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Worldbuilding: Superstitions

It might not surprise you to learn that supersition ties into your culture as well. Your culture, after all, is built on your terrain and the available resources. Superstitions are much the same way. In order to create a good superstition however, it helps to understand what they are.

By definition, superstitions are beliefs or practices based on beliefs in the supernatural. Often these aren’t based in fact, but they may be based on a false idea of causaution. For example: having a lucky item. If you happen to have that particular item on you when you’re having a good day, you might think of it as ‘lucky.’ Your brain then subconsciously looks for more evidence to back up that idea while disregarding anything that refutes it. In other words: If you think an item is lucky, it will be. The same thing happens in reverse.

Because of that however, things like old wives’ tales tend to persist because lots of people have heard them, and because our brains are looking for reasons to believe them (or not, dependent on your view). Stepping on a crack in the sidewalk won’t really break yours or anyone else’s back, but a common schoolyard rhyme warns against doing just that: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

Superstitions also include practices. Things like throwing salt over your shoulder, or knocking on wood are done to ward off bad luck. Picking a penny up face-up off the street invites good luck (some claim this is especially true in regards to finances). Other practices making a wish on a star, or kissing a necklace clasp before putting it behind you. These little rituals are things that you or someone you know might do without putting much thought behind it, a sort of ongoing habit that you almost know doesn’t mean much, but you still do. Just in case.

As I mentioned at the top however, superstitions tie into your culture. In some places, certain colors are considered lucky. Red wedding dresses are signs of good luck in China and India, but a daring and even deadly choice in western cultures. Finding a place to start building your supersition is as easy as lookign at some of your ceremonies. What colors are associated with those ceremonies?

Another place to look at is the animals your created people would be exposed to. Cats are one such example. The Japanese maneki neko is a cat believed to bring good luck to its owners. On the other hand, black cats have picked up an unfortunate and undeserved label of bad luck due to old fears of witchcraft and evil. Similarly, snakes are considered bad,  and some practices include nailing a dead snake over the door to prevent illness. Examine which animals your people would deal with, and some of the trouble (or lack of trouble) they might cause. Keep in mind that other superstitions can affect how an animal is perceived: cats in general after all, are supposedly lucky, it’s only black cats that are supposed to be unlucky.

One final place is also in your plants. Knocking on wood is one common superstion, with little known about it’s actual origins. Making wishes on dandelions is another. Plants have a number of uses, from food to medicine, which makes them a prime place for superstitions. Plants that are difficult to grow in a gardens and herb beds might come across as ‘lucky’ plants for those that can get them to seed and sprout. Interestingly this can lead to some curious beliefs as certain plants should never be given away: instead have a friend ‘steal’ them from your garden.

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Worldbuilding: Culture Introduction

Now that you’ve got a world and maybe even a city or two to populate your world, you might need to think about culture. In very broad terms, culture is the customs, arts and intellectual achievements of a given region. Culture is in itself, a broad term because of how much in encompasses. Although culture is has an extensive reach and is deeply engrained in society, society only dictates the people and hierarches of those living in a particular area. Culture dictates the beliefs, cuisine, art and morals of that same group.

One form culture takes is that of customs. These might be the customs of social behaviors such as etiquette or manners. Custom also includes tradition, such a how you celebrate a holiday or even just a birthday. Here in the US, we tip servers and bartenders, it’s expected and often when it’s not done waitstaff will grump about being stiffed–largely because it’s so ingrained in our culture their wages are  based on getting those tips. Over in England, tipping isn’t done.  It’s one social custom that changes between culture, and there are plenty of other examples as well. Handshakes, greetings, even terms of endearment vary across cultures.

Another place form of culture is in the arts. Not only is this in paintings, sculpture and literature, but also in the music and performing arts such as dance and theatre. Music is an exceptional case for this. Latin music uses a variety of percussion instruments such as bongos, the guiro, and pandeiro among others alongside string instruments similar to guitars, which create lively beats. Heading into music from China and Japan, we find more string and wind instruments such as the dizi, erhu, shakuhachi, and the taiko drum, resulting in more somber and calming music. Both types of music are beautiful, but very different from one another.

The final place for culture I’d like to mention is in intellectual achievement. This doesn’t mean in how smart a culture is. This applies to the beliefs, laws and morals they hold to be true. That leaves a lot of room for variation, and a lot of conflict between cultures and nations.

Also keep in mind that culture is a learned thing. Most cultural behaviors are taught to us by our peers. These aren’t just the manners we learn from parents like please and thank you, but the jokes we learn from our friends we wouldn’t share in front of our grandparents.

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Worldbuilding: Cities and Towns

Creating a city itself is daunting because it’s where civilization and worldbuilding meet. Whether this is a sprawling metropolitan capital or a tiny village, there’s a certain amount of planning that goes into every city.

With cities and towns, size really does matter. More specifically, population size matters. The more people in an area, the higher the demand for resources. As population size increases, so do new demands. A tiny village won’t need as much in the way of wide, four-lane roads as a bustling city will. Conversely however, a tiny village may not need as many items imported from outside because there won’t be a great demand for it. Knowing your population size means you can predict what sort of added resources and services the city will need.

Services include things like sewer, trash, public parks, street and road maintenance and in some cases, libraries and schools. There’s also some bleed here between public services and law enforcment. The larger the population, the greater the need for police officers, social workers and even groundskeepers to maintain parks. Along with the additional services, there’s an increased strain on infrastructure, meaning roads, bridges, dams and other large-scale constructions need more maintenance and inspections.

While we’re discussing services: also consider the areas companies might service in a city. Most notably, utility services are often given a geographic monopoly because of the pipes and wiring thaty need to be laid for them to supply homes with water, electrcity or sewer. In massive cities where there may be more than one zipcode, delivery services may pick and choose the areas they work in.

When building a city, it also helps to keep in mind how it forms. Cities that grow slowly from village to town to city may feel somewhat disorganized in their layout and feature narrower streets. This is often because the intial layout is set down when the population is much smaller and as a result, as smaller needs. As small cities grow into large ones, the roads loop back and are added onto each other, resulting in the twisting disorganization.  More modern cities may feature straighter roads and a grid-like layout. That same orderly layout also applies to areas that are demolished and rebuilt.


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Worldbuilding: Government Types

While I’m a sucker for the classic fantasy monarchy, there are actually multiple types of government to utilize for worldbuilding. Government itself may be one of the largest components of building a country. Not only do you need to know what it does, but it helps to know what type of government rules.

Starting with the classic and slightly trope-y version, there is of course the monarchyA single ruler who inherits the title, usually king or queen. This can also include emperors. If you’re not sure if you have an emperor or a king remember that you can actually have both. Emperors often rule over multiple kingdoms, allowing kings to handle a single kingdom within the bounds of their empire.

Don’t confuse a monarchy with a dictatorship. Although both are ruled by a single person, dictators rise to power by means of overthrowing or suppressing the original government. This means any type of government can be destroyed by a dictator, as long as the original system is suppressed to allow a single person to rule.

If you’d like to move away from a single-person ruler, there are several options. with oligarchies you have a rule by an elite group. The determination of what makes that ‘elite’ group are up to you. This is usually a small group.

An important note: although oligarchs often end up being wealthy, this is not a requirement to form an oligarchy. A subset of the oligarchy, the plutocracy does mean rule by the wealthy. Plutocracies are always oligarchies, however an oligarchy itself can be determined by things such as military power, aristocracy and even theocracy.

Theocracy comes in two forms. The oligarchy discussed above, in which the elite group are those with the most religious power and influence, and in ‘chosen’ rulers such as the Pharaohs. This means rule by religion occurs as both a group rule and a single ruler. In this case, religion is the defining factor between who can and cannot rule.

The final type of government I’d like to cover here is the democracy. In democratic governments, the will of the people being ruled is the highest power. Although this means that rulers and laws are voted on, it means that the majority opinion is the one acted upon.

Regardless of the kind of government you have, there’s always a concern of how to limit the ruling power. When a government does not recognize the limits on its power, you have totalitarianism. For monarchs and dictators, this leads directly to tyrants. For oligarchies of all forms, you end up with elitism. As the government seizes more power and control, the people it’s supposed to be ruling become unhappy and eventually the general populace may either try to leave, or may incite revolution and war.

One final thing to consider when dealing with government is to consider how control is spread out and managed. With tribalism power and control rests in small, local authorities. With tribalism there is no central power to keep the small groups in check. Each one works with or against its neighbors as it pleases.

When there is a central power to keep the local powers in check, you have federalism. Federalism divides the power of the government between each level. Although this prevents any one authority from taking over the rule of another area, it can also create confusion when regions have conflicting policies.

Government is a complex thing. Each type has a dozen nuances, benefits, considerations and disadvantages to consider. Research will be necessary.

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Worldbuilding: Building a Magic System

Being a fantasy writer, one of the biggest parts of building a world often includes creating a magic system. Personally it’s also one of my favorite parts. Writing in itself is a kind of magic, but where my ability to make things happen is limited to what happens on the page, the limits are entirely set by the rules of your world.

Any magic system needs to hit three points: the rules, the limits and the costs. Magic in itself can very well take any form you please, be that the wand-waving spells in Harry Potter, to elemental prowess from Avatar and even into psionic powers such as in Matilda. Regardless of the form, those three points dictate how magic works.

Rules define what magic is. This includes the form it takes, what the power source is and who can have it. This also covers any laws or regulations you may have. Consider things like if there are uses of magic that might be illegal, or if magic is outlawed entirely, if there are ways of using it legally. When determining a power source also consider if there’s a way to measure how strong magic is, and what the difference in power levels might be. As you figure out who can and can’t have magic, also look at when magic most commonly expresses itself; after all you may not want a toddler with the ability to demolish buildings.

Limits are self-explanatory. What can magic do and what can’t it do? It also helps to know what happens when someone attempts to push passed the limits of what can be accomplished with magic.

Costs of magic splits between physical cost and material cost. Physical cost includes energy, willpower or even lifespan. Once you’ve determined what a magic user pays to physically activate their magic, consider if they can push the cost off onto someone or something else. This may cross over into material cost: what does your character need to direct it? This may include things like well-known spell ingredients eye of newt, the magic wand and books. For systems that require learning, this is another part of cost: what it takes to gain magic. Keep in mind as well that not every system has a material cost.

Addressing the rules, limits and costs of your magic system gives you a framework to build specific details from such as spells, rituals and magical items. It can also open up new questions as you flesh out the system, helping you solidify and diversify magic in your world.