Worldbuilding is the part of the writer's craft that establishes the very world(s) that your story is set in. In genres like Sci-Fi and Fantasy, worldbuilding must take center stage in the writing process if the you want to craft a great story. As a fantasy author, I have become well accustomed to worldbuilding. In fact, it has not only become my favorite aspect of the craft (aside from the writing itself), but it is actually what drew me to the genre. That being said, worldbuilding is every bit as big as the word suggests. In this series, I will be diving into each of the major areas of worldbuilding; Magic Systems, Settings, Cultures, Technology, Economy, and History.
One of the most fascinating, and enriching aspects of a well-crafted world are its people! When I say that I don't actually mean the individuals though. I mean, what would The Hobbit be without Bilbo Baggins or Thorin Oakenshield? However, to truly make great characters, we really need place them upon a backdrop that will help give the reader greater context. One of the pieces of that backdrop is culture.
I particularly like Merriam-Webster's definition of culture, which states:
In the examples of Bilbo and Thorin, we are treated to two distinctly different cultures. In fact, the contrasting clash of cultures is really one of the things that makes The Hobbit such an enjoyable read. The Hobbits from the Shire are a simple, fun-loving folk who don't do adventure, whereas the dwarves have a rich and storied history full of wars and battles were they experienced great gains and greater losses.
While both cultures enjoy a fresh pint, or two, the similarities pretty much stop there. It put Bilbo at odds with his co-conspirators for much of the journey. Ultimately they form strong bonds of friendships despite their differences, but it all goes to enrich the tale.
Now if you've followed me for a while, you might just possibly be tired of hearing about Steven Erikson and Brandon Sanderson, but you will have to bear with me. Of the contemporary fantasy authors that I've read, I feel that they do this exceptionally well. Their worlds and stories are also collections of massive tomes with thousands of pages, so they have provided plenty of material to work with.
Mistborn & Stormlight Archive
In Sanderson's Mistborn series, Sanderson built a world and society that is fully built upon a class structure where the Nobles completely oppress the Skaa. Every part of the society is designed to take away their rights and opportunities. The Skaa are a peasant class that are more or less slaves, in just about every way imaginable. Through this systematic oppression, special powers have been granted to the Nobles to help them further subjugate the Skaa.
In the context of the story, what this has done is left the Skaa impoverished, uneducated, and largely enslaved. These leaves them as a naturally frightened and overly superstitious people group. Due to these conditions, the people have even come to believe that their emperor, the Lord Ruler, is a god. A large portion of the main characters mission in the early part of the story is just convincing the Skaa that they should actually rebel in the first place.
On the contrary, the high born aristocracy live indulgent lives of excess. They throw great balls and feasts to flaunt their wealth and status. The younger generations are so privileged and insulated from reality, they that they actually believe the Skaa are less than they are, like a sub-species or something. The nobles are still under the emperor's steel grip, but aside from their "loyalties" to him, they are largely a wicked and tyrannical group of people who use and abuse the commoners. The stark contrasts are apparent, and it serves the story well.
In Sanderson's other epic series, the Stormlight Archive, he has a world full of diverse people groups that span the globe. But it's more than that, Sanderson is able to breath life into them, and it's not just because he gives them a unique setting and appearance. He gives them art, religion, philosophy, mannerism, and let's not forget about the food! In this series, certain cultures even have separate diets for men and women based on some ridiculous notion of propriety. It's great!
In The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Erikson put his real-world experience as an anthropologist to good work. The amount of cultures is almost innumerable. To be honest, it is pretty hard to grasp the scope of it, until you actually read through a few books. The massive world(s) that he has created in this grand masterpiece is humbling quite frankly.
Now I will be the first to say that you don't really get a great sense for the diversity of those cultures in the first book, but as you continue reading through the series you start to get a great taste for the diverse people groups that not only populate his world, but his world's history. Each books along the way allows you to dive into the fantastically unique cultures and their wildly different views on the world around them. Erikson actually does this so well that when you switch to certain books where the central characters are from a different part of the world, the perspective change is so dramatic, that the entire narrative sounds and feels like a totally new story. It is hard to explain, but it is quite remarkable, and it while it seems disorienting at first, it serves the grander narrative quite well.
In Malazan, there is so much diversity that it is almost a situation of "Everything is sacred, so nothing is sacred." At least that is how I viewed it. Erikson gives each of his people groups distinct takes on creation, spirituality, sexuality, and general morality. It covers an increasingly wide spectrum, and all of which are inevitably at odds with someone one else. Some people groups are able to overcome their differences and unite against a common threat, and sometimes—they just can't get over themselves, no matter what's at stake.
In My Own Writing
When I set out worldbuilding, one of the things that I often want to do is to try to understand what really makes a people group unique. What is it about their way of life that matters, and why does it matter?
When I wrote Dragon's Fire, I honestly didn't know that it was going to be the beginning of a long fantasy epic. To tell you the truth, I didn't know what it would become. I just started with an image in my mind. That was an image of a people who lived in a fortified city high up in the rugged mountains, with snow capped peaks. These were not people who had unlimited fields to grow crops or raise livestock, they had to maximize their acreage. They would have to make due with shorter seasons for growing, and they would have to find ways to survive harsher weather than most. Simply put, these people would have to be rugged, hardy folks to live through such conditions. But would they put themselves through that?
Why would a group of every day humans choose to isolate themselves in some of the most inhospitable conditions that Aurion had to offer? Well, they had little choice. Without providing spoilers, conflict drove them to find a place of security. They found that amidst the peaks of the Sky Reach Mountains. From there, it was important to fully develop their way of life. How do they live? Where does their food come from? Do they farm? Is their a prevailing religion or philosophy? Piece by piece these things were developed, and the kingdom, and the people, of Storm Vale was born.
Those are great questions to ask, and sometimes they will be enough, but sometimes you need to dig deeper. On the surface my Beating Back the Darkness series might seem familiar, because you see words like Orcs and Dwarves. That's why despite adding plenty of new entries into the world of fantasy, like the Niall, Nastris, Mankir, and Raj'akar (and many more), it is important that when a reader dives into my book, they know exactly what I mean when I say orc.
Orcs are a big deal in my books. Some of my main characters are orcs, and readers love that! However these orcs are not your grand daddy's orcs. They are not the mindless, blood thirsty savages that Tolkien wrote about, but they are not exactly the shamanistic, fel blooded creatures from Durotar either. Admittedly their physical appearance is absolutely inspired by Warcraft. But I wanted my orcs to be able to stand on their own two feet. I wanted them to have history, to have lineage, to have beliefs, and to have laws and customs that molded their decisions.
Dwarves are another common face you'll find wandering across my pages. But what do they believe? How does their society operate? How do their world views affect how they live life? What does their language sound like? How does it sound compared to that of the Danji? In Dragon's Fire, the reader gets their first taste of this as they enter the famed mountain fortress of Dar Mar'Kren, where the text of the dwarves' ancient religion is scrawled across every stone. Does that encapsulate all of the dwarven culture though? In The Halls of the Fallen King, readers get to venture deep into the forgotten ruins of Duroc's Refuge, to find another dwarven culture that once existed.
As our heroes traverse the subterranean expanse known as Duroc's Refuge, they find all sorts of clues to this dead society's identity. As they explore they find many hints of culture left behind through the remnants of their art, literature, and architecture. Those statues, musical instruments, food, scrolls, crafts, and even the very city itself all have a story to tell about the people who once inhabited the place, and sometimes that story has an entirely different narrative than once expected.
Let me know when the rest of this series is available...
Worldbuilding I - Magic Systems
Worldbuilding II - History
Worldbuilding III - Setting
Worldbuilding IV - Cultures
Worldbuilding V - Technology
Worldbuilding VI - Economy