Princess Academy: World building around a central setting

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale offers a good example of how a writer can build up a fictional society around a central setting. The book takes place in the mountain village of Mount Eskel. They refer to themselves as highlanders and remain distant from the rest of the country, who they call lowlanders. The village economy revolves around the quarrying of a precious rock called linder.

This mountain setting and related quarry economy then spills over into the rest of the culture. A few examples:
1. Physical appearance - Because the people work in the quarry, most villagers are fit and well muscled from carrying heavy rock.
2. Values - The inherent difficulty and danger of quarrying rocks by hand creates a society where hard work is valued and uselessness is highly disparaged.
3. Language - The emphasis on strength and hard work gives rise to sayings such as "skinnier than a lowlander's arm," used to describe something thought to be useless. When the girls are sent off to school, a parent urges them to study hard and learn quickly, telling them to "show those lowlanders the strength of Mount Eskel."
4. Recreation - In festivals, both men and women participate in contests of lifting, running, and throwing stones for distance.
5. Customs - Mountain girls always hold hands when they walk together. The custom originated as a safety measure to prevent them from slipping on the rocks.

Lets have a brainstorming session. What are other examples of how a setting can affect a society? Feel free to use examples from books you've read or your own writing, or just make something up.


  1. Great post.

    I like the language part of this post in particular - I think that's the subtlest part of world building. In a few YA I've read (Tamora Pierce comes to mind), the authors use a lot of similes that relate directly to their characters' interests, too - e.g. a herbalist who describes a thing's bark-like texture etc.

    That said, this sort of world building - fantasy world building - gets the most attention, though I'm not sure it's deserved. I mean, yes, fantasy authors create worlds from scratch - sort of. Many still use words like "strawberry" and "oak" as it's not complete world building they're after, but world tweaking.

    So what sort of world building trumps that? Maybe the kind everyone does, building a world inside a character's head. After all, how I see the world is different to how you see the world and so on and so on. What causes those differences? And how much of the world do we agree on - do we both think scarlet is red, or does one of us perceive it as brown?

    Finally, you might be interested in "The Sparrow" (I think it's by Mary Doria Russell). It deals with world building in terms of race and religion.

  2. Peta -- I think that's what separates good writing from great writing -- if an author can create a world inside a character's head that is believable, but still distinctly different from the reader's own conscious experience.