Tuesday, June 8, 2010

World-Building 301: Groups, Societies, and Cultural Systems

By now you know what world-building refers to, you've learned some techniques for bringing it into your story without bogging the whole thing down. Now, what are you going to build?

Quite frankly, anything you can possibly imagine!

Use these techniques to weave in intricate backstory, or to think about the local history of the annual sports day and pancake breakfast in your fictional town, and how it might resonate through the community all year. But maybe that's not good enough. Maybe you want to get adventurous, and start building some big, juicy elements in your world. Welcome to 300-level World-Building.

Short of creating entire secondary worlds (that's not-earth worlds to you non-speculative authors), building from scratch an involved group, social structure, or whole culture can be a large but rewarding undertaking. This category can encompass a huge range of examples.

On one hand you may have a grounded, real-world setting, but you're developing a criminal gang. Gangs don't spring up out of nowhere. They have origins, customs, rituals (initiations, hazing), signs and symbols both covert and overt, territory, dress habits, hierarchies. They share mannerisms, habits of speech, they share common lore -- such as the exploits of a famous gang member, or that wicked time down at the dock when Johnny got wasted and shot off his big toe. And they may have other unique traits as well, depending what you decide you want to bring to the situation. It's your gang to build, and you can do absolutely anything.

On the other hand, you may be looking at an entirely created kingdom or culture and the myriad classes, professions, sects within it. Their religious beliefs, their habits, their ways of speaking, their priorities. Or if you're writing paranormal, you may need to develop the intricate workings, customs, structures, ideals, functions, etc, etc, of a whole system of vampires and how they interact with the human world. Or with the werewolves, who you also have to build a cultural world for, by the way. If you've thrown demons in there as well, you've got a lot of work ahead of you.

Whatever scale you work on, you can approach things the same way. It's not so bad, really. Actually, it's incredibly fun.

Build Only What You Need to Survive
It's great you want to build an entire culture, or throw a complex vampiric caste system (what is it with me and vampires in these examples?) into your novel, but reel that enthusiasm in a little. Build what you know you'll need to begin with, and figure out the rest as it comes up. Start with the broad strokes or the specifics you need for a precise scene, whatever suits, and go from there. In developing my thieves' guild, I knew I wanted to break away from the usual fantasy convention (it's a common trope, but damn I love my thieves). I cut out the stereotypical guild hall, and decided my thieves would stay at inns throughout the city. That's your need.

Then step into your world. What's the practical, in-story reason for scattering my thieves throughout the city rather than under one roof? For starters, it makes them less easy to locate. For another, a bunch of thieves won't want to pay for lodging, so what if they spread out and take advantage of debts or obligations to stay free at many places? Makes sense. You owe me for not telling your wife about that little issue with the stable boy last week, so you'll keep these two rooms free for my fellows. Done. Now I go strike similar arrangements with seven other people, and lo, my thieves all have beds for the month.

And just like that, the entire structure for my guild emerged, a group trading information, secrets, debts, and obligations, a net spread all over the city with no visible source, lest leverage be used against them. Make a decision based on what you need at the time, and then follow it through, see where it leads you. Each time you encounter something new you need to figure out, either see how it ties into existing world-building you've done, or start from scratch with it and see where it goes.

Ask Why
With anything you decide to set down, ask why. Why wouldn't thieves have one guild hall? Why would a gang want initiation rituals? See where your answers take you. And with anything that seems a given to you, ask why. Why do we associate blue with boys and pink with girls? What if your culture feels differently? Where would their associations come from? The more you question, the more you'll find room to bring new variations into your own created groups, make them feel unique and alive.

Here's an exercise for you. Take a notepad or a scrap of paper with you one day, and listen to the conversations around you, or just take note of the conversations you're in. How many times do you or others use idioms, cliches, turns of phrase? Even obscure little remarks that can't stand alone. We swap so many sayings on a daily basis, things with history behind them like the other shoe dropping or knocking one out of the park. We riff on popular culture, inexplicably produce bad accents to ask for a martini shaken-not-stirred, my two-year-old nephew sings about looking like a fool with your pants on the ground. Keep track of all these little things you hear in the course of a day, and ask why. Why that phrase? What is the meaning behind it? How can you bring similar turns of phrase to your story that stem from their own history, rather than our history?

Follow a Motif
A good way to keep yourself grounded as you delve deeper and deeper into cultural and group systems is to find a common theme and work with it. My thieves continually fall back on the idea of debt and obligation, including why many of them became members. The country in which they live follows a sun/moon faith, and this determines numerous aspects of the culture at large. No longer do I need to sit and harp over each any every possible facet of their culture. Instead I can pull it all from their faith: time, tide, navigation - these are their strengths; binaries, pairings, cyclical patterns  - these are their priorities. The rest spirals out from there.

Your gang may have a symbol or a core purpose, which influences everything else they do. Your vampires may hold a core belief about the nature of blood, and that will influence everything from their hunting to rest times. It may determine how they heal, if there's a basis for the belief. Find something to latch on to, and bring that idea into every facet of your development. A common theme can help unite and keep you on track.

There are plenty more details, specifics to think of, and ways of approaching things, but if you're just diving into world-building on a larger scale, these three issues should get you thinking in the right direction and get your creativity churning. World-building, as any speculative author will tell you, is incredibly fun, and often the highlight of writing on a secondary world (or altered primary world). No one can tell you you're wrong, as long as you follow your decisions through.

How do you approach original groups or cultures in your writing? What are some examples of an author-built element (however grounded or fantastic) that really captured your imagination and felt real?

Time to get out your writing tools again. Chose one of the world-building ideas below, and see what you can create from it.

1] The Macro: A great river courses through the middle of a country, forming a central feature in the culture of its people. Using the idea of a river, and its myriad implications (trade, travel, lifeblood imagery, to get your thoughts starting), explore this idea and see what sort of a culture you can create around a river motif. How might it impact religion, commerce, views on marriage, knowledge and education, or turns of phrase, to name a few? Feel free to create extra details to flesh out your concept.

2] The Micro: Twenty years ago, local girl Livia Austen sold off everything she owned, told everyone in her small town precisely what she thought of them, and hitched a ride south without ever looking back. Everyone remembers it, their children have grown up hearing about it. In what ways have Livia's actions permeated the community? How might she have left her mark in turns of phrase, social expectations, perceptions of the norm? How might residents born after her departure feel, as compared to those who were there to see it? Feel free to create extra details to flesh out your concept.

Missed the earlier posts?


Angela R. Sasser said...

Excellent post, Hayley! My mind immediately started buzzing when you were talking about gangs as an example. For anyone studying them for stories, there are some great specials on the History channel called Gangland. It's interesting how often there will be so many urban legends simply about how gangs got their names.

That's a great example with your thieves guild too. Interesting stuff!

I tried your exercises and here's what I came up with:

Macro - A river culture, much like Egypt, would center itself around the theme of the river's ebb and flow. Life thrives when the river's ebb is highest, irrigation runs smoothly, and animal population is at it's peak.

I can imagine religion centering around a river god whose mouth opens and closes as he or she begins to 'sleep' for winter, freezing up the waters at its 'mouth'.

Death rites for the deceased involve throwing the ashes downstream, where they symbolize to those left behind the way life must keep going and the ashes, like all our spirits, will reach the great ocean and become one with something greater than themselves.

I could go on, but that river theme is a big one and I love it :D

Micro: This one gave me more trouble. It sounds silly to say that the villagers would "turn Livia" if they wanted to leave. I imagine a village, especially one with a strong leading council and sense of community spirit, could deem anyone who wants to leave and 'betray their customs' as a 'Livia child' or a 'bad seed of Austen'.

And yet, I imagine some folks might dream of moving on to some place bigger and brighter, even if they would dislike being termed at odds with old traditions.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Ang, thanks for playing along! I had a hunch you'd like the river culture, and I love the approach you took with it. Death rites are always fascinating, but they're something I don't often think of until the need arises. I wonder what other rivers others might bring in. BC's river systems played a huge part in the province even being explored :)

To be perfectly honest, when it comes to the micro exercise, I think of Hot Fuzz. People turn nouns into verbs all the time though, so I think turning a person's name into an action for that sort of behaviour would be very appropriate. I love your 'bad seed of Austen.'

Karyn Good said...

Absolutely wonderful post, Hayley. Just a quick drop in to say thanks and things to look for when building groups, societies, and systems. I'm dealing with gang culture in my wip, so this is very helpful. I also have lots of pararnormal stories stewing around in my brain that will benefit from all your amazing world-building posts.

Off to deal with flooded basement issues :(

Joanne Brothwell said...

Great post, Hayley! Thorough and well-researched as always!


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thanks Karyn! I admit I always have you in mind when I write these posts, as your stories cover a nice range of areas that require greater world-building. Plus gangs are a great modern equivalent to my guild, so I love diving into them.

Hope things are improving with the basement situation.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thanks Joanne! I admit I thought this one was going to be brief, just touch on a few points and then get some writing in before we leave next week. Apparently I just fail at being brief, and love diving into detail and examples.

connie said...



We had to cancel. I hate our new mortage and love our own theiving little sociopath. Stay tuned for the murder scene. But, meanwhile,have the greatest of luck finding every last thing you wanted to see and a hundred lovely surprises! And may you actually forget what rain is.

To business: I think I am going to take a week and build several cultures on my 'a river runs through it' as possibles for the ring stories, so, no results for you this time.

Being a loving wee soul, I think I would worry about what happened to Livia and wonder where she is and why she did it. (It must have been something reasonably utterly stupendous no?) I'd find her and take her back and change the town back to the year she left maybe. See how the nasty tongues and complainers like that!

This a fabulous blog. Hope you are keeping them all tucked away somewhere. You are on your way to a (there's got to be a less depressing name for it) text book.

As for our propensity for using woo hoo...I was reading some ancient Chinese history (What For?)and I found that the one and only empress of China was named Wu Hu... Could it be, that in some 301 world, one of us was....


Janet said...

As always a thought-provoking post, Hayley. There's tons here for both fantasy writers, historical writers, and even contemporary writers. Bottom line - any world we create has to be believable and authentic (be it an existing community, gangs, or a brave new world).

Great job :)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I love your posts on world building. It's stuff every writer needs to think about.

About your river culture, the first thing that came into my mind was that the river would act as a barrier between the people on either side. Isolated, their cultures would develop differently. Perhaps one side has the better farm land and is more prosperous. Over the years envy and jealousy and suspicion would grow. The wealthy side would look down on the poor side, and think they were inferior. You wouldn't want your daughter to marry someone from the wrong side of the river.

Great exercise!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Connie, as always your posts make me laugh! I hope you get some great ideas from your brainstorming!

Forgetting rain whilst visiting England? Somehow I think not ;)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Thank you Janet! I really try to make these relevant regardless of setting. I'm glad they translate beyond the areas I focus on :)

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, I like that concept. Sort of a Romeo and Juliet (or Hatfield and McCoy) prospect, and raises many other areas for world-building, such as determining the force of the river, or the level of technology these communities are at, to explain why they can't cross it. Plenty of new questions to explore, and that's the whole point!

Angela R. Sasser said...

Oddly enough, Hayley, death rites are almost always some of the first things I think about when building a culture. A culture's approach to death can tell us so much about their philosophy of life, what they strive for. This is particularly relevant to cultures that place importance on spiritual virtuousness that helps to insure a good place in the afterworld, which in turn affects their moral decision making.

This is particularly relevant in religion-based worlds, where fear of Hell, being eaten by a soul monster who devours the wicked, turning into a haunt, (or what have you) can certainly drive someone to try a little harder to be good, rather than just being good because they can or should be!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hayley, have I told you what a fantastic series you have here? Positively enlightening. Thank you.