Place directly influences both ecology and culture – even people, much as we resist admitting it, are shaped by where we live. Land masses affect climate, leading to rain shadows where the oceanward side of mountain ranges are much wetter than the landward side; oceans moderate temperature. Resources like minerals and plants depend on appropriate geology and climate. Americans traditionally fence our properties because we came to a vast country where wood is easily accessible (whereas Europe logged their forests far earlier). Tribes from Western Washington have cultures far different from Native Americans in the midwest, southwest, and east coast, based on varied climates and resources.
Drawing conclusions from the real world – past and present – helps writers and artists create more realistic science fiction and fantasy universes. I attended Norwescon for the first time this year, and spent the weekend immersed in panels that shared lots of insights about creating realistic worlds.
(Note: I haven’t fact-checked the following examples, which come from panelists.)
Building Realistic Places
Find the two or three most telling details to explain a place. For example, if a character arrives in town and the first thing they see is a mass hanging, the reader gets a great image of what sort of town it is. – Simon Green
Places aren’t named randomly. Alexandria, in Egypt, is named after the conquering invader. – Grant Riddell
Fun idea: include a map of your invented world that was made by someone (fallible) in that world. The information on the map can be untrustworthy or inaccurate, but it tells us something about how this culture understands their world. – Lee Moyer
Constructing Workable Worlds
Work backwards from the result you want to build your world’s rules. For example, a historical setting might be more appropriate if you don’t want to deal with the internet and its ramifications. – Django Wexler
Boil invented geography down to the function it needs to serve in the story. – Michael McSwiney
Fully think through the consequences of your world’s technology and magic to develop a culture and story that feels complete. – Jennifer Brozek
No need to reinvent the world – pull geography from Earth to inspire your imagined planets.
Extrapolating from History
Writing historical fiction or revisionist history? Look for gaps (unknowns) in real history to use or inspire your work. (For example, where did Harry Houdini spend a year away from home in his early teens?)
Empires end from communication breakdowns and differing goals, opinions, and wants between the ruling and the ruled. When empires establish provisional governments instead of allowing their subjects to rule themselves, it’s usually the beginning of the end.
Building Imagined Cultures
Cultural mores (what people find acceptable) give your world life. – Simon Green
Culture and science derive from landscape. In Egypt, where the Nile floods regularly, mathematics developed as a regular, predictable system – but mathematics that developed near the Tigris and Euphrates, which flood irregularly, was nonsensical. – Grant Riddell
Different culture structures tend to develop in warm and cold regions. Cultures from hot places tend to be more patriarchal, and cultures from cold places tend to be more egalitarian.
A utopia for one person can be dystopia to another. The key is, how many people live in the utopia and how many in the dystopia?