I openly admit, I am one of those creepy people who will momentarily, or a bit longer than that, cease all brain activity when I come across an author I admire. I just stare for a moment and then when they make eye contact I not so subtly duck my head like a reprimanded dog.
I recently had a Fantasy Con run in with one such person. I’d met Kevin Anderson earlier this year at FanXperience. He’s well-known for his Star Wars novels, but I’ve never been that interested in the series (flay me alive later) so I didn’t care.
He was helpful though and very personable so I purchased the first book in his joint effort series with Brian Herbert, Hellhole . A few chapters in, I was hooked by the details included in the novel that didn’t overwhelm. It made me realize how far my novels still needed to go in their world building.
Unsurprisingly, he was at Fantasy Con as well. I tried to play cool, but refer to first paragraph for how awkward I am in person. He made my day though when, with my eyes firmly directed at the ground, I heard him say “I remember you”.
It was the opening I needed to talk to him about how I’d learned from reading Hellhole. I was expecting him, hoping really, he’d be indulgent and let me just embarrass myself rambling, but he’s far too proactive with aspiring writers to let it end like that. We launched into a full discussion on the importance of world building and some of the information he provides in his lectures on the matter.
My favorite part was PERSIA. People think world building is about the physical landscape and it is. But it’s so much more if you want it to captivate reader, really draw them in. You need to get into the details of the culture in a way that submerges you. PERSIA is an acronym checklist writers can use as a base.
Below is an explanation and a list of some questions to help you get started:
- As a writer, you need to understand how power moves around in your society. Pure anarchy has an unofficial power structure, even if it’s simply don’t piss off people bigger than you. Getting into the why and how can help you flush out why your community in the novel will listen to one person or another.
- How do the governed govern? Is it a royal structure, a pure democracy, something in the middle? Do citizens have any involvement beyond following like sheep and if not why are they content to do so? How are laws made? What types of punishments are considered acceptable for breaking those laws?
- As much as we all know money is important, we forget to really think about economics. Money is not the goal, not really. The goal is having the power to attain desirable goods. If your society uses money, that’s great, but appreciate that it neither starts nor ends there. Remember, “no man is an island” is never more true than when you’re talking about goods and services needed to maintain a certain lifestyle.
- What and who do the people import or export with? Who is the dominant exchange partner and why? Where and how are they getting food? Where do the materials for finished goods come from? Are certain products more desirable than others and why? Does the culture work with a currency or barter system and how does that impact their trade with outside sources? How are goods stored and transported?
- It should go without saying, though it’s a frequently overlooked element. While I do believe people can be motivated by values not connected to a religion, it’s important to notice religion still plays a prominent role even after a few millennia. As a writer, be an observer of the good and bad associated with real religion in order to develop your fictional versions.
- Do they believe in a deities? How does the soul factor into their beliefs? Do they adhere to their doctrine purely or have they developed some modern wiggle room? How does religion play a part in the other areas of their culture? What is it they are trying to achieve, the highest reward for obeying?
- Their level of experience with the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, math) determines the standard of living for its citizens. One of my favorite comments from Kevin on this was when he asked if the people in the community knew the Earth was round. He has an entire epic trilogy, Terra Incognita, where this one question changed the fate of nations. Remember, people are limited by what they don’t know they don’t know.
- What areas are emphasized (navigation, biology, calculus, etc.) and why? What areas do nearby communities excel at that they don’t and why? How advanced is their medicine? How are doctors and healers viewed in the community? How does their technology manifest in offensive/defensive measures? What types of transportation have developed (carts, spaceships, hover boards, etc.)?
- Okay, even he admitted this one was a bit forced for the sake of the acronym. It doesn’t mean what you might guess at first. Another word for it would be “education”. History is different everywhere and knowing which version is being pushed on the youth determines the future. It’s also vital to know what is considered prestigious in academia to know what people aspire to.
- Is education mandatory and to what level? What is involved in the curriculum (math, history, martial arts, agriculture, mind control, dancing, etc.)? Which subjects are considered most important? Who educates (religious members, parents, government employees)? How far do they have to travel? Is education mostly theoretical or practical? Is it expensive or classist?
- It’s not enough to understand the technical details of a culture. You have to also develop their form of expression and creative outreach. Art is not as simple as drawing, but an all encompassing genre. Knowing how the people within this culture choose to exercise their rights, however limited, in order to display what they are feeling is an important step in understanding the depth of the community.
- What is the primary form of artistic expression (dance, drawing, painting, sculpture, singing, opera, acting, literature, digital media, apparel, architecture, graffiti/wall art etc.)? Are any forms banned and, if so, why? What is the least prominent form of expression and why? Do different classes use different mediums? Is art primarily embraced by all or an underground effort? What message is the art trying to portray? Who is the target audience? What types of people are artists in this culture and how are they treated within the community?