11 October 2011

World-building - Fantasy & Society

This goes for SF too, but I'm in the mood to talk about fantasy today for some reason. I guess between reading Game of Thrones and playing Dragon Age: Origins, I've got fantasy on the brain. Also, I really wish I'd developed this a little better, but hey, I'm not a teacher, so I can get some slack, right? :D

Anyway, one of the most important aspects of building your world, be it SF or fantasy, is the society in which your characters live. This is something Dragon Age does fantastically. In the game, you can choose from three races: Human, Elf, Dwarf. Within those races are classes. For Human, you can choose Mage or noble. For Elf, you can choose Dalish (elves who live in the forest), Mage, or commoner (in which case you live in the alienage, which is an impoverished, sectioned-off portion of a city ). For Dwarf, you can choose noble or commoner. Whatever you choose decides how other characters in the game see you.

If you're a Human noble, for example, everyone treats you with optimum respect, referring to you as "my lady" or "my lord" depending on your gender. If you choose Mage, people are afraid of you because they don't like/understand magic. If you choose Elf, people are more likely to talk down to you because most elves are servants. Regardless of your standing as Gray Warden, people will still refer to you by your previous social status. Most of the time, you have to tell them you're a Gray Warden to get a little respect.

So, what do you need to think about in order to construct your society? Well, a lot, actually. Now don't be alarmed. There are a lot of wonderful tools to help you along your way.

Some important ones:

  • Economic/class model - This one is probably THE most important one because this will shape how your characters view the world and themselves. Is it a commerce-based society? Are merchants the at the top or close to the bottom? Is there a gap between haves and have nots? Are you shooting for more of a communist-based society where there's no wealth?

           Ex. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy uses the world's economic model as the catalyst for the Hunger Games. Basically, it's all for rich people's amusement.

  • Technology - Are you writing steam/cyber/other punk? Basing your society around the Middle Ages when people still rode on horses? Is it an era of invention?

           Ex. Steampunk is all the rage these days. Kady Cross' The Girl in the Steel Corset utilizes the steampunk automatons and advanced technology. The plot centers around automatons being used for dastardly deeds.

  • Religion/Spirituality - This is probably tied with Economic model in terms of importance because it will help shape your characters, whether they're believers, non-believers, or just don't care either way.

           Ex. In Dragon Age (I know, I know, but really, it's a good example), the central religion (Chantry) is built around a prophetess and a higher power referred to as the Maker. Chantry belief dictates everything from the lore surrounding the evil critters you have to kill (Darkspawn) to how Mages are treated to curses and praises. There are people within the Chantry called Chanters who can only speak the religious text the religion is based around.

  • Geography/Setting - The actual world part of your world-building. If you are setting your story anywhere besides present-day Earth, you're going to have to figure out the geography. Draw *really crappy, if you're like me* maps. Figure out important places. Mountain ranges. Deserts. Flat lands. All these things (and more) will determine how your character travels and the potential hazards therein.

            Ex. Star Wars. Dune. Game of Thrones. Pitch Black. Each of these uses setting to show something about character, whether it concerns how the character grew up--Luke was raised on a desert planet with 2 suns--, a character's attitude--Ned Stark is often referred to as cold because of his "northern blood" while characters from around Kings Landing are "those southron folks"--or a character's adaptation to his environment--Riddick's night-vision.

    As you can see, when you build a world, you literally build a world. You design it. You make its history, its culture, its classes and all of that. Everything, be it where a character's from to what he believes in, will shape your characters and their reactions to the world around them. 


Elaine AM Smith said...

Great post on world building, this is such an important element in Fantasy.
Art imitating life, I loved how the interactive game treats you differently depending on your status within the structure of the society.

lexcade said...

Thank you!

I personally think that the game's handling of different statuses is one of its most brilliant points. If nothing else, the game's a great way to really learn about world-building without info dumps.

agirlintheworld said...

You wrote this just for me, didn't you? :-P j/k This is really interesting stuff, though, and lots of food for thought for writers of all genres.

lexcade said...

LOL Glad it's helpful :) At least, I hope it's helpful...

I'm thinking of making this a series. Cuz there's soooooooooooooooooooooo much more to discuss...