studied social science, including a bit of human evolution (have to start with that, for so many things), so I can relate. It’s something I’m working on now in my world’s deep prehistory, as it turns out: I want to make sure I have all the implications of the changes I have made worked out as well as I can.

  13. Sounds very well thought out, and I tell you one thing, it will show in your novel because if you can explain why everything is, then it makes the reader believe that world can truly exist. I hate it when writers do not explain something or rather, when they just expect you to just suspend your disbelief for no reason at all. One author who was extremely detailed was Tolkien, the man even invented languages and he created an entire world full of people and I remember that he was so good at that, I honestly felt I was reading about events that had really happened once.
    Then again, he got a bit too intense at times and he lost me with The Silmarillion.

  14. Ah, Tolkien. Yes. A standard of detail and thoroughness to strive for! (Also, thank you for all your supportive comments, Agatha. You really make me think!)

    “I hate it when writers do not explain something or rather, when they just expect you to just suspend your disbelief for no reason at all.”

    That is something I do not enjoy, either. It’s one of the reasons I am writing this way: I am trying to write the book I want to read!

    Though we are lucky there are so many books out there with outstanding worldbuilding as it is. My favorite example I have read recently is N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She provides a well-structured and well thought out world. She also draws from cultures that are not often used as inspiration in SFF cultural worldbuilding, including South American indigenous cultures. It is a beautiful read, and my disbelief was so far and so naturally suspended that I did not come back down until I had read it all the way through! That is the kind of thing I aspire to achieve with all my careful worldbuilding.

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