This is my 100th post.
Which is cool. And because that’s cool, I wanted to make sure it was a good post so I’m writing about something I’m really pretty passionate about – building a good world. And I’m going to make it about Steampunk, because having your 100 post is not a good reason to break-up a theme.
There are a couple ways to start building a world. Maybe you have a premise for the whole world. Maybe you have a specific character problem that relies on a certain cultural restraint. Maybe you have a contest offering money for a Steampunk novella and you need to craft a non-Victorian Steampunk.
Either way, you need to grow that kernel of an idea into an entire populated world. I can’t tell which saddens me more, would-be writers with incredibly detailed worlds and no characters or plots to live there or would-be writers with a world just like ours except for one weird quirk that only seems to exist to inconvenience the really well-crafted protagonist.
Starting with a concept and filling in the story.
For me, this is the easier of the two starts. I can always find a character to play in a world. But here’s some questions to ask to flesh out a world and find the forces your characters are going to be fighting against.
- Who takes out the trash? Enforces the laws? Takes care of the children?
- What are the society’s ideals? Tell the story of a person in conflict with them.
- Who does this society “other”?
- Consider basic story types. I think Seven Plots is limiting yourself and I, of course, would add Romance to the list, but there are worse places to start than the seven basic plots. How can one of those plots work well into your world.
I’ll answer these questions for The Scribbling Windhund. I wanted a Steampunk version of Fredrick the Great’s Prussia. So, I started by researching about this time period in German history and by researching the man himself. My man, Fritz, was a benevolent dictator, almost certainly gay, and obsessed with the ideals of the Enlightenment, service to state before self, and a military genius. His legacy has been a bit muddied in America (Hitler compared himself to Frederick the Great), but I wondered what his ideal society would look like with more modern technology.
So, the concept for my Prussia became a society of people who prized the work of artists, craftsmen, and thinkers, who idolized their military, and who strongly believed in service to the state above self.
People who prized these ideals so much, that they build a city on top of their old city dedicated to their ideals.
I knew this world would be a very pretty place, with gardens and art on every building. There would be intellectual salons, state-sponsored concerts. Basically, a society built around high-brow arts. The restaurants would all run by people who were passionate about food. Every architect would be a visionary. Everyone who wanted to grow up and be an artist, or a writer, or a singer would have an outlet (that wasn’t the internet).
So, who enforces the laws?
Obviously, a strong military. Who takes out the trash and takes care of the kids was harder. Since artistic and intellectual types are incapable of tending to demeaning labor like doing their own laundry and changing diapers, someone else had to do it. But if all education was designed to create artists and philosophers… maybe the military would have to force them to do it.
This took me down a weird 1984 path. Where I started to ask what would happen to the non-artistic and I realized their only place in society would be the military protecting the artists, or in the service industry taking care of the artists. I decided to combine them, so that this sectors military is enormous—over half of the population. The people who take out the trash are soldiers. The ones who repair the roads? Soldiers. The lady behind the counter at the DMV? A soldier. The person doing your taxes. Actually, I’ve met accountants that are very passionate about money, that’s probably an artist’s specialization.
Growing the military to this size made for an interesting twist on this Artist’s Utopia. Would I live in a place that paid me to write, if I was constantly monitored by the military? I don’t think I would.
Which brings me to…
Who is not in line with the society’s ideals?
Since Prussia is a society build around service to the state, idolization of the principles of Enlightenment and arts, someone who doesn’t trust the military-state would be on the outs. Also someone one who either wasn’t an artist, or for some reason had been excluded from the society.
This character became Karl, my terrorist. The champion of the poor, the ugly, the uneducated, and those left behind and erased from history when this perfect society was created. While being a master craftsman himself, Karl knew too many people who did not possess these talents who had been overlooked when the society built itself.
Who is othered?
I cheated on this one, because I decided to make Prussia a conservative country as well and reflect some problematic beliefs about what the ideal family looked like. This led to second-class citizens, people who had mental, physical, or emotional limitations and needed special protection from the government. Religious zealotry (i.e. any worship) and homosexuality fell into this category.
I liked the idea of making second-class citizens, people who weren’t ostracized so much as limited. They needed to be protected from the harm they do to themselves and can’t be put in positions where their limitation might affect their judgement. It gets creepy.
But this idea brought me to my second character, the everyday average man in this society. Otto, a good Prussian boy, who believes in his sector’s military, his own sexual limitations, and the superiority of this system… until he meets the terrorist.
Starting with a character and filling in the story.
It’s a littler harder to build a world around a character with a cultural restraint/element. The trouble really comes from having a great idea that relies on one aspect of the character being persecuted. It can make the world seem unfairly biased against the character and ultimately unrealistic.
Here’s the questions to ask about the cultural restraint/element.
- Could this kind of cultural restraint/element exist in the real world? How is it treated and what are you saying by placing it in this context?
- How do true-believers in this restraint/element view it? If the justification sounds evil or unlikely, then chances are you need to think more about this element.
- What other aspects of the society would be affected by the restraint/element? For example, if your element is that your character has a steam-powered airship, what else is the society doing with that technology?
- Who is in charge of this restraint/element (who created it)?
I could cheat again and talk about Otto’s homosexuality and how Prussia monitors and restricts him because of it, how I based it off of conservative communities in real life and the logical conclusion of enforcing anti-sodomy laws, and how the authorities in Prussia view homosexuality as dangerous to the individual…
But, I’m going to focus on the actually technology instead.
There are two big technological element I created for this story. The Environmental Dome and the DikTak. Both of them are vital to the story, but the dome exists in a vacuum I had to explain away.
So the character premise was: a terrorist escapes a prison by sneaking parts off an unobtrusive clock-work machine and using it to remove the environmental dome that’s been keeping all his friend imprisoned underneath the current city.
I’ll start with the DikTak. This is a simple clockwork automaton that functions as a note-taking machine because it can record what it ‘hears’ and ‘sees.’ Since I wanted the DikTak as the narrator of the story, it needed to be able to ‘see’ which is fairly advanced (it only sort of exists in real life). However, it had to be unremarkable enough to be allowed into a prison, which meant Prussia had to have not only clock-work devises by extraordinarily complex ones or else they would need to remark on how weird the DikTak was.
I could have left the DikTak as the solitary technological advancement (since its an invention of local genius, Karl Schneider), but I thought it would feel more organic in a world filled with other advancements. So, Otto mentions it casually like an advanced watch or toy. The characters don’t react to the machine like it’s extraordinary. There’s other technology like it. We see a clock-work telegraph machine in action and Otto draws attention to another piece of clockwork that is even more advanced. The clockwork in the prison-tower.
So that’s how the technology effects of the aspects of the world. If I got out of the DikTak’s narration, I would show other elements of Prussian life, which probably include clockwork sidewalks and staircases. It was created fairly recently since Karl’s designed are still used by clock-work re-creationists, but it’s entered enough into daily use for a little mechanical dog to not be notably out of place.
The second big piece of tech I had was the environment domes. So far this doesn’t exist in the real world, though as a metaphor for a strict border I was saying some pretty interesting things by keeping it impermeable and having the government forcing people to remain trapped inside it.
This had to be a complicated and not easily understood technology (it takes my genius a decade to break it). If it was a simple technology that was widely understood, then the people in the Undercity would be able to fabricate their own and certain plot elements would fall apart.
So it sounds pretty evil, which meant I had to take some time to ensure that the readers saw why it was necessary. Life without the dome is impossible because the environment is unlivable outside of them. Yup, I might be saying something with those domes…
Because the domes are complex, they are not widely used in society. There’s no thunderstorm rooms, or snow-filled parks—at least not in Prussia.
And of course, in Prussia the military controls the dome. Until, of course, they don’t…
The Fantasist is a quarterly online magazine that publishes three original Fantasy novellas on the third Thursday of every third month.
And this month, while they celebrate Steampunk, one of them is mine!