World Building—Creating a Culture (Part 6: Time and Technology)

I’m wrapping up my series on world building with something that in some ways goes without saying, but is still something that it’s good to be mindful of: the time period in which your story takes place and the technology that is available at that time. If you’re just joining me, come check out Part One, Part Two: Stereotyping, Part Three: Building a Religion, and Part Four: Climate and Clothes, and Part 5: History and Landmarks.

time and technology

Time and Technology

What type of story are you writing? Where would you categorize it, genre-wise? The fun thing about creating a fictional storyworld is that you can make up your own rules and things can be however you want them. That said, readers have certain expectations when they pick up a certain genre.

Epic Fantasies tend to take place in a medieval-type world, where people travel by horse or carriage or on foot, and where the technology is limited to pulleys and simple machines, and weapons are swords or catapults. If your world is like this, you wouldn’t have someone come in a jet and bomb the castle.

Sci-fi stories tend to take place in a futuristic world. It can be Earth in the future, either near or far, or it can be space, or it can be other planets. If that’s the type of world your story is in, there is often some made-up technology that is more advanced than what we currently have, so someone taking out the enemy with a slingshot would seem out of place.

Steampunk and Dystopian worlds have a little more flexibility when it comes to tampering with technology. Steampunk worlds are old-fashioned and Victorian in some ways, but with imaginative inventions and technology that otherwise wouldn’t fit the era, while Dystopian worlds can have advanced technology, technology that has been lost, and primitive technology all in the same world.

And of course there are plenty of other types of stories that have their own expectations for what is “allowed” in them.

As I mentioned before, you can decide how your world plays out, but there are some key things to remember.

  1. Be consistent.

If you’re in a classic fantasy world with a medieval setting, study the time period that most closely resembles it. Find out what types of weapons and machines they would have had, and don’t stray to far from the reality you create. And if you have one scene in which the greatest technological advancement is an aqueduct, don’t have running water coming from the tap in someone’s kitchen, but also don’t have them trudging three miles to the town well to gather water. The same goes for weapons technology. In your sci-fi, don’t have one character blasting plasma lasers from his Cyclops-like visor, when the greatest technological advancement is a high-powered machine gun. However you set up your system, make sure it’s consistent throughout.

2. Have reasonable explanations.

If, for some reason, you want to have a bomber jet fly through and bomb your medieval castle or have your spaceship run by gerbils on wheels, there needs to be a really good reason. Is there a rip in the fabric of time? Are gerbils genetically enhanced and secreting pheromones that cause the wheels to spin fast enough to propel the ship through space? You can mix up your technology and make the world really unique, but it has to make sense to your reader. One term that is thrown around a lot in writing circles is “suspension of disbelief.” It doesn’t matter how crazy the idea is, if you can capture your reader and make them believe it’s possible, then it is fine to have it in your story. But the trick, of course, is making your reader believe it’s possible. You have to have a really good reason for things to not fit the mold.

3. Make it your own.

I know, I just said you need to be careful to meet expectations, but even so you need to have something all your own. Don’t copy Middle Earth exactly. Don’t plop your characters into Blarnia or Easteros or Pigwarts. Create a twist that makes your culture unique. An invention that is out of place, assuming you have a reasonable explanation for how they achieved it, can be a great way to set your world apart from other similar worlds.


I hope this series has been helpful to you!

Let me know if there are any topics you wish I had covered or that you’d like to see talked about in a future post!





About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

3 comments on “World Building—Creating a Culture (Part 6: Time and Technology)

  1. You close with another winner, Avily. The only thing I’d like to add is one needs to be careful when modeling a world on a historical time period of earth, let’s say. Tolkien was unabashed to model his Rohirrim on the Anglo-Saxons (even down to using that tongue in which he was an expert to represent their language), but he made them horsemen par excellance, whereas the “real” Anglo-Saxons were primarily foot infantry and both renowned and feared for their shield walls. The Rohirrim look like Anglo-Saxons, talk like Anglo-Saxons and live like Anglo-Saxons, but they sure don’t fight like Anglo-Saxons. And it’s this critical difference that makes them so cool. Similarly, though he’s taken a lot of modern “bashing” by revisionists and witch hunters, Lewis in creating his Calormenes used many cultural markers with which children and adults of his era were familiar: black hair, pointed and oiled beards, pointy shoes, swarthy complexion, cruel corporal punishments, grandiose pompous speech — all drawn from the Arabian Nights. Yet the Calormenes are not, not, not “Muslims,” they are polytheists, with Tash as the chief god. And they are evil not because their skin is brown but because of whom and what they worship! Lewis took certain familiar elements and blended them into a different pot, if you will. In my own WIP I’ve done the same using eastern rather than western Europe as the model, with many cultural elements absorbed (women don’t go out without wearing necklaces, wooden rather than stone houses and walls, burials by burning rather than interred in the ground, just to name a few) but this isn’t ancient Russia. It’s Istenzek, the sacred land in the midst of the Sacred War. (And even that name I stole from Russian history, but I have given it my own very unique — and ultimately horrifying — meaning :)).

    All of us who write fantastical fiction should be instructed by and make great use of your material. It has been of inestimable benefit to me, particularly religion and landmarks. Thank you!

  2. […] my series on World Building, I had a section on Stereotypes. Stereotypes exist for a reason. It’s okay for your character to […]

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