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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