Amateur Writing Tip — When World-building, Consider Population

Today’s amateur writing tip is courtesy of my little brother Jesse, who enjoys dissecting my story ideas and informing me why they make no logical sense. Think Spock, but taller and wearing glasses.

On one of our recent walks, we were chatting about a new fantasy story I’ve been working on. The basic premise (not to give too much away) is that monsters have over-run the ground, so humans have taken to the sky in a handful of floating cities to survive. There are still a bunch of humans on the ground, but they live in small, scattered tribes and rely on nature magic to repel the beasties. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.

As Jesse explained to me, the driving force behind a large percentage of historical events is population. After all, when your population keeps growing and you’re running out of land, what can you do but expand? Conversely, if your population is shrinking, you’re going to be weaker, losing ground and resources, and slowly but surely heading for decline and failure.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that populations don’t remain stagnant. They either grow or shrink — unless there’s some sort of population-control in effect (see China’s one child policy). So what does this mean for world-building?

Population and world-building

Even if your fantasy world is full of wizards and dragons and whatnot who totally defy the laws of logic, your unwashed peasant masses still need to make sense, population-wise. Therefore, read on and be amazed!

A) Be wary of isolated villages

You can dot your fantasy landscape with small villages until the sun comes down, but the important thing to remember is that they cannot be isolated villages. Although isolated villages make great settings, they don’t actually make sense. If you’ve got a little village of 100 people who never interact with other villages and just live in their own little world, what happens? They inbreed, because there’s no outside blood. Inbreeding, for the record, is bad. So if you’re going to have a bunch of little villages, make sure there’s some system in place for inter-marriage between the villages. Unless you want your village to be full of inbred people, in which case, isolate those villages to your heart’s content, my friend.

Update: In response to Matthew Cook’s comment, I did a little research, and it turns out that while inbreeding is generally a bad thing, in some cases it actually can produce healthy populations with few negative consequences — so long as the village is big enough (i.e., a few hundred people or more). So, isolated villages aren’t necessarily going to turn all your characters into gibbering morons … but you should only have isolated villages if you’re ready for the consequences inherent therein! (Click here to read an essay about inbreeding in human populations.)

B) Large populations require resources

By resources, I’m talking vast tracts of farmland. Now, your city doesn’t necessarily have to be right next to farmland, or even own farmland — it just needs to have access, somehow, to food. In my case, I’ve got floating cities where all the real estate is taken up by dwellings and assorted buildings. No room for farmland there. So instead I’ve created mountain-top farming communities that provide food for the skycities in exchange for the assorted goods manufactured in the cities. Go food or go home!

C) Population affects politics

Imagine your world is overrun by monsters, gobbling up everyone in their path. You flee with the few survivors to a city in the clouds. Now, as you sit up there, struggling to rebuild your society and recover from this devastating loss of life, are you going to attempt a government coup? Of course not. You’ve got more important things to worry about – such as, for example, not dying. But jump a few hundred years down the road, and now your city is thriving. Suddenly your population is booming — what do you do with all these people? You need to get rid of them, because they’re crowding up the slums and causing problems, but there’s nowhere to send them. You turn to the government for help, but they have no idea what to do with the excess populace either. And so … BAM! Civil unrest.

D) Attempts at controlling population growth rarely end well

Ever read Ender’s Game? The world is over-populated, so the government passes a law that you can only have two children — if you have a third child, they won’t get access to health care, education, etc. But guess what? Even with all the horrible consequences of having too many children, people do it anyway. So if you’re going to explain your stagnant population as a result of population control, assume that there’s going to be a lot of unrest amongst your society about it. Unless, of course, your population control is magical in nature — then you can do whatever the heck you want. I suggest creating a spell where excess children are transformed into parakeets. You can never have too many parakeets.

Basically, what I’m trying and failing to convey here is that population matters. I know most writers would rather focus on the fun stuff, like “What should I name Jeremiah’s magical talking sword?”, or “Can I get away with making Sara both the Empress of Cavortas and the high priestess of Zinzar?”. But if you’re creating a fantasy world, you absolutely have to consider the population. You don’t have to consider for long — goodness knows you have more important things to do with your life — but please, for the love of logic, just make sure you aren’t creating a world that makes absolutely no sense. Otherwise you’ll end up with a Hunger Games scenario, where the tiny population of a single city has control over the entirety of North America, and the rest of the world has either died off or, for some bizarre reason, has chosen to have no contact with North America despite the obvious and necessary benefits of international trade.

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34 thoughts on “Amateur Writing Tip — When World-building, Consider Population

  1. Isn’t there an odd tradition of isolated villages in fantasy settings?

    • There is! And again, if you can explain why it’s okay that these villages are isolated, that’s fine — and the reason’s probably magical in nature, since it’s fantasy. But if there’s no reason for it, other than to make the village isolated … well, according to my brother, that’s bad news bears 🙂

  2. Cracked me up! “Bam!” So Jesse got the logic gene and you most definitely received the fantasy gene. Thanks for the laughs. 😉

    • Hahaha yeah. Well, look at our respective degrees — I was a history/classical studies major, and he’s in software engineering. Not to mention he was a debate champion, whereas my go-to counter-argument is generally to sigh and walk away. 😀

      • That’s the best come-back. They can’t use anything against you and thus no debate. So obviously genetics plays a strong role here. Can you use that in your fantasy world? The floating villages that subsist and resist, it appeared after careful research, had a ‘steadfast’ gene, whereas the villages that collapsed from hunger and poor planning were lacking in this gene.

  3. I’m Irish, and thereby genetically predisposed to be allergic to the word ‘awesome’, but I’m afraid there’s just no other word for this post.

    Awe. Some. Awesome.

    Your brother’s a genius, and you’re a genius, and I want pears.

    • Make sure when you buy the pears that they’re slightly squishy to the touch. Otherwise you’ll end up with unnaturally firm pears which, while excellent for lobbing at the heads of unsuspecting passersby, just don’t have that satisfying mush factor. 🙂

  4. Greta post. By the way, if I ran a cloud city and resented the monsters down below, sewage treatment would not be an issue!

  5. Great point! I never really gave the population in my novel a conscious thought. It was just apparent to me that it was a large population. I also have an isolated tribe! But, that’s due to location, they are islanders you see. Now I have to think of a way to make it so they’re not creepy inbreeders. Thanks so much for the tips! Us Michel(l)e’s have got to stick together.

    • *Michel(l)es… please ignore that horrendous apostrophe mistake. My professor would have my head on a spike for that.

    • Haha yes, creepy inbreeders is rarely a good thing 😀 And yeah, I never thought of it either until my brother started going on and on and on about population and I was like “Well, dang, looks like I’ll have to make sure my population makes sense or else he’ll never leave me alone!”

  6. With you all the way on the parakeets. Can you teach me the spell?

    • Well, you need to acquire a colorful feather — the bigger the better. A solid color is fine — just make sure it’s quite vivid (as everyone knows, bright hues promote magic saturation). Then acquire the children you intend to transfigure and place them in a circle of holly. You can substitute dandelions if you want, but make sure they’ve been soaked in the tears of lost dreams. Then swish your feather dramatically over their heads and shout “PARAKEETUS PARAPISKUS!”

  7. HA HA HA. That part about parakeets is just classic. I seriously laughed out loud at that one. And good point! I’m usually pretty good about thinking technical stuff in my stories, but a few of those points I hadn’t considered. (Your brother sounds so useful, by the way! Hard, but fair.) I’ll definitely keep these in mind when I come up with my map for Life of Gaia, which I realized I’m going to have to do. And probably use them to edit the map for Mercenary. So thanks for the tips!! ^^

    • My pleasure 🙂 I told Jesse that you said he sounded useful, to which he replied: “Can I actually read [the post]? Actually? Ha! You can’t stop me from reading it because I also have a computer! You thought you could outwit me, but little did you know that … something …”

      More on this as it develops.

  8. What a great post, Michelle! Your brother’s right, we do need to consider these things. He sounds adorable, by the way. And those are some wicked thoughts. I had a story I’m planning to write with a friend where most of it takes place on a populated moon, and there are so many things to consider in that case. Even with magic, you have to consider population. I also love the sci-fi idea. Hope you get to writing it! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • He’s quite adorable, yes 😀 And he does love to poke holes in all my story ideas, lol. I’m generally torn between shouting at him and stalking off in a huff, and hugging him and thanking him from stopping me from writing gibberish.

  9. I have looked into this matter and added an update to the post. Jesse says that his “inbreeding is bad” suggestion applies mainly to tiny villages (e.g., the villages in my book, which are 100 people or less), and that larger villages (several hundred) can exist quite peacefully with inbreeding. So apparently this was a misunderstanding on my part, not his.

    Extra points for sassiness, by the way 😀

  10. Wonderful post. I’m almost done with the first draft of a series set in our world with just a few fantasy adjustments, but am about to start a new one that is more traditional fantasy. I’ve never done serious world building before, and I don’t think I would have thought of any of your population problems. Tell me, does your brother consult? 🙂

    • Ha! Um, possibly? I only get him to consult with me because I buy him iced coffee if he goes on walks with me — and then once we’re on the walks, I start babbling about my latest story concept and he can’t help but point out all the things that are wrong 😀

  11. Pingback: Ten Tips from How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card | Lara S. Chase

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