Monday, May 20, 2013

World Building Tips Learned at the Louvre

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The hubby and I recently returned from a (long overdue) vacation in Paris. Aside from being totally awesome, our trip to the Louvre Museum was also interesting from a writing perspective, especially for this fantasy world-building gal. Seeing artifacts from cultures thousands of years old is inspiring.

You'd think staring at one old pot after another would get old, but it was fascinating. One region used red clay, another white. One painted on the outside of the bowl, another on the inside. Some vases were tall and thin, others were wide and flat. Some even used animal shapes, like a chicken pitcher.

Me being me couldn't help but see a correlation to how to build a fantasy world.

What all of these artifacts had in common was that they were all crafted from what the cultures had nearby. Different soils, clays, flowers and minerals to make pigments, all of these things were specific and even unique to the region. That gave their art and artifacts their own flavor.

Things to Consider When Building Your World

Color Use

Color can have a practical, aesthetic, or spiritual reason. Just like purple was used for royalty due to the rarity of the dye, another color might be scarce in your world and have particular uses and meanings behind those uses. For example, in my current WIP, color denotes status and is used as a identifier.
  • What does color mean to your characters?
  • Is there a forbidden color?
  • Are some colors harder to come by?
  • Does color affect or influence any social customs?
  • Is there a theme with your colors?

(More on themes and world building here)

Material Use

Different colored stones occur in different regions, or wood from the trees, or even metals mined from the ground. Coastal dwellers might use mud bricks but those who live in heavy forest areas build with wood. A desert culture probably isn't building with wood and stone, and anyone who does is likely to be wealthy or powerful enough to import them in. What materials the population has on hand goes a long way to how they create their cities and the things in those cities.
  • What building materials are nearby?
  • What's imported? Exported?
  • What are common household items made from?
  • What are luxury items made from?
  • What are considered luxury items?

(More on setting and world building here)

Views on Art

Different cultures have different views on what art is. Some consider any images of the human form to be taboo, why others build statues in a great leader's likeness. How your people create and view art says a lot about their culture and beliefs.
  • What is the purpose of art in this culture?
  • Who are the artists?
  • What status do they hold?
  • How prevalent is art?
  • What's taboo? Common? Avant garde?
  • What form does art take? (statues, painting, beads, jewelry?)
  • What art is valuable vs low-class "peoples art?"

(More on world building and details here)

Decoration Uses

Just like art, how a culture decorates shows their personality. Clean lines and uncluttered gardens speak of a different kind of person than a wild garden with soft, curving paths. The character who wears all black is different from the one who dresses in bright patterns and colors. Furniture meant to stimulate the senses says things functional furniture does not.
  • How do your characters decorate?
  • What is decoration limited to?
  • What is considered good taste?
  • What is considered tacky?
  • What are the differences between high class and low class decorations?
  • What are the differences between gender styles?
  • How prevalent is the decoration?

(More on building a fictional town here)

Details can carry a lot of weight and subconsciously clue the reader in on the subtleties of your world. They can explain elements of your world without you ever having to stop and infodump, which allows you to flesh out a world that feels rich and immersive, and still gives the reader everything they need to understand it.

Next time you're building a world--even if it's not fantasy--think about the things your characters find beautiful and how they make and show that beauty.


  1. I'm bookmarking this. Great suggestions! I'll have to see what sorts of details I can work in with this in mind.

  2. Jaleh, thanks! I kept getting ideas at every exhibit :) If there are any museums near you, a quick trip might spur the imagination as well.

  3. And I'm betting we're going to see a lot of very French images on your site for a while! :) e

  4. Elizabeth, LOL maybe! I finally got them posted on FB (well, a link to a Picassa site). The trick is finding the writing/Paris angle :)

  5. I'm happy to hear of your wonderful Parisian trip. It's amazing how no matter where you go, you can find ideas for writing. Another culture is a gold mine for settings and world building.
    Vive la France!

  6. Aidan, ideas really are everywhere. And new locations change your perspective and spark different parts of your brain :) That's the cure for writer's block--travel! lol

  7. First of all, congrats on that long overdue trip. Wish I could have gone. Second, I love this post so much. Thanks for the fresh way to worldbuild through the arts. I also bookmarked this page and forwarded the link to some other writer friends.

  8. Lin, thanks! If you ever get the chance, go. I can't say enough good things about Paris.

  9. Sounds like a great trip. I'm looking forward to seeing you use what you learned in your next fantasy.

  10. Yay! Paris! With husband! Double Yay! Thanks for your insight here. This is awesome for worldbuilding. I've learned sooo much over the last several years stalking your blog how to bring the worldbuilding into my writing.

    In my new crit-group, I was recently complimented on how my descriptions were so clear and woven into the narrative. Thought to myself... "Thanks to my online tutelage!" Thanks for this and other posts like it! So valuable.

  11. This is excellent, thank you!
    And to think I've been living in Paris for 11+ years now without ever returning to the Louvre...
    Will have to go and do my own research.

  12. Natalie, thanks! I'm looking forward to revising with this in mind :) I have some areas I dipped into a little already, and now I have thoughts on how to really deepen those. Should be fun!

    Amelia, and for my birthday & our anniversary, so triple (quadruple?) yay! Totally a dream trip. Aw, thanks! That's so cool about your crit group. You did the work, I just helped point you in the right direction :) It always makes my day to hear the blog has helped folks.

    Mayken, 11+ years? Color me jealous :) We're already planning a return trip, even if it takes a few years. With so many museums there, I bet you could find one that matches whatever genre you write in, too.