From the beginning I have used my background in anthropology to create my worlds. Comparing them before I began the trek to earn my degree to now, is beyond satisfying. This series will approach topics such as technology, taboos, bias, factions, applied geography and prejudice.
A while back, in the early stages of my own worldbuilding, I came upon a wonderful tool that would prove invaluable. Referred to as a “worldbuilding leviathan,” found at Kittyspace, it’s set up to tackle worldbuilding in a myriad of ways. With 52 questions/topics, it is set up for either a mad dash over a few weeks or an in-depth analysis over an entire year. Either way, you are certain to address most areas needed for a new world.
The 52 topics are split up into 10 parts covering 5 topics each (with the final part containing 7). I won’t be going over every part, as the first 5 topics are general topics addressing the foundation of a novel rather than worldbuilding, and others focus upon your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). The latter I will address if needed or requested by anyone. I could go on for days on pretty much every topic, but I will be as brief as possible. Feel free to comment, or message me above through the Contact tab.
The first section (topic #6 in the leviathan), is determining the technology level of your world. Many fantasy worlds reflect our own Medieval times, with a majority of them in what could be considered the High Middle Ages (c. 1000 – 1300 CE). My own current #WIP reflects a world more similar to that of the Early Middle Ages (c. 500 -1000 CE). Using our own world as a starting point is a good way to set a base idea for your own world and go from there.
Once you have decided on the base technology level of your world, it’s important to consider how and where that technology came from. Does everyone have access to the same tech around the world? Likely not. The arrival of Europeans to the America’s would be much different if they were met by natives carrying arquebuses similar to their own. Consider that gunpowder was invented in China in the 9th century, while the first gun is thought to have arrived in Europe in 1364.
Technology takes time to spread, and how it spreads is dependent upon multiple factors. Innovation, invention, and diffusion are how many ways of culture spread in the world. Deciding this will be easier the smaller your world/region is. If you are creating an entire Earth sized world, consider how one part of the world would address the same problem in different ways and how even their geography can affect its evolution.
Which ever level of technology you decide to place your world at, take time and think about where it came from. One of the best examples of Invention, innovation and diffusion is Gutenberg’s printing press. A printer with movable type was invented 400 years prior in China. Through diffusion, its concept and idea spread across the continents before finally arriving in Europe. Through innovation, Gutenberg was able to alter a preexisting technology and find a way to make it more efficient. For a more in-depth discussion on the press, head over here.
The topic of technology comes up again in the leviathan in part 3 and we’ll find more ways for tech to be examined.
For your world, you’re going to need to decide what types of people groups you are going to have. Will all sentient life reside in nation states and kingdoms? Or will some while others are still in hunter-gatherer societies? If having different social structures, which are food producers and which are not.
What ever types of groups/organizations you go with, it’s important to consider the proper economic system they will use. You don’t want to have a group of hunter-gatherers practicing a market exchange system when they should be practicing reciprocity. Bear in mind that many of the markets we see in fantasy novels are a little too close to modern day markets. Peasants, or commoners, have coin too readily available at times when it was far more likely they would be bartering for the goods and wares they need with the items they produce themselves. This isn’t to say they wouldn’t have money on their person, just that it was far less likely than we tend to see in modern spec-fic.
For a medieval type society you are more likely to find redistribution as the mode of trade. A majority of sedentary societies with a single individual or group governing them practice some form of redistribution. The further a village is from a large city, the less likely you are to find money in the villagers possession. There can and will be some, but not in abundant supply. This is one thing that bothered me a little with Jordan’s Wheel of Time. Even a few “coppers,” would be few and far between in such a remote area of the world.
In an effort the limit the length of this post, I am going to end this topic here as we will come back to it in a future post for further development (economics has a second spot in part 3 of the leviathan). As always feel free to reach out if have a question on a specific topic.
First, if you are planning on having a more “traditional” magic system, might I suggest taking a look at Brandon Sanderson’s “Laws of Magic?” I used them as a base for my own hard magic system that I still haven’t completely decided whether it will go into my current #WIP or a future project.
Addressing magic anthropologically will look a little different than what you may find in more traditional fantasy. Since the magic we often find in our works does not exist in our own reality, it would be very difficult for anthropologists to study it. Instead, I’d like to present some forms of real world “magic” that can be used to give your world a more tangible feel for your readers.
An important question to ask yourself is, “with what purpose does the magic serve? How does it benefit its people?” Magic, in our own world has served as social control for some, given reason for events in their world, as well as a way to relieve stress.
The Kula ring, a cultural exchange within the Trobriand Islands is a great example of a magic that serves the purpose of relieving stress. Before their men leave for the Kula, the entire island comes to the beach to send the ship on its way. A song is sung by an individual, using magic to ensure the safety of the men and ship by strengthening the hull of the ship. This is a ceremony that is not practiced when men go out to sea to fish, only for the Kula. Why?
The ceremony is not for the traders leaving, but for those being left behind. All inhabitants of the island are present, even those with no familial attachment to the crews. It is a ceremony primarily to assuage the fears of those at home and for all to be secure in their safe return. When the men leave to fish, they are home that evening. During the Kula they are gone for quite some time.
A way magic is used to define the everyday can be found in with the Azande of central Africa. An oft used allegory in anthropology classes was an observation by E.E. Evans-Pritchard in the 1920’s and 1930. The Azande store their food in granaries which are raised off the ground to keep out animals. On hot summer days people sit underneath in the shade.
The Azande know that termites eat away at the wood and that age weakens wood over time and sometimes they collapse. However, if and when that happens while people are beneath, it is witchcraft. A boy recounts his trip home and stubs his toe on a stump wood (root) along the trail. It begins to fester soon after. He declares it too is witchcraft. But why?
Just like they know that termites eat away at the stilts of the granary, they also know that witchcraft did not place the root in the pathway. What was witchcraft, in their eyes, were the circumstances. The granary could have collapsed anytime. Why did it only collapse when there were people beneath it? Why also, when everyone is taught from an early age to watch out for tree stumps and roots in the road would the boy stub his toe on a road he walks every day? It must be a witch!
One would think that culture would be the first topic in a piece written by a cultural anthropologist. That would make sense, and coincidentally when I first envisioned this series, that was where I would have started. Instead I have decided to follow the topics/questions of the leviathan in the order they appear.
Like previous topics, culture is addressed again in a future section of the leviathan, so for this section we’ll keep it simple as the instructions for the topic are pretty generalized to begin with. You have some idea of who your protagonist is and where he comes from. Or do you?
Like the image above says, culture unites people. For your protagonist, their culture should have some unifying details. Sometimes this is easier if you look to cultures outside of your own. Especially if you are in the US like I am. Think of the things that identify their culture as being separate or different than your own.
Now I want you to look at a neighboring country and consider their differences and similarities. Why? Because just like technology, cultural practices can be exchanged through diffusion. This usually happens due to migration/immigration, trade, and even diplomacy.
How does the culture group of your protagonist engage with others in the world? Are there towns and villages near their borders? More than likely you would find practices within these towns and villages that they learned from neighbors on the other side of the border. If you are building an entire world, like I am, the further away from a cultures center, the fewer similarities you will find. The inverse of that is, the closer they are, as well as with the more economic and political ties they maintain, the more similar certain aspects of their culture will be defused into the other.
If you have a nation or region that is home to many people from multiple cultures, then expect to plan a way that they all come together. Are certain practices of one group observed more than others? Is there a hierarchy of dominance between the cultures? Or perhaps everyone just sticks to their own, the city is divided into sectors and people live in the section where their culture is located.
This topic is only addressed once in the leviathan, however part 4 addresses bias in one topic while part 7 addresses prejudice. I mention those because you should be prepared to interlink them all. Like with culture, take into consideration the location of the differing cultures and how much they interact. In a traditional fantasy world it’s quite possible they rarely interact, in which case the biases and prejudices should be easy to spot. As urban fantasy is becoming more and more popular, for good reason, it’s far easier to come up with ideas as our own world is an easy mirror.
Diversity will not just address the physical appearance of the different groups in your world. It should address their social practices as well. Consider something as small as the use of the latrine. A friend years ago had left on a trip to Papua New Guinea in the mid 2000’s. While using a public restroom, she found dirt footprints on several of the seats. She was told that villagers from remote parts of the country use latrines in the ground and are not use to the traditional western toilet. If they haven’t been shown how it is normally used, they do what they are use to.
Try not to create a homogeneous world. Remember that people are very different, no matter where they are from, or whether they truly exist or not. The main approach in the leviathan on diversity tries to address the characters you will have with speaking parts or at the very least, important enough to mention outside of dialogue. For these, you should be able to make it so they are not necessarily different individuals, but people from different cultural backgrounds and possibly even linguistic ones as well (addressed in part 9 of the leviathan).
Until Next Time
I tried my best to keep this as simple as possible. These few topics alone could have been expanded on much further. For any questions, or any expansion on a topic, never be afraid to reach out and ask. This took me a little longer to get posted than I hoped but I wanted it to be done right and not half-ass it.
The next installment will address protagonists and antagonists, economics (round 2), technology (round 2), and expansion of those topics. I’ll see you all next time!