So you’ve got the origin of your universe (or perhaps you used our universe as a template, which does save a lot of effort). So now that you know how it all began, it’s time to move things to the next level. Namely, what’s going on in the places your characters will be living, working, loving, dying, and in other ways advancing the plot.
Cosmology is decided. Time to move to Ecology
Now when I talk Ecology, that’s a word with a lot of meanings and a lot of applications. So for the sake of the column I’m defining Ecology in world building as how you define how the living parts of your setting (world, worlds, etc.) work, relate, interact, etc. Your plants, animals, biospheres, diseases, and the like. I’ll refer to it as Ecology with a capital “E” for general purposes, and with a small “e” for specifics.
You know, where life comes from and/or lives. Life in short, like your characters, or the things they’ll be interacting with, domesticating, fighting, eating, and so on. Or come to think of it the reverse as well . . .
Ecology is important to good world building in the following ways:
Defining Ecology can be a pretty daunting task, and you’ll need to decide how far to go in your stories. Maybe it’s just some general notes, maybe it’s extensive research, you’ll have to make the call. However there’s also a few rules for writing good ecologies and elements of ecologies (note the small “e” as we’re getting specific):
A fair warning is that you can go pretty crazy with thinking about Ecology (and the specific ecologies) because there’s just so many levels of detail that you can be lost in them. At some point you may have to stop yourself unless the insane detail is the point. The basic details for a good ecology are usually:
If you want to get beyond that, it’s your call. Just keep the warning in mind that this can get addictive.
An ecology’s tight linkages can be pretty telling. Once you look at the different pictures and connected levels, you start to notice something.
Your characters are in an ecology, the overall Ecology is result of Cosmology, and everything is tied together. Much as mentioned, you can’t really disconnect things . .
In a way, everything you write is a kind of Ecology and your ecologies are just a bunch of linked systems.
Keep this in mind as you write. It’s a helpful realization.
So let’s take a look at how Ecology can affect a story by looking at a small-e fantasy ecology.
Let’s say you’ve got a story with your usual Fantasy Rampaging horde of Orcs/Goblins/whatever stand-ins for evil you use. Sure the whole rampaging horde is nice, but what do they eat and how do they survive? If they burn and pillage everything in their path, then they destroy raw materials, drive away food animals, and have less to survive on. How do they get water for such large armies of slavering monstrosities? Add in the amount of hate they generate which means people will be trying to stamp them out, you realize a rampaging horde is a long-term ecologically inefficient thing.
Now if you’re a writer (or an Evil Overlord . . . or both) if you design your rampaging horde with ecology in mind, they become more believable. Maybe they survive by being expert hunters (and gain additional skills at stealth and targeting). Perhaps they cache supplies, maybe even instinctively as a kind of animalistic storing habit. Maybe they only destroy what they can’t use, their enhanced senses and strong survival instincts letting them quickly assess what to ruin or take.
Now your rampaging horde is more believable and scary, a race of natural hunters and hoarders who strip towns and encampments bare, wield deadly bows, and move stealthily. It’s going to be a believable, terrifying, and interesting threat.
Your heroes may have to get a lot smarter, ambushing hunting parties, learning their habits, destroying supply caches to stop a retreat . . . and your story gets interesting.
After all that’s the point . . .
Ecologies are a vital, large, and at times easy-to-overdo part of world building. Doing them right makes worlds more believable, plots richer, and can help stories almost write themselves. Writing ecologies also teaches you how the parts of a world work together and helps you become a better world builder in general.
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.