Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Worldbuilding: New Discoveries (use your people!)

I made a discovery about my world this week. I was very excited - I don't make lots and lots of new discoveries in Varin, because I've been working with it for twenty years now.

Those of you who have been worldbuilding for a while shouldn't be surprised by this - there's always more to discover about a world, particularly if it's an extensive one. This discovery was prompted by my fabulous beta reader, Jamie Todd Rubin, who sensibly asked (not a verbatim quote), "If all the nobles are going to go around trying to kill each other's sons in this section, where are the police? What are they supposed to do about it?"

Good question! I'm going to start by addressing the Varin question, but then explain a bit about what I think it means for worldbuilding generally, so bear with me.

Now, it's not as though I don't understand how the Varin police work so much as a question of how they deal with this particular situation - a highly unusual one that only occurs during the fight over who will become the next Heir to the throne. The limiting factor in the police's effectiveness is that Varin, though it's a high-technology world of cavern cities, is in decline and doesn't have telephones (if you'd like me to explain that, let me know in comments, but it would require another post). So they have beat cops under normal circumstances.

And under abnormal circumstances...

Well, I've decided the Arissen-caste police can't condone this sort of assassination free-for-all, but they know they aren't going to be able to stop it from happening. So they're going to do a few things to enhance people's safety:

1. Close sections of the city to pedestrian traffic. No point in letting innocent bystanders become collateral damage here. All the nobles keep to a central set of neighborhoods on the fifth (deepest) level of Pelismara, and maybe one or two on the fourth level, so those neighborhoods are restricted to all but essential traffic during Heir Selection.

2. Increase the number of police on the beat in the core neighborhoods. Now, any time I decide to place people somewhere, I'm always interested in how they might be feeling about their new duties. The Arissen police feel jumpy about being assigned to these areas, and are rather irritated with the nobility for causing everyone so much trouble. It all seems rather pointless to them - but they would feel proud if they had the chance to catch a nobleman out, so they are quite attentive.

3. Rely on the servant caste to provide information. All of the nobles are constantly escorted by bodyguard/personal assistants of the Imbati servant caste. The Imbati are known for their truthfulness, if also for their adherence to Oaths of silence. The police find them frustrating, and know it's pretty pointless to question those who work directly for a noble suspect. But they can question the servants of the intended victims. Those servants may not be available for questioning right away, since they are obliged to deliver their masters to engagements on time, but they do provide excellent information.

Here's the thing. In Varin, because of the caste system which covers everybody, I always find myself trying to determine what kind of people to place where. Back when I was creating the pharmacy, it was "what caste is the person who will take the role of pharmacist"? The other day when I was creating a private restaurant for nobles, it was the same. In a restaurant for the general population, you'd find merchants - no big surprise. But merchants are too low in caste to interact directly with the nobility, so what does a private restaurant look like? Well, I decided it was more like a gentleman's club, populated by the servant caste and a few stray members of the artisan caste selected for their expertise (e.g. the sommelier was an artisan).

The things that people do for a living can be made to fit into the vocations of different castes, but not always in expected ways. Just because a person is a member of a particular caste group (or other social group), and his/her social role is restricted, doesn't mean that role must fall into a super-tiny set - at least in the complex urban setting I'm working with. When I place the people, and try to fit an Earthly role into the Varin setting, I learn a whole lot about how Varini conceptualize that role just by determining which castes are involved.

One entertaining thing I figured out when considering the police question was that there's an inherent conflict within the Arissen caste (which covers soldiers, police, firefighters, guards, etc.). The city police are supposed to keep the assassination free-for-all under control. They are Arissen, but so are the special bodyguards assigned to the candidates for Heir - and so are the assassins! There's a wealth of opportunity there for strife between castemates, as when the police are frustrated with the cavalier attitude of the special bodyguards who don't help collect evidence as well as they should, or when the police and bodyguards wonder how it is that the nobles keep finding willing assassins from among their ranks.

I love finding conflicts within social groups who are expected to be "of a certain type." They don't have to be the main focus of the story, or even in full view, but they feel real because that's what happens in social groups in real life.

When you're doing your worldbuilding, particularly if you're working with a model that involves "types" of people (be they aliens, elves, soldiers, etc.) keep your eye out for new discoveries. Often critique questions will help you to uncover things that you didn't see before. And often you'll find that the people you've created are incredible assets for helping you figure stuff out. Use them, and their judgments, as much as you can.


  1. Interesting post. I guess it may be a good idea to extend the worldbuilding further and brainstorm on those auxiliary jobs that we often forget but that can be a great resource. Hmm...I like that.

  2. You're a genius. I simply haven't given thought to the various complexities of having a world, probably because I've been building mine for less than six months and so far most of the action has been on a different world. But you've made me realise I still have a lot of world-building to do. Hmmm. I'm going to have to give a LOT of very careful thought to this one.

    Thank you very much!!

  3. Yup. Just made me realize that in my dystopian cyberpunk world the government would make people 'disappear'.
    Soooo...Um...gonna go 'disappear' some suspicious civilians.

    My MC is gonna be so peeved.

  4. Thanks, E. Arroyo!

    Anne-Mhairi, it's very kind of you. Not every world has to be as elaborate as Varin - it depends on what you're trying to achieve! However, I'm glad I could put you on to some interesting thoughts.

    TJ, sounds interesting! I hope those disappearing people have bearing on the plot... :)

  5. Heheheh. Yes, they do. One of the important civilians I introduced early on and wasn't sure what to do with. How better to motivate a government employee than to make her suspicious of her own government?
    It moves the plot forward and gives a little more *evil* to the bad guys.