In this worldbuiling installment (finally!), we’ll be talking about people, including communities and ruling bodies. If you are writing high fantasy or space-faring science fiction, you’re much more likely to be using various species in your work than those in other genres, but hopefully this can also apply to regular fiction.
People are naturally the prime recourse for characterization and insight in a story, and you’ll want to spend a fair amount of time making sure you have a solid basis to go on once you’re in the thick of writing. Nothing can set a tone so well as knowing the general attitudes and views of the people or species you’re working with, and the various modes of thought represented. As Lord of the Rings and Star Trek are prime examples of writers using multiple species in their well known works, we’ll be using them throughout this section.
Types of people
Make sure that you spend some time thinking about the various groups of people that would naturally inhabit your environments. Magical lands are very likely to have magical peoples and creatures, while space will likely have aliens. It seems basic, but they can also overlap, and you may want to carefully avoid having a type of species just to have them–they should feel organic and appear in the story where they should appear.
Gathering places like markets, inns, and the space federation’s academy are likely to have many different types of species, craftsmen, or entertainers than someone’s home or the local small town general store. A courtier would be as out of place in a general store as a dirty mine worker in the court. If they show up there, it should be for a purpose. Don’t throw in something interesting that isn’t followed up on.
Also consider what types of people would become helpful that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of. Every city has sanitation workers. Nearly all wealthy or important people have some kind of assistant, secretary, or steward–and they often know more about how things work. Someone monitors the power relay in the maintenance tube running through Deck 5, and the Captain should at least recognize their name. All of these people also know something, may be able to get places the other characters can’t, or be in a position to oversee a certain change.
No matter what type of species you’re building, take into consideration two prime factors: why the story needs them, and where they come from. These will do the most to determine how they developed and who they are. Try to find some duality–some of the same characteristics can be used as to why they’re needed for the story, and for something unique about their species. Below, we’ll look at some species by personality, as well as ties between their personality and other aspects of their species.
In Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits fill some very specific needs in the story of the War of the Ring–they are small, resilient, creative, and have impressive aim when throwing stones at enemies.
In Star Trek, there was a need for both a species of wise sages, and a warrior race. These were filled by the Vulcans and Klingons, respectively, and they remain two of most popular non-Earth species to appear on the show.
The Vulcan species personality is one of logic, calmness, and emotional detachment. They strive only for the best in whatever they do. This serves the purpose of making them wise scholars and good guides for Humans as they ventured out into space, and then in the creation of the United Federation of Planets. However, it’s also closely tied to their inability as a species to control their emotions. The meditation and logic which makes them very wise also suppresses strong emotions which would otherwise take them over and leave them without control over their own actions. Many of their rites and rituals resolve around this idea of control verses chaos–pon farr and kolinahr, for example. The point at which suppressing ones emotions was possible was also a huge turning point in their history as a species, enabling them to avoid self-extinction and causing one another great pain and suffering.
The Klingon species personality, on the other hand, is one of fierce warriors whose greatest glory is to die in battle. There’s a lot of inter-house fighting, and codes of honor, while strict, aren’t always apparent to other species. They are rough, direct rather than mannerly, and find many things acceptable that we don’t.
Some of this personality shows in their physical appearance, but the need for this type of species on Star Trek also informed much of their history. For example, their homeworld is poor in resources, so aggressively fighting for resources, and then building their empire was seen as a necessity in order to bring in resources. Their greatest hero, Kahless, was a great warrior who unified the species and created the Klingon empire, has been revered into a god-like status.
Klingons are so aggressive that it is hard for them to get along with other species, and invades almost every aspect of their culture. Courtship and sexual interest is oven conveyed with violence. Battle is the highlight of ones’ day, and they teach their children to fight and protect their interests from an early age. Aggressiveness is also applied to family, and one’s House, and Klingons will fiercely defend their house to the last, even if we would consider them in the wrong. This is where aggression ties in with their codes of honor.
Remember that most residential town, cities, and neighborhoods encompass all age groups. Exceptions will be places like schools or academies which are primarily younger people. However, even within most communities, there may be reason for an imbalance. A town which had the plague recently will have a very small population, and the old and young are particularly susceptible to disease. Mining towns may loose a lot of men to the unsanitary conditions and therefore have a lack of old men.
Sometimes environmental conditions may also play a role. Many older people like warmer climes, or such places may also have a high tourist rate. Even small towns may have a lot of tourists if they are in the right setting, or are able to offer things tourists like. Another aspect is trade. A lake or river town will have a high percentage of fishermen, while one near a mine will have a lot of jewelers. A capitol city is likely to have major dignitary councils and heads of trade or other groups, as well as a high percentage of servants.
Think carefully before assigning life goals or dreams to major characters, and consider where they come from. Yes, many people have far-flung hopes at times, but an over-surplus of these does not lend itself to believeability.
Think about what type of people the community will need. What functions need to be included? Do you need farmers, miners, maybe your Court will need entertainers. Everyone has a place, and in some cases those without a specific role will be cast out. If your character’s home town is a pleasure center or tourist city, you’ll need tour guides, trash collectors, and ticket takers much more than in a farming village.
The roles needed in the community may also have a hand in determining any class distinctions or sizes. A port town may have many merchants but much fewer blue-blooded nobles. The King’s castle, however, will be primarily nobles and an army of servants, with a clearly defined pecking order. This can allow you to play around with roles and whether your character(s) fit into them. Most often, characters have stories because there is a miss-fitting.
In most cases, people have outlooks based on their functions, and the crowd can sway votes, actions, and negate what even a very powerful character is trying to do if they disagree. Their moral focus can drive them, whatever that moral is, and whether it is thought right or wrong by others. A great example of this is that servant classes, while often very low in rank, often have higher moral standards than their masters. It can less acceptable to break code and rank downstairs than upstairs.
Ruling bodies can be used to effect how people live through the laws the make. They can plunge the world into chaos or lift up a shining light of hope. These things can go incredibly far in how people feel about their world and where they live. And because we’re writing stories, it’s often very helpful to understand especially how bad governments effect people. Your characters may want to move elsewhere, or depose the ruler. They may want to bring peace, or keep an evil man from destroying it. Ruling bodies can also effect what people want and desire, by helping to determine what is acceptable in society.
Who are they?
Ruling bodies consist of the people in charge. Most of us know what kind of people are in charge in our stories–it may be dictated by the setting (fantasy kingdom or space federation), or who the bad guy is (an evil tyrant who should be removed). Later on we’ll talk about different government functions, but overall, they will set the tone of the world.
People living in a dictatorship or under tyranny are often afraid to speak and act in certain ways, and often live in various states of fear. While a brave few will challenge the way things are, they are usually made examples of and die painfully. People living under many of the Tudor monarchs, for example, were afraid to say the wrong thing, in case something innocent was construed as treason or heresy.
Henry VIII is known to not only have had a temper, but a serious head wound made him even more unstable for the rest of his life–many noted this change of character in the King for the worse, which often resulted in chaos. If he didn’t like you for a few days, you could end up dead. He plunged England into sudden non-Catholicism, and almost overnight, being a Catholic could also get you killed. When his daughter Mary became queen, suddenly the opposite was true.
Environments such as this can do a lot to the people under such governmental control, and you may be able to use this to your advantage in a story.
Where are they located?
This answer to this question may depend on what form of rule is needed. Some societies have parliaments, and others councils. One of the species I work with has a ruling council made up of the head of each community organization–Water, Schools, Industry, Waste Management, to name a few. Here, it became much more important as to where the council meets and is located–they want to avoid favoritism. While a King can choose to build his castle where he pleases, even sometimes without sense, some governments must put more thought into it.
A space federation or alliance, likewise, may choose a central location, a planet, or space station near the center of the alliance, or a democratic city may put their council building at the city center.
Some questions as to how this relates specifically to people include: who lives around the seat of power? Is it easy to get to–is cooperation needed? Does anyone live there (castle), or is it a place of work only (council building)? What kind of facilities does it have–a single large council room? Several smaller courts? Other amenities?
Who do they serve?
What is the most important population to the ruling body? This, taking into account species focuses, is how they govern. If the king’s most important mission is to have a male heir, you might end up with Henry VIII. If the council rules a city made up of 3 different species, they may try to maximize priorities of harmony and acceptance within their laws and public holidays.
Are there different ruling bodies for different classes or ranks of society? If so, how are they tailored for the people they have authority over?
Another important aspect here is how those in authority view themselves. Are they there to maintain order? To serve others? To keep the rulers in charge? You will want to think about whether and how far they are corrupted, if they are deluded into thinking they can control everything, or perhaps whether they have a biased world view based on the power they have.
What do they do?
In Star Trek: Into Darkness, there is a subplot point that the United Federation of Planets is not a military organization. An admiral gives orders that the Enterprise fly into neutral territory and fire on another planet to kill one person in hiding there, and later reveals that he as built a massive battleship. There are several scenes in which other characters register surprise and question some of the orders they’re given–Scotty comments that this clearly seems like a military operation, which Starfleet is not. Because government and military and/or law enforcement often go hand in hand, be very clear in your planning on this aspect of who is in charge.
How do the people in charge go about being in charge? Do they make laws enforced by police state? Do citizens report transgressions? Does the King’s Guard or soldiers (the army) patrol the streets? You’ll want to consider how these things are done.
Your other big thing here is to determine how laws are made. Are petitions brought to a council? Perhaps the Queen declares that only White horses are allowed on Tuesdays, and her council rushes to draw it up. Research suggests that Hitler, for instance, never specifically told his officials to make death furnaces, but made it clear that this was expected. Whatever it is, come up with a system that makes sense for who’s in charge. This may involve people being afraid of a dictator or royal.
People are one of your greatest resources for shedding light on characters, events, or themes. Their world and how they live will help or hinder your protagonist, and how the world is ruled is often used to create overarching plot. Pay attention to these things, and do use them to show attitudes and opinions surrounding things such as: outcast status; new laws or proclamations; holidays; when a terrible crime has been committed. Remember that such opinions hold more weight when they come from believable sources–people who appear to fit into their world and act in accordance.