Brainstorming Series: Civilizations

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Creating functioning civilizations in your fiction

Let’s be frank: a lot of this section is likely to be left out of your novel. Why? Because the ins-and-outs of how a city or village functions on a very basic level isn’t really that enthralling. Here and there, a detail will peek through into your narrative, but whole chunks of these thoughts will be jotted down as notes and then left alone forever.

So why does it matter?

Like so many other aspects of worldbuilding, you–the writer–knowing every tiny detail will help you create a full, vibrant world on the page. You might not actually outline the history of your city’s sewage systems (ahem. we can’t all be Victor Hugo.) but if you’ve thought about these logistics and answered them even in a brief note to yourself, then the parts of your civilization that you do see on the page will feel consistent and real in an important way.

(There is also some inevitable overlap between these aspects and your culture, so some questions might lean in that direction. Let it be a jumping-off point for more contemplation as you create.)

If you’re not a freak of nature like me and don’t want to spend time making your world absurdly flawless and perfect, than feel free to skip this entry. (But, I mean, why are you even following this blog if that’s the case??) Onward!

  • Where did basic building materials come from, both currently and historically?
  • How uniform or varied are the buildings and houses of your civilization (both in style and material)?
  • How has the climate affected building style?
  • How culturally ingrained are the visuals (the cityscape) of the civilization?
  • How tight or spread-out are the buildings and homes in relation to one another? Is that because of culture or landscape necessity?
  • How has the city/town/village adapted to developing technologies and systems?
  • How accessible is water? How is it collected and distributed?
  • What foods are grown/bred locally? What is imported?
  • How is the harvest of food handled on a logistical level? How are its ethics and its importance viewed by society as a whole?
  • Where do people go to the bathroom? How is sewage disposed of or recycled?
  • Does everyday life produce trash, or are all things reusable or recyclable?
  • Does plastic exist? If so, how ubiquitous is it?
  • How is trash handled and disposed of?
  • What is/are the city’s primary energy source(s)?
  • Do the people pay taxes? How else might city funds be raised?
  • Do they have a money system?
    • Is it used only within their town, or across the country?
    • Is money balanced with bartering, or does one take precedent over the other?
    • How is value determined, especially in a barter system?
    • What is the money based on? (gold? Or some other precious metal? Or some other resource entirely?)
  • How willing are citizens to pay for non-necessities and how does that affect the local businesses?
  • How is construction handled? By large groups of people or small teams with big equipment? Or magic?
  • How are children educated? Who oversees it, if anyone?
  • How important is education to the people and how is that reflected in the system, facilities, and schedule?
  • What purpose does the downtown or “hub” area primarily serve?
    • Socialization
      • Bonfire pit
      • Park
    • Commerce
      • Farmer’s Market or local market
      • Corporate high-rises
    • Entertainment
      • Clubs
      • Sports arena
      • Theatre
      • Casino
  • When people get sick, what do they do? Do they have healthcare choices or do they only have the one doctor or single hospital where they have to do if they need help? How is healthcare paid for?
  • How are injured or dying people transported?
  • What kind of law enforcement does the city have? How much power do they possess? How are they viewed by citizens?
  • Is there some sort of fire department? Is it a city branch or is it volunteers? How are they prepared to fight fires?
  • What natural disasters are common and how is the town prepared for them? What happens when they occur?
  • What popular entertainment venues are there? How are they funded and run? What is their reputation?
  • What different entertainment options are there for the rich and the poor, or whatever class system your town has?
  • How are classes separated within the city?
  • If magic exists in your world, how is its use controlled or maintained within urban areas?
  • What kind of transportation do people use, in general? How is the town equipped to handle it?
  • If traffic jams can happen, how do people deal with them? What steps has the city taken to ensure smooth traffic flow?
  • What is it like when you first leave the city or village?
    • Landscape?
    • Distance to neighboring town?
    • Development of roads beyond the city (and who maintains them)?
  • What might be the first thing a newcomer to the city notices upon entering? Will she have an easy or difficult time navigating the place if she’s never been there before?

Happy brainstorming, y’all!

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