Talking about how to worldbuild properly is a thing that people like to do. I approve of the general idea of putting as many writing processes out there as possible, because you never know what’s going to work for any specific writer, which means all you can really do is toss out as many possibilities as you can and hope one sticks. To boil worldbuilding down to its most critical elements, though, the one thing you need to accomplish regardless of what else you’re doing is to make elements of the setting affect one another. This is something that can get lost in the weeds when you’re filling in one of those worldbuilding template dealies that people like, whether that’s doing what I do and filling in some kind of encyclopedia style multi-sectioned textbook entry on the setting or answering a long list of questions about the world or whatever. My encyclopedia-style entry, for example, is divided into climate/geography, culture/religion, economy, government/law, history, magic, and military, and I have little notes about how each of those should work, and I’m going to post them in a bit, because they work for me and maybe they will work for you, too.
The important thing to remember, however, is that only the first entry filled in or the first question answered or the first detail added is fully under your control. Everything else after that must acknowledge the existence of everything that came before. If you establish that your setting is almost entirely water with only occasional islands and your inhabitants are regular old land-dwelling, air-breathing humans, you cannot then write about how an empire rose to military hegemony because of their unstoppable heavy cavalry derived from their knightly houses, because in an island-based setting any military power needs a strong navy first and foremost and there is hardly any land for cavalry to outmaneuver enemies on to begin with.
That out of the way, let’s talk about specific facets of worldbuilding.
This is some pretty well-trod ground in worldbuilding in general. It’s at the top of my template because the template just goes alphabetically, but almost always this is the area that I reserve for explaining things that otherwise might mesh together poorly. If the economy runs on mining operations but the military tends towards light armor, that can be because it’s really hot. If there’s lots of little citystates despite advanced communication and transportation technology existing, that can be due to lots of mountainous or blue water terrain separating the cities which makes it difficult to project force.
Other than that, you’ve probably heard everything I have to say elsewhere: Rivers are powered by gravity, so they always flow downwards from mountains and out towards the ocean. Mountains come from tectonic plates slamming into one another, so they should follow the edge of said plates. Islands are just mountains whose valleys have been submerged, so archipelagos should behave the same way mountain ranges do. The equator and water is hot, the poles and deep inland areas are cold, wetness comes from storms which start at the ocean and peters out the further inland it has to go, especially if there’s mountains in the way, so if you want a desert, either put it far inland or stick a mountain range between it and the ocean. Desert islands don’t really exist except as tiny patches of sand that fail to support life because they’re too small, and thus end up as a desert despite getting plenty of rainfall.
Pretty much every human society that exists has three main rituals. They have one for births, one for marriages, and one for funerals. Now, these rituals do not necessarily map well to the rituals we’re familiar with at all. There have been societies that baptized infants born in January in freezing rivers and accidentally killed the poor bastards, and there have also been societies that just rub some oil on their head and call it good. There are societies that bury their dead, societies that cremate their dead, societies that build enormous monuments on top of their dead, and societies that put their dead on a boat with all their sweet loot and set it all on fire. There are societies where marriage is for life, societies where young men, young women, or both young men and young women are expected to have gay/lesbian relationships amongst one another as “practice” for a regular baby-producing marriage later on, societies where marriages are expected to be lifelong and exclusive, societies where marriage is expected to fail after a few years and usually one or both partners are expected to have an affair on the side if they can, and I think I once heard of a society where you had a pot made when you got married, and if the pot broke you’re divorced. Even if it was accidental, you have to go get re-married again.
As I said, I’m not sure that’s an actual real society or a made-up one, but the fact that I can’t tell serves to illustrate the point: All kinds of weird rituals have been attached to these three events. What’s common is that these three events are somehow ritually acknowledged by the local community. When someone is born, they must be ritually incorporated into the tribe. When someone dies, people need to grieve. And the community needs to know if someone’s pregnant, it’s because that guy over there has agreed to help raise the kid.
A culture will also usually, but not always, have either a coming of age ceremony a couple of festivals. The point of a coming of age ceremony is to make it very clear to young people what they need to do in order to be a wo/man. If you don’t do this, they’ll try to establish themselves as adults on their own initiative, and that can often end in disaster. It’s actually kind of an issue that modern American culture doesn’t generally have any kind of coming of age rituals outside of going off to college, which A) comes like five years after most kids start trying to establish themselves as adults and B) isn’t really a ritual acknowledging adulthood so much as a very sudden demand for the skills associated with adulthood. This is why you get thirteen year old boys trying to prove how mature they are by clumsily swearing, bragging about all the sex they’ve had (usually with a level of believability so low that it’s clear they haven’t even figured out how to subvert a porn filter yet), and watching gore-fest movies. If you have a specific coming of age ceremony, instead of doing all that to prove they’re adults, thirteen year old boys are given some specific ordeal to overcome in order to prove their worth and the number of stupid dares they make (and accept) goes down, because they already went out into the wilderness for three days with nothing but a knife and came back with rabbit pelts and also having not died of dehydration, so fuck you, Greg, he’s a man now no matter how few cliffs he’s willing to dive off of.
Then there’s the festivals, which are there pretty much because people like to have a party. For sedentary (i.e. non-nomadic) cultures that have winter, a winter festival is popular because there’s nothing else to do but party, and also it’s depressing as Hell and people want to lighten the atmosphere. Festivals are also often dedicated to some kind of supernatural force in hopes that a big celebration in their honor will convince them to be nice, which is why you often get harvest festivals giving thanks to some kind of harvest goddess or harvest fairies or whatever, because pre-modern people have relatively little control over how well their crop is going to turn out and appeal to supernatural intervention to guard against famine. Maybe your culture has a festival dedicated to the god of war to bring victory in the following year’s battle, or to the god of the sea to keep storms at bay.
Also, if there’s a period of more than two or three months on your calendar with no festival, people will think of something just to keep themselves from getting bored. Valentine’s Day is pretty much wholly detached from the actual Saint Valentine and mainly exists to tide people over between New Year’s and Saint Patrick’s, both of which are pretty low-key holidays already. Like St. Patrick’s, these festivals will usually be tied to a specific event in the culture’s history.
Nearly all cultures have a founding myth that explains where they came from, whether that myth follows closely on real events like the American Revolution, which is relatively unembellished and definitely happened, is wildly distorted from the original seed of truth like the legends of King Arthur who may possibly have been based on a real guy who beat up the Saxons real good one time, or is completely unmoored from reality in a way that seems obvious to modern, post-enlightenment eyes, like how many ancient cultures claim to be the literal blood descendants of a deity. Most pre-enlightenment cultures also have myths that explain how a thing came to be. Volcanoes are the forges of Hephaestus and so on. In a fantasy world, these myths may actually be true, but if they aren’t, humans will invent them, so they should exist. Especially since these cultural touchstones will influence the language and behaviors of any characters from those cultures. Also, a founding myth can often be the basis of a major festival. I’m sure Americans would figure out something to do in the summer if we hadn’t happened to have signed the Declaration of Independence in July, but given that we did sign the Declaration then, there’s basically no chance that any other holiday will displace the fourth of July as our big summer bash for so long as the republic remains intact.
In a fantasy world, religions can be a means of channeling the power of clearly extant supernatural beings. That doesn’t actually change the core of what a religion is in practice, though. A religion is a method of tying together various rituals and festivals into a meta-narrative that gives them meaning. Whether the religion is invented specifically for that purpose or is applied to multiple different festivals by a clergy who wish to give their scripture a presence throughout the culture, that is, in practice, what a religion does in people’s day to day lives.
The priest is the guy who can prevent any of these things from being performed officially just by refusing to show up. You can’t get married, celebrate Christmas, or even have you loved one’s death acknowledged without his blessing. Depending on how much power the religion wields, it’s possible that things as important as installing new rulers (whether monarchial coronations or a democratically appointed representative assuming office) or declarations of war require the approval of some kind of bishop or archdruid.
Exactly how this fellow (whether it’s the village priest or the archdruid of an empire) gets appointed to his job is therefore super important, and it can be as anarchic as just being whoever the village generally agrees knows what’s up with the fairies or as structured as being appointed by a long chain of command that ultimately ends in the Pope overseeing global Catholicism. The less structured the priest’s appointment is, the easier it will be for people to appoint their own priest if the established village priest isn’t playing ball. If your local shaman is shaman solely by virtue of being pals with the fairies, then anyone on good terms with them can perform a marriage. If you want to replace the guy appointed by a continent- or globe-spanning hegemony, you’re a heretic, and you’ve either gotta fly under the radar or have the support of a powerful enough king or president or whatever to tell that hegemony to fuck off and live to tell about it. Especially when a religious ceremony is expected to give legitimacy to things like royal succession or declarations of war, the favor of those recognized as having the authority to perform those ceremonies means that they are far more likely to perform them for the people you like and refuse them for the people you don’t, which often means that when the Pope declares a crusade, he’s got plenty of lords lining up to prosecute it on his behalf. On the other hand, it also means that lots of kings want to strip him of those powers, because they would very much like to appoint whatever successors and declare whatever wars they like, which is why by the time of the actual Crusades, even the “Holy” “Roman” “Empire” drew its governing legitimacy primarily from its aristocratic traditions, rather than from Papal approval.
Of course, sometimes religion isn’t really a source of conflict at all. Sometimes your hero and the town priest get along swimmingly, he shows up to perform his ceremonies for anyone who asks without demanding any favors in return, and everyone gets along just fine. You still want to have some kind of religion that serves to legitimize all the rites, ceremonies, and festivals, whether it’s a formal institution that also runs schools and hospitals or if there’s just a guy who gets high on ‘shrooms a lot so people assume he has a connection with the spirits and ask him to pull some strings to get the spirit world on board with their marriage. In a very secular or especially atheist world, these duties will be performed by a secular authority of some kind. Maybe a political leader (the mayor might be one of those filthy Floobricrats, but you’ve probably got a good, honest Orange Party representative somewhere on the city council), maybe an academic, maybe a psuedo-religious institution which fulfills all the usual ritual and ceremonial duties of a religion while also acknowledging science and history as the source of truth. Maybe you have a really heavily atomized society where the head of the family has taken over many of these duties (this, by the way, is far more likely responsible for the decreasing human contact in modern culture, as opposed to whatever new gadget the pundits are clutching pearls over this week). Whatever it is, someone’s gotta be in charge of officiating marriages and funerals and births for the community, or else you have no community, just a bunch of people who live next to each other. With the right sci-fi or fantasy elements, you can totally had a bunch of people who live next to each other, yet who do not share culture or form community (we’re already getting there), but it’s not the norm.
Wow, I had like five bullet points in my template for Culture/Religion, I did not expect that to turn into like 1800 words of advice. I’ll put a bow on this for now and post more tomorrow.