Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds

by Michael James Liljenberg.

Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,
and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air,
over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'
So God created man in his own image,
In the image of God he created him;
Male and female he created them . . .
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning - the sixth day.


Day 6: Let Us Make Man in Our Image: Anthropology (part 2)

Back to Part 1


You've heard the cliché, 'He who has the gold makes the rules.' This tends to be true in cultures dominated by the worker caste. In societies dominated by the priest cast it tends to work the other way round: 'He who makes the rules gets the gold.' And in warrior societies it's 'He who has the largest army makes the rules and takes the gold.' So, as you create a world for your Fantasy or Science Fiction story, important questions to ask are: how does money work in your world's cultures, and who controls the money?

First question: How does money move around?

Barter: the most basic form of exchange: I give you something that you want if you give me something I want. Goods and services are exchanged for goods and services of similar value. A good bargainer tries to give something easily obtained or made for things much more difficult to produce.

Medium of Exchange: a specific commodity or resource begins to serve as a medium of exchange and the value of goods and services are calculated according to that resource. So the value of all materials in an economy might be calculated based on bushels of grain, strings of beads, ounces of salt or silver, or mystical psycrystals.

Coinage: now the government begins to get involved. The government regulates the medium of exchange by making coins with fixed weights and official images stamped on them. Gold is ideal for this purpose because of how soft it is, making it easy to stamp in official seals or images of Caesar's face. Coinage can become the victim of the economic force of inflation, where the government tries to increase the amount of coins in circulation by diluting the purity of the metal in the coins.

Paper: the government begins to issue special cheques that have their value backed up by gold in a kingdom's vaults or grain in the kingdom's granaries. These evolve, like coins, into special, government-printed bills. Eventually, the bills may not even reflect the value of the standard on which they were originally based, but have their value determined by money markets of competing currencies.

Credit: at this point no actual coinage or paper needs to be exchanged, only information that money has changed hands. The appropriate amounts are transferred between financial institutions and the only thing that's actually changed is the numbers in the accountants' spreadsheets.

Economic Structures

Now we need to consider who controls the money. Lets look at some of the economic structures of societies. Many different structures can exist side by side. Even in a bustling free market economy there can be specific locals operating at only a subsistence level or in rigid socialist societies there can be very active black markets.

Subsistence: A community produces only (or almost) enough goods and food for their own immediate use. Subsistence cultures have little division of labor. Everybody has to be a jack of all trades, make their own clothes, grow their own food, make their own tools, defend their own property.

Trade I: individuals begin producing enough goods to have a surplus. You begin to get division of labor, or specialization. Since Farmer Jones and Farmer Green can produce enough food for three families, Bill Smith can devote all his time to the forge. The new, and better tools, make Jones and Green even more productive and so Fred Carpenter can now afford to spend all his time on the edge of the forest working wood.

Trade II: At this stage communities begin to trade with other communities. Whole communities begin to specialize based on local resources, cash crops, or industries. Trade networks begin to develop. If defense wasn't a problem before, the security of trade routes becomes an issue now. Villages are founded for the express purpose of exploiting a specific resource or because of their location along a trade route.

This is important because individual communities cease to be self-sufficient. They are dependent on essential supplies through the trade network. This makes them vulnerable to disruptions, like natural disasters or invasion. It can also make particular communities strategic targets for thieves, raiders, pirates, enemy empires, or the forces of darkness.

Colonialism/Imperialism: An imperialist economy is designed to funnel resources from the colonies to the imperial center. Usually this leads to fairly extreme forms of exploitation to increase the profitability of the colony. England in the 18th century held human liberty in high regard, yet they looked the other way at the growing slave trade and continued to deny a political voice to the American colonies because they were making so much money off them.

Free Market: In free market economies the government and business theoretically stay away from each other. The economy is ruled strictly by the laws of supply and demand. The government's role is to protect the market from artificial, political, criminal, and dishonest forces from affecting the supply/demand equation. The weakness of a free market system is that demand can be manipulated by cultural forces (i.e. fads). The free market is also amoral. If there is a demand, (for example, prostitution, narcotics, assassination) someone will try to fill it. How will the forces of culture try to curtail these tendencies?

Mercantilism: In a mercantilist economy the government uses its political and military power to benefit specific domestic industries usually through protectionist trade policies. This is indeed an example of those having the gold making the rules. The industries and business are privately owned (in contrast to Socialism in which the companies are government owned), thought the line between government and business is blurred. The guild run cities of late medieval Europe were mercantilist governments, run largely by the most powerful business interests in the city. In some cases private companies are given extensive political power. For example throughout the 1700s and well into the 1800s the East Indian Trading Company ran the English presence in India and the Hudson Bay Company ran the colonies in much of Canada. These companies were allowed to have armed security forces and ships to enforce English rule. Their ship captains were given rank in the English navy, even though their ships were privately owned. Their managers were given full diplomatic authority to negotiate trade agreements that essentially operated like treaties. In effect the East India Company was a branch of the British government, but the money it made went mostly into the shareholders pockets instead of the government treasury.

Corporatism: Corporatism is an extreme version of Mercantilism in which the private companies actually begin to supplant the government. Corporate security forces take over the role of police and military. Private transport companies take over the delivery of mail. Corporate training programs replace education systems. People live in company owned or financed housing blocks. Most areas of the economy are monopolized and smaller business are bought out or squashed by their larger cousins. What municipal or national governments that are left are totally controlled by the business interests that put them into power.

Socialism: Socialism is the opposite of Corporatism. Under socialism the government strictly controls all aspects of the economy including private business: prices, wages, imports, exports, productivity, hiring policy, new construction. Socialist governments often take over whole sectors of the economy (usually starting with health care) replacing the corporate bureaucracy with government bureaucrats. Money and profits from the economy are funneled directly into government coffers. Of course government bureaucracies are usually even more inefficient than corporate bureaucracies, and just as prone to corruption. Economies are vast complex webs of relationships that defy efforts to micro-manage.

Communism: In an ideal sense communist societies have no private property. All property is owned communally (hence the name). There are no rich or poor, because nobody has anything, everyone shares everything. Goods and services flow freely 'from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.' In practice, however communism is a very difficult society to maintain. All it takes is one or two greedy or lazy people to threaten the whole system and they have to be eliminated or 're-educated'. Without the economic motivation of wealth what values motivate people to contribute to your communistic society? How do you transfer goods and services freely from each according to their ability when some have considerably more ability than others do? How do goods flow freely to each according to their needs when so much of any economy is based on fulfilling wants, not needs? Who needs a Rolls Royce, or yachts, or a 52-inch plasma TV? Who really needs a TV at all (and the whole entertainment industry behind it)?


We've already got a pretty good article on FARP about governments, so I'm not going to go into a list of government types. What I want to look at is making sure the governments of the countries, races, and planets, etc. integrate into your whole structure.

National Governments

As you've put together the cultures in your world, look at the relationship between their values and how their governments are structured. What will the government look like for a society dominated by the warrior caste, or worker, or priest? If you're going to create an evil, totalitarian empire for your good guys to fight, consider how they got that way. Oppressive fear rarely works well or very long. Just look at the Soviet Union. Hitler's rise by inspiring people; feeding people a line about safety, power, and empowerment; by uniting the people against scapegoat enemies like the Jews or the Jedi. At least a certain percentage of a population has to buy into the tyrant's vision for the tyrant to come to power without a lot of civil unrest or all out civil war.


What is the purpose of the nation's military: offense, defense, or civil order? Offensive militaries are designed to attack and conquer other countries. Defensive militaries are formed by nations who fear being attacked by countries with offensive militaries (real or imagined). Nations structure their military for civil order when they plan to use their army as police to enforce martial law (because the leaders fear their own people).

How does one become a part of the military? Do they draft conscripts? Do they impress unwilling people? Do they only accept volunteers? Do they only allow people from certain economic or social classes? Do they hire mercenaries? Does being in the military offer people special perks or social benefits?

What kind of special training do soldiers receive? What kind of special training do officers receive?

How does one advance in the military: skill, patronage, loyalty?

How competent is the military? How loyal? How independent? Is the military under civilian control, or are the civilians under military control?

Internal Politics

Countries are rarely monolithic. There are political parties, regional dynamics, ethnic groups, sub cultures, religions, generation gaps all working together. Even single cities have Chinatowns, boroughs, and neighborhoods with their own unique cultural flavors. These different groups often have radically different cultures based on radically different values. For example, different castes usually worship different deities in a pantheon, holding different festivals, eating different foods, attending different entertainment venues. They may even have different governments. In ancient Rome the upper-classes ran the senate. Only members of the upper class could run or vote for senators and consuls. The plebes, the lower class, could elect a Tribune of the Plebes. For a brief period the Tribune was the most powerful person in Roman politics.

Often in Fantasy or Science Fiction all these subtleties are glossed over to simplify the setting to focus on the main point of the story. That's not a bad thing to do. You can get caught up in the minutia.

Local Government

Many times the local government of a village or town will be quite different from that of a nation. Even under an incredibly autocratic imperial leader many of the towns maintain a fairly independent and democratic government. Likewise, even in the most democratic countries, you can still find areas dominated by a violent criminal gang or single individual, like the owner of the local factory. Local governments, even more than national governments reflect the cultural values and morals of the community.

Law Enforcement

How will the civilizations in your world enforce their rules? One of the 'rubber meets the road' issues in the world of your story is how your characters will interact with the authorities that run your world. Most of what we've been doing in this tutorial so far is setting up the rules by which your world operates. What happens when your characters cross the line and break the rules? Who goes after them? What happens when they are caught? Who tries them? How are they punished?

Who enforces the law?

Self: you get your own justice. In many ancient cultures, if you couldn't hunt down and kill a criminal yourself, you weren't a real man and deserved to get robbed. Often called 'frontier justice', this sort of justice tends to lead to cycles of escalating revenge.

Watch: In many isolated towns and villages the constant threat of attack by raiders, roaming bands of ogres, packs of hell hounds, and other beasties require a group of men who volunteer to maintain a constant watch over the town. Since they're already keeping an eye on things, they might as well keep and eye out for petty thieves, murderers, con artists, and other ne'er-do-wells too.

Constable: The constable is the watchman free of his duty to serve as an on-call defensive military. The constable is also a professional, not a volunteer. As such, the constable patrols the street keeping an eye out for thieves, murderers, con artists, and other ne'er-do-wells full time. Usually constables do not have the authority to use deadly force.

Sheriff: The sheriff is charged with keeping the peace. So his role is not so much solving crime as maintaining civil order, stopping crimes before they start or apprehending criminals caught in the act. Sheriffs can have a lot of unofficial discretion about the application of their authority. This is because a sheriff is selected by the people of the community. Sheriffs also have the power to use deadly force. A unique power of the sheriff is the authority to deputize civilians as fully empowered law enforcers.

Marshal: The marshal usually does not patrol, but pursues criminals. The marshal has more official authority than the sheriff does. His jurisdiction is broader, and he has the official authority to act as something of his own judge, jury, and executioner. The marshal's extended authority derives from a higher level of government.

Fed: The fed is an agent of the national government and their authority trumps the local authorities. They are still constrained by whatever rules the legal system places on law enforcers.

Street Judge: This guy, taken from the Judge Dredd comic, is police, judge, jury, and executioner. He has broad authority in the pursuit of criminals, the gathering of evidence. The arrest of a criminal is also the trial and sentencing hearing.

Detective: The detective is a special category of law enforcement. Instead of patrolling to prevent crime or to catch criminals in the act, the detective is called in after a crime is committed and given the job of figuring out who did it and catching them. As such they have the power to search for and gather evidence and question suspects.

Bounty Hunter: The bounty hunter is a marshal for hire. They are private citizens given the authority to pursue criminals and bring them to justice. Because they operate outside the constraints of department they can get away with a lot of abuse of the 'rules'.

Enforcer: Unlike the sheriff who keeps the peace, or the marshal, who pursues criminals to bring them in for trial, the enforcer's job is 'preemptive punishment'. They don't bring you back for trial, they just beat you up for violating the rules. A society that uses enforcers rarely pays any heed to 'civil rights' even in the best of cases.

Secret Police: or State Police operate outside the chain of the legal system. They have both the full resources of the state and the freedom from its rules. In the name of state security, you can justify a lot of things: torture, arrest without cause, search and seizure, even murder. The secret police operate (as the name suggests) covertly. They rarely wear uniforms and employ many informants and spies, often through blackmail.

Consul: In places under martial law, the military doubles as the police force. In ancient Rome the consul's power derived from a document that allowed the general to execute soldiers for disobeying orders. Thus the military governor has nearly absolute powers in the exercise of his authority. In other words, he can have you executed just because he wants to, no trial, no defense, no evidence


How are rule breakers punished? Punishment serves three basic purposes: prevention, deterrence, and restitution. Imprisonment, execution, exile, or amputation all have the side-effect of preventing a criminal from repeating their offense. Harsh punishments, like torture, caning, or public display are designed to essentially scare both the punished and other prospective criminals from choosing to break a law.

The third idea is that punishment should bring justice. That a criminal must pay for the harm they have done to their victims and the rest of society by violating the rules. These punishments will usually line up other cultural values. Societies that value freedom will imprison people, considering the removal of freedom to be drastic enough a punishment for most crimes. Societies that value social order tend to harshly punish even minor offenders. Societies that value money will often impose fines. A society of magic users may de-magic a convicted wizard. A society of warriors might reduce a criminal to a menial slave laborer. The most common punishment in ancient Rome was banishment. What worse punishment could a Roman think of besides having to live in someplace less than Rome?

Punishments also reflect what a society considers just to the victims and society. Mild offenders are frequently sentenced to 'community service' repaying the damage they did to society by forcing them to contribute in a way a society might deem constructive. We imprison criminals not just to punish them, but also to protect people from the other crimes they might commit. This is also the logic behind cutting the hand off a thief or castrating an adulterer.

Generally speaking, the more primitive or frontier a culture, the more personal the justice system. In many ancient cultures individuals were responsible for their own protection and justice. If you caught someone stealing from your shop, you could summarily cut off their arm without involving any local authorities. If the guys in black hats shot your brother-in-law and carried off your sister, it was your duty to don your white hat and go after them, not run like a coward to the local sheriff. Many cultures (especially those dominated by the warrior caste) hold to trial by combat. From the dueling floor in Hamlet to Main Street in Tombstone, Arizona it is not uncommon for two disputants to settle their differences at the point of a weapon, hand-to-hand, or spell against spell. The theory being that the gods, fate, or some universal law of poetic justice would guide the aim of the righteous and somehow impede the guilty forcing them to loose.

Of course this kind of cowboy justice tends to leave a high body count and lead to increasing rounds of violence. Enter the magistrate. Courts are an effort to fairly apply the rules; first by taking as much of the emotion out of the argument as possible and rely on logic and evidence. A major breakthrough in many ancient societies was to write the law down. Written law allows for fairer enforcement.

Modern cultures seek to stop the abuse of power by law enforcement by acknowledging rights like habeas corpus (the right to know what crime you're being accused of) and limits on the power of police to search and seize private property.


This is where you pull it all together.

Once you've got a basic map, a list of the major political, religious and economic forces (the nations, states, governments, churches, guilds) you want to construct a bit of a history. You need to answer basic questions like:


  • Why does this nation have the government it has?
  • What is the history of the conflicts between the warrior, worker, and priest castes?
  • What is the history of the conflicts between different nations?
    • Nations that are dominated by the worker caste will fight over trade and resources.
    • Nations dominated by the priest caste will fight over philosophy and doctrines.
    • Nations dominated by the warrior caste will fight over territory and strategic objectives.
  • What are some of the defining events?
    • Natural disasters, plagues, or supernatural calamities
    • Wars, invasions, conflicts
    • Life or reign of notable political/military/religious leaders

For most of the areas on your map this history doesn't need to be more than a paragraph listing the race(s) who live there, who the current king or leader is, the basic government and cultural type, the dominant religion, and any special resources or technologies they might possess. Those areas that directly affect the story, the more detailed you want to make this history. You especially want to detail the cultural and political forces that directly influence your characters. This can help you greatly with character development, giving you clues to who they are, why they make the choices they make, what conflicts they will have with other characters from other backgrounds.

I know this tutorial is overwhelming (it was overwhelming to write it). The point is not that you have to include every detail, every aspect of human society in your world (as if this were an exhaustive list). I wanted to throw out a lot of different ideas so that you can pick and chose a few, maybe a few you hadn't thought of, that will help you flesh out your world and make it more real to your readers. I've put together a Civilization Worksheet that will allow you to condense all the aspects of this over-long section into a simple single reference page.

Bonus Worksheet

I've put together a simple Civilization Worksheet in PDF format. It's designed to summarize all the info from both parts of this tutorial onto a single at-a-glance sheet.




6 months ago
Writing / World creation