I want to try something new with this blog post: building a world together. Worldbuilding is fun, but so many fictional worlds just feel… hard to believe. The internet is loaded with worldbuilding guides that are really just checklists of features and an arbitrary history. What’s the difference between this and a truly believable world?
The answer, I believe, is consequence.
- Civilization didn’t just spawn into existence one day. Mannerisms, gender roles, and markets evolve over time.
- Almost any human civilization has a history of war after war, but the reasons vary. Access to resources, conflicting interests, and supernatural (or belief of it) influence change with the time.
- The sounds that make up language are derived by geography
- Any magic systems should permeate every part of society, with special attention paid to the availability of magic.
Creating an immersive in a world is more than just checking off a list of features. However, beginning with the basic geography and extrapolating an entire history out of it may not be sufficient for fictional worldbuilding, as the setting in question likely fills a specific function in the context of the story. A setting derived from the geography may not fit that function, but changing the geography has no guarantee of arriving any closer to that function. Starting from the function and working backward suffers a similar problem where the setting is no longer believable.
The model of the research going into the worldbuilding is every bit as important as the worldbuilding itself. I want to make a case for both consequence-driven and function-driven research models. For now, I will focus on a consequence-driven model by following along and creating a world. In the future, I will return to a function-driven model for comparison.
Consequence-Driven Worldbuilding Model
The state of the current world is a consequence of the previous state. Breaking these states down into smaller moments will exponentiate the amount of work we need to do, so instead, focus on the larger steps of history. Subdivide those steps as needed later.
Step 1: Before Humans
This step is easily the most arbitrary, but breaking it down into two phases can prevent inconsistencies resulting from insufficient research. First consider the actual shape of the land:
- Where on the tectonic plate is this setting, and what kinds of faults does it share with adjacent plates?
- What kind of rock is the ground made out of?
- What is the elevation? What type of terrain is present?
Then consider the effects that shape has on its conditions:
- What are the weather and climate like?
- What are the natural bodies of water and how does erosion play into it?
- What kind of fauna and flora can live under those conditions?
Feel free to split these decisions even further. The point to consider which factors are a result of other factors to give a sense of order on which decisions affect which other ones.
Research will go a long way here. You may find it helpful to base this step on some kind of real world location, or combining multiple real world locations. After researching enough places in the real world, you will learn the intricacies of how the geography affects the rest of the worldbuilding.
Step 1 Demonstration
I live near the Rocky Mountains, and I’m fascinated by the way the mountain ranges have such diversity across the globe, so I want to worldbuild my own unique mountains. After some research how mountains are formed, I decided on it would be interesting to focus on a region located on a convergent boundary. Mountains can form in other places, but this way is simple enough for my purposes. As a result:
- The mountains could get pretty tall. For the sake of believability, I will cap the maximum height at Mount Everest as I don’t want to deal with contradicting known physics.
- This place will feature volcanoes and earthquakes. Volcanoes can result in highly fertile lands, a motivation for upcoming civilization. Volcanoes, earthquakes, and mountains also make for excellent subjects for dieties.
Mountains of sufficient size and shape can disrupt localized weather patterns, allowing for the possibility of uniquely challenging weather patterns and equally adapted wildlife. However, you must respect the death zone, even if that zone might be a bit lower or higher in a fictional setting. Other than breathing, here are a number of other awkward symptoms of altitude you might have to explain away:
- Bodily functions will be slower or unsuable at low pressures.
- Higher altitude means lower ozone levels to block sunlight, causing UV exposure from the sun to become far more dangerous.
- Cold. And then hot.
- The boiling point of water on the summit of Everest is 71 °C (160 °F). As air pressure goes down, so does this number.
- Blood also boils at this temperature.
- Machines can malfunction at high altitudes.
- Boiling water as a means of sanitizing becomes less practical or takes a lot longer than normal.
Now that all sounds tough. Rather than explaining away all these issues, I would rather use a believable altitude — 2500 meters / 8200 feet is the absolute maximum I am willing to go for permanent residence. This table will be handy to determine realistically large mountains.
Time to make some decisions:
- Earth-like planet
- On a fault along convergent plates
- Civilization at an altitude of 2000 meters / 6561 feet
- Summit altitude of 6000 meters / 19685 feet, putting it between Kilimanjaro and Denali.
- With Kilimanjaro as a reference point, a tree line of 4000 meters / 13123 feet is realistic so long as it is between 30°N and 20°S.
- Much like the Himilayas before humans arrived, the surrounding areas of lower elevations will consist of a moist deciduous forest.
- The middle range climate zone will serve to isolate the flora of surrounding regions, being too harsh for plants that have not adapted to the climate yet still reasonably adaptable for persistent species.
- This area will have a few fertile valleys that will be perfect for civilization, while mountain ranges stand between them.
- I would assume glaciers played a big factor in how some of these valleys were formed. We should make sure some glaciers are present in the middle and higher climate zones somewhere.
- Higher climate zones are obviously the harshest climates. Where crops have a chance to grow at all, they will have one season at most. Only the most desperate or resourceful will live here.
I may come back in here and post a map of the layout of the mountains, valleys, and glaciers, keeping plate tectonics and glacial melt in mind.
Step 2: Humans Move In
- Why did humans decide to live here? (Natural resources, advantageous for travel, etc.)
- How did humans adapt to the area?
- What do they eat? (Agriculture, farming, hunting?)
And then decide:
- How do they tell stories?
- What do they wear?
- What building and tool materials are in abundance? Stone and wood aren’t available everywhere in the world.
- What is the basis of the economy?
- What supernatural beliefs come from this?
Storytelling is, in my opinion, the most important part of human society. Fables express morals. Myths explain the unexplainable. Legends contextualize idealisms. Oral history was once a part of every human civilization, and even the tradition around spoken story has a wide range of worldbuilding opportunity. You can find textbook upon textbook, podcast upon vlog, comparing the writing systems.
Regarding survival: Remember, humans are stupidly persistent, but even in choosing to live in harsh climates, they need a plan. Does a natural resource draw them here? Are there travelers or tourists passing by who will bring trade and economy, or will these people need to be self-sufficient? Also consider the available resources. Wood is not available in every place in the world, and different types of stone will not serve the universal purpose of “being hard”. In harsher desert regions, neither wood nor and solid rock will be available.
Adaptation is more than resourcefulness. Culture adapts to conditions. Mythology is used to explain the unexplainable, birthing religion. Tropical climates feature violent thunderstorms. Coastlines exhibit earthquakes and tsunamis. Blizzards and glaciers freeze alpine regions and tear the world apart with ice. To primitive humans, these phenomenon will require some kind of explanations, no matter how wrong they may be. Otherwise, the randomness behind the violent surges of nature will drive them mad.
Step 2 Demonstration
The lowland regions surrounding this area drew the humans in, and the fertile soil in the valleys of the middle climate region.
- Wheats, grasses, rices, potatoes, and beans are likely to grow here.
- Carefully chosen locations for housing structures will be on steeper slopes where the winds are tamer and the snow won’t pile up over them as easily.
- We can make use of the wood here for the materials. There is enough of it to build enough homes. Due to erosion and high winds, all structures are temporary, and so the extra effort needed to work with stone structures will just go to waste. Wood buildings can be rebuilt more easily.
- An economy of medicinal herbs and spices will be used to trade with foreigners and among the valleys.
- Travelers will not be especially numerous, but caravans of merchants will occasionally pass through.
- As this area was formed by convergent plates, there are land masses on either side, and trading between those larger nations will be desirable.
- A consequence of this model is that we don’t need to decide yet what the travelers are trading–we will decide that when we worldbuild those areas. The trade can be literally anything.
- Traveler season will have to be in the summer though. Travelers in the winter will be much more desperate, probably refugees rather than merchants. They will have less for trade, but can work for their food and shelter if needed.
- For supernatural influence, I have decided to go with a mixture of Pagan and Buddhist influence.
- The mythos goes that the in-lore version of the Holly King rules the winters and the snow, and the in-lore version of the Oak King rules the summer and the rain. The seasons tell you who’s winning the fight, and the daily weather tells you who’s winning the battle.
- Due to the harsh environment, resourcefulness is key. All things are sacred, and nothing is expendable. Many prefer not to eat meat, and those that do give the animals an honorable end. Unnecessary slaughter is strictly forbidden.
We could go on and on with this phase of worldbuilding, but remember to focus on consequence-driven worldbuilding for this exercise. Each point is a direct result of a factor from the previous section. As such, each point in this section will result in a decision in the next section.
Step 3: Humans History
- How does culture vary?
- Who conquered who and how?
- Who conquered them and how? (repeat as necessary)
- How does this region interact with surrounding regions and the rest of the world?
- What jobs are in demand, and what jobs are phased out?
- What are the values of the people here and how does that affect the policitical system and law?
- What are the social subdivisions? Who does what?
- What are the stereotypes the world sees about this culture?
Isolated populations experience cultural drift, while regular contact with other cultures lead to cultural cross-pollination. Each place should be different from each other place; different weather patterns, geographical structures, and human history will recursively feed into localized pressure than drives humanity forward. It’s your job to determine exactly how.
The question of conquest is a tricky one; more highly desirable locations in the world have a history of being overthrown time after time. Each conquest changes the region permanently, steering it in another direction before evolving yet again by another conquest. Merely stating that wars have happened is often not enough. However, some regions in the world are far less desirable for whatever reason, and so they will see far less war. Internal struggles between local clans, possibly, but not sprawling empires.
Remember, there will be irregularities. Some invasions in history have failed due to silly mistakes or the unexpeted influences of nature. Some prosperous kingdoms and empires have simply collapsed for reasons having little to nothing to do with war.
On a similar vain to conquest, enemies and alliances will form everywhere. Human civilizations cannot simply remain neutral to all parties, and so sides will be taken. These could be economically or morally charged enemies or alliances as well as military ones.
Every society has laws and morals. Humans simply cannot live without one another. The first laws will be about safety and social stability. The rest will depend on the society. Laws tend to follow from morals; one is enforced and the other is debated. Remember that not all morals make it into the lawbook. They are far more numerous and travelers can easily mess up the localized taboos of the culture.
Social subdivisions form due to customary behavior over generations. Do the men handle the money, or the women? Who does the writing? Who manages people and who manages crops? Who are the slaves and servants, and who are the rulers?
Step 3 Demonstration
At this point, I feel comfortable calling this Kiterra, a combination of the Japanese and Latin words for Earth. It’s not a name they use for themselves, but rather, the outsiders’ name for them.
- Native Kiterra folk took to farming and terraforming the valleys carved into the mountains by glaciers of ages past.
- They found all sorts of uses for the herbs in the area for medicine.
- Their religion is based upon the Oak King and Holly King who represent the summer and winter respectively, eternally fighting for power over the seasons.
- The south and east facing valleys worship the sun and the Oak King, praying for summer and good harvests.
- The north and west valleys have harsher winters and shorter summers, so they pray to the Holly King to keep them safe.
- Each valley has its own shrine dedicated to one or both of the Kings where they give offerings.
- Kiterra was then overrun by refugees of warring nations. They had no will to fight, but still insisted on joining the Native Kiterra here.
- Due to disagreements of territory, methods, and morality, the natives opposed these refugees. The refugees were far more skilled combatants, but when winter struck, they depended on the natives for safety and illness.
- Some of the refugees parted ways after the winter, bringing the herbs and medical training with them. Kiterra became a popular place to find rare herbs.
- Rumors spread about the inns of Kiterra built to withstand the harshest climates.
- Some rumors around their offering rituals suggested they took part in human sacrifice, though this is not true.
- The next to come through the valley were merchants seeking the markets on the other side of the mountains. They stayed at the Kiterra inns, but they never long-term.
- Cross-pollination with the outside world was subtle. At first, travelers would share their campfire stories of the neighboring nations.
- Travelers courted the Kiterra women, some Kiterra natives set out to the journey for a new life in the outside world, and some travelers came to Kiterra to stay.
- In spite of reality, rumors of Kiterra as a paradise attracted more and more outsiders, resulting in port towns to the north or south of Kiterra.
- These port towns are where many travelers stay the winter prior to making the long trek through the mountains.
- Deforestation around the port towns eliminates the actual paradise of the moist jungle at the base of the mountains.
- Bandits notice the fantastic potential of owning a town in Kiterra.
- So they attack a town, killing the locals and take it over and becoming a gang. “Just another inn” makes a great facade for luring weary travelers and robbing them.
- Rumors spread about a village in Kiterra where nobody who enters ever comes out.
- Without the generational knowledge of how to survive the winter, the gang dies and the village is lost.
- The legend lives on. The Lost Village becomes a Utopia, paradise in the mountains if only you can find it.
- Foreigners hear of the Lost Village. Many expeditions search out the Lost Village.
- Among these expeditions are expeditions to the tops of the summits. However, altitude sickness and ultimately the death zone make this impossible. This impossibility encourages others to believe that the lost village is somewhere in High Kiterra.
- Kiterra starts to thrive on local tourism for having some of the largest mountains in the world and a Lost Village paradise.
And there we have it. I could have used this paragraph in the text to preface the world to the reader and characters:
Few humans persist in the harshest environment in the world, and though their geography and deadly blizzards have shielded the region from war, that was only in the winter. In the summer, traveling merchants, refugees, and explorers from all over the world filtered through the humble villages sharing stories and goods from beyond the mountains. Legends of hidden paradises attract the most daring, but angry spirits attacked the arrogant humans, killing those who approached the sacred realms.
But that’s so boring. How much more interesting would it be if the characters from the real story are mere travelers passing through, catching glimpses of Kiterra’s mysteries yet never learning all of these truths? They could stay at an inn, listen to one veteran explorer’s story of being suffocated by what we know to be altitude sickness, skin blistering from what we know to be heightened raditation, all the while watching his companions fall into what we know to be glacial crevasses. He would tell about his fall, how he had slid down that mountain and miraculously survived. If he hadn’t tripped that one time, he would be dead on the mountain with the rest of his companions.
“Why, ya ask? Ya wan’ know why we was stupid ‘nuff to try? To find tha’ place.”
And then the characters go on their merry way. The mystery of the Lost Village could make for an interesting one-off story, but the world will feel much more complete, much more believable, if these legends just go unresolved. The readers will remember these stories much more, almost wish we return to them, but in fact this was all just a clever rouse that really exists just to contextualize the culture of peace-loving people living between two or more powerful nations.
The region of Kiterra is both a combination of surrounding cultures yet also its own mysterious yet dangerous habitat. In a story, it will make an excellent location for our main characters, who might not get along well right prior, to learn to coexist or die. It will also give us a chance to hear the lore of travelers from all over the world, telling legends from their own kind.
“Why?” you ask. “Why did we do all that worldbuilding for a place that won’t advance the plot of the story?”
Because showing the world is way more interesting than telling the reader about it, and we can hit key character arc moments here and stuff exposition into the stories of travelers.
This post was pretty fun. I plan on combining the topics from this and some past posts into some short fiction. I will link it into here and the related posts when it’s ready.
What kinds of worlds will you build with the consequence-driven model? What would you say this type of history-based worldbuilding model has over other models you might use or have heard of? When might this process fall short?