The Internal Map (Worldbuilding Wednesday 7)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

What do I mean by an internal map?

I define an internal map as how the people in this made up world perceive the cosmos and their place in it.

People and societies have an “internal map” that orients how they see the world and influences the choices they make and the perspectives they cherish, enforce, and share. This is true for characters and cultures in narrative as well.

By cosmos I mean a people’s understanding of the universe, how they perceive that it works, and what brought them to the place (land) they are now. This view may or may not be influenced by religious beliefs.

Other elements of the internal map include cultural beliefs and expectations, laws and customs, and societally approved prejudices and/or rebellion against them. People (and thus characters) understand who they are in the world and what their relationships are to others according to this internalized map. What are the rules and customs of behavior that govern them, and does any given character as an individual obey them or not? Expectations about things like hierarchy, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race will all be part of a character’s internal map.

There will almost certainly be more than one “people” in a secondary world, and each “people” will have a unique way of understanding the cosmos and their relationship to their gods (if they have them), the natural environment, their culture and sub-cultures, and to other groups and peoples both within and outside their own culture.

Internal maps are therefore not monolithic to each world or even each nation (or even individuals in the same setting). They will be influenced by the nuances, variations, and local characteristics that affect any given individual’s life. For example, a Japanese-American girl growing up in Nebraska as one of only a handful of Asian-American students at her high school is going to have a somewhat different internal map than a girl of Japanese ancestry growing up in Hawaii with its majority Asian & Pacific Islander demographic make up, and they again will have different internal maps to a Japanese girl growing up in Japan.

For me, the beginnings of understanding a world starts with my first explorations into an internal map.

Obviously no made up world is going to be as complex as the real world–I believe it is functionally not possible–but having the idea that there is an internal map provides the foundation on which I can build what I hope is a nuanced landscape.

I also have to remember that this map will always be influenced by my own internal map, the one that orients me. If I’m not aware of my own internal perspectives and biases, the ones influenced by my family, my upbringing and schooling, and the society I live in, then I am likely to reinforce or repeat my perspectives and biases within the story I’m writing regardless of whether I’m trying to write a place that is different from where I live.

I’ll use marriage customs as an example. When I read science fiction novels set in the far future in which a woman automatically takes her husband’s name and there is no explanation for why this happened, I perceive defaulting to certain common American legal norms at work. A woman taking her husband’s name is a specific cultural custom, not a universal one. When it is treated as a universal then I know the writer isn’t stepping outside their own internal map. It’s not that this custom should never be invoked in (for example) secondary world or far future fiction, but rather that if the writer chooses to include it then it’s best to be aware that there needs to be context for it.

Here’s another commonly used default: the virgin bride. Not every pre-modern culture concerns itself with women’s virginity as a token of honor and purity. Nor is marriage necessarily about sexual access. If marriage customs have a place in the society you are creating then understand how they work and in what ways marriage is considered useful as an institution in the society you are creating. If you merely replicate generically understood 1950s American marriage customs and sexual mores, you are re-using a cultural map that has been (in many places) superseded in the 21st century and which gas not ever represented a universal marriage pattern.

So, yes, my perspectives and biases will show up in the stories I write in off-hand and subtle, or not so subtle, ways, but the more awareness I can bring to my world creation the more deliberate I can make my choices. Because I guarantee: our unexamined biases will inevitably filter into our imagined worlds.

This is why I don’t “start with a map” by placing mountains and rivers and cities on a piece of paper: because physical landmarks offer only a partial understanding of a world. A physical map is by definition incomplete and circumscribed because it gives no insight into the mental and emotional and spiritual processes of the characters and the cultures in which those characters live their lives.

But at the same time, the physical geography in which a culture arises creates many of its own constraints and possibilities.


Next week: Geography is Destiny

Coming soon: More on internal maps and how to develop them, including a practical example post and one on diagramming cosmologies. Also a discussion of common narrative maps and tropes and how they influence worldbuilding. And more.

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory