By: Maria Arnt | A 6-minute read.
In honor of Hobbit Day tomorrow, September 22, here’s the second part of our Tolkien-inspired blog series! This time we’ll focus on the art of creating whole new worlds and societies – worldbuilding.
The advent of modern worldbuilding as we know it starts with JRR Tolkien. Prior to his exhaustive work in creating Middle Earth and the peoples who live in it, worldbuilding was the purview of speculative philosophers such as Thomas More or Voltaire, who were mainly interested in crafting utopias (or parodies of utopias, in the latter’s case). Even the early pioneers of Science Fiction such as Mary Shelly, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne rarely set their stories far into the future enough for it to be noticeably different from the times they lived in.
But ever since Bilbo made his trip there and back again, worldbuilding has become the expectation for several genres. One of the biggest and most daunting tasks for a Fantasy or Science Fiction author is that they must create an entire world – or multiple worlds – from scratch. It can feel a little bit like playing God, with all the overwhelming responsibility that comes along with that title.
But the good news is you don’t really have to start from nothing. Here are a few tips to make filling your stories with fascinating, compelling cultures easier:
Stick to what you need
While Tolkien is famous for constructing languages, writing systems, and an entire cosmogony (later published as the Silmarillion) for his books, you really don’t need that much information. Unless It’s relevant to the plot, you can keep your cultures fairly simple. It’s also okay to make it up as you go along – as long as you stay consistent. For the sake of consistency, you might want to start a “style bible” that catalogs everything you’ve decided for the world of your story. You can add details as often as you like. However, if you change anything in the style bible, be prepared to go through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and change everything that refers to it, too.
Know where to focus
Before you get bogged down in details like architecture and cuisine, you’ll want to at least sketch out these four basic aspects of your culture. Here’s a hint, it’s mostly stuff that’s frowned upon to talk about at family gatherings:
- Politics – how do they settle disputes? Are they a nation-state level society or a loosely affiliated group of tribes? Are they very bureaucratic, or do they mostly live and let live?
- Religion – what sort of religious practices do they have? Are they highly regulated? Is it mostly a personal spiritual practice? Is the religion involved in the politics of the area? If magic exists in your world, is it part of the religion?
- Family – what sort of family structure is important to them? Are they small nuclear families like modern Western civilization? Do they have complex, involved, extended family systems? Are they mostly loners once they’ve reached adulthood? How are marriage, sex, and reproduction handled (and how does that tie into their religion)?
- Language – There’s a huge debate on whether language affects culture, is part of culture, or is entirely determined by culture. Needless to say, it’s super important to culture no matter what. Check out our last blog for a more in-depth discussion of this aspect.
Start from the ground up – literally
The environment a culture lives in has an enormous effect on how it is structured. Simpler political structures such as bands and tribes tend to live either in areas with not enough resources to allow them to focus on anything more than survival, or where the environment provides all the resources they require so there’s no need to innovate. More complex nation-state societies tend to develop in agrarian “Goldilocks” areas – there are just enough resources to subsist, but with a little innovation, you can get a lot more out of the land. However, as that civilization begins to expand, they’ll need to colonize other areas to get enough resources.
It can also affect religion. For instance, ancient Egyptians and Babylonians had prominent and important river gods, but the ancient Greeks did not. Why? There aren’t any major rivers in Greece and the small, rocky ones that are there were the purview of nymphs rather than full-on gods. But the Egyptian Nile and the Babylonian Tigris and Euphrates were incredibly important to their survival and development and therefore featured prominently in their religion.
Family can be affected by how closely people live to each other. Like resources, there tends to be a scale with big, extended families on either side. If they live very far apart, it may be important to know where you can go when the need to travel arises, and who you can’t accidentally marry. If they live very closely, with multiple generations under one roof, you might need to be able to keep everyone’s relation to you straight. In places where people live within a day’s travel or less and not under the same roof, there’s less need to know exactly what a second cousin once removed is, or even have a specific word for that relationship.
Be like all good artists – steal from other artists
Especially in the High Fantasy genre, no one expects you to reinvent the wheel. It’s taken as a general understanding that Tolkien’s Middle Earth is what you start with, but you should tweak it enough to make it your own. Tolkien, in turn, was basing his work largely off Anglo-Saxon poetry and folk literature. For Urban Fantasy, you start with contemporary and add in the folk tales of your choice – vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. Even here there are giants like Anne Rice whose shoulders you can stand on.
With Science Fiction it’s a little harder, as there are several sub-genres. Obviously near science fiction is largely like our contemporary world. Far-future Science Fiction tends to run on the Star Trek model: Earth is now one singular governmental entity, as are most other spacefaring planets, with the occasional planet experiencing civil war between two peoples for conflict. Space Opera tends to take after Star Wars, which was in turn inspired by Tolkien. Hard Science Fiction is going to demand a lot more work in worldbuilding, as you’ll need to explain the elements of your world in a logical and scientific manner. Softer genres (like Space Opera) are more concerned about the story and characters, and the setting is there to establish the mood of the book – people will forgive you if things aren’t fully explainable.
The trick is to change your world enough from what you base it on that it doesn’t come off as a bad copy. Some people are never going to be happy with the similarities within a genre – a recent review of Aaron Ehasz’s The Dragon Prince Netflix series accuses it of having “a premise that amounts to little more than Tolkien fan fiction.” Not exactly a derivative piece, the only similarities between The Dragon Prince and The Lord of the Rings appear to be that elves and dragons exist, and the protagonists must take the MacGuffin to a volcano, although for very different reasons. So, do your best to make it unique anyway. Find something you think is boring and make it more interesting. Take the most recognizable aspects and turn them on their heads. Have fun!
Look to real cultures – but borrow, don’t steal
One of the most reliable ways to make a culture seem truly believable is to use elements from existing cultures in the real world. Be careful here, though, as it’s easy to fall into cultural appropriation. What’s more, genre literature of decades past (and even some regrettable modern examples) is rife with thinly-veiled parodies of non-western cultures such as those from the Middle East or indigenous North America, and because they carry with them the prejudices of the time they were written in, these books have not aged well.
A good rule of thumb is to look for cultural aspects that exist in multiple cultures in various areas. Forest dwellers who live in huts built of sticks and bark? Relatively common. A forest-dwelling people who have a bark hut devoted only to secret, sacred masks that no outsiders are allowed to see? A little too on the nose for the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk). Another good example of a cross-cultural element is that nomadic people tend to live in cloth or hide tents, regardless of whether they live on grassland or in deserts. These tents are often circular due to the efficiency of cooling and heating a circular space. You should come up with something more creative to call them than “yurt” or “teepee,” but the concept itself is universal enough to avoid appropriation.
Although most of Tolkien’s work is based on Western European cultures and therefore neatly dodges the issue of appropriation, Rohan is a good example of a people based on real cultures without copy-pasting. Tolkien has borrowed elements from the Ostrogoths, Vikings, and Russian Steppe cultures without being too specific to any one of those peoples. For the interesting details, he came up with his own ideas instead.
Most importantly, remember that people who live in band or tribal arrangements are not necessarily more “primitive” than those who live in more “civilized” nation-state societies. Such small cultures typically have incredibly complicated languages, a rich oral history that is memorized by most, if not all their members, and a very involved etiquette system. After all, if you’ve only got a few dozen people to socialize with, you don’t want to go stepping on any toes.
Last but not least: No Info Dumping
Tolkien gets away with starting The Lord of the Rings with “Concerning Hobbits” because he’s Tolkien. His work is based on Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is not, by modern standards, terribly engaging. For us mere mortals, it’s important to remember not to bore our audiences by going into long explanations that aren’t directly relevant to the plot. As much as we’d love to share all this hard work we’ve done, that information is better shared in places where it can’t hurt the story’s pacing. Such places include your social media, author website, blog, or Patreon accounts. As long as the information doesn’t contain spoilers, of course!
As an Author Success Consultant, my goal is to help you make your book as successful as possible! I’d love to have the chance to chat about your book and help you out.