Two-Question Worldbuilding

There are lots of different ways to imagine new secondary worlds and the cultures within them. You can start from the ground up—literally—by drawing a map and thinking about how the landscape shapes the cultures within it. You can start with a big concept and work your way down into the details from that, or go the other way and start with a single detail that serves your narrative, then build the rest of the world around it.

But sometimes you don’t want to mess with all that. Sometimes you’re writing a story or mapping out a game and you need your characters to have a little bit of interaction with a far-off foreign land, but not enough to make it worth developing in every detail.

Here are two quick questions you can ask to lay the basis for simple worldbuilding for side cultures in pre-industrial worlds that still gives them some substance:

  • How many people have control over their own source of food?
  • How much do those people have to compete with others for food sources?

We’re not talking actual numbers or anything quantifiable here, just a general sense: a little bit, a fair amount, or a lot?

(Food sources come in many forms. We most often think of farms and herds of animals, but consider also fishing and hunting, trading with food-producing regions abroad, or raiding richer neighbors.)

The first question tells you about social structure: food is crucial to life, so access to it is one of the most powerful ways people can assert control over others or claim their own independence.

Where only a few people control the available food sources and most other people are in some way dependent on them, there is strong social stratification. It could take many forms: tenant farming, slave plantations, highly-regulated trade markets, or organized piracy of trade routes. Whatever the case, the society will have a small elite marked out by their wealth, way of life, or social privileges.

When most people control their own food sources, you have a much less stratified society. It could be small farms, independent merchant families, or bands of friends who hunt and fish together. The society need not be perfectly egalitarian—some farmers or trading partnerships may be wealthier than others—but when most people are self-sufficient, the rich have less leverage to get the poor to go along with any claims they make to special privileges. Societies where people aren’t dependent on others for survival can also have trouble organizing any kind of large-scale collective action, whether it’s setting up an organized legal system or sending an army on campaign.

In between, you get a range of possibilities: some people manage by fishing and keeping market gardens, others labor on the estates of the rich, while bands of young warriors form up now and then when things get tough to go plunder richer lands, then come home and return to their homesteads. In a society where people live at many different levels of subsistence, social stratification can be complicated, but also fluid. A tenant farmer may be able to save enough over time to buy a plot of their own and join the ranks of independent farmers, while an aristocrat who suffers a run of bad harvests may have to sell their tenanted estates and buy a smaller patch they can farm themselves, but that doesn’t make them social equals.

The second question goes to internal conflict: the more people who have to compete over resources, the more turmoil you are likely to see within a society.

When there is little competition over resources—either because they are abundant enough for everyone or because those who control them have a grip too tight to be challenged—societies are likely to be stable. Some may be inward-looking and peaceful, others may simply export their conflicts abroad: a state full of rich farmers might support a large army to invade and colonize other lands, or a society with no resources available at home might drive the poor and desperate to raid their neighbors or move away as laborers or mercenaries.

By contrast, in a culture where there’s not enough to go around or where those who have resources can’t effectively defend them, expect a high level of internal conflict. This conflict might take violent forms, from ongoing petty raiding between neighbors to civil wars, or it might be channeled into cutthroat negotiations between rival trading houses or a frantic scramble for royal patronage among the highborn families.

In between the extremes, at a moderate level of competition, you are likely to see a society that goes through cycles of stability and fractiousness, where the winners know that they can’t hold onto their gains forever, but the losers can afford to lick their wounds, build new alliances, and hope to come out on top next time.

Below is a rough chart of what a society with a particular combination of resource distribution and competition may look like. Remember that these are patterns and tendencies, not absolute rules. Our own world’s history will furnish plenty of examples of societies that don’t fit these patterns, and you can certainly imagine worlds that don’t. But if you find yourself in need of some quick-and-dirty worldbuilding, this is a good place to start.

Chart by Erik Jensen

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Protagonists with Radical Acceptance Decide to Let Adversity Wash over Them

Fantasy and science fiction author Vida Cruz tackles an aspect in SFF that was new to me: that BIPOC protagonists are often seen by (white, Western) editors and readers as inactive, and why that’s false.

(I’ve written elsewhere a little about teaching myself to read novels in English after I started learning the language in 7th grade, how it’s so effortless to me now because I took the time and trouble then, and how reading mostly Anglo-American literature has shaped my thinking and expectations of stories.)

Cruz’s thread starts here. I’ve unraveled it below:

***

I want to talk about how western editors and readers often mistake protags written by BIPOC as “inactive protagonists.” It’s too common an issue that’s happened to every BIPOC author I know.

Often, our protags are just trying to survive overwhelming odds. Survival is an active choice, you know. Survival is a story. Choosing to be strong in the face of the world ending, even if you can’t blast a wall down to do it, is a choice.

It’s how we live these days.

Western editors, readers, and writers are too married to the three-act structure, to the type of storytelling that is driven by conflict, to that go-getter individualism. Please read more widely out of your comfort zone. A lot of great non-western stories do not hinge on these.

Sometimes I wonder if you’re all so hopped up on the conflict-driven story because that’s exactly how your colonizer ancestors dealt with people different from them. Oops, I said it, sorry not sorry. Yes, even this mindset has roots in colonialism, deal with it.

If you want examples of non-conflict-driven storytelling google the following: kishoutenketsu, johakyu, daisy chain storytelling/wheel spoke storytelling. There was another one whose name I forgot but I will tweet it when I recall it.

Anyway, I think there is a space in literature and beyond for stories about radical acceptance or that have a radical acceptance aesthetic. Accepting the things you cannot change but dealing with them in your own way. No pyrotechnics but plenty of potential for drama.

What you want in a story is drama. Conflict does not necessarily equate to drama. Conflict is driven by two or more forces colliding. If a protagonist decides to let the force wash over them instead, that does not mean the protagonist is inactive.

Once again, I repeat: SURVIVING IS A DECISION. BIPOC based in Western countries do it all the time. Us third worlders do it all the time. But of course if you grew up white in a Western country, being mired in hopeless systems will be hard for you to grasp.

And if you’re a BIPOC author, listen: you may be already as good, if not better, than most of the competition out there. You keep getting rejected not because your story sucks but because white editors do not know how to read your work. Keep trying.

Last but not least, we don’t just need diverse demographics for everything, WE NEED DIVERSE STORIES. Get your colonizer heads out of your asses and seek out other traditions. End rant.

I found the other storytelling structure! It’s called Robleto and is of Nicaraguan origin.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

One last! Another type of story that everyone loves (or pretends not to love) but no one will publish in the west is FLUFF. YES THAT’S RIGHT, FANFICTION FLUFF. SUCK ON THAT.

It has been pointed out several times so I will amend the thread to say: all my points apply for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill protagonists, too. Our way of showing agency is DEFINITELY different from yours so please be mindful of that.

***

For me, the main point Cruz makes is:

“What you want in a story is drama. Conflict does not necessarily equate to drama. Conflict is driven by two or more forces colliding. If a protagonist decides to let the force wash over them instead, that does not mean the protagonist is inactive.”

– Vida Cruz on Twitter

This reminds me of my frustration with the Halle Berry -led SF series Extant (which I referred to in an earlier post). I’ve asked myself whether they really wrote her merely feeling and flailing around or whether it is my misreading. Granted, it was some years ago now, but I don’t think I misinterpreted it; Extant lacked self-awareness or self-examination. (Or perhaps the writers’ room was forced to put out such claptrap by people higher up in the production.)

Possible examples of stories with radical acceptance / survival protagonists that do come to mind include the novels The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (Black protag) and Among Others by Jo Walton (disabled protag).

Anything you can think of? Please share! The concept is something I’m still mulling over, so more examples would help.

Also, any suggestions on a concise name for protagonists like this? I’m drawing a blank for the moment.

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Quotes: Almost None […] Depict a Successful Transformation of Society

Cara Buckley’s 2019 article in New York Times talks about how environmental concerns have been depicted in some recent superhero and sci-fi movies. Climate change may have been moved to the back burner in recent news; nevertheless, in the beginning of the article there is a very important, timely nugget:

“Humans ruined everything. They bred too much and choked the life out of the land, air and sea.

“And so they must be vaporized by half, or attacked by towering monsters, or vanquished by irate dwellers from the oceans’ polluted depths. Barring that, they face hardscrabble, desperate lives on a once verdant Earth now consumed by ice or drought.

“That is how many recent superhero and sci-fi movies — among them the latest Avengers and Godzilla pictures as well as ‘Aquaman,’ ‘Snowpiercer,’ ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ — have invoked the climate crisis. They imagine postapocalyptic futures or dystopias where ecological collapse is inevitable, environmentalists are criminals, and eco-mindedness is the driving force of villains.

“But these takes are defeatist, critics say, and a growing chorus of voices is urging the entertainment industry to tell more stories that show humans adapting and reforming to ward off the worst climate threats.

“’More than ever, they’re missing the mark, often in the same way,’ said Michael Svoboda, a writing professor at George Washington University and author at the multimedia site Yale Climate Connections. ‘Almost none of these films depict a successful transformation of society.’ [emphasis added]”

Even though a pandemic is a very different kind of beast compared to apocalyptic-level climate catastrophes, the current covid-19 epidemic can surely feel like a devastation. I’ve certainly seen my share of panicky social media messages.

We’ve recently started re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and this line veritably jumped out:

ST DS9 s3 ep18 Distant Voices

“It’s just that… this year is a little different.”

Indeed—this year is different. Unlike good Doctor Bashir’s, though, our situation is a little more dire than turning thirty years of age.

Right now there’s no long-term data available, so any estimates of the long-term effects are guesses—at best cautious, at worst wild—but every opinion I’ve seen says the world will change as a consequence. And as a nerd, that interest me.

I can’t think of many speculative stories off the top of my head where the society has adjusted in a way that focuses on our shared humanity. On the contrary, most of them cannot seem to be able to find much good in human behavior during crises. Since social collapse at the beginning of a disaster is a myth, I’d like to see more stories concentrating on people working together. (That is my favorite kind of story for a reason, after all.)

There is one thing I do know, though, limited in scope as it is: I will be most seriously displeased if writers and producers of the future fail to learn from witnessing the amount of cooperation and outpouring of help people are providing not only their own communities but also strangers.

Buckley, Cara. “Why Is Hollywood So Scared of Climate Change?” New York Times, August 14, 2019.

Image: screencap from season 3 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, episode “Distant Voices”.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: She Gets to Screw It Up

After the release of Terminator: Dark Fate in November of 2019, Emmet Asher-Perrin wrote at Tor.com about the Terminator franchise. This section at the end describes perfectly why the original T (1984—oh gosh!) will always be my favorite of the series and why we need more (super)hero stories with women in the focus:

“The end of The Terminator is maybe more entrancing than any other finale in the franchise for that reason. It has more in common with a horror film than a sci-fi action flick. Sarah Connor, the final girl who has to make it through for so much more than the sake of her own life, crawling away from two glaring red eyes. Her leg is broken, she’s barely fast enough, but she pulls it all together to crush the T-800 into scrap parts. You can see the moment where the unflinching hero of Judgement Day is born, and it’s right when she says ‘You’re terminated, fucker.’ It only took a span of days to rip her normal, unremarkable life apart, but we get the chance to take the entire journey with her, to sit in her emotions and think about how it would feel. It’s just as fast as most ‘Chosen One’ narratives tend to be, but it doesn’t feel rushed because we are with her for every terrifying second of that ride.

“There are a few more heroes who get this treatment, but they are rarely women. Black Widow has a few muddled flashbacks in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Captain Marvel gets flickers of her past in formative moments. Wonder Woman gives us a brief introduction to Diana’s home and the women who raised her. Rey doesn’t get much time to wrestle with her budding Jedi abilities before heading off for training. We get brief hints of where these women came from, of how it feels to take everything onto their shoulders. But Sarah Connor gets to muddle through it. She gets to wear weird tie-dyed t-shirts and shiver when she’s cold and decide whether or not she can accept the idea of time travel and unborn sons and machines that will always find her no matter where she hides. She gets to present herself as wholly unqualified, and she gets to screw it up, and she still makes it out the other side to fight another day.” [original emphasis]

– Emmet Asher-Perrin

We’ve recently watched a few excellent crime procedurals (for example, Vera and The Fall, plus a new Finnish-Spanish production called Paratiisi) where the female protagonists were written with multiple characteristics that television’s stereotypical damaged males have (like a traumatic past, superficial sex / multiple throwaway partners, alcohol use, difficulty maintaining meaningful human relationships or, indeed, behaving professionally towards your colleagues, to mention a few).

Criticism of these kinds of women in stories is often framed in terms of likeability: you can’t like a woman who behaves in “un-feminine” ways. Well, assuming we’re not talking about comfort-watching or reading (which I’d allow some liberties to), do you have to? I’ve never met anyone who liked everyone they ever met.

I’d say it’s lazy storytelling at its core to plop in a feature of a given character or culture or setting without examining its purpose in the story. For example, while I appreciate the performances of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in the Sherlock series by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, I detest the selfish, egotistical, arrogant, inconsiderate way Moffat and Gatiss have their Holmes behave. (There’s a reason we haven’t rewatched the series.) He if anyone is unlikeable, to put it mildly, but somehow people can only see his genius—even when the original Sherlock Holmes emphatically behaves with kindness.

And while it’s true that none of these “unlikeable” people would be easy to have as friends, it’s also true that none of them is without any redeeming qualities either. The point is, depicting one gender only in a certain light and cutting off other possibilities of being from them is overly limiting, because in the real world possibilities are nigh on infinite.

Depicting a variety of individuals is exactly what makes for instance heist stories like Ocean’s Eight or Jane Austen’s novels so enjoyable and delicious. Flipping details around, reversing patterns, defying expectations—these are exactly what make a story shine. Women are people and people come in a range of shapes, sizes, and mentalities. Just think of the range of abilities and body shapes Olympic athletes represent, for example.

Just like I do not want all men in my fiction to be cookie-cutter copies, I certainly don’t want all women in my fiction to be cast from the same mold. Expecting all or even most members of any group be an amorphous mass is really rather ill-advised, for it ruins many a good tale and taken to extremes would make stories untellable.

To re-phrase Asher-Perrin: what The Terminator really gets right is that Sarah Connor gets to feel her feels, to react, emote, and flail (like Ye Old Female Protagonist)—AND she gets to win the day.

Asher-Perrin, Emmet. “The First Terminator Movie Gave Sarah Connor One of the Most Compelling Origin Stories”. Tor.com, November 01, 2019.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

On the Finicky, Fussbudgety Facts of Faction Fighting in WoW

Writing on the patch 8.2.5 story for the World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth expansion, Robert “Bobby” Davis blogging at Kaylriene puts into words what I’ve long thought: while I understand the need for a company to put the best positive spin into talking about their own products, Blizzard really needs to stop deluding themselves about the quality of their storytelling. Here’s Kaylriene on the topic:

“Saurfang says what I’ve thought about the writing of this story the whole time – the faction conflict is stupid and outdated, because Blizzard tries to pretend there is a depth and nuance to it that doesn’t exist in their writing. The Horde are villains, outright – every time this cycle comes about, the Horde does something awful and atrocious that pushes the world into conflict, the Horde leaders who suddenly have conscience about it reject the action and rebel, we storm up to Orgrimmar to depose whomever the despot is today, and then we move on until the next time it happens. He makes clear in-lore precisely what I’ve felt about the faction conflict the whole time – it was set dressing that no longer serves a meaningful purpose.” [emphasis added]

I’m not inclined to be generous to a story that repeats the same gimmick ad nauseam. Granted, you don’t need to look farther than our own human history—and not very far at that—to find nigh-endless faction conflict. But this is supposed to be fantasy, a genre that can have anything happen.

It’s been years since I logged back to WoW for the story—these days I play for completely different reasons than following the plot du jour. Not being a PvPer the faction conflict never was a big draw to begin with, but it used to have at least somewhat interesting turns.

Now, I also understand the difficulty of a rotating team trying to keep up with past writing, storylines, character arcs, details, all of it. There is, however, a lot to be said for storytelling, continuity, and proactive quality control, especially in case of a billion(!)-dollar tech company, lest you end up looking rather like an incompetent fool.

Flickr Robert WoWScrnShot_091106_234735

Image: World of Warcraft screencap by Robert on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Visual Inspiration: Small Aqua-Blue-Brown Lizards

Now that summer is properly on the way here in the northern hemisphere, it’s time for summer critters. This aqua-blue-brown lizard, Anolis grahami, would make a lovely detail in speculative—or, indeed, in any kind of—story-telling.

Wikimedia jpokele Grahams anole Jamaica

In the real world, they’re endemic in Jamaica and an introduction to Bermuda. According to Wikipedia, occasionally you can see a pure turquoise blue lizard.

iNaturalist waynewg Grahams anole

Goodness, they’re incredible!

Found via Jon Suh on Twitter.

Images: Graham’s anole on Jamaica by jpockele via Wikimedia (CC BY-2.0). Graham’s anole on a piece of wood by Wayne Godbehere on iNaturalist (CC BY-NC).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Fantasy Religions: Novel Religions

The religions that exist in our world can be broadly divided into two categories: traditional religions, which developed gradually in their own native societies and have no clear beginning point, and novel religions, which began at a fixed point in time. Many of the great world religions of the modern day, like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, are novel religions, while some traditional religions, like Shinto, still thrive. Some religions, like Hinduism and Judaism, have features of both. In earlier posts, we’ve discussed what sort of things you may want to keep in mind in your worldbuilding for stories or games to make your imaginary religions feel more authentically traditional. Today we’ll take a look at what makes a novel religion feel alive.

There have been many novel religions in world history. A few have gathered large followings and become major forces in the world. Many have faded away after a few generations. Some have done well for a long time, even for centuries, before finally disappearing. There is no single thing that every novel religion has in common, but looking at history, we can see definite patterns as to what makes a new religious movement thrive, even if only for a time. It takes more than a charismatic leader with a new idea, although that is where most of them start.

Connection to the past

New ways of life can be hard to adopt, but they are easier if they connect to things people already know. Christianity and Islam both drew on Jewish traditions, as Buddhism did with the same ancient Indian traditions that informed Hinduism. The ancient Mediterranean cult of Isis based itself on ancient Egyptian religion. Similarly, Zoroastrianism drew on ancient Iranian religious ideas. New movements within existing religions that do not split off on their own also often share the features of novel religions, like the Protestant denominations within Christianity or the Shia branch of Islam. The degree to which new religious movements identify themselves as new or as reforms to or revivals of older traditions can vary widely.

Texts and beliefs

Not every religion, novel or traditional, has sacred texts, but many novel religions do. Such texts help to define how the new movement differs from what has come before and what its followers are expected to do or believe in order to be counted as part of the group. Depending on the religion, these texts may be openly available to anyone who wants to read them, or access to them may be limited only to those who have joined the movement. Novel religions are also more likely to focus on belief, unlike traditional religions which tend to focus on practices and rituals.

Hope in times of trouble

The success of any new religion depends largely on its ability to attract new followers in sufficient numbers to keep the movement going. Most people most of the time aren’t really “in the market” for a new religion, but there are certain times in history when large numbers of people are ready to embrace something new. It tends to happen in times of suffering and uncertainty, among people who have been displaced from their homes and familiar ways of life. The Bacchanal cult of the second century BCE appealed to Italian peasants who had been driven from the countryside into the cities by economic desperation. Haitian Vodou and related religions came out of the traumas of enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas. Christianity and Islam both, in different periods and different ways, emerged among the victims of Roman imperialism. Novel religions often offer purpose, identity, and community to people who have lost the things that gave them those comforts before.

Difficult (but not too difficult)

A novel religion often thrives when it demands practices of its followers that are difficult, but not excessively difficult, to carry out. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. Buddhists engage in meditation of many different kinds. Followers of Isis were expected to furnish a feast for their fellow worshipers upon joining. These kinds of practices, which require time, focus, and effort, but are not overly demanding, help foster a sense of community by creating shared experiences. At the same time, religions which demand overly difficult practices tend to see their followings dwindle. Converts to Mithraism went through initiations involving withstanding heat, cold, and pain (although probably not bathing in bull’s blood, as sometimes alleged). The rigors of these initiations, as well as the fact that it seems to have been open only to men, may have limited the cult’s appeal and kept it from gaining a critical mass of followers.

Outward from the middle

Novel religions tend to begin neither at the top nor at the bottom of the social scale but somewhere in the middle. Simply put, the rich and powerful have little to gain from upending the order of things, while the poor and powerless don’t have the time to ponder on the mysteries of the universe. New religious movements tend to begin among people who, if not always “middle class” by a modern definition, are somewhere on the middling ranks of the social and economic hierarchy. How they spread from there differs. Some religions grow by promising the hope of a better life to the poor, as Christianity did, while others, such as Confucianism, grow by appealing to a discontented elite.

Food

Food, for many of us, is a vital part of our sense of identity and community—think of your favorite family recipes or the special holiday dishes that remind you of heritage and home. Many novel religions present new ways of eating as part of the creation of a new communal identity. One of the central rituals of Christianity involves consuming (literally or metaphorically, depending on one’s theology) the body and blood of the founding figure. Muslims are enjoined to fast during daylight hours during Ramadan and to avoid certain food and drink, including pork and alcohol, altogether. Manichaeism taught that adherents had a duty to spread light in the world and combat darkness by eating certain foods and avoiding others. Eating together, or eating in similar ways to other followers elsewhere, helps to maintain the bonds that hold the adherents of a new religion together.

Thoughts for writers

As an example of how these features of novel religions can inform worldbuilding, here is a short description of an imaginary movement in an imaginary world.

The borderlands of Jash have been ravaged by decades of war between the Jashite cities and the invading armies of the Akluni Empire. As refugees from the rugged hills and scrublands of northern Jash stream into the cities of the lush Jash River valley, they find misery, poverty, and violence. Many of the refugees, looking for the solace of the familiar, have filled the neglected temples of Uzuli, the moon goddess favored by borderland shepherds but little regarded by the city folk.

Among the merchants and farmers of the Jash cities, tensions have been growing as no city seems capable of leading a coordinated response to the Akluni threat. Factions have formed within the cities, some arguing for peace with Aklun, others for resistance to the death; some for throwing the refugees out to fend for themselves, others for redistributing farmland to provide for the hungry. Encounters between members of these factions in the streets and market often lead to harangues, arguments, even fistfights.

Lately, a woman calling herself the Moon Daughter has been gathering crowds in the side streets of the city of Busa, giving stirring speeches promising a return of peace and prosperity. She comes from one of the lesser merchant families of Busa, but no longer speaks to them after beginning her work in the streets. She reports visions from Uzuli that call for all the people of Jash to be as one, to return to the simpler ways of the country, and to withstand the assault of Aklun not by arms but with the patience of Uzuli, who does not fear the waning because she knows that the full moon will come again.

The Moon Daughter’s early followers came from among other merchants families, whose fortunes have fallen under the pressure of war, but she increasingly draws crowds of hinterland refugees. Some of her followers have begun writing down her speeches and publishing them as pamphlets. “Eat of the bitter terebinth and the prickly pear” she says, “in memory of our home that is lost. Then drink of the honeyed wine that promises peace and harmony forever in the turning of the moon.” Her followers gather for common meals, eating and drinking as she commands, but also sharing what food they have with those who have none.

Building in some of the common features of novel religions helps the Moon Daughter’s movement feel fuller and more grounded in the world. It also offers interesting storytelling hooks. What happens if Busa is conquered by Aklun and the Moon Daughter and her followers have to flee elsewhere? What if the priestesses of Uzuli challenge the Moon Daughter for false prophecy? What if the Moon Daughter’s movement becomes so popular its followers take control of Busa, and then have to negotiate with the other Jashite cities who haven’t joined the movement? What if the Akluni Empire collapses and the refugees return home bringing the Moon Daughter’s words and ideas with them, but leaving the life of the city far behind? There are lots of directions you could take a story or a game from this beginning.

Other entries in Fantasy Religions:

Image: Manichaean diagram of the universe via Wikimedia (China; 1279-1368 CE; paint and gold on silk)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Mountains and Valleys

Landscape and geography shape the ways people live and the kinds of societies they build. While we cannot lay it down as a rule that a particular kind of landscape always produces a corresponding type of society, there are definite patterns that can be found in many parts of the world. One important set of such patterns revolves around the interaction between mountain societies and river valley societies.

River valleys have long been centers of population and growth. Rivers provide crucial resources including drinking water, irrigation water, and fish, which allow for a large population to grow in a small area. Rivers also provide easy transport for people and goods, encouraging travel and trade. As a result, river valleys support the development of large-scale, densely populated settlements. It is no surprise that most of the world’s earliest urbanized societies emerged in river valleys, including the Nile River in Egypt, the Tirgis and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the Indus River in India, and the Yellow River in China.

Because of the ways that river valleys encourage dense, concentrated populations, the people who live along rivers have to develop ways of managing social conflicts that aren’t necessary in more widely scattered settlements. Early valley cultures were faced with the problem of working out competing claims to resources like irrigation water and access to navigable streams. They also confronted situations in which one person’s actions, such as discharging waste into a common waterway, could affect many other people. Different cultures found different ways of dealing with these problems. Some arrived at relatively peaceful and stable solutions while others frequently fell into conflicts over rights and resources. In the end, though, many river valley cultures ended up with complex, socially-stratified societies ruled over by centralized, bureaucratic governments.

Mountain societies, by contrast, tend to be small-scale, economically simple, and egalitarian. In the mountains, crucial resources such as fertile land and fresh water tend to be scattered in small pockets rather than concentrated in large quantities. Travel is difficult and time-consuming. These facts of geography lead to people living in very small communities, individual farmsteads, or movable camps. Self-sufficiency is at a premium when you can’t easily reach out to a larger community to help solve your problems. Mountain cultures therefore tend to remain small and highly local, and to rely more on personal relationships than organized institutions. Large-scale, organized mountain empires do exist in history, such as the Inca Empire in the Andes, but they are rare.

In some mountain cultures, the very sparseness of the population helps to maintain peace—you don’t fight your neighbors if you never see your neighbors—but the same factors that shape mountain cultures also often encourage violent conflict. When resources are limited, population growth can lead to spikes of competition, sometimes escalating into violence. Without well-developed institutions for managing interpersonal or inter-family conflict, fights over land and other vital resources can spiral out of control or drag on for generations. Many mountain societies have historically been subject to frequent violent conflicts, and those who live in them develop fighting skills as a matter of course.

These basic patterns have tended to shape how mountain cultures and river valley cultures have developed in history, but neither valleys nor mountains exist on their own. When valley societies and mountain societies interacted with one another, a whole new set of dynamics came into play.

Valley societies and mountain societies have often found themselves in conflict, but it is has historically been difficult for one to decisively overcome the other. River valley societies have the resources and surplus population to field large, well-organized armies and to provide those armies with a reliable source of supplies for long campaigns. Valley armies, however, have often struggled to assert control over mountainous regions. The fragmented nature of mountains makes it difficult to move large numbers of troops and supplies around. At the same time, mountains provide plenty of hiding places for local fighters who know the terrain well. Mountainous terrain favors the kind of small, mobile, skirmishing bands and guerrilla tactics that small, feuding, fragmented mountain cultures develop. Sometimes in history, valley empires have been able to assert control over the mountains at their edges, but it requires a concerted effort. The Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia, for instance, kept up steady pressure against the mountain tribes to the north and east, but never had much direct control over them. The Roman Empire had secure control of the lowlands on both sides of the Alps generations before it could claim success in the mountains themselves.

On the other hand, mountain people rarely have much success at invading well-developed valley cultures. While mountain warriors tend to be good at hit-and-run raiding and harassing tactics that can effectively limit a valley culture’s reach, conquering a valley takes a more coordinated effort and larger numbers of troops than most mountain societies can muster. Without a well-established centralized government, mountain armies are more dependent on ties of family loyalty and negotiated compromises that are hard to maintain far from home under the rigors of a campaign. While there are often hostilities in the hinterlands where organized, expansive river valley powers run up against the scattered but tenacious resistance of mountain-dwellers, it is rare that one side manages to decisively defeat the other.

Decisive defeats can happen, however. Sometimes, as with the Roman conquest of the Alps, Spain, Illyria, and other mountainous parts of the greater Mediterranean, river valley cultures can gather the resources and effort for a concerted push that overwhelms the locals’ ability to resist. Other times, moments of weakness in the valley can create an opening for aggressive mountain neighbors to sweep down and take control. The Zhou Dynasty in China was founded when a people from the mountainous uplands of the west seized power from the Shang Dynasty that had ruled the lowlands of the Yellow River valley. The Persians came from the mountains of the Iranian Plateau to build an empire that took in two of the great ancient river valley civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The legends of the Mexica, whom we often refer to as Aztecs, say that they came from a mountainous home called Aztlán before migrating into the Valley of Mexico and dominating it with their warriors. There may well be some historical truth behind this myth.

Not all mountain-valley interactions are hostile, however. Sometimes mountain and valley societies can coexist peacefully and profitably. River valleys produce agricultural surplus, which is often in demand in the mountains where farming is harder and less predictable. Mountains can produce useful commodities such as metals, timber, and stone that are harder to come by in the lowlands. Mountains can also be good recruiting grounds for mercenaries to build up valley armies. The rugged mountains of Greece provided trade goods and experienced warriors to Egypt and Egypt in return furnished surplus food to Greece in a relationship that was stable and mutually beneficial.

There are no hard rules in history. The study of the past is as much the study of exceptions and unexpected results as it is of familiar patterns. Still, the patterns are there. History is full of mountain people and river valley people, and the problems and opportunities that arise when they come into contact with one another.

Thoughts for writers

As always, my advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land. The ways that societies shape themselves, cope with problems, and interact with one another are always influenced by the landscape in which they were created.

The dynamics of mountain and valley societies are also applicable to other landscapes. Wherever large numbers of people settle around a shared resource—a mystical Elven city on a nexus of magic-bearing ley lines, say, or a space station guarding a hyperspace portal—similar conflicts are likely to arise, leading to a similar range of possible solutions. Wherever people live in small, scattered communities with limited resources—whether it’s desert nomads traveling from oasis to oasis or hardscrabble asteroid miners—their cultures will likely reflect many of the same influences as mountain societies. When these disparate groups of people interact, they will show the effects of many of the same forces at work between mountain and valley peoples.

The interactions of mountain people and valley people have shaped history. They can shape imagined worlds as well.

Image: Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, photograph by Imrankhakwami via Wikimedia

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Bread and Cheese

A sturdy adventurer in a fantasy novel pauses to take a break from their journey to the Land of Quest Completion. They open their knapsack looking for something to eat and what do they find? Bread and cheese.

Always bread and cheese.

It’s a well enough known trope to make an easy, low-hanging joke. It’s the sort of thing you expect in fantasy media whose worldbuilding can be charitably described as “medieval Europe but with magic and dragons and also I’ve never actually read a book on medieval Europe.”

But bread and cheese is not a joke. It is, in fact, a very good and sensible choice for an adventurer to pack for a long and difficult journey.

The human body needs nourishment. For long term health, there are a lot of things you need: a proper balance of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and so on. Doing without any of these essentials for prolonged periods means risking malnutrition, disease, and other serious health problems. For getting through several days or weeks of hard physical work, like traveling in rough terrain or fighting monsters, though, three things are crucial: water, calories, and protein.

An average adult human requires a minimum of about 2 liters of water, 3,000 calories, and 70 grams of protein each day in order to remain fit for physically demanding labor. More is better, but these will get you through if you don’t keep it up for too long. These are the requirements a meal must meet to be suitable for basic adventuring rations.

Water can be found in most parts of the world where people live. It may not be available in large quantities and it may not be safe or pleasant to drink straight from the source, but chances are your standard adventurer can find enough to survive on in most terrains. That leaves calories and protein.

There are lots of different ways of getting both. Your adventurer might eat meat, fish, eggs, milk, beans, vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, nuts, seeds, honey, insects, or plenty of other things. When a variety of food options is available, people like to indulge themselves (as we moderns and our waistlines know all too well). But not all these food items travel well. Fresh vegetables and fruit will wilt and rot. Meat and fish go bad and may attract dangerous animals. Eggs won’t hold up well to being jostled around in a traveler’s knapsack. Some of these products can be dried, salted, pickled, or otherwise preserved to last longer, but processing adds to cost. Depending on growing seasons and local farming practices, these foods may not be available when your adventurer needs them.

Hence the advantages of bread and cheese. In agricultural regions, staple crops like grain are almost always available. Unprocessed grain, if kept dry and safe from vermin, can be kept for a long time. Bread kept similarly dry and safe may become unappealing and tough to chew, but will preserve its nutritional value even after many days of jostling around in a hero’s handy haversack. Cheese can be made wherever there are milk-giving animals (often reared on marginal or fallow land in agrarian communities), and will last a long time without deterioration if well taken care of. In farming societies throughout large parts of the world, bread and cheese are both readily available, inexpensive, and easy to make portable.

Bread provides a good dose of calories and protein; cheese even more. Combined, they provide the complete set of amino acids that the body needs. (It turns out that combining different protein sources is nowhere near as complicated as conventional wisdom says it is. As long as you have a variety of different foods in your diet and you’re not trying to subsist on on a single non-animal source of calories, you’re pretty much covered. Still, for an adventurer braving the wilderness without a lot of variety easily available, it doesn’t hurt to make sure you’ve got everything your body needs in one meal.)

Bread and cheese. Don’t leave on an adventure without it.

Thoughts for writers

Bread and cheese make good sense for adventurers’ traveling rations in a lot of settings, but that doesn’t mean that if you’re writing an adventure you should just fall back on bread and cheese for all your heroes’ dietary needs.

Food is a fundamental part of life. As such, it is an indispensable element in worldbuilding. People eat the things they eat for good reasons, and societies are often structured, in very basic ways, around the production and distribution of foodstuffs. The availability of a single plant can have far-reaching effects on the culture that grows it. The consequences for worldbuilding don’t end with the food itself but carry on into how it is produced and consumed. Descriptions of food in fantasy literature often feature just as local color, but food can in fact inform major parts of your worldbuilding.

Bread and cheese may seem like an overused cliché, but it has been used so much for a reason. It is an entirely sensible and realistic choice of provisions for travelers in the hinterlands of any fantasy world that broadly resembles the living conditions across most of the premodern world. Don’t be afraid to fall back on bread and cheese if it is the right choice for your story, as long as you are choosing it for a reason and not just because it’s what fantasy adventurers always eat.

Image: Bread and cheese wheel, photograph by Andrew Malone via Flickr

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Visual Inspiration: Photovoltaic Facades

Solar power technologies are advanced enough that they are increasingly being integrated into buildings during construction, not just added onto existing ones. For example, there’s a way to make thin enough, light-weight enough, and transparent enough solar cells to embed them into windows. Some cells even have color, which makes inventive facades a definite possibility!

Below are some colorful glass facades and/or windows, some actually photovoltaic, others made from regular glass or other sun control materials, to illustrate just a few possibilities SFF creators might want to consider.

 

SwissTech Convention Center in Ecublens, Switzerland

Using dye-sensitized solar cells or DSSC (also known as Grätzel cells), the world’s first multicolored solar facade was built at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. Although the technology is 30 years old already, the building is only from 2014.

EPLF Chris Blaser Facade External

EPLF Chris Blaser Facade Internal

 

Biochemistry building at The University of Oxford in Oxford, UK

The facade is made up of glass fins that emulate the colors of the historic buildings surrounding it.

Flickr Andy Matthews UOxford Biochemistry

 

Clapham Manor Primary School in London, UK

A new wing added to an existing Victorian school. No solar glass as far as I can tell, but the combinations of solid and fritted, on one hand, and clear and colored glass, on the other, allow for some environmental control.

de Rijke Marsh Morgan Clapham-Manor-Primary_04

 

Environmental education center El Captivador in Alicante, Spain

Designed by CrystalZoo, the roof tiles of the sustainably built environmental education center flow from bright reds via oranges to yellows.

Twitter CrystalZoo El Captivador

 

Xicui entertainment complex in Beijing, China

GreenPix, a photovoltaic Zero Energy Media Wall, built for the Xicui entertainment center before the 2008 Beijing olympics, was the largest color LED display in the world at the time.

GreenPix 00_08(c)SimoneGiostra-ARUP-Ruogu

 

Gare de Perpignan in Perpignan, France

An atrium with semi-translucent photovoltaic ceiling panels plus regular colorful glass (as far as I can tell).

Wikipedia Projet_BIPV_-_Gare_TGV_de_Perpignan

 

Kuggen building, Chalmers tekniska högskola in Gothenburg, Sweden

Designed by Winngårdh Arkitektkontor for the Chalmers University of Technology, Kuggen has a movable sunscreen and six floors, each shielding the floor below.

Flickr magro_kr Chalmers Kuggen

 

At the moment, it seems that next to cost, fairly low efficiency is the biggest problem with building-integrated photovoltaics. (Although, the efficiency problem might soon be solved.) Fortunately, both are something that SFF writers can easily deal with. 🙂

Images: External EPLF facade by Chris Blaser via Flickr, internal EPLF facade by RDR_FernandoGuerra via Flickr. Biochemistry building at U of Oxford by Andy Matthews on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Clapham Manor school by Jonas Lencer / Philip Marsh Alex de Rijke via de Rijke Marsh Morgan. El Captivador by CrystalZoo on Twitter. GreenPix by Simone Giostra & Partners. Gare de Perpignan by Laurent Lacombe / Issolsa via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). Kuggen by magro_kr on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?