In novel-writing, world building is an important concept, especially in genres such as fantasy and science fiction that explore alternate worlds. Good world building questions will help you create a detailed and immersive world. Here are some questions to ask:
First, what do we mean by ‘civilization’?
The word ‘civilization’ is problematic. Historically, social groups have used it to dominate others. A first definition is ‘The stage of human social development and organization which is considered the most advanced.’ (OED) This is the definition used historically (and still used) to describe some as ‘less civilized’ than others, for the sake of exploitation or domination.
The second definition is the one this series of world building questions will use. This defines civilization as ‘the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area’. (OED)
This second definition does not talk about civilization in terms of ‘progress’. It describes it as differing according to geographic and other influencing factors.
So what questions will help you build a fictional civilization?
1: Where does your civilization live – how does environment shape it?
A seaside fictional town has different circumstances for economy, trade and travel to a land-locked one. It’s military, for example, will include naval forces.
- What are the main geographic features of regions in your fictional world (e.g. mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands)? How do these shape people’s livelihoods?
- Reverse the above: How do people’s livelihoods affect their environment? For example, in a town bordering a forest, excessive logging could lead to environmental changes and challenges
- How does your civilization’s environment impact on their relations with other groups? For example, mountain-dwelling people less accessible to casual travelers might have more insular traditions and cultural practices than a cosmopolitan, diverse border city
- What are the biggest strengths and drawbacks of your civilization’s environment? For example, people inhabiting an arid climate may be particularly vulnerable to drought
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King (1955) gives a good example of the ways environment can shape a people’s shared situation.
Towards the end of the novel [skip this paragraph to avoid plot spoilers], the adventuring Hobbits return to The Shire to discover destructive industrialization underway. A dark force is felling trees fast. A greedy Hobbit who has made himself ‘The Boss’ is overseeing the project.
Destruction of the environment brings misery to the Hobbits, and thus the story’s protagonists must restore order and peace to The Shire. Here, Tolkien shows the negative effects that result when self-interested individuals take over shared, communal environments and ignore the impact of their choices.
Besides environment, ‘leadership’ and ‘power’ are useful categories to discuss when asking world building questions to create societies:
2: How are leadership and power organized in your world?
Many epic fantasies draw on medieval times, telling stories of Kings and Queens.
In a modern or futuristic novel, leadership and power may be more bureaucratic. Think, for example, of J.K. Rowling’s ‘Ministry of Magic’ in her Harry Potter series. It enables Rowling to satirize the workings of our own bureacracies.
Here are some questions to ask about social and political power in your civilization:
- What leadership systems dominate your world? For example, do some territories have monarchies while others have elected governments or military dictatorships?
- What pros and cons does your world’s political system hold for your characters? For example, a totalitarian state harshly limits its citizens personal and political freedoms
- Are people content with ruling leadership systems or is there widespread dissatisfaction, even a brewing rebellion? If they are content, why? If not, why not?
- How could your characters’ arcs fit into this larger social canvas? Are characters in your story politically aware and involved? Aware but indifferent/passive? Completely unaware?
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is a good example for how to create a civilization’s governing system, since government and power are so central to the story.
In the novel, the English Socialist Party (‘Ingsoc’) has created a totalitarian, all-powerful state. Constant surveillance ensures people comply with the government’s strict, controlling laws. Children are brainwashed with propaganda from young.
Orwell’s premise – an all-controlling, totalitarian government taking over England – has great world building potential. For example, the government creates the ‘Ministry of Peace’ that (ironically) deals with war and defence.
These details combine to create a world full of irony and satirical of modern politics and the increased power of the state.
Also ask questions about power at a smaller scale, for example personal identity and how people engage around it:
3: What identities do people conform to or challenge?
A patriarchal world where men have more rights and power is different to a world of Amazonian warrior women leaders. Identity is a key aspect of world building.
Some questions to ask when creating a culture from scratch;
- Are gender and sex in your world binary (i.e. male/female or an invented equivalent) or non-binary (multiple/no genders)? Is gender an important aspect of your civilization’s cultural practices or irrelevant?
- Are there national or cultural stereotypes? Do your characters believe widely held stereotypes or challenge them? How do characters in different cultures see other cultures in your world?
- What are dominant cultural norms and practices? What is culturally acceptable to each group in your world and what is taboo/forbidden?
- Are there primary cultural values your civilization shares? For example, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), wizards are called to value balance in their world. To do this they must use language and names (which hold great power) carefully
A good example for thinking through the world building questions above is Ursula K. Le Guin’s celebrated science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).
Le Guin’s protagonist Genly Ai travels from his home planet Terra to the planet ‘Gethen’. His mission: to convince Gethen’s inhabitants to join a confederation of planets called ‘the Ekumen’.
Gethen’s people do not have fixed biological sex. Instead, they are sexually indistinguishable for 24 days of each 26-day lunar cycle. For a two-day period each cycle, they become either male or female (which they become is not fixed).
Le Guin shows how identity politics and larger power and culture affect each other. She describes a world where seduction and sexual violence are both equally uncommon due to the absence of rigid, power-inflected gender dynamics. (Gethen’s inhabitants also share social roles of raising children.)
Le Guin’s world’s unique situation enables her to show the social effects and complexities arising from a people’s specific shared attributes. The novel also explores the difficulty Genly Ai faces in communicating with the planet’s inhabitants due to his own ‘sexed’ vantage point.
4: What are core features of your civilization’s past and future?
If you’re creating your own fictional civilization, your story might take place in a fixed, limited time period, or you might want to show your civilization’s development over a longer period.
Whatever the time-scale of your story, it’s helpful to develop a little history.
Even if you don’t use the material, coming up with key events in your characters’ collective pasts (or futures) will help you find your characters’ values and shared cultural reference points.
For example, in a fictional world (such as George R. R. Martin’s Westeros) where war and conflict over territory are common, it helps to brainstorm key historic battles or power struggles and how they shaped your world.
Some world building questions to ask:
- How did/will your civilization develop? Is it at a point of increasing or decreasing social stability and peace, for example?
- What core details in the past (conflicts, discoveries, encounters with other peoples) shaped your civilization?
- What does the future look like for your characters? Is their society moving towards a Utopian age or is hardship and strife worsening? What is driving either change? (E.g. foolhardy environmental destruction)
For example, George R. R. Martin’s successful epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire establishes historical watershed moments driving his civilization early.
In the first novel, A Game of Thrones (1996), we learn that three centuries or so before the events of the first novel the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros were united under one king. A rebellion led by Robert Baratheon 15 years prior to the start of the first novel, however, resulted in the last of the Targaryen kings being killed.
Through Martin’s world building, we thus have a sense of a rich, complex history of ruling dynasties and bloody rebellions. The stage is set for further political intrigues and bloodshed as different families battle for power.
Develop your own civilization and larger fictional world. Start now by brainstorming details of plot, setting and character that will give life to your story.
Cover source image by Lena Bell