Worldbuilding: Economy, Government/Law, and History

Continuing on from yesterday’s post, more worldbuilding shenanigans, because apparently the internet doesn’t have enough “how to worldbuild” posts out there to help writers procrastinate their actual writing.


Economy is mainly about answering three questions: What do they eat, who’s rich and why, and where are the trade routes? It’s possible that your specific story will demand that there be some specific resource that people are fighting over, like maybe there’s conflict over the copper mines in some mountain range and that conflict is critical to the plot. In that case, you need to figure out what the copper is used for, why it’s a big enough deal for the conflict to be happening on whatever scale it’s happening, and what the implications would be should one side or the other be victorious. Outside of this, though, economics happens almost entirely outside of the view of most fantasy characters. Whereas religion and other community-building/morality-imposing tend to go out of their way to be omnipresent, economics generally speaking doesn’t care and thus tends to be mostly invisible. You don’t have to worry about where the lumber for the royal navy is sourced, it’s fine to just assume that’s working itself out somehow.

What you need an answer for is how people get the resources they need to live. This nearly always includes food, and may also include materials for clothing, mineral resources for a town that revolves on mining and/or refining them, the business model of your local cyberpunk megacorp, or whatever else is directly relevant to the place where your story actually takes place and the job that your character actually has (even if, as is typically the case, their home town is burned down by a Nazgul knock-off in the first twenty pages and they spend the rest of the book becoming an adventurer/wizard/Jedi – you still need to make those first twenty pages work). Do the people have farms? Are they a market town that produces worked goods that are sold to outlying farmers? Are they a trade nexus that makes profit off of all the merchants passing through? Are they some kind of non-food resource town, like a mining town or lumber town, but they’re poor enough that rather than merchants coming to them they have to send a wagon train of their own to the nearest market town every harvest to sell all their rocks and/or sticks and exchange it for grain? Once you’ve figured out how they eat, odds are excellent that they can use the same trick for clothing and building materials and anything else they need, because unless you’re in a post-apocalyptic setting of some kind, being able to trade for one thing means you can trade for another. The available clothing materials will affect local fashions, the available building materials will affect local architecture, the available food will affect the color of milk that your farmboy drinks in the twenty pages before his home town is tragically burnt down by Lord Spiky Armor, and so on.

Another thing that’s easily visible from the average protagonist’s vantage point is who is rich and how they got that way. While most protagonists probably lack the interest to know how the local rich guy got that way (the house I grew up in has not one, not two, but three ridiculous mansions within a block of its location, and I don’t know or care how any of those people made their money), you need to know that so that you can 1) make sure it makes sense that this town even has rich people, and 2) you know what those rich people are going to be like. If the local rich guy is the miner who was lucky enough to strike gold, then even if he’s a jackass about it, he’s not going to hold the lower classes in quiet contempt like he’s old money, he’s going to be gaudy, boastful nouveau riche, and if he’s not being a jackass about it, he will behave very similarly to everyone else in the town, because he came from the same place. Either way, he will not have a superior education or deep connections. A landed aristocrat will behave differently to a merchant prince will behave differently to a tech start-up billionaire. There are societies where the rich have no contact with the average people and develop a wholly distinct culture, and societies where the rich are mostly just average people who happen to be super talented and/or super lucky and behave mostly the same. Figure out which yours is and make that come through in how the upper classes behave.

It’s also possible that none of this will matter at all if your story takes place entirely among the lower classes, but in practice most stories involve the very wealthy and powerful at some point. Most fantasies involve knights, most sci-fi involves megacorporations or else take place in specifically classless space utopias, and the recent fad of dystopia fiction pretty much can’t get away from the upper classes, since they are necessarily a critical part of the dystopia. Make sure your upper classes have actual sources of wealth and that those sources of wealth make goddamn sense, rather than being cackling supervillains with no apparent source of income.

The third question you need to answer is where the trade routes are. In most settings, your trade routes are also your primary means of travel, which means unless you’re worldbuilding a setting where all major locations are within twenty miles of each other (and therefore walking all day is a perfectly acceptable means of getting from anywhere to anywhere), your trade routes inform what your characters will be doing when they need to get from point A to point B. Trade routes like to follow coasts and rivers because boats move faster than wagons, and they try to avoid mountains and forests unless the detour would be humongous because it’s real hard to get a wagon over/through those. The road network is going to determine how easy it is to get from one place to another and it will heavily inform your military. If you don’t have a road network because you’re writing space opera or your setting is that mostly water and islands thing or because you’re up to your flight goggles in airships or whatever, then figuring out what routes those take and how they’re different from plain old road-based trade and travel will answer the same questions.

Government and Law

When two people have a disagreement about something, what happens? Do they take things entirely into their own hands and start a viking blood feud with one another? Do they take things before the local judge, who decides what should happen based purely on his own discretion? Is there a specific code of law that local authorities use to determine who is in the wrong and what penalty should be applied? Who writes that code, who enforces it, and who do the people writing it convince the people enforcing it to do so? Is the legislature a military aristocracy who handle enforcement themselves with all their military-grade weapons and armor? Is it some kind of representative senate, and if so, how do the senators get appointed? Whatever your system of government and law is, how did it get to be that way? Who decided that the woman with the longest hair would be the supreme executive, legislative, and judicial power in the land, and how does Queen Ankle-Length maintain her position? Most importantly of all: Why do people actually put up with the current state of affairs? Maybe it’s because they don’t think they could do any better if they changed things, either because things are pretty swell and they don’t want to rock the boat or because they’ve got some reason to be pessimistic about improving a more wretched state of affairs. Maybe it’s because they’re afraid of being stabbed to death if they change things (in which case the people doing the stabbing also need a reason why they don’t try to change things). Whatever it is, don’t have a government persist for no reason.

Also, if you are writing about people who intend to overthrow the government, whether those people are your heroes or your villains, make sure there’s a reason why no one has ever tried this before. If the government is being threatened by external invasion, “no one ever got that many orcs in one place before” is sufficient, but if it’s some kind of internal revolt or coup, you need a reason why people didn’t do this already. For as long-lived as modern day dictatorships can seem, if you take the historical perspective most dictatorships today are well under a century old and prone to revolution on a near-generational basis. If your evil empire or dystopian police state has existed for longer than living memory, you need to know how. Lasting longer than a full human lifetime is a fairly significant accomplishment for a nation, especially one that makes enemies of both its neighbors and its own population, so figure out how they maintain control.

Again, this is only really important if your story involves a credible threat to the ongoing existence of the government, whether that threat is heroic or villainous, but many, many stories involve such a threat, which means you are drawing attention straight to the question of how this government hasn’t collapsed already, especially if the people behind the coup, revolt, or invasion are doing something very easy and very obvious and yet they succeed or nearly succeed in toppling the government. You need to be able to answer the question: Why has no one already done this? The answer cannot be “because the sheeple can’t see through the government lies the way Mary Sue can” or “because they were all too scared until Mary Sue inspired them to fight back.” It doesn’t take a century+ for an evil empire/sinister dystopia to breed a single charismatic revolutionary leader. The answer also can’t be “because Lord Spiky Armor is the only one strong enough to defeat them” unless Lord Spiky Armor has some kind of actual power (whether personal power or a horde of orcs or whatever) that no one else has, and which no one else could have easily acquired. Psychopaths are not all that rare. If all it takes to get a kingdom-destroying horde of demons is one virgin sacrifice, it will take way less than a thousand years for some psycho to kidnap a virgin and give it a whirl (but if the virgin needs to be sacrificed in a specific, hard to reach location, or needs to be from a very specific bloodline, or the requirements are otherwise really hard to fulfill, that will hold up to scrutiny better – although we’re right about to dive into why a thousand years is a terrible unit of time to measure anything in).


You don’t need a complete timeline for your setting. What you do need is current events and what current events used to be for every generation that actually appears in the story. If your cast, including supporting characters and antagonists, is exclusively people twenty or younger, then anything prior to current events is not really within living memory for them and you don’t need to worry about the past at all. Almost all stories will include older people at least as supporting characters and/or antagonists, however, so odds are excellent that you are going to need to know what the state of the world was like twenty years ago. It should not be identical to the current state of the world and there should be a chain of cause and effect as to how things got from one point to another. If your cast also includes someone who is older than forty, you are going to need another state of affairs from forty years ago, and you are going to need to figure out how that turned into the state of affairs twenty years ago. Just like the first time, getting from point A to point B should follow a chain of cause and effect.

If you have an extremely long lived character, you don’t have to use increments of twenty years, but you should very definitely make sure that character has a history, rather than just doing the exact same thing for several centuries. If a character hasn’t actually done anything with their millennia long lifespan, just make them a regularly old person. Don’t introduce the concept of superhumanly old characters unless you plan to actually do something with it. If a character is a thousand years old, it’s fine to get a little sloppy and take snapshots of the world 250, 500, 750, and 1,000 years ago and figure out what was going on and what he was doing in each of them. If nothing else, this will help inform how monumentally old someone who’s been around for a thousand years really is, which will help in writing them differently from a regular octogenarian. This is someone who’s watched entire civilizations rise and fall. The only thing that seems permanent to someone that old are species and geography. That kind of thing.

On a related note: When dealing with regular human characters, there is almost no difference between something that happened a hundred years ago and something that happened a thousand years ago, except that the latter is much easier to mess up. In both cases, the event in question is out of human memory, but in the latter case you also have to figure out the state of the world a thousand years ago. Whereas a century ago is only a little bit further down the timeline from what you’ve already figured out just to have old characters at all, a thousand years ago means drastically expanding the timeline. Many writers don’t bother expanding the timeline at all, and just have the world at the time of the ancient event be basically identical to the present day world of the story, or have only minor changes, like a city being slightly smaller or a kingdom having not yet conquered its neighbor. A thousand years is approximately the span of time from the founding of Rome to the fall of the Western Empire. It’s about the entirety of the middle ages. It’s about double the amount of time from the end of the middle ages to the modern day. It’s long. Things should look very different a thousand years ago, and there’s rarely any reason to use a thousand years when a hundred is much more manageable.

Similarly, if you are going to write an entire timeline, don’t leave centuries-long gaps in it. A timeline should be a chain of cause and effect leading to the current state of affairs, not a string of detached vignettes separated by gulfs of time so vast that it’s implausible for any one event to have any direct impact on the next or previous one on the timeline. A timeline should be as small as it can be while still plausibly containing all of the events on it. When building a timeline, your question should always be “how short can this event be and still be plausible” rather than how long. I have never once seen a timeline that actually needed to be longer than 2,500 years. Star Wars can be condensed from 25,000 years to 2,500 pretty much on the dot. Faerun can be condensed from 25,000 years into about 2,000 years with no losses. Dragonlance can be condensed into about 1,500 years with no losses. When I say no losses, I mean no losses. Literally every event is still there and is given as much time as it needs to be plausible. Wars last for years and sometimes decades. Civilizations take several centuries to rise and fall. All that I’ve changed is shrinking the timeline down so that, for example, the Crown Wars in Forgotten Realms play out across a century instead of three thousand years. The Age of Dreams in Dragonlance is shrunk down to five hundred years, because nearly all of the civilizations created in it are still extant during the modern Age of Despair/Mortals (there’s an age change, as there often is, during the handful of decades covered by the mainline books).

All that having these super-stretched timelines accomplishes is making it unnecessarily difficult to set books in the past. Dragonlance’s First Dragon War and the Forgotten Realms’ Crown Wars last for centuries and millennia, respectively. Dragonlance’s War of the Lance, about which the original trilogy of novels were written, lasts for like five years. The latter is a sensible amount of time which you can write an actual trilogy of novels about. The former is bonkers nonsense and makes it impossible to write a series about the war without glossing over entire decades between major events. The timeskip between each individual novel in a series covering the entire First Dragon War would be longer than the entire span of time covered by the original Dragonlance trilogy, even if that Dragon War series was the length of the Wheel of Time!

Tolkien had a huge timeline because he worldbuilt in one setting for decades and actually needed all that space. The First Age of Middle-Earth lasted for less than a thousand years. He didn’t add a thousand year gap in the timeline just to pad it out, and neither should you.

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