World Building 101: Human Universals

World Building 101: Human Universals

Yes, Virginia, there are some common universal traits that go across every culture, every religion, and every civilization in human history. These are things that are so ingrained into us that we will tend to obey them without thought whether our skin is as pale as an alba blossom or dark as pitch, whether Dr. House would call us danglers or say that our genitals are aesthetically pleasing, or even which particular deity we do or do not pray to when we’re in the foxhole with a grenade sans pin.

Some of these are taboos that we don’t even really have to think about: don’t have sex with your kids, your parents, or your siblings (and stfu about the pharaohs because that’s the sole exception I can find that was practiced with regularity). Don’t kill your immediate family. There is a mystical being watching you so nothing you do is perfectly hidden and if you make this being mad, things will go bad for you. Other universals have to do strictly with the fact that, on average, males and females are different in a biochemical sense. Social differentiation tends to follow this biochemical lines where men in tribal to late-Industrial societies tackle jobs that require use of their raw strength while women tend to go for jobs that maximize their dexterity and are within their (somewhat lesser) raw strength (and believe me, it takes some serious strength to be a farm wife. Most of those ladies could probably bench-press and dead-lift more than an Army Ranger today!) You don’t see a lot of women in African tribes running out on the savanna chucking spears at antelope and you don’t see a lot of men sewing altar cloths or weaving rugs.

So, those are the general universals. That doesn’t mean you have to use them in your story. Instead, look at them. What are they? Two of them are “don’t screw with your family” and one is “there is something beyond you.” Finally, the physical differences simply say “if there are differences, society will tend to do its best to find a way to make maximum use of it; if you want everyone to be identical and interchangeable, society will treat them as such but you had better be prepared for real equality in this case and not the cobbled-together crap we have right now.”

I’ve seen the last one turned on its head. Probably the most well-known example is the society on Angel I in Star Trek: The Next Generation. This is a world where women evolved to be larger and stronger and men were shorter and more dexterous. Another example is from the Wheel of Time where, since men who channel go insane, women have generally played a larger role in both channeling societies (the Wise Ones, the Windfinders, sul’dam and damane, the Ayyad, and the Aes Sedai) and in ruling in general (Randland runs heavily towards queens since there’s always a risk that any given man could turn out to be a channeler — especially if he’s from a bloodline that has practiced cousin-marriage). This works out to the entire civilization tending to trust women before men.

In economics, there are also some universals. I have yet to find a religion that says “ya know what, if your neighbor has something, it’s cool to beat the shite out of him and take it.” Since religion tends to be the first highly-developed aspect of human culture (even government tends to stem from religion early on), yes, religious views of trade and ownership are important. We can see that there are several religions that out-right forbid things like interest on loans or that regulate, quite strictly, who can be charged interest and how much can be levied. Religions also develop and under-gird most early tax systems (tithing, for instance). However, every religion that I have been able to find has established that trade has to be somewhat voluntary and that equal value has to be exchanged. Yes, yes, religions also teach that a bounty is to be spread around and that the poor should be given charity — usually that stuff comes from the institution itself using the wealth it has taxed (or tithed) from its followers. This giving is generally voluntary (meaning that there’s no punishment beyond shunning for failure to do so). So, when setting up an economy that is more advanced than bartering, you might want to consider what particular universals you’re going to have and where they’ll stem from.


Don’t you dare judge me over the kinds of things I store in my brain.

Economics is one place where gaming things out can either be an eye-opener or can drive you stark-raving mad. For me, I usually do myself a favor and just use one from history. Trust me, when you’ve had three different systems with three different underlying assumptions turn into “Geez, this makes Stalin look like a Boy Scout,” you start to appreciate how great a job history has done of bug-testing and shaking the major problems out of economics for us (not to say it’s perfect yet but the systems we have now are fairly robust).


Yes, you will have to handle these situations in any system. You cannot ignore them if you want to write characters that people might actually understand. If you want to write about perfect angels, may I suggest LSD and starting your own religion?

Next week we’ll go into a bit more detail about workable ways to come up with different social institutions (things like marriage, the family, religious institutions, and basic local government) and the kinds of questions you need to consider in order to determine if something is going to work out the way you want or if you’re going to wind up with one of the aforementioned “Good Lord, even Stalin would consider this a bad idea” kind of situations.

— G.K.

World Building 101 — Story Drivers

World Building 101 -- Story Drivers

Once you’ve finished asking yourself the major questions I mentioned in last week’s post, you’re in a fairly good place to start working on writing the story in your world. That said, though, before you get into writing too far, you will want to take a few minutes — maybe even an hour — to think about what events drive your story.

Yes, yes, there’s all kinds of cool things happening in your story. Otherwise, it’d be about as interesting as watching paint dry or grass grow. Still, all of these things that are going on in your story — battles, wars, arranged marriages, kidnapping, OMGEXPLOSIONS, whatever — all have their origins in things that happened before the story begins. Your characters will probably make references to historical or mythological events that are part and parcel of their culture but may not mean anything to the reader unless you take a second to explain it. You’ll want to develop these things well and have the shorthand references down before you have your characters do things like swear that they should pull a Seostaz* and claim the hill in the name of Zara**.

Robert Jordan was awesome at doing this with Mat Cauthon. After Mat went through the doorway in Rhuidean, he started making all kinds of references that even scholars in Randland wouldn’t have gotten. However, Jordan could weave those and the explanations into his story in a way few others can do — myself included — without data dumping.


If you get this reference, you are awesome

So, what do you do? Well, instead of having your characters say something like “This is another Antietam” and then going into a long explanation about what the Battle of Antietam was, try having them say “I feel like the Spartans at Thermopylae,” “But they won, didn’t they?” “Nope.” That right there tells your readers that the character feels like the underdog in a fight who did well enough that another character (unless that character is a moron) would think they won. No need to go into the whole history of Greece and Persia. Just a quick explanation that covers the high points.

You do want to be careful, though, when coming up with cultural references, historical events, and mythological references that you don’t find yourself going down too many rabbit holes. I generally keep to a rule of five — no more than five of each. If I find myself needing more than that, I know that I need to spend a lot more time building the history because I’m writing a story that spans at least five hundred years. Now, there are times you do want to do that. One of my sci-fi series I’m working on here and there is set 10,000 years in our future. I do have to develop a full history for that filled with wars, societies, religions, scientific advances, Dark Ages, and more. That’s not because every detail I sketch out in my backstory is going to come up but it is because I need to have all of this down cold so I can explain why two different groups diverged as much as they did.

Next week we’ll talk about the very basic universals found in religion, politics, and economics and why studying human history can help you develop a workable world.

— G.K.

*Made this up. No clue what it means.
**Ditto the above.

Interesting Google Searches

Interesting Google Searches

So, I’m writing a story (not that this is news) and I was looking for a way to describe someone who has dark skin without coming right out and saying “this dude is black” because, well, that has specific cultural connotations and this culture pre-dates the Big Bang. This led me to what is probably the most convoluted Google search I have ever conducted.

Hint: if you’re looking for a way to describe skin tones, Googling is usually a bad idea. You will waste about three hours filtering through irrelevant crap before you finally find something that is close to, but not quite, what you were looking for. I learned more about foundation, face powder, how to pick the best color for any given complexion, how to hide freckles, how to highlight freckles, which color eyeshade goes well with which color iris, and where I can get contact lenses that will make my sclera (the whites of the eyes) black.

By the time I finally found a suggested list of ways to describe skin color, I was beginning to doubt my own sanity. However, I finally stumbled on this Tumblr post and got exactly what I wanted.

I will say this: it is difficult to describe skin colors when one of your Rules is “This Is Not Earth — Don’t Use Historical Earth Descriptions.” That meant that unless I wanted to say that someone’s skin was literally black — and I’m talking onyx black here — I had no quick reference to use. In my world, if a character were to say “the best wine-maker in the city is Prenia — she’s black with long hair” people would assume that her skin color was somewhere between pitch and coal. If Prenia actually has warm brown skin, no one would recognize her from the description as “black.” The trouble is that “brown” skin can describe (for us) anyone who is African, Indian, Amerindian, Arabian, or even Caucasian with dark hair. Fair skin is easy to deal with — you can’t have fair or pale skin tones without implying that the person is further down the “pink” end of the skin tone scale. But describing people who aren’t fair skinned without making any Earth-culture reference is actually a bit tricky. I can’t say “Mediterranean” or “Asiatic” or anything like that. I have to give the literal color and tone of the skin. Figuring out how to do that without just playing Crayola is not easy.

So, for those of you who are considering doing the same, I composed this somewhat helpful graphic to aid you in your endeavors. It’s nowhere near exhaustive — there’s a near-infinite number of ways you can mix overtones and undertones or deal with shades of the seven groups I’ve put here.

Do you have some suggestions for words that could be added to this list? Feel free to let me know either here or on Facebook. If I use your suggestions, I will give you credit for them!

— G.K.

World Building 101

World Building 101

In light of a semi-serious comment I made on Facebook earlier about my latest stories tending to build worlds where humans don’t exist, I thought that this would be a great time to start posting about world building in general. I’ve been told that my world building and alt-history worlds tends to be my strongest suit as a writer. I also read a lot of fiction that attempts various world building schemes and are not as successful as they could be if they used methods akin to what I do without much thought.

So, what is world building? Well, I’m sure that there’s some fancy-ass dictionary term defining it but I tend to ignore that crap. World building, to me, means building a world to work the way you need it to in order to tell an interesting story. In order to do this, though, you have to sit down and ask yourself a few questions before you start writing. Below are some of the first questions you should consider.

Yes, you'll do a lot of work the reader never sees. This is why writers are masochists. Deal with it.

  1. Sci-fi, hard sci-fi, fantasy, or a mix of them?
  2. Is your story about a far-future civilization? Is it about an advanced race of mortals (notice I don’t say “humanoids”) who have technology most of us haven’t even imagined in our wildest dreams? If so, then your world building will be a lot different than someone who is planning a story set in a world with only a pre-Industrial technological level.

  3. What is my opening salvo?
  4. Are you writing about a group of plucky young mortals who are going to overthrow an oppressive system? Are you writing about a planet about to be destroyed? Is your world about to undergo a major war between Good and Evil? All of these will have very different backstories to give rise to the current history in your setting. You’ll have to think about where the oppressive system came from or what is going to cause planetary destruction (and it’s harder to destroy a planet than you think). What defines “Good” and “Evil” in your world and why?

  5. Will I be relying on or avoiding deus ex machina?
  6. Some stories simply will not work without a deus ex solution. That doesn’t make them bad stories — hell, look at Doctor Who! — but it does mean that if you take away the deus ex, the story fails. Most writers tend to avoid relying on such things and get irritated when their worlds’ internal logic won’t let them get to the particular point Q they need to be at without a deus ex machina. Writers who find themselves painted into that particular corner need to go back and examine the foundations of their world. Usually, if you hit that point, you’ve done something silly such as assume that your world and your mortals must follow Earth and human logic.

    COME AT ME, BRO

    That’s crap. I’m working on a story about quasi-sixth dimensional mortals. Sure, they have humanoid bodies but they also have senses humanity couldn’t dream itself up ever because humanity can’t visualize a tesseract without getting a collective nosebleed. Their technology and the ways in which they interact and interface with it resemble ours almost not at all. They also don’t follow our human logic. Why should they? They are not bloody human! Instead, I’m making their society internally consistent with itself. Sure, they have emotions, goals, and ambitions that us poor quasi-fourth humans can sympathize and empathize with. Still, they ain’t human.

  7. What is magic like in my world?
  8. Yes, you do ask yourself this even if you’re writing the hardest of the hard science fiction. Technology is magic that works within our laws of physics. If you doubt that, consider for a moment what would happen to the poor sod who fell into a wormhole that spit him out in 1387 AD London and who happened to have a flashlight with him. Yep — he’d be considered a witch because, even though a flashlight is technology (and rather simple tech at that), it’s magic to someone from seven centuries ago.

Once you’ve asked and answered these questions, you’re ready for some of the more advanced stuff such as considering your world’s mythos, its history, societies, economics (and yes, even a world that would give Marx a hard-on has economics), climate, weather patterns, and the rest. We’ll get into those things next week, though, because otherwise I’ll be here until March writing this post.

Don't build another Earth. Earth v1.0 sucked balls.

Do you have any questions or see anything I missed? If so, hit me up here or on Facebook and I’ll see what I can do!

— G.K.