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Way With Worlds: Ecology and Ecologies

This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David

Futuristic city

So you’ve got the origin of your universe (or perhaps you used our universe as a template, which does save a lot of effort). So now that you know how it all began, it’s time to move things to the next level. Namely, what’s going on in the places your characters will be living, working, loving, dying, and in other ways advancing the plot.

Cosmology is decided. Time to move to Ecology

Now when I talk Ecology, that’s a word with a lot of meanings and a lot of applications. So for the sake of the column I’m defining Ecology in world building as how you define how the living parts of your setting (world, worlds, etc.) work, relate, interact, etc. Your plants, animals, biospheres, diseases, and the like. I’ll refer to it as Ecology with a capital “E” for general purposes, and with a small “e” for specifics.

You know, where life comes from and/or lives. Life in short, like your characters, or the things they’ll be interacting with, domesticating, fighting, eating, and so on. Or come to think of it the reverse as well . . .

Why Ecology Matters

Ecology is important to good world building in the following ways:

  1. Connection. It is the linkage that ties Cosmology to your characters. It’s not just how the universe/world/setting was made, but how it functions and how various phenomena happen like wind, disease, or where edible plants grow.
  2. Foundation. It often defines many elements of what happens in your stories because the specific ecology you write is the living network your characters are in and interacting with and often come from. If a character gets sick, has to fight a monster, has to terraform a planet, and so on then you’re entering questions of Ecology. Thinking about Ecology in your Worldbuilding ensures you’ve got those questions answered.
  3. Responsive. When you understand your ecologies, then your world takes on a life of its own – quite literally. Understanding the way your plants, animals, biospheres, and so on work in a setting in turns means you can write believable reactions of the environment to the characters – and understand the impact.
  4. Believability. The first three elements come together to make a world believable. If your characters destroy forests with our repercussions, ignore diseases, eat anything they find without worrying if it’s poison, travel across a swamp next to a desert next to an arctic tundra (unless the world is really a mess) then it’s not believable. Being good with thinking about Ecology means the setting you write is one people can “get” because, essentially, it’s alive in its own way, and readers can detect the consistency.
  5. Stimulating. Ecology is something we encounter every day, from the joy of fermented food or an exotic dish to dry skin to fears of disease. Defining your ecologies gives you a wealth of knowledge and ideas for stories because your world has those details. A well-defined setting’s ecology not only functions on its own, it can take on a life of its own in your imagination and give you great ideas.

Writing And Defining Ecology – Enough

Defining Ecology can be a pretty daunting task, and you’ll need to decide how far to go in your stories. Maybe it’s just some general notes, maybe it’s extensive research, you’ll have to make the call. However there’s also a few rules for writing good ecologies and elements of ecologies (note the small “e” as we’re getting specific):

  1. An ecology large or small is about the exchange of energy and matter. The Sun and soil feed plants, animals eat plants, animals eat other animals, etc. A character needs to find water to drink – and a city distant from water needs a source of H2O to survive.
  2. An ecology is about relations. It’s hard to separate parts of an ecology from each other – a sure sign you’re doing a good job designing one is when you can’t figure out when one part ends and another begins. Having predators over-feed on herbivores and crash their own food source is a grand example of that.
  3. Ecologies are dynamic unless your ecology is “dead planet” (which has an ecology but a lot slower) Things may be stable, but it’s the dynamic homeostasis of a person balancing on a tightrope – or not balancing, which may be part of your story.
  4. Ecologies are (to an extent) self-regulating. This could be something as benign as the delicate interplay of animals and grazing plants, or the horrors of a disease that burns itself out as it kills victims too fast. When things get out of whack ecology wise you have some interesting and terrifying stories.

A fair warning is that you can go pretty crazy with thinking about Ecology (and the specific ecologies) because there’s just so many levels of detail that you can be lost in them. At some point you may have to stop yourself unless the insane detail is the point. The basic details for a good ecology are usually:

  1. The major plants, animals, residents, and biomes.
  2. How they relate to each other.
  3. What sources of energy keep things going – the sun, magic, etc. Sometimes an ecology in decline is the story.

If you want to get beyond that, it’s your call. Just keep the warning in mind that this can get addictive.

Space city

A Pattern Emerges

An ecology’s tight linkages can be pretty telling. Once you look at the different pictures and connected levels, you start to notice something.

Your characters are in an ecology, the overall Ecology is result of Cosmology, and everything is tied together. Much as mentioned, you can’t really disconnect things . .

In a way, everything you write is a kind of Ecology and your ecologies are just a bunch of linked systems.

Keep this in mind as you write. It’s a helpful realization.

Ecologies: An Example

So let’s take a look at how Ecology can affect a story by looking at a small-e fantasy ecology.

Let’s say you’ve got a story with your usual Fantasy Rampaging horde of Orcs/Goblins/whatever stand-ins for evil you use. Sure the whole rampaging horde is nice, but what do they eat and how do they survive? If they burn and pillage everything in their path, then they destroy raw materials, drive away food animals, and have less to survive on. How do they get water for such large armies of slavering monstrosities? Add in the amount of hate they generate which means people will be trying to stamp them out, you realize a rampaging horde is a long-term ecologically inefficient thing.

Now if you’re a writer (or an Evil Overlord . . . or both) if you design your rampaging horde with ecology in mind, they become more believable. Maybe they survive by being expert hunters (and gain additional skills at stealth and targeting). Perhaps they cache supplies, maybe even instinctively as a kind of animalistic storing habit. Maybe they only destroy what they can’t use, their enhanced senses and strong survival instincts letting them quickly assess what to ruin or take.

Now your rampaging horde is more believable and scary, a race of natural hunters and hoarders who strip towns and encampments bare, wield deadly bows, and move stealthily. It’s going to be a believable, terrifying, and interesting threat.

Your heroes may have to get a lot smarter, ambushing hunting parties, learning their habits, destroying supply caches to stop a retreat . . . and your story gets interesting.

After all that’s the point . . .

Closing

Ecologies are a vital, large, and at times easy-to-overdo part of world building. Doing them right makes worlds more believable, plots richer, and can help stories almost write themselves. Writing ecologies also teaches you how the parts of a world work together and helps you become a better world builder in general.

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.

  • daenelia

    Oh yes. One of our writers constructed a race that devoured everything in sight. They never hinted at that being a problem, but as the story unfolded, we took into account that a race that eats everything, and needs to feed every hour or so, would strip the land fairly quickly, even if they do eat their own… eggs.. Don’t ask. So it set the current situation in motion where the lands where they live are entering a food crisis. It even influenced the last few posts, even if there were none of this race present in them.

    Sometimes you have to work the other way around: if this happens, what would the effect be on the land?