Friday, August 30, 2013

Storyworld Building: Creating the Civilization

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

This post now part of the book Storyworld First: Creating A Unique Fantasy World For Your Novel by Jill Williamson.

Hobbits, trollocs, clerics, gars, dragons, Kingons, Fremen, myrdral, Wookies, Time Lords, kinsmen, vampires, Borg, tribbles, Uruk-hai, squibs, Chandrian, Terminators, Nazgul, crowls, werewolves, The Visitors, muggles, bloodvoicers, elves, Vulcans, Tines, Extractors, mistwraiths, Reavers, and Weeping Angels.

These are beings, creatures, or types of people that someone created, someone who was once like you, learning to tell stories, learning to write. And these authors invented these incredible characters that have become real in our minds and hearts--and sometimes nightmares.

You have the ability to create such coolness for your readers. Isn't that sweet?

Civilization encompasses species, magic, racial/ethnic groups, cultures, way of life, religions, language, occupations, and technology. I'm going to break this topic up over a few posts since it's so vast. So today we're talking about species or types of beings and creatures.

When you create a type of people or being, it can be a lot of work. I like to start with something generic, like: Gitals are human, but they use telepathy instead of speaking; kilns are dog-like creatures that walk on two legs and can speak to humans; swigs are slug-like creatures that stick to people like leeches and suck the water from your body.

But those simple definitions aren't enough. If I want to make these beings realistic to my readers, I need to put in the time to get to know these beings. I need to study them. The trick is, I need to invent the material I'm looking to study. Kind of fun, huh?

Sometimes your simple definition will be enough physical description, but not always. Maybe female swigs are brown and male swigs are black. Maybe kilns have opposable thumbs but also have retractable claws. And perhaps one can't tell a gital from a mute because they don't look any differently at all from humans. Think about Time Lords for a moment and the way their biology allows them to regenerate when they're mortally wounded. That's an awesome physical trait.

The ninth Doctor regenerates into the tenth.

I mentioned that the gital speak with telepathy, but I could take that further. Just like with regular speech, there are dialects of speech patterns or social classes. So it might be fun to explore what that might mean for telepathy. Perhaps our dog-like kilns have canine instincts, a pack mentality, an alpha male. Maybe they have a heightened sense of smell. Or maybe we should forget comparing them to dogs at all. Most authors do the easy idea. And that's not always wrong. But it might be more unique to spin this in a different way. We could give those canine attributes to our slug-like swigs. Let them have the pack mentality and heightened sense of smell. Then we could give the dog-like kilns different instincts. Maybe they're nomadic and they travel for mating like penguins or salmon or something like that.

In the movie Minority Report, there are three mutated human precogs, who have the psychic ability to predict crimes for the PreCrime division of the police department. So people are apprehended based on that foreknowledge. Precogs also have a hive mind. Pretty creepy cool, huh?

Precogs from Minority Report

Not every being or creature needs magical abilities, but for those that do, think it WAY through. I'm going to do a post on magic next week and throw lots of types of magic at you. But think about how these magical abilities flow and contrast with the being's physical or mental abilities. And there should be different levels of skill involved too. In the Lord of the Rings, Galadriel had an extraordinary ability to peer into the minds of others, see their intentions, read their thoughts, and speak to them. Yet very few other elves had this ability.

Galadriel pours water into her mirror

Every people and creature should have characteristics that set some apart from others. Different groups that share distinctive physical attributes, cultures, religions, languages, and/or ways of life. Think about the how your beings might have naturally divided themselves due to an ability or a physical feature like the Sneetches with or without stars on their bellies. Or maybe there is a history that set apart different peoples. They could me a majority or a minority. Magical ability or lack thereof. In the Star Trek episode, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the crew of the Enterprise encounter Lokai and Bele, two men with faces that are half white and half black, only the colors appear reversed from each other, a fact which seems inconsequential to the crew, but is an irreconcilable racial hatred between the two alien men. Make sure to give conflicts to your racial and ethnic groups.

Lokai and Bele from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

Think about the way of life for every being and creature in your story. What do they eat? Where do they live? Do they live in separate family groups or in some other manner? Are they educated in schools, in an apprentice/master style, or is that not applicable? Do they care about arts, manners, morality, upholding any laws? Are they poor or wealthy? What about gender roles? In both the book and movie Starship Troopers, everyone, male or female, had the right to enter the Federal Service and assume full citizenship.

What do your characters believe and why? Do they worship based on observation? The sun gives light therefore they worship it? How about cataclysmic events like earthquakes, eclipses, meteorites, or volcanoes? An ancient book? Writings on the wall of a cave? If there is magic in your world or beings that have magical abilities, it could be that regular folk think they're gods. In the film Avatar, the Na'vi worship a goddess called Eywa. The trick to making religion work in your books is to have more than one type or sect of religion and make them clash with each other.

Neytiri played by Zoe Saldana in the movie Avatar
There are two areas of language: creating a foreign language and slang. I'm not going to talk too much about either of these since I wrote detailed posts on both already. You can create your own languages for your different peoples, but be careful that they aren't confusing and don't take over your story. Click here to read my post on how to create your own language. Another part of language for any type of people is the slang and special sayings they use. Click here to read my post on creating swearing and slang for your storyworld.

Depending on all the cool things you developed for your planet, you should have some interesting types of industry, right? Farming, mining, types of educators. What do your people do for a living? Are they paid or do they do it to survive? Is there money in your world or do people trade goods, use some sort of futuristic credits, or have they done away with money altogether like in Star Trek?

In my Blood of Kings books, since I had the magic of bloodvoicing, I created bloodvoice mediators. These were gifted men or women who sat in on trials to confirm whether or not a defendant or witness was speaking the truth. In the movie Equilibrium, clerics arrest sense offenders for breaking the law. I already mentioned those creepy precogs from Minority Report. How about the extractors from the movie Inception, who go in and steal people's dreams? What kinds of interesting jobs can you create from what you've already brainstormed for your planet or civilizations?

Leo and company looking to steal some secrets from your dreams in Inception

Decide on the level of technology for each type of people and creature in your book. They don't have to be the same and probably shouldn't be. The four most important things to consider with technology are vehicles, weapons, medicine, and communication. Make sure you take the time to think through each of these for each of your different peoples.

They key to taking all this cool stuff you've brainstormed and making it work in a novel is how it all interacts with each other. Look for points of conflict. How will your different beings and creatures interact with one another, with technology, with the magic? And when you give your characters story goals, how will those intersect with things in your setting?

In my Blood of Kings book, Achan learns that he has the ability to bloodvoice, but he doesn't know how to use it and his untrained voice is a continual beacon to the bad guys chasing him. Vrell is also learning to bloodvoice, but she is afraid of Achan's power and worried that he will find out who she really is. Plus they're traveling through pitch black Darkness, which makes everything more complicated.

In my book Captives, the rebels have to cut out SimTags from their hands to avoid detection from the government's grid, and they wear them in gloves when they want to be seen on the grid. Mason is a doctor and is helpful in that he can quickly remove SimTags from others. That makes Mason important to the rebellion in a special way.

I know this is a lot to think about. And I don't recommend doing it all in one day. In fact, the best way to do this is to start with that simple overview, then when you get stuck and realize that you don't know enough, take some time to brainstorm that part more. You only have to brainstorm the things you need. Don't waste days and weeks planning cool types of technology if it has no place in your plot. Be wise with your time. Be strategic. The goal is to brainstorm what's important to the story well enough so that your reader thinks you've done everything in the entire world and they become so immersed in your storyworld they don't want to leave. Ever.

What are some of your favorite fictional beings in science fiction or fantasy? Share in the comments.


  1. I have to admit, Doctor Who is pretty awesome.
    (And I've only seen two episodes!)
    Aslan the lion in Narnia, he's an awesome "god".
    Cham bears are pretty cool.

    If I had to say what I thought was the worst creature I have seen, I would have to say Orks.

    Those "men" are creepy and muddy 😛and gross.
    (Shudder) I hate them.

    1. Doctor Who is awesome! I miss David Tennant though. He was the best, in my opinion. That last series with Amy and Rory was just weird...

    2. Was David Tennant in The Beast Below? If he was, he was really awesome!

    3. I think that was Matt Smith. But he's cool too.

    4. David T was my face too... :-(

      Orks are disgusting. And Aslan is amazing.


      I don't why I'm doing caps lock but the general idea is I'm obsessed with Doctor Who ;)

  2. I like the racial conflict between the werewolves and the djamphir (half-vampire, half human) in Lili St Crow's Strange Angels series. It's a relationship forged from mutual hatred of the "suckers", but neither group gets on very well and they barely put up with each other. The djamphir view the wolves as lesser creatures due to their somewhat canine behaviour, and the fact that they do not have the speed or grace of the djamphir. The wolves hate the djamphir because of the way the djamphir treat them. So here you have two very different groups living in close proximity all the time, wearing away at each others it any wonder things go wrong when they try to attack the suckers?

  3. Thanks for these post, Jill! I've done hardly any world building in my story, and I'm not at a place at the moment to start doing some, but I'll definitely come back to reread these when I am!

    I'm on a Mistborn trilogy (by Brandon Sanderson) kick at the moment (yay for the reference in the first paragraph of this post!), and I really enjoyed the kandra in those stories. Very creative. And of course I loved the creatures in the Blood of Kings books as well.

    1. I own the Mistborn trilogy, but I haven't been able to finish it yet! I keep having to review other books and it has to wait. Soon, though. Very soon I shall devour it all! :-)

  4. Only three people have commented so far :/ that's weird; usually there are at least 20...

    1. It was a re-hee-heely long post. I may have scared some people away with it. :-/

  5. I'm commenting! :o P
    I'm writing two fantasy books, so this is very helpful! Thanks for writing all these awesome posts and sorry I haven't commented at all until this point. Not purposeful, I promise. ;o )
    Call me crazy, but I haven't watched any movies like the ones you mentioned. Not even those that you mentioned! :o / But I get the picture.
    I have read a few different books (example, Dreamlander by K. M. Weiland, which is on my favorites list with the author) that include other creatures though! Dreamlander is a fairly good example, along with Hive by Rachel Starr Thomson. :o ) I liked both of those, and the creatures were fascinating! :o D

    ummmm I can't come up with anything more to say. ;o )
    In Christ,

    1. I'm glad you commented, Ysa! You're not crazy. There are way too many movies out there. I still haven't seen Avatar, and my husband didn't like it, which means he probably won't buy it, and that's how I usually see these things. Because of him.

      Those are good book examples. What kinds of creatures did they have in their books?

    2. he he he if I'm not crazy about that, I am about everything else. ;o ) Ask any of my friends, they'll tell you that the one word I use most often to describe myself is "crazy". lol It fits!

      hmm. In Hive by Rachel, they had sort of like, not exactly "creatures" per se, but there were demons that could go into humans, and they kind of had a hive mind... In Dreamlander there were different peoples, so like the Cherazim had slightly blue skin or something, and they had "battle fire" in them. That means that they could sink into their battle fire and not see or feel anything.
      In a book that I'm working on, each person living in Laekien (the world) has a different gift. Take one of the main characters, Chris, as an example. He can read minds, something that definitely makes for interesting conversation. ;o ) Everyone knows telepathy, and it's used on a regular basis as another method of communication. Another main character, the antagonist, Viktor, is the only one who can transport people/things/creatures from other worlds. That turns out to be a problem, as I'm sure you can imagine.
      Also there are groups that have the same gift. "Farsighters" have the gift of seeing into other worlds, like Earth.
      So I have a mix of several things.

  6. I love The Name of the Wind.