When I imagine the world — our world or my worlds — I imagine it as a vast, almost incomprehensible network. It sprawls in a million directions, up, down, left, right, and is one big web of chaos on the surface. But when you zoom in, the network becomes manageable, the million lines are replaced by dozens. Instead of a black blur, you can see the lines crossing, and all tales, all knowledge, all events play out on the crossroads. I want to replicate that vastness in my worldbuilding, to make a person believe that the world surrounding the story transcends the story’s setting. In this article I will tell you my methods of building worlds that are intricate and rich.
My goal is to create complex worlds rife with conflict. In this context, conflict is not necessarily violent, I instead use it to refer to anything that may cause change and interaction. My first approach does this from the level of individual cultures, the second from the level of regions and the third from the level of individual people. You can use one, you can use two, or you can use all three, it all depends on what resonates with you and how strong your desire for a dynamic world is. These are (somewhat unorthodox) methods that have worked in my own worldbuilding but are not necessarily suited to everyone’s worlds. Nevertheless, I hope they will help you out, or inspire you to approach your worldbuilding from a direction you haven’t yet before.
Crossroads of Cultures
Have you ever had need of populating a world with a whole heap of cultures, but lacked the time required to give each and every one of them a deep history filled with intricate norms, values and intercultural relations? I certainly did when I was creating a far-future post-apocalyptic world, where every sliver of land had its individual tribes and peoples.
Instead of wondering “how will culture A react to culture B” for each group of people, I made the model above to give me an easy answer. I put nine discernible cultural archetypes on a wheel, with the opposites of each culture placed on the opposing end of the wheel. Cultures that are similar in mindset are placed next to each other, with the cosmopolitan “Merchant” culture in the center. The more steps a culture is removed from another, the more strenuous relations may be. A Hermit culture in this model will have a good time with monk and nomad cultures, but some difficulty with raiders and nobles, and a strong reluctance towards warriors.
Before I explain each archetype, it is important to note that the names given to these cultures indicate a general mindset and were chosen to make the model more intuitive. The name of the cultural group, does not mean that the entire culture consists of the people it is named after. A monk culture in this model, consists of more than just monks. Let’s start with the Townsman culture.
Townsman cultures are well-established civilizations, where long periods of peace and prosperity have allowed dignity and sophistication to become their center-stage virtues. These cultures in a fantasy setting would consist of agricultural and urban folk, who have settled a region long enough to have developed a taste for more refined culture. You can imagine art and culture to flourish here.
Their opposites in this scheme, are Wildman cultures, who live precarious natural lives. They are hunter-gatherers roaming the forests, the deserts and the savannahs. These cultures have no time to squander on petty culture and art, and value resolve and pragmatism. Naturally, they are likely to butt heads with the city-folk if they ever meet.
Noble cultures are similarly well-established as the Townsman cultures, but instead of valuing the dainty dignity of the Townsman cultures, they rely on tradition and the prowess to protect themselves. In these cultures, tradition is used to bind people together. It can be imagined that these people would spring forth from an old settled civilization, that has need to defend its territory. A stratified hierarchy can be expected.
On the other end of the wheel, we have the nomads, who have neither land that needs defending, nor tradition that needs to be clinged onto. The nomads live day to day, not suffering under the danger of the Wildman cultures, but still in need to adapt. Every day on the road provides a new challenge, thus innovation and the ability to move from place to place are most valued by these people. The Nomads would be weighed down under extensive emphasis on tradition and the laws of the Noble world, and are thus likely to rebel against it more than other cultures.
Warrior cultures are built on the strength of their armies. They have secured themselves a stable position in the world through bloodshed and realize that their continuing success relies on their prowess. Glory and ambition keeps the individual strong, and strong individuals keep the society strong.
Hermit cultures, on the other hand, have learned through a history of misfortune and/or aggression from the outside world that their survival depends on their ability to defend themselves and stay within their margins. They have learned to resent the ambitious outsiders who may wish to conquer them one day. An independent land is a land worth defending.
Raider cultures know that it is simpler to take than to make. Why waste your days on this earth on toil and soil, when the alternative is available? These cultures are likely to emerge in lands where thinking in the long-term is a recipe for disaster, be it the ice-cold north, the arid south, the ashlands or the untamed swamps. A raider culture will take the opportunities presented to it, with open hands.
This short-term, predatory thinking is in turn an affront to the sensible monk cultures, who have learned over the many generations that introspection, peace and respect for one another is key to a healthy society. The monk culture in this model, is unconcerned with expansion or displays of personal grandeur, and have instead developed a cordial and reclusive culture.
Finally, Merchants are the friends of every man and woman of every culture. To the merchant cultures, every place and every people has something to offer, be it wealth, strength, spirituality or more. This does not mean they never quarrel. A raider culture may still be swayed by the promise of wealth to attack a merchant culture. But a true cosmopolitan and diplomatic culture knows there is nothing to be gained from burning bridges without provocation.
You can throw these archetypes on a map, or fit your established cultures within them, whatever may work for you. In closing, this model is intended to quickly create a coherent cultural map, conflicts, alliances and all. To accomplish this, it is by necessity a heavily simplified model. No real culture fits neatly inside any of these archetypes, and the more time you spend on your own cultures, the more they should deviate from the scheme. If you like the system, I recommend you use it to establish the basic cultural map of your world, but do not be afraid to twist things around and break the rules I laid down. In writing, as well as all art, rules are meant to be broken as much as they are meant to be followed.
Crossroads of History
When worldbuilding history, we have a tendency to stick to specific events and people and construct a world around that. Oftentimes this will lead to a world that is interesting in its particulars, but falls apart as a whole, because history does not nest itself in individual moments but in an intricate narrative that spans the globe. An event happening in a remote land can determine the future of another continent.
For an example in our world, think of this: The Byzantines and Persians once ruled the middle east, but a minor third player called the Arabians, almost unknown to the world at large at this time, managed to conquer the entire region when the first two had tired themselves out. This conquest established the center of a trading network greater and wealthier than had ever been seen before. On the far outskirts of this new world, Venice and the Rus rose to power and wealth due to slave trade with these new burgeoning markets in the Middle East, allowing the former to establish the beginnings of what would eventually become a state powerful enough to control trade over the Mediterranean, keep crusader states viable and inadvertently dismantle the Byzantine empire. This weakening of the Byzantines could give rise to a new power center in the form of the Ottomans, who quickly took control of all lands between Turkey and Egypt. With access to Asia controlled by the Ottomans, Spanish and Portuguese adventurers chose to sail into different trade routes, thus inadvertently discovering the cape of Africa and the Americas.
In other words, some scuffles between the Romans and Persians in the Middle-East in some way led to the discovery of a new continent. Now that’s all nice and dandy to wonder and ponder about, but we don’t have the time and energy to construct entire histories to rival our own world’s, do we? It’s unreasonable to ask writers to juggle a million plotlines from bygone times that are irrelevant to the plot, only to spruce up some background descriptions. Let me introduce you to a history-building approach that I use to replicate the dynamism of real history, while still allowing me to keep a fragment of my sanity.
You can follow along in your head, but if you want to try this technique out, I recommend you make a handful of maps on paper or on your computer. They don’t have to be anything fancy; a crude version will work as long as all regions of the world are distinguishable. Now you divide the relevant timespan of your world over these few maps. Let’s say you have a world that has 1000 years of known history and you divide this over 6 maps, from the year 0 to 200 to 400 to 600 to 800 and to 1000.
Now instead of thinking of specific events and people, try asking yourself this question for each period you have: “What was the center of the world?”
Back in those days, what was the main place where people migrated to? Where did people go in those days to make their fortune, find fame and live well? Who housed the greatest wonders and produced the most infamous villains? Don’t necessarily think in terms of resources — a major power center can extract those from other regions — but think in terms of power. Who held the strings in those days? For a dynamic world, make sure you change these centers around from map to map, otherwise you will end up with a stagnant world.
Once you have established a center, you draw it on your map. Now you think of the next question: “What was the edge of the world in those days?”
Think from the perspective of the people who lived in the center, where did their knowledge of the world end? What areas were yet to become relevant to the global economy? What lands were yet to be discovered?
Draw another circle to delineate the edge of the world at that time. Once you have this set in place, you can go over each region of your world and ask yourself: “How did this region interact with the center of the world?”
What goods did they export to the center? What goods could they import from the center? How did religion, philosophy, disease, technology, cuisine, rituals, medicine, magic, people, vegetation and animals move along these trade routes? What did these people think of the center? What did the people of the center think of them? Was there hostility, or friendship?
Draw a circle (smaller than that of the center) for each region. Regions that traded a lot with the center should be given a bigger circle to make it easy observe what the important nodes in the network were. Now you draw a line from each of these circles to the center and number them. On another paper or document, you can write down your answers to the previous questions under the appropriate number, just to keep things organized. If you want to go a step further, you can repeat the same process you’ve now done for each of the nodes with their surroundings. How did the inland country of Flebellonia interact with the local bigshot trading power Vipwipperland? What did they import? Export? Etcetera.
Now that you have this map in place, you move to the next map and ask yourself: “How did the center move from one place to another place?”
And of course, you must ask yourself all the questions that entails. How did this effect the established relations between regions and the previous center? Which regions could adapt, which couldn’t? Were the resources from old nodes still relevant to this new center? Were geographical distances too big for the old trade routes to stay intact? What were the backlashes against this change of pace? Did religions claim this to be the end times? How did this affect arts and literature… you can go in any direction here. These actions and reactions to the changing world, the introduction of religions, diseases, ideas and wealth now form the basis of a dynamic world history that distinguishes itself from the standard: ‘A happened, then B happened, then C happened…”. Write down your explanations of history’s shifting centers and make this the basis of your world; all interesting historical tales will flow from this line in interesting and unique ways that are relevant to the setting.
For one of my worlds I even went for a polycentric world, in which the main world bloc is presented in blue, the counter-bloc presented in green, neutral countries in yellow and warzones and illicit trade hubs in red. The opportunities are endless once you have a feel for it.
Crossroads of People
The macro-level worldbuilding is fun in its own right, but most stories are ultimately about individuals. So how can we place them on crossroads? Well, we represent them all on a map and write out their attitudes towards each other. By mapping out your character’s relations to each other, you can easily see who are their contacts, their allies, and their enemies, as well as how those allies and enemies relate to each other. I personally use this tool when I’m creating a cast of characters, to force the story to have some additional conflict. It’s all too easy to create a cast of characters who, for all intents and purposes, might as well be one character. They travel together, they eat together, they talk to each other, but they don’t interact in meaningful ways. You could replace one of them, and the story may not change much as they are not key anchors of the story. In my opinion, the great thing about having a cast is to see their interactions and changing relations. By having these relations clearly mapped out, you can go a step further and consider the rippling effect of these actions.
Let’s say a plus sign indicates a friendship, a double plus sign indicates attraction, a minus indicates dislike, a double minus indicates hatred, an equals sign indicates acquaintances, an exclamation mark indicates an external starter for conflict and a question mark indicates that one character needs something from another.
In this model, character A is forced by an external sign to act against D. Let’s say that this story takes place between roommates and character A is desperately hungry. He decides to raid his roommate D’s fridge as a result. Roommate B dislikes D because D never washes the dishes, and may interpret A’s action as a mutual dislike of D, which might sway character B to become friends with A. A is happy to have a friend in the household, and now plots with his new buddy B to kick D out of the house.
As it turns out however, roommate E is in love with her friend D and won’t allow this to happen. The conflict of the fridge is getting out of hand, and B expects his friend C to join on his and A’s side, so they have a majority of the vote. Little does B know that C still needs E to pay the gas bill back to him and doesn’t want to risk E defaulting on that loan.
The system writes its own stories, and the more complex you make it, the more potential there is in each story and each scene. I find this method especially useful when I am laying out the foundations of a short story plot, but I don’t know where to take it yet. Randomly assigning + and – symbols to a bunch of stick figures, and then trying to figure out what the symbols mean and how they relate to the plot, gives me an interesting structure that I wouldn’t have thought of by myself.
I hope to have inspired your worldbuilding on the micro and macro-level. Please let me know in the comments, if and how you will use the models. Did any of them light a spark in your mind?
You can find me on Writtenfood where I publish short stories and poetry from time to time. I am also working on a dozen different worlds and projects, that I love to talk about on the forums. From elf-infested dark fantasy to far-future post apocalyptic America, and everything in between.