One of the most exciting things for a writer or comic creator to accomplish is to build a world.
Imagine if you were an archeologist, and you were to stumble across an ancient cavern of untold riches. You creep past a giant door with unusual markings etched into it. Inside, there are textiles, instruments and treasures that tell of an ancient, unknown peoples. The more items you find, the more light is shed on this mysterious civilization.
In a way, your readers are archeologists, and you control which pieces of your civilization they see, hear and handle. As a writer, you reveal the aspects of your created world and civilizations to them. You lead them on a treasure hunt.
So how do we go about creating that world?
Think of your favorite books, comics and movies. What struck you about the settings and the environments? If they took place in the past, future or across the galaxy, something about those environments captured your attention and made you want to visit, play and even live there in your most vivid daydreams.
I’d like to go over a few basics on world building, and how to make your culture, civilization and world tantalizing to readers.
Let’s Start with the Basics
The dictionary defines a civilization as:
The most advanced stage of human social development and organization.
Whether you are building a tribe, city, state, nation, world, or galaxy, there are certain rules that define a civilization.
Even something as small as a corporation is employed by people of various cultures, religions, there is a common denominator that unites them. The larger the body, the more these principles are essential to a working culture. The only difference between a galaxy and a tribe is the amount of additional or supplementary cultural influences, which become more numerous the larger the body becomes.
Seven Rules of Civilization:
Historians decide whether or not a people group achieves the level of ‘Civilization’ by seven rules. We can use these rules to build any world we need to create for our stories.
A basic rule of thumb for differentiating a tribe from a civilization is this: Surplus.
If a culture is only focused on survival, it will have aspects of civilization, and even one or two formalized aspects, but will not have it in such abundance that it affects all of its peoples. Civilizations have overcome the need for simple survival, having access to consistent supplies of food, water, shelter and land.
Stable food sources, by use of agriculture or shepherding, are the most important staple and foundation of any civilization.
This is why there is such a problem with building desert cultures. There must be consistent access to food and water to sustain populations larger than 5,000. In fact, there must be so much food that surplus is stored away or traded. Without the surplus, the civilization is one step away from tribal living.
Surplus is key to civilization.
Once you have surplus, you can begin to formalize the culture with rules of civilization.
Any civilization must contain cities of more than 5,000 people. This is significant in that settlements are not officially considered civilizations, per se. This is why tribal groups were not considered civilized for many years, because nomadic peoples never settle into one geographic location.
Cities are a major visual clue as to the sophistication level of your society. When cities are ancient, pre-industrial or futuristic, there will be a strong interrelation with nature, good or bad. Industrial cities tend to be extremely dirty and crime-filled, while futuristic and ancient civilizations tend to be clean and environmentally friendly. It’s important to know that if you decide to create a civilization, that your cities are visually queued to a style that betrays its level of sophistication.
2. Written Language
All civilizations have a standardized written language. The earliest written language is Cuneiform, which was standardized as a writing system 6,000 years ago. It serves as a basis of communication for economic, religious and political ideas, as well as general societal processes and practices. Language formalizes standard thought in a civilization’s corporate consciousness, and serves as an economic stabilizer and political basis of law.
Languages usually exist in one of two forms: Symbolic and Pictorial.
English is a symbolic language as is Cuneiform, while hieroglyphics found in Egypt and Mexico are pictorial. Pictorial languages can be incredibly complex, as with the Mayan languages which standardized hierarchy of representation within a pictorial unit.
Symbolic languages are a bit simpler, which makes standardizing communication a little easier, and communication with other cultures easier as well. Symbolic languages usually rely on a standard symbol library to make up words and sentences. I could create an entire blog post on language, but suffice it to say that its most basic use is to unifiy cultural thought and communication within a civilization.
There are exceptions to the standard rule. For instance, the Incas kept records on Quepas, which were a conglomeration of knots tied onto cords. But if you create a written system based on something this unique, it must be communicated to the reader clearly as to its workings and meaning, or the reader will not consider it as sufficient evidence of a writing system.
It must also be noted that mathematics must be included in this category.
3. Religious structure
Organized religion of some sort or fashion is resident within every culture in human history. Many writers are afraid of dealing with religion because they do not wish to offend, while others add religion in to stories to satisfy some deep anger towards traditional or structured religion in general. Both practices are unwise as they betray a lack of storytelling ability.
In the earliest human cultures, polytheism was a dominant force in human society. Ancient Sumerians spent a great deal of time devoting works and cultural ascents to their gods. Egyptians were believed to have built the pyramids to the god Osiris, and the creature of the sphinx is considered a deity in many ancient middle eastern cultures. The long, serpentine dragons on Chinese myth were also considered deities. Hinduism is extensively polytheistic, their pantheon containing more than 3,000 gods. Ancient Dravidian cultures were heavily influenced by extensively recorded polytheistic beliefs, and it is well known that Greek and Roman cultures were highly polytheistic and influenced nearly every aspect of life.
Polytheistic cultures tend to be more representative in their honoring of gods with the use of wood, stone and metal to create visages and images of them, for worship and rituals. Monotheistic cultures tend to not have any images for worship, but rather decorate temples and religious items with symbolic or parabolical meanings. The ancient Jewish Tabernacle consisted of six-spoked wheels and Cherubim, and the Second Temple consisted of representations of Cherubim, palm trees, flowers and other images. Muslim temples are covered with passages from the Koran and much of their art consists of representations of flowers and nature.
But keep in mind that Monotheistic cultures never truly depict their deity.
Spiritualist cultures tend to be more representative of their spirit-guides and items used to invoke them. Shinto and Jomon cultures are prime examples of this. More advances Spiritualist cultures like Japan have incorporated their belief systems into architecture and daily rituals. There may be engraved or sculpted representations of specific spirits, but it is generally considered the norm for Spiritualists to pay honor to spirits within nature.
4. Political Structure (Organized Government)
Political structure will in any civilization. This structure can take the form of any of the following systems:
Theocracy: Civilization is ruled by God, and his spokesmen declare his will to the people.
Monarchy: One human rules and creates laws. This can exist in two forms. Absolute Monarchy is akin to the middle ages and fairy tales, when Kings made the laws and acted as the judicial, legislative and executive head of political structure. Constitutional Monarchy only recognizes the Monarch as a figurehead, and real political workings exist in parliament or senate.
Oligarchy: Society is ruled by a small group of people. Usually those of the highest class of society.
Democracy and Republic: Ruled by representatives of the people
Government can exist in a city, or collection of cities within a state. States then form nations, and so on. This can be adapted to a galactic level as well.
5. Materialistic Value
Materialistic value is assigned to a civilization, denoting certain sources as more important the others. In most human civilizations, the more rare the source material, the more valuable it becomes. Precious stone are used to jewelry instead of construction, and are placed in a high value category economically. Common materials such as wood and stone are used in construction as they can afford a civilization a standard of constructive value of shelter and centers for social and religious congregation.
6. Art and Intellect
This is probably one of the most prominent and prevalent aspects of civilization we see in fiction. Unfortunately without the other aspects of civilization, the art can fall flat in terms of storytelling. It is the easiest aspect to approach, but the hardest at which to succeed.
If your other elements of civilization do not exist, your art will have nothing to reflect. Art is the communication of ideas: literal and conceptual. If there is no religion, there is no religious art. If there is no economy, no art will decorate coins and currency. If there is no language, art has little meaning, if any, and must be purely generalistic in nature.
Art is the organic culminaton of the other aspects of civilization. It is the glue that binds the other aspects together.
Art must exist in a variety of forms within a civilization: Poetry, music, plays, books, stories, dances, adorning jewelry, styled and colored clothes, works of sculpture and architecture.
Music must be appropriate to the cultural technology level. If woodworking is in its infancy, there must be no sophisticated woodwind instruments. Basic bone flutes tend to suffice for very basic civilizations, while more sophisticated instruments exist with higher societies.
The same rule applies with art. The longer a civilization is around, the more conceptual the art becomes. You would not see Impressionist art in Ancient Egypt, as Impressionism was a response to the advent of Photography.
If you do include an out-of-place instrument, there has to be an overwhelmingly convincing reason why.
7. Economic Structure
This is one of the most important and evident rules of civilization next to Art. Ancient cultures in the world used standardized forms of currency in trade, barter and transactions. Jade was a basic currency unit in Pre-Columbian Americas, as well as shells and certain stones. Gold, of course, has been a standard currency in many cultures throughout the world. In parts of Africa, salt is as valuable as diamonds and is used as currency. Other cultures have used bones, silver, copper, bronze and more for standards of currency.
The Code of Hammurabi contains rules as to proper economic transactions, and Sumerian tablets have been excavated that act as simple receipts for transactions. Egypt was known to have a strong economic system, so much so that shop records were kept of women running stores in the city. You see the other aspects of civilization used in any economic aspect of civilization.
Fiction has been reticent to truly introduce convincing economic systems, save for a few prime examples.
Star Trek has a great example of economy with the Ferengi monetary system of gold-pressed latinum. Latinum is somewhat of a galactic standard as a currency for many transactions. In one episode, it is revealed that the liquid latinum inside the bars is the actual currency, and not the gold itself. I recommend researching the Ferengi commerce system (including the Rules of Acquisition) as an advanced monetary system in fiction.
So there we go! Basic things to keep in mind when creating worlds. I’ll write more about creating environments, creatures and basic approaches to world building in the future.
I hope this helps you gain a sense of direction in world building, and helps you create a solid foundation for your works of fiction, comic art and storylines.
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