First Guide to World Building
(With the Amish as an example)
World-building encompasses several steps to achieve a complete independent society. From laying out the basic foundations of your alternate realm–class systems, religion, language, and occupation–to adding finishing touches like custom jewelry and deciding what fashion trends they follow, each step adds complexity and thus, realism and believability to your setting.
This ethnography will use the Amish as an example, to illustrate how a society has many tiny parts that come together to create a functional whole.
The first aspect we shall consider is religion. Religion is almost always essential to building a new world. Every society has its belief system and religion can provide excellent foundations for a plot.
For the Amish, Christianity forms a basis for almost everything in their lifestyle. The Amish are a Protestant Mennonite subgroup, and their religion is present in almost every other step of world building.
In Amish culture, religion dictates a social hierarchy. An Amish district is led by a bishop and numerous deacons and ministers. People do not become members of the church until a baptism, occurring between 16 to 25 years of age, after which they are allowed to marry. The church also sets out laws and rules. Straying from these will earn the guilty either excommunication or shunning.
How do characters in your alternate world deal with romance and sex? How is a marriage celebrated? Perhaps your world allows polygamous relationships. Or perhaps it is a conservative place, where adultery and premarital sex are the worst kind of sin.
Whatever the case, how a society handles such things can be a crucial point to a plot with a romantic element. Continuing our Amish example, we learn that they have a courting system, beginning from sixteen (generally). They have events like the fortnightly Sunday evening sings, sewing bees and weddings that couples can attend together (and where matchmaking often occurs). After a sing, a boy may drop a girl home in his buggy.
Where it comes to marriage, the Amish do not allow cousin marriages, or marriage to someone outside their religion. Weddings are usually held from November to early December, at the bride’s home.
Consider how significant weddings are in your fictional world. An Amish bride wears no make-up, and her dress is not to be worn only once. She won’t have an engagement ring or a wedding ring (because of a prohibition against jewelry).
An Amish couple usually continues living with a bride’s parents until spring, whereupon they find their own house.
In most modern fantasy, this is an often-neglected facet of a fictional world – mostly because keeping English as a society’s language is just easier than inventing a whole new one. The Amish are no different. Though Pennsylvanian Dutch is commonly found around the dinner table and in church services, English is the primary mode for learning. They read and write in English, perform business in English and use English to interact with outsiders.
However, the Amish employ other languages, like Standard or High German, in prayers and songs.
Like religion, a class system is an important part of building a new society. Class systems happen under economic pressure and rely on the flow of money in a society to decide their structure. Does your fictional world have a lot of elite, well-off people? Then it probably has a large amount of very deprived people too. Or maybe most people are somewhere in the middle, with a dominant middle-class making up most of the population.
Referring to our example: ever since business began booming for Amish communities, there has been a subtle class system emerging: entrepreneurs, farmers, and day labourers (those who work for other Amish or in factories). An entrepreneurial Amish family will have more disposable income to spend than a day labourer, and this is not something easily explained by God’s will. It will cause an inevitable gap between the two classes, despite the Amish’s unmaterialistic values.
Class systems can greatly aid plot. A growing Amish concern is that wealthier members of a church may start taking power away from the church itself.
Societal Norms and Values
Every society has social norms—practices and ideas considered normal by the population. Attached to these norms are certain values that govern what is acceptable behaviour. For the Amish, two major values take precedence above the rest: abstaining from pride, arrogance or haughtiness (Hochmut and prioritizing humility and serenity or composure (Demut and Gelassenheit respectively).
As a society that avoids individualism for fear of a broken population, the Amish reject any technology that might make people less dependent on others. Things like photographs and cars are thought to cultivate pride and vanity.
What values does your alternate world cherish? How open-minded are the people about things like self-gratification and how important is community? Are people closed off in their own world or is there a strong sense of one-for-all? Does justice reign or is corruption rife in the streets?
Gender plays a huge role in dictating the daily life of a character in your fictional world. Are chores given out on the basis of gender like in the olden days? Or is your society more progressive and allows equal opportunity to all? Is it unusual to see a woman taking part in military or government? Is it unusual to see stay-at-home husbands?
In Amish society, gender roles decide almost everything. Every Amish district is led by male church leaders. At home, girls perform domestic chores with their mothers while boys toil in the fields with their fathers. This prepares them for their gender-specific roles in adult life.
Husbands are generally the breadwinners while wives focus on child-rearing and housework. However, these roles vary by personality—as in most non-Amish families. A wife with a home business may take the role of breadwinner, or a husband may choose to work at home and thus take on domestic responsibilities.
Despite the traditional standing of a man as head of a house, Amish women take part in daily decision-making too.
How are jobs divided within your society? What jobs are available? Is there a lot of specialization? Is there gender discrimination? Racism? Are some people not allowed to apply for certain jobs? Some kind of class system?
Though most Amish are farmers, many run businesses (occasionally from home).Women are very likely to run bakeries or greenhouses from home. Some Amish men work in residential or commercial construction within their societies.
Family Life and Child-rearing
How close-knit is a family in your fictional society? Is it normal for children to leave home after 18? Do grandparents stay with their families? Is betraying or disgracing your family a big deal?
For the Amish, family is everything. Given the anti-individual nature of their society, a family provides the Amish with a status. It is a large part of personal identity, dictating their position in society. It forms a support network and is at the centre of Amish social life. Family helps out during weddings, emergencies and at funerals. Grown-up sisters schedule “sisters” days, during which they mix housework with socializing.
Older relations do not go to retirement homes. They stay with their families or live in houses adjacent to them (called a Grossdawdy Haus).
With this embrace of family networks come children. For the Amish, larger families are a blessing. Child-rearing is an important aspect of life. Children are brought up adhering to strict obedience from both parents and community authority figures (teachers, preachers).
Are there universities in your fictional society? Is the pursuit of knowledge a significant path or is it considered unimportant? How is schooling divided? For fantasy, this might be where various schools of magic theory are created. For sci-fi, this would involve research labs and engineering facilities.
For the Amish, education is unrestricted to schools. Most Amish children attend one- or two-room schoolhouses run by parents and stop after eighth grade, but this is not the end of their learning. Vocational training—on-the-job training—is what they need to succeed in Amish society. Several fathers in the community form a school board that operates the school, hires teachers, decides the curriculum, budgets, and supervises maintenance.
Is your world run by a tyrant? Ruled by a monarchy? Or is it a a land of the people, of democratic decision-making?
Amish societies are run by male leaders, ordained officials called “servants” in their German Dialect. Theirs is a lifelong term. Though unpaid, they do accept gifts.
These servants are categorized into three: a bishop who has complete power over his district, two/three ministers under him, and then a deacon who serves the poor.
The leaders are selected by nomination from male and female church members. The nominees who receive three or more votes (number varies with each district) are eligible to run. A piece of paper bearing a Bible verse is slipped into a hymn book, which is place among other hymn books (the number coordinating with the amount of eligible candidates). Each man selects a book. The one who finds the Bible verse is the leader chosen by God.
The law reflects the hierarchy of power in a society. The lawmakers have a great degree of responsibility on their shoulders, and an even greater amount of power. This power can be abused or constrained. There are those who enforce the law and those who rebel against it. What governs the law in your alternate world?
Amish law, the Ordnung, is unwritten and enforced verbally and through practice. Adherence becomes mandatory on an individual from the moment they are baptized. Straying from this law can result in excommunication or shunning. The Bible is a great influence on the Ordnung, governing daily activities from what clothing is acceptable and leisure activities to the usage of machinery and mass media.
The Ordnung forbids Old Order Amish from owning a car, TV, or computer, using public utilities like gas and electricity, enrolling in high schools or colleges, accepting government assistance, taking out insurance, enlisting in the army or initiating divorce. What activities are prohibited in your fictional society?
What do the people in your alternate world wear? Clothing says a lot about its time. How practical or elegant clothes are tells outsiders about the mindset of a society. Designated clothing for certain occupations tells us even more about what a job requires. In richer societies, people can afford to pay for non-durable clothing, but for the Amish, practicality is key.
The Amish wear only black or solid colours. Clothing is prescribed. Women cover their hair and wear a three-piece dress while men wear an Amish hat and a vest, and may grow a beard but, if married, not a mustache. This uniform clothing is a staple of their community-oriented ideal.
Entertainment and Leisure
What do the people in your alternate world do for fun? Do they prefer loud, exuberant activities? Risky thrill-seeking? Or serene moments to relax?
Amish recreation focuses on the latter, with a key influence being nature. Since they own no cars or TVs, Amish families go sledding, skating, camping, hunt and fish, and play sports like ice hockey and volleyball. Men might rent cabins to go hunting for a few days.
With their community-focused lifestyle, the Amish have group sings, sisters’ days and barn raisings. This blends work and leisure with religion (hymns are the focus in songs).
Above all, no leisure is commercial in nature.
Is there a special meal that the people in your fictional world value? Do they not eat certain kinds of meat? What about alcohol?
The Amish consider celery an important part of their diet. Not only is It used in Amish casserole (found at every Amish wedding), but it is featured in side-dishes too. Amish families grow hundreds of celery stalks in preparation for a wedding.
They don’t just eat it. Celery is used as decoration instead of floral arrangements at the dinner table.
How do people get around in your society? In fantasy and sci-fi, this is a particularly important subject to consider. Is public transport a major part of daily communite? Do people travel often?
In Amish culture, despite the ban on cars, some fmailies own them anyway. They get around the law by buying cars for the unbaptized children. For the majority, however, horse-drawn buggies are the main mode of transport.
What controls the flow of money in your world? Who has authority over banks? Is there a central system?
The Amish do not like to focus on earning money, as it goes against their cultural values and causes competition and animosity. But with inflation and less farmland, more and more Amish are leaving the farming industry to run their own businesses, focus on the arts and crafts, or even leave the community to work for a non-Amish factory.
Technological advancement or decay (or none at all)
How advanced is your world? Or alternatively, how does it operate without technology?
Despite the general ban on technology, the Amish use it selectively. Amish mechanics use modified machinery to suit their cultural values, and many Amish use gas grills, electric tools and camping and farming equipment. Batteries are also acceptable as they are controllable and do not rely on the outside world. The Amish use battery-operated objects: fans, lights, copy machines, and cash registers among others. Solar energy is used to power fences and household appliances.
When it comes to the media, the Amish are less eager. They worry the media might introduce new values into their society that clash with their own ways. Cars would allow people to drift from their close-knit communities.
Are there special seasons in your fictional world? Do the people celebrate a certain kind of event (perhaps in thanks to a God or as a celebration of their achievement)?
Many Amish celebrate Rumspringa—a time period during which some Amish youth are allowed extended freedom—and regular Christian holidays like Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday. There is no Christmas tree or Santa Claus, however, though schoolchildren may present a Christmas show.
Now that we’ve had a chance to see how a real, functional society operates, it is far easier to figure out the gears and cogs of your own fictional world. The Amish have a fairly simplistic society, yet this is really only the surface of their lifestyle. Each district has its own unique complexities. What nuances does your world have?