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Retrofitting a World

In Space and Time, I talked about the consequences of adding quirky, science-fiction-esque planetary dynamics to a fantasy story. In this post, I'll dig a bit deeper into one of those consequences, showing how it affected the story and one of the peoples in my world – the Skardwarves.

Actually, I've got the causality somewhat backwards. I mentioned in my first blog post that this world was the setting of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Skardwarves weren't an outgrowth of the decisions I made about the planet. Quite the opposite, really. Skardwarves were my friend Jared's invention, and in the game they had three characteristics to which I retrofitted the world:

  1. Skardwarves live in a land blasted by constant winds.
  2. These winds kick up debris that hits the Skardwarves and leaves them pocked with scars, hence the name.
  3. A contribution-slash-running-joke from another friend, Jeremiah (yes, there are many J names in our party; I haven't even mentioned Jeff). He came up with a catch phrase, as it were, for his Skardwarf character, Sentyx: "I face into the wind," meaning that he does not balk at danger.

/* Side note: I credit my friends' for their contributions here because this story is theirs as much as it is mine. In writing this book, I tried to keep things faithful to our sessions together, while adapting it into a story fit for a wider audience. This book wouldn't exist without them. */

If retrofitting a world to fit preexisting characteristics sounds challenging, consider how it simplifies things in some ways. Bounding the problem reduces the number of potential solutions. It sets you searching in a specific direction, rather than floundering about trying every idea under the sun. Perhaps if you're having trouble world building, just pick a few details, set them in stone, and see where they lead you. In my case, I had an atmospheric dynamic and a cultural prototype; everything else branched from there.

Hot Sun + Cold Sun = Heavy Winds?

The strong winds were what led me to look for a planet-scale solution; something that big needed a good reason, in my mind, or the world would have felt somewhat contrived. Throughout the first draft, it nagged at me. One of the main characters was a Skardwarf. The winds were mentioned several times, but I never had a good explanation for them. When I finished and went to work on my second draft revision guide, one of the first bullet points I added was "What would cause the equator winds?" The first thing I wrote down while brainstorming was "Winds are caused by temperature differences."

From there, I must admit... I think I got lucky.

Right away, I went all in with the idea that there's a North Sun and a South Sun, and that the northern hemisphere is hotter because that star is closer. Generally, I don't know what I'm doing, but in this case my intuitions seem to have served me well. I wrote an entire second draft assuming that this explanation makes sense, and didn't check my work until... well, about an hour before starting this post. Oof, I narrowly avoided a harrowing third draft. I would have done it though.

As Sentyx would say, "We must face into the wind."

Luckily, discussions of tidally locked planets on Stack Exchange lean toward the winds generally blowing from hot-side to cold-side, which I'm tentatively taking as validation of the idea. But as astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker wrote in this 2019 article for

global climate models are extremely tricky, being computationally expensive and sensitive to a multitude of factors that are unmeasurable for exoplanets. As a result, it has not been possible to test if the climates produced by [computer simulations] could really exist, leaving the fate of tidally locked worlds uncertain.

My planet isn't tidally locked, in the usual sense, since the spin axis of the planet is nearly perpendicular to the spin axis of the the sun (similar to Uranus). I'm still looking for a word or phrase to describe a tidally locked planet whose poles always face the sun, but perhaps that's just a special case of tidal locking. My planet also wobbles as it rotates, like the top in this video. Earth's axis wobbles too; however, the planet in this story wobbles on a time-scale of days rather than centuries like our planet. Forgive the excessive details here; planets are complex, and I'm still simplifying a lot. Suffice to say, the planet still has the same hot-side, cold-side dynamic going on, so the idea of two suns creating a temperature differential should work plausibly well for a fantasy setting where mighty winds must blow.

Those We Fear

Okay, but how does this impact the story? Where is the conflict?

Well, those raging winds make it nearly impossible to cross from one hemisphere to the other. Skardwarf culture developed mechanisms to handle the harsh winds and bitter cold they're subjected to daily. They face into the wind, because they have to. They pride themselves on being tough enough to be hit by flying debris and not flinch. Their physiology adapted to it as well. They're bottom heavy, as if anchored against the wind. They have sensitive hearing, to hear each other over the howling gale. Their skin is hard as rock. You wouldn't want to get into a fight with a Skardwarf.

Across the ocean, there is a different culture, different religions, different levels of technology. If these hemispheres ever broke through the storm, ended their isolation, and contacted one another, it's safe to say they wouldn't view each other favorably. There would be conflict.

So that's exactly what happens.

My protagonist lives in the bright, northern hemisphere, which is politically united as the Bright Empire. He has very little knowledge about what life is like in the dark, southern hemisphere. Events are unfurling outside of his awareness, however, and the world is changing – fast – so he's going to have to learn.

He's heard stories, which (unsurprisingly) don't reflect well on the Skardwarves. They're thought of as small, dim-witted creatures, enemies of the Bright Empire; paradoxically, the stories also promise that the winds will keep them away, and the residents of the Bright Empire safe. Our stories about those we fear tend to contain more fiction than truth. Early in the book, he comes into contact with the first Skardwarf he's ever seen.

Someone lumbering along behind the rest caught my eye. I knew the Agency recruited from all countries within the Bright Empire. Apparently, it recruited from some outside it as well.
“Is that…?”
Inac hummed, furrowed his brows. “I have never seen in the north a Skardwarf.”
Stocky and shirtless, with skin like jagged stone, his body looked like rock sculpted into human form—quite a stocky human form, with anchor-like feet and a bald, pockmarked head. The Skardwarf carried a roughly-hewn darkwood quarterstaff with a gnarled, knotted end. He noticed me staring, bore his teeth, and raised his staff in my direction, but continued following the others, leaving deep footprints behind in the ground.
“I pictured them as being much smaller,” I admitted.

(Excerpt from An Ocean of Others, Second Draft)

Not long after, he'll meet a second, Sentyx, who he needs to work with. That he meets two in one day is no coincidence. If there are Skardwarves in the Bright Empire, they're there for a reason. What that reason is, I leave unclear throughout the first book (with some hints). Conflict between the two hemispheres is inevitable, but first I wanted to portray a character from the dark hemisphere who is brave, friendly, funny. Someone who the reader likes, if I did my job well. Not everyone from outside my protagonist's culture is an enemy. They're individuals, with individual motivations, and it's important to me that the story reflects that. Like any other group of people, they aren't a monolith. Like the rest of the elements in this story, I want them to feel real.

Within reason.

Break the Loop

Worldbuilding is a little bit like being in a feedback loop with yourself. I had some Skardwarf characteristics to work with, which spawned a planetary setting, which seeded the characters' cultures, which affected the story and themes, which made me revise the planetary setting to fit them better... and so on. You get the idea. I wanted these elements to work together and feel like a real system, and it's a ton of fun refining the world so its internal logic makes more sense. But reality is fractal. If you try to make your world too real, then your opportunity costs are boundless. That's why worldbuilder's disease plagues so many science-fiction and fantasy writers. You need to break the loop to get on with what's important: writing the story.

The problem is that the world has to make some minimum level of sense. You have to run that feedback loop for some amount of time. The more fantasy elements you include, the more time it will take to refine the world to that level. Otherwise the setting will feel sort of... glued together.

At the end of the day, you have to pick what's important enough to spend time on, and let lower priority things fall by the wayside. You can design an entirely original religious doctrine for your priests, clerics, wizards, or what-have-you to follow. But it's a waste of time if you don't use it to affect the story in any meaningful way. I chose to spend time designing how the world's orbital mechanics affect wind patterns, timekeeping, and cultures, but I sacrificed some things I would have liked. An exploration of the social structure, more interesting flora and fauna, better politics. All of these fell by the wayside, but you can only fit so much in a book.

That's the nice thing about trilogies. There's plenty of space for the world to grow in the sequels.