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Lazette Gifford,
Margaret McGaffey Fisk,
Assistant Editor

Issue # 55
January/February 2010

Table of Contents

A Year of World Building and Conflict

By Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2010, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

For the next six issues of Vision (the 2010 run), I am going to present world building factors that can help you develop a more complex setting for your stories. Complex settings can, in turn, help you create setting-related troubles for your characters, and integrate that into the plot.

Conflict is often the essence of a story's forward movement; it is the character moving against forces that are set to stop him. Many writers focus that conflict in protagonist versus antagonist situations. However, you can add another level of conflict and add more tension to your story by building it into the setting.

These workshops will help you create a setting that is full of potential trouble. You can use the workshops to fine tune a current project or use them for practice. There are no genre limitations to world building. While some items might work better in fantasy or science fiction, there are still aspects of every point that will apply to the real world as well. If you are writing a real-world story, read through the workshops and see what might help you find points of trouble.

Part One

Sometimes it's the obvious things that escape us as writers.

We build complex plot lines and multifaceted characters. We create fantastic worlds and map every path and tree in the forest. But you know the saying... you can't see the forest for the trees. Sometimes we can overlook some basics that will help to create more depth in your story.

Below are a few basic questions every writer should ask about the world in which his or her story takes place. Paying attention to these things can help broaden the scope of the story.

For the next few issues, I will try to cover some of the things that writers can use to help expand areas in a story setting. In many instances, the material will obviously be pointed at fantasy and science fiction writers. However, there are many items that can -- and should -- be applied to historical fiction and even modern fiction, including romance and mystery stories. If you are writing about an area you are not familiar with -- whether a fantasy setting or a foreign city -- learning the some of the things covered in these workshops will help you create a fuller backdrop for the story.

A fuller backdrop provides more opportunities for conflict. If you understand your setting, you can find places for things to go wrong that are natural to what you have written.

So, let us begin!

1. What is your population type and density?

Whether living in a village, city or space station, your people will have come from somewhere before they or their ancestors settled there. This is the wellspring of both culture and cultural conflicts between groups and a great way to add trouble and tension to a story, as well as a way to create a diversity of lifestyles, holidays and rituals and taboos.

This aspect is something often overlooked in fantasy village settings as well as in science fiction settlements. Unless you have groups which are virtually cut off from everything else in their story universe, they are going to have had an influx of others at some time.

Are there obvious differences between the different groups? Sometimes cultural and even status differences aren't immediately obvious, and -- again -- can lead to more conflict. A well-told scene of this type occurs in the historical fiction novel The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault when the main character learns that someone he has known for some time is actually a slave. The differences were not obvious.

If you are creating a new settlement on an alien world, is the group homogenous who who first settle there? If so, why? If there are later groups, how do they interact? Science fiction writers usually focus on the cultural conflict between human and aliens, but sometimes ignore the fact that there is often conflict between human groups as well.

In the real world, ethnic groups often settle together in the same location when they first arrive in a new area. Such areas sometimes have a different look from the other neighborhoods, including different food stores, restaurants and religious buildings.

The ancient Greeks sometimes took care of surplus population problems by founding new cities along the Mediterranean Sea that were tied back to their original city. These groups found a likely site, pushed out any indigenous group, and set up their own new Greek settlement.

Exercise 1:

Start by creating a new settlement that would either fit into a current story you are working on, or one that you create just for these sets of workshops. What is the population size and type? What are the basic groups? Who has the upper hand and do they work well together? What points of conflict are there?

Write out a list of potential problems within the settlement. This can help you create a sub-thread story that can impact your larger story at key points.

2. What is the history of the area

Every place on earth has a history. We often celebrate it in monuments, statues, museums and historical buildings. Other places might celebrate it in epic tales, songs and plays. We create holidays to mark important historical moments just as often as we do for religious reasons.

Don't overlook the history of your story location. Even if it's a brand new settlement on an unexplored world, they're going to bring some history with them, and start creating new history with the first step onto the new world.

History is also a way of marking one group from another. Were you part of the battle against the enemy? Your name isn't on the list. Were you on the first ship to land? Or are you a late-comer, and therefore not given the same respect -- or perhaps even rewards -- that people descended from the first settlers receive?

Are the people in charge invaders? What history did they bring from other places? Are there customs they bring that are not well adapted to the local area? Think about what would happen if a desert people were pushed north into a land where winter snow rules for three or four months a year.

This can be important to an individual character who needs to know his place in the world.

Special note for those working in a real world setting: Even if you are using a real world-setting, that doesn't mean you can't add some fictional elements that will create more diversity -- and more trouble -- for your story line. If you are writing about someone in a large city like New York or Chicago, you can invent a neighborhood or two for your personal use. Build the rest of the city around it, use legitimate landmarks in the rest of the story, but create a few places specifically for your own use. By doing so, you can avoid the trouble of having to intimately know a place that may not be easy for you to access.

Exercise 2

Write a short history of your settlement. This need not be more than notes on the earliest settlers, the first hardships they faced (because there are always hardships), and the reason why they chose this location. Look in again 100 years later to see what changes took place and what new challenges they face. Look in every 100 years until you get to your story's present day.

If your settlement is relatively young, just look from the first settlement and then at the present day. If it is thousands of years old, just choose a few key 100 year leaps to point out some changes and important events.

If you find you have trouble with this part, look up the history of a city or town from the real world and look at the passage of events that went into the settlement. Some of the things to consider are not only confrontations with enemies, but also natural disasters and epidemics.

3. How are outsiders treated?

This is somewhat related to the previous question. If a stranger showed up in the midst of your main group, how would the locals treat him or her? Welcomed? Shunned? Enslaved? Murdered?

All of these are viable answers and have taken place at some time in human history. The rules of culture surrounding the treatment of strangers and those who are outside the main group (even if they live in the same area) is an important part of our societies.

Strangers bring change. It is often inadvertent, but they arrive with knowledge of things outside the norm in everything from customs to invention and to language -- and religion. People rarely like to change and they will fight against it as individuals, and even more so if the change involves a large group.

Lands have often undergone many invasions, some peaceful and some not. In a fantasy novel in which an area is worried about invasion, what happens to the people already there from the other land? If the invasion or war is with a nearby country, then some of the natives of the enemy land are likely in residence. There should at least be some groups along the border.

Here is an odd little tidbit, though. Greek slaves often taught high ranking Roman children, and in that way the Romans gained Greek culture. Change can sneak in even when people are doing their best to keep it out.

Exercise 3

What would happen if a group of outsiders showed up in a settlement in your story world? This group does not look like the locals, does not speak the same language and obviously do not hold the same beliefs. How would they be welcomed?

What difference would the number of pepole make? Would a large group be treated differently than a couple people? Would a group of women be treated differently than family groups?
Wrap it all up together

Now that you have the first three pieces to your population, what can you see that would be the trouble spots for your fictional setting? Can you see how changes in population could affect the 'feel' of the story world? Play with these three pieces and see what different types of setting parameters you can come up with and how they might alter the ease with which your characters achieve their goals.

Next issue we'll cover more simple world building ideas to help you create more complex story worlds.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
-- Oscar Wilde