Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Building An Empire

Synopsis Series: Part 6

Sorry about the missed posts! I was in hospital having a baby.

The Worst World Building Comes From Laziness

The worst books, the ones I put down right away, are the ones that basically have a historical earth setting, but the author has made no efforts to research and just calls it fantasy, so they don’t have to be historically accurate.

Admittedly, there are some readers that just don’t care about that sort of thing. However the truth is, there are too few people like that to make a book a best seller. Lazy world building will forever keep you in the realms of the mid-list author, and that is the very best you can aim for.

You might think this only affects speculative and historical fiction, but it is just as important in contemporary fiction. The under developed world building there tends to show itself in characters who are all from the same upbringing and location as the author. Not just main characters, but everyone. Its often a book full of white, middle class, lapsed Christians, as if no other people exist in the world. Maybe a few caricatures of billionaires thrown in too, but those billionaires don’t act or think like billionaires, they just act and think like the author with more money.

I honestly can’t be bothered reading books by lazy authors. If you didn’t care enough to do any research or put effort in to developing a rich, full world, why would I want to read it? I’m certainly not going to care about your book more than you do.

That said, world building doesn’t have to be a huge, month long nightmare. I know some writers who can get a bit bogged down in world building. They spend months, even years, focusing on world building and never write the book. Realistically, world building should probably take about a week. I highly suggest supplementing your world building with historical documentaries throughout the year. There are many fantastic British series on how things are made traditionally in tutor times, or Victorian times, everything from thatch roofs to food to pigstys. They’re very enjoyable too, so watch them instead of re-watching ‘the office’ and your evenings being comatose on the couch will be put to good use.


Your magic system needs rules. For all the pros, there has to be cons. Too many authors use magic to solve problems they are too lazy to find solutions for. However a good magic system creates problems and obstacles, not solutions. It should be a source of conflict. Either because of the toll it takes on the user, the social and political implications, or the imbalance of power created when the main character has much less than the villain they are facing.

If you only use magic to make things easier, either for you as a writer, or your characters within the plot, you are doing it wrong. It is also important that once you establish rules and boundaries, you work within them. Magic is not something you can make up on the fly, not if you want to do it well. However when it is done well, it can be one of the most appealing and interesting parts of your novel.

Faith, Religions and Power

Historically, power has always oscillated between the government or monarchy and the church—whatever church it may be. Even today, churches influences politics a lot more than politics influence churches.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, historically speaking, church and religion have always been the cornerstone in community. Most religions call for people to come together and worship regularly, but these sessions of worship also become community networking. And, often, a way of enforcing community standards and guidelines. You have to meet certain moral criteria to be accepted at the church and thus within the community.

The second reason, is that almost all religions promote the idea that life is short, but the soul is infinite. So what happens in life is less important than what happens to the soul after death. Since government and monarchy are often concerned with the here and now, many people can be convinced they are less important than the church, which decides and informs over the eons.

When considering the power structure of any society, religion should be taken into account. Both because of its ability to influence government and policy, and because of the networks it fosters within a community. In any fantasy or historical seeing, the church would almost definitely be the heart of community and socialization. With the rise of the Internet, improved transport and globalization, this has shifted somewhat. However even today, the only thing that influences governments more than religion is money. (And if you believe greed is the work of the devil, then money also falls under religious influence.)

Even if you ‘re not religious, its hard to ignore religion in world building, since I can guarantee every person on earth feels some concern about what happens after death. And this is the fundamental question that religion exists to answer. Thus, even if you are an atheist, it is the one thing all people have in common.

Politics, Social Classes and Commerce

Is your society controlled by government, military, monarchy or the church? Is it democratic? Is it patriarchal or matriarchal? What is the currency of power? Money? Faith? Bloodlines? Military force? What is the power structure of the different classes? How are the poor kept poor? Is it limited education? War? Resource shortages? Faith based manipulations?

Who controls the flow of money and commerce? Who controls resources? Is there room for lateral movement in classes? Is there room for forward movement? Can the lower class ever rise above their station? What keeps them from moving up? Money? Education? Blood? Titles?

Every society has a system of checks in place to control the flow of resources to certain groups, creating at least two classes (rich and poor). Since early times, it has often been as easy as racism. EG: These people are inferior to us, so it is okay for us to make them slaves.

These days, these systems still tend to focus on hate and shame. They usually target weaker, vulnerable groups, such as the sick, the less educated and people of colour. Take any of the following arguments, which I have heard on the news, spoken by politicians or experts:
‘Fat people shouldn’t receive welfare until they lose weight.’
‘People should be forced to take an IQ test before they have children.’
‘Refugees shouldn’t receive welfare, since they came illegally.’

Personal political opinions aside, if you want to make a setting realistic—be it past, present or future, you need to know which groups are being denied access to resources, by who and how.

Food and Waste

Food and waste are huge issues for cities, and place a lot of limits on societies. Just look at ye old London and the early days of New York. Usually government is in charge of sanitation, and if government is slack or non existent, so is sanitation. On average, everyone poops once a day, so multiply the poops by the number of people in the city. Ten thousand people, ten thousand poops on the street in day one. By the end of the week, the same city has 70, 000 poops on the street. Ten thousand people will produce 3, 650, 000 poops in a year. That is not including any livestock such as horses, pigs, chickens, sheep or cattle. Nor does it include cats and dogs. That doesn’t include food waste, or urine either.

And if you have shit, urine and food scraps from people and animals built up in drifts along the street, you also have disease. Its hard to keep hands and food uncontaminated. That poop becomes vomit and diarrhea. People can’t work. The city is full of flies, mice and rats, because rats and mice can eat maggots. Do you see where I am going with this?

Poop aside, you need enough food to feed people in your society. And if you were born in the city, you might think you stick a seed in soil, give it some light and water and a plant grows that people eat. You would be wrong. Plants need food too. Dead things and poop, mostly. But also other nutrients and some plants require soil to be alkaline or well drained or very wet and so on. Growing meat also requires food for the meat, along with water, space and breeding management.

Food and waste a complicated systems and without them, human society—from a family of three, to a huge mega city—can’t run. Too often I just see writers ‘assume it away’, without realizing these issues are constant and major, now, in the past and likely in the future.

In fact, food and sanitation, or lack thereof, have often been used to control populations… or start revolutions. A hungry man doesn’t care who is in charge, only where his next meal is coming from. A woman watching her child starve will do anything. Even march on the capital and eat the president.


Eco systems need to be balanced. If you have a lot of large predators, there needs to be a lot MORE things for those large predators to eat. A male African lion eats about 7kgs of meat a day and weighs about 190kgs. Scale that up to a three tonne dragon and you’re looking at over 100kgs of meat per day. Keep in mind, three tonnes equal to about three very large horses. If you want bigger dragons, dragons that are closer to thirty tonnes, they’re going to eat a tonne of food a day. However a large predator that has to eat every day or it will starve is going to struggle. So a thirty pound dragon might be looking for three tonne food every three days.

And whatever this prey is, there needs to be enough of them to support a breeding population of dragons, which means the prey needs enough food and space to grow and breed. And if you are talking about three tonne herbivores, suddenly that space and food is immense. Keep in mind most large herbivores bred once every year, or even once every two years, and the population to sustain your dragons just keeps growing and growing.

If you are doing a historical, fantasy or sci fi setting, do a rundown of the local ecosystem, the animals and plants, what preys on what and how they interact with your human population. A city of 10, 000 people can’t all be hunter gatherers. People can’t walk far enough and an environment can’t be dense enough in animals and plants for that to be possible. At a certain size, agriculture becomes a must for most of the population.

When your eco system is balanced and feels realistic, your book is more enjoyable for readers, so its worth taking the time to do your homework and math.

Birth, Death and Marriage

Birth, Death and Marriage are said to be the three more important moments of your life. Regardless of if that is true, all cultures have their own unique attitudes, rituals and beliefs regarding these three events. If you plan on just falling back on the ‘default’, then you are showing your own ignorance. Even today, even in a single suburb, the rituals and beliefs around these three occasions will vary greatly. Across history and location, the variations are startling, exciting and fascinating.

When developing a culture in fantasy or sci fi, give thought to how they treat these three events. Even if you are writing a contemporary novel, get out of your comfort zone. Learn about the people around you and how they celebrate, or mourn. The foods, the smells, the songs.

Assuming you are the default is deeply arrogant and narcissistic. If you are going to write about birth, death and marriage as it is in your family and culture, then at least do it the respect of honest and authentic details.

I, for example, will never forget my grandmother’s funeral where a great uncle suggest a cousin and I should go on a date, despite knowing we were cousins. There’s a raw, authentic and very unflattering detail.

Soon, I will get to learn some authentic details about what its like being a trans man giving birth in a major Australian hospital. And if I ever write that scene, I will be dispensing of the assumptions and ‘default’ birth cliches.

Variety In Culture

It annoys the crap out of me in sci fi were the main characters meet an alien race, which has a uniform culture across the entire planet. I can’t think of anything less realistic. Even within restricted, very close knit communities, there are small small differences. A traditional dish that has existed for thousands of years will be made differently by every family—a special family recipe.

Its also rare to find a community that is completely isolated. People have always traveled. No culture sat quietly, farming their land and living their lives. People moved, people explored the world. Travel took a lot longer and was much more dangerous, but it didn’t stop them. You would be surprised if you looked back through history and realized just how early different cultures were in contact.

So it doesn’t matter if you are working with accurate history, or present day, or creating your own culture, remember that isolated cultures are rare, almost non existent. And that truly isolated cultures are often extremely susceptible to disease from outsiders. Your main character who comes from some isolated village that hasn’t made contact with strangers for thousands of years would, realistically, die of the flu come winter.

Static culture is boring and unrealistic. Learn to interweave a realistic and vibrant setting, one influenced by a range of different cultures and people.

Researching Reality

Immersion is the best form of research. Even something as simple as standing on a stool or chair to see how taller people see the world can give you insight into a character. We can’t all afford to travel around the world, living in the cultures we want to write about. But we can go to museum exhibitions, art exhibitions, local import stores, culture clubs and so on. We can also watch documentaries and read books, either histories, or autobiographies, by the sort of people we want to write about.

Its important to look for authentic experiences. If you want to write about Africa, don’t read books by people who went on holiday there, or who are from another culture and lived there. Read books by people who were born and raised in Africa. Read about the cultures and places you want to learn about, as told by the actual people who live there.

And if you do get the chance to immerse yourself fully in a new culture or place, don’t just rely on your own experiences. Talk to people, learn about other people’s experiences. You’re not trying to learn about yourself and your own feelings and reactions, so don’t focus on them.

Of course, if you are writing about a cultural background, or minority, other than your own, its a good idea to get sensitivity readers (readers from that culture or minority who read your book looking for inaccuracies or unintentionally offensive material). Just like editors, sensitivity readers should be paid for their time. So factor that into your budget when costing/planning a novel.

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.


1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire

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