A way with worlds: 03 - In the beginning . . . there was a lot of planning
by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum
Page 1 of 1
This time, we look at
developing the foundations of your world - the origin and
ecology/ecologies that are the basis for what happens in your
setting. For some worlds, the level of detail and research vary,
but either way you'll discover a lot to write about and a lot to
Where does it all come from?
The answer is not as simple
as it may seem - after all, you sort of have to ask where the
entire universe you write in came from and how it acts. In many
cases, the answer will likely be "pretty much like our
own," and you'll be able to assume gravity works like
normal, the sun shines, space is big and airless, and you can get
to finer details.
It is these very things, the
basics of the universe, that require you to give some thought to
the origin of your world. Once you know where it comes from, you
can figure out how things work. If your world is like ours,
necessary research can be done by simple common sense or a trip
to the library or the internet.
However if the universe is
different than ours on some basic level, you have some thought to
put in. Perhaps its a complete fantasy universe built by gods, or
some strange, unusual realm unlike our own. Either way, once you
get very different from our world, its time to start asking
questions about "where it all begins and why."
Designing the settings your
characters will actually experience can be difficult - building a
universe to hold those settings is a challenge. Get the details
you need, but you're only human at the same time. Ask yourself
what you will definitely need to know, and then fill in any
blanks that appear to be obvious or potentially a problem.
A good way to figure out the
vital questions to help you think so high-level is - "how
does this universe differ from our own." Once you have that
vital information, with a little thought, you probably have all
you'll need to know.
There's no way to describe
everything you'll face in thinking about a universe, and no way
for me to write it. Its a universe, you're a human. Remember
How worlds works.
You've got your universe (or
you used our pre-made universe as your template), and in it is
your setting, perhaps a world or series of worlds. Your
setting(s) will have ways things function, sites, inhabitants,
interactions, plants, animals - in short, ecologies.
Now there's many way that
people can think of ecology. The definition I use is
"organisms and their environment and their
relationships". In other words, when I'm talking ecology, I
mean the contents/inhabitants of the world and their relations.
Again, if the world is like
ours, you can probably get an idea of how things work. However,
there are a few things that people tend to forget when dealing
with real or fictional ecologies I'd like to detail.
- An ecology is about the
exchange of energy and relations. Herbivores eating
plants is a simple exchange of energy - but too many
herbivores and you suddenly have starvation. A massive
city miles away from a water source is going to require
some creative methods of getting valuable H2O.
- An ecology is also
dynamic because of its connections. Push something and
things change and adapt. Things grow and mutate and
develop. A simple change can be just the right one to
have long-ranging effects.
- Finally, I find its
best to conceive of an ecology as a self-regulating
system. It's not just predators and prey - its relations
and symbiosis and complicated cause-and-effect. Nothing
in the ecology is truly outside of the ecology or its
effects - even those that leave their native ecology have
to make the effort to adapt to new settings or otherwise
So, to flesh out your
- Who/what's in it? What
are the major plants, animals, residents, continents, and
- How do the
"residents" of the ecology relate and thus
define each other?
- How does the ecology
keep going (unless its running down, then you've got to
figure out how a dynamic system is dying, and probably
have a heck of a plot right there)?
You may face a lot of detail
here, but remember - you're trying to design a complicated
system. It's a system that is necessary - without at least some
sense of who's in your settings and how they interact, your
worlds will be lifeless and hard to believe. In a world that's
lifeless, when characters push, nothing happens, and explaining
how things occur becomes an effort because nothing is really
Let's take a look at an
example of the importance of understanding ecologies - the ever
popular fantasy rampaging hordes of orcs/goblins/whatever. Sure,
rampaging hordes are nice - but what do they eat? If they burn
and pillage everything, they'll destroy a lot of raw materials,
drive away food animals, and have nothing to survive on if they
retreat. What do they do for water? Add in that they obviously
annoy people, and their lifespans are in doubt. A standard
mindless rampaging horde is pretty inefficient and
self-defeating, ecology-wise, and thus hard to believe and write
However, if you design your
rampaging horde with your ecology in mind, it becomes more
believable. Have them become expert hunters so they can survive.
Let them torch encampments and destroy supplies and poison wells
- but cache supplies for emergencies. Give them the survival
skills and the common sense they need to ravage effectively and
believably in an environment. Now you've got a credible threat
that lives credibly, and is going to take believable actions to
defeat - like destroying cached supplies, ambushing them during
hunts . . .
Do your best, and remember
your limits. Again, remember there's only so much you can do at
this level, but be sure you do enough to make your ecologies
A PATTERN EMERGES:
Same thing, different levels.
If you think about it,
though, in a way isn't your universe an ecology, just like your
planets. And isn't a forest sort of an ecology, as well as a
community, a family, or even a character's mind?
Your world is really just
part of an interlinked series of "ecologies," of
relations between things. A person connects to a community - and
both influence each other. A city affects its surrounding area,
but at the same time is its own world, its own ecology.
Ecologies within ecologies .
Take a trip to my own
alternate world, the Crossworld of Xai, at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/xai/
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