IN THE BEGINNING . . . there was a lot of planning

By Steven Savage
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This week, we look at developing the foundations of your world - the origin and ecology/ecologies that are the basis for what happens in your setting. For some worlds, the level of detail and research vary, but either way you'll discover a lot to write about and a lot to think about.

Where does it all come from?

The answer is not as simple as it may seem - after all, you sort of have to ask where the entire universe you write in came from and how it acts. In many cases, the answer will likely be "pretty much like our own," and you'll be able to assume gravity works like normal, the sun shines, space is big and airless, and you can get to finer details.

It is these very things, the basics of the universe, that require you to give some thought to the origin of your world. Once you know where it comes from, you can figure out how things work. If your world is like ours, necessary research can be done by simple common sense or a trip to the library or the internet.

However if the universe is different than ours on some basic level, you have some thought to put in. Perhaps its a complete fantasy universe built by gods, or some strange, unusual realm unlike our own. Either way, once you get very different from our world, its time to start asking questions about "where it all begins and why."

Designing the settings your characters will actually experience can be difficult - building a universe to hold those settings is a challenge. Get the details you need, but you're only human at the same time. Ask yourself what you will definitely need to know, and then fill in any blanks that appear to be obvious or potentially a problem.

A good way to figure out the vital questions to help you think so high-level is - "how does this universe differ from our own." Once you have that vital information, with a little thought, you probably have all you'll need to know.

There's no way to describe everything you'll face in thinking about a universe, and no way for me to write it. Its a universe, you're a human. Remember that.


How worlds works.

You've got your universe (or you used our pre-made universe as your template), and in it is your setting, perhaps a world or series of worlds. Your setting(s) will have ways things function, sites, inhabitants, interactions, plants, animals - in short, ecologies.

Now there's many way that people can think of ecology. The definition I use is "organisms and their environment and their relationships". In other words, when I'm talking ecology, I mean the contents/inhabitants of the world and their relations.

Again, if the world is like ours, you can probably get an idea of how things work. However, there are a few things that people tend to forget when dealing with real or fictional ecologies I'd like to detail.

  1. An ecology is about the exchange of energy and relations. Herbivores eating plants is a simple exchange of energy - but too many herbivores and you suddenly have starvation. A massive city miles away from a water source is going to require some creative methods of getting valuable H2O.
  2. An ecology is also dynamic because of its connections. Push something and things change and adapt. Things grow and mutate and develop. A simple change can be just the right one to have long-ranging effects.
  3. Finally, I find its best to conceive of an ecology as a self-regulating system. It's not just predators and prey - its relations and symbiosis and complicated cause-and-effect. Nothing in the ecology is truly outside of the ecology or its effects - even those that leave their native ecology have to make the effort to adapt to new settings or otherwise ensure survival.

So, to flesh out your ecology, ask:

  1. Who/what's in it? What are the major plants, animals, residents, continents, and why?
  2. How do the "residents" of the ecology relate and thus define each other?
  3. How does the ecology keep going (unless its running down, then you've got to figure out how a dynamic system is dying, and probably have a heck of a plot right there)?

You may face a lot of detail here, but remember - you're trying to design a complicated system. It's a system that is necessary - without at least some sense of who's in your settings and how they interact, your worlds will be lifeless and hard to believe. In a world that's lifeless, when characters push, nothing happens, and explaining how things occur becomes an effort because nothing is really going on.

Let's take a look at an example of the importance of understanding ecologies - the ever popular fantasy rampaging hordes of orcs/goblins/whatever. Sure, rampaging hordes are nice - but what do they eat? If they burn and pillage everything, they'll destroy a lot of raw materials, drive away food animals, and have nothing to survive on if they retreat. What do they do for water? Add in that they obviously annoy people, and their lifespans are in doubt. A standard mindless rampaging horde is pretty inefficient and self-defeating, ecology-wise, and thus hard to believe and write realistically.

However, if you design your rampaging horde with your ecology in mind, it becomes more believable. Have them become expert hunters so they can survive. Let them torch encampments and destroy supplies and poison wells - but cache supplies for emergencies. Give them the survival skills and the common sense they need to ravage effectively and believably in an environment. Now you've got a credible threat that lives credibly, and is going to take believable actions to defeat - like destroying cached supplies, ambushing them during hunts . . .

Do your best, and remember your limits. Again, remember there's only so much you can do at this level, but be sure you do enough to make your ecologies live.


Same thing, different levels.

If you think about it, though, in a way isn't your universe an ecology, just like your planets. And isn't a forest sort of an ecology, as well as a community, a family, or even a character's mind?

Your world is really just part of an interlinked series of "ecologies," of relations between things. A person connects to a community - and both influence each other. A city affects its surrounding area, but at the same time is its own world, its own ecology.

Ecologies within ecologies . . .

NEXT WEEK: Intelligent life and culture - if you can't find it, make it!