You're world can have as many or as few people groups as you want. But would a world full of W.A.S.P.s really be the best setting for your story?

Alright, if you read last week’s post then you should have the beginnings of a world by now: a list of people groups/cultures, a list of nations, or a map of the portion of your world that you want to focus on.  If you’ve been really busy, you might have more than one.  However, any one of these is not a stable foundation to begin building your world, you must have all of them.  Without people groups you have no idea who lives in your world, what they’re like, how advanced they are, etc.  Without nations you have no idea how the political structure of your world is organized.  Without maps you have no idea where anything actually fits in your world.  So, today we are going to talk a little bit about filling in your world, and what is involved in each of these categories.

So: people groups.  A people group is an individual, recognizably different race or culture.  No one has come up with an agreeable number of people groups in the world today, but estimates range from around 10,000 to around 27,000 distinct recognizable people groups inhabiting the planet.  You shouldn’t feel like your world needs this many.  Generally most fantasy/science fiction worlds will have between three and twelve different people groups.  You can find some that range outside of this (Star Wars for instance has many, many more than twelve people groups), but it is generally a safe bet.  Remember that a different people group does not necessitate and different race.  For instance, in the world of Avnul the Longminjong, Nemmi, and Yamakuni are all human people groups, and the Narut are nearly human.  Similarly, the Neshelim and Yeter are both Habacheram.  A people group could be differentiated by language, religion, culture, location, or any number of other things.  So, when you are creating your people groups, consider how and why they are different.  Also, a note on races, if your non-human race is essentially human, then ask yourself why they aren’t human.  If the elves in your world are just short humans with pointy ears, why are you calling them something different?  It is great to have different races and cultures, but there needs to be a recognizable and reasonable difference.  A non-human culture shouldn’t look and feel human, and if it does then you have to explain why it does (i.e. they are similar to 19th century India and have been under human rule for so long that they’ve started to forget their own cultural identity).

I love Star Wars, and so I am certainly biased, but they do a great job of applying a melting pot principle.

And: Nations.  Nations are going to vary depending on what kind of world you’re building.  If you want a modern, non-earth world, then your nations need to incorporate multiple people groups and they should look like melting pots.  Remember that a nation is simply lines on a map, everything inside them ruled by a central government.  By and large the people can come and go as they please (although if you want to have a xenophobic North Korea in your world that’s fine too).  However, if you are writing a prehistoric or early bronze age fantasy world, then it is completely reasonable to have nations developed around your people groups.  Most nations of the time were developed around a certain people group, and even in the late bronze age this was largely true.  While the rise and fall of empires like Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia saw a mixing of people groups, these nations were still generally dominated by a single people group who ruled others through conquest, and this is something that could easily be reflected in your world.  In a futuristic, sci-fi world you might want melting pot nations, or you might want to mix the two concepts.  For instance, in a young galaxy where inter-stellar travel is limited you very well might see the same kind of conquest that you did in the bronze age.  However, as travel becomes easier, people will mix more and more, and your ‘nations’ will become less and less ‘pure’.  When you are building nations there is a lot of room to play, but remember that your world needs to feel like a real place, even though it’s not.  This is something that should always be in the back of your mind: does this look like it could actually happen?

Take a look at this map. Do you see the problem? No? Check out the mountains around Mordor. How many mountain ranges do you know of that are shaped like a box?

Lastly: Maps.  A few lines surrounding big, blank spaces.  That’s probably what your maps look like right now.  However, it is important to make sure that those lines look real.  When making a map you generally want to start from the coastlines and then work your way inward (with cities you want to start with the same principle: start with the city wall or border and work your way inwards).  The reason for this is simple, in making a map you always want to start with your outward boundary (think puzzle borders) and then fill in the middle.  You also usually want to start with major landscape features (inland seas, lakes, major rivers – i.e. Nile or Amazon, mountain ranges, or massive jungles – i.e. central Africa), before moving on to cities.  When you are designing your world’s topography remember to keep it realistic.  Examine maps of our planet, you can also find photo maps of parts of Mars.  Look at the way coastlines are shaped, the way mountain ranges lie on the landscape, where rivers begin, etc.  Don’t just put things where you feel like putting them, put a lot of thought into your topography, and if something isn’t realistic, make sure that you have a specific and explainable reason for it.  Once you have your topography (and make sure that you have your topography solid before doing this) you want to start placing nations and people groups in the world.  Remember that topography and climate are major factors in shaping culture.  If you put a ‘tropical’ culture in the far north it will feel wrong (unless they are somehow unaffected by temperature), and if you put a mountain culture in the middle of a plain then it will also feel wrong.  This takes time and thought, so be careful and make sure that you do it well.

Good luck in your world building!

5 thoughts on “World Building Part 2: So Many Blanks

  1. One thing that bugs me more than anything else about so much modern fantasy is that so many authors merger races and people groups (and usually nations). At least, with the non-humans they do. There is ONE elven kingdom, ONE dwarven kingdom, and if they have wild and fae sapient peoples, they are all of the same society. Humans often (though even here not always) show more variety, with several different nations, each representing a people group.

    Now, I don’t have a huge problem with a nation and a people group being the same thing, especially not in roughly medieval fantasy literature where such an approximation isn’t unreasonable. What bugs me is that the elves are apparently a singular entity with one mass identity and little to no variation between them. Elves apparently never disagree with each other. This, to my mind, can only mean one thing: the Elf Queen is actually a master of blood magic and is using her eldrich powers to control the very wills of her entire people! Kim Jong Il, eat your heart out.

  2. Ha! Indeed, though I can certainly see the appeal. After all, building a world with six people groups is a lot easier than building a world with a hundred and twenty. As I mentioned earlier, I generally point to Stargate as the perfect example of this. Apparently most of the planets in the Stargate universe have under 500 people living on them. The fact that these people having been living on world for hundreds to thousands of years really doesn’t matter, because obviously populations never grow.

    However, from the readers perspective, a race with no variation in them is fairly uninteresting. Even if physical characteristics do unify them to a degree (like all elves reasonably similar because they all live for 1000 years, don’t get sick, and don’t gain weight), they are not going to be the same.

    1. I have no problem with six people groups. Just so long as they only represent two or three races, or the races are so small that only one people group could survive, or this is only a snapshot of the world and out beyond those impassible northern mountains there may be other elven peoples, or orcish, or whatever you’re making.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s