Worldbuilding: Establishing Boundaries

How do characters define where they are in your world – and where they are not?

Maps are useful, maps are good; but maps are made by people, meaning they contain some implicit assumptions that will differ by culture, time period, and what you’ve got to make a map on in the first place. You’ll make a very different map when you have a table-sized piece of paper to draw on than when you’re carving landscape features into a turtle shell. And culture matters. For example, I’ve seen a medieval city map that was all buildings and streets crowded together, next to a reconstruction of what archaeologists and historians say said city actually looked like. The ancient map showed none of the open or empty spaces in the city, because they weren’t important. Putting an empty area on the map when it’s actually empty was more of a Renaissance thing.

Let’s go more basic than maps. How do you define when you’re in X piece of territory, and when you’re in Y instead? What’s the dividing line? Is there a line, or just a fuzzy set of concepts?

This is critical in both fantasy and SF; in fairy tales, and gravity wells. Are you on the land, or in the sea? Are you sailing along through the solar system, or in free fall around a planetary body? You’d think it would be a binary yes or no. But there’s always at least one spot where physics and magic says, “Eh… maybe.” The seashore is a classic liminal spot; neither ocean nor land. And you can’t beat how Bloduwedd took out Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who was fated not to be killed “during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made.”

(There was a net involved. And a goat. Any plan that involves a goat is inherently suspicious, and it didn’t go well for her in the end, but you have to admire finding that many loopholes.)

So how do your characters know where the boundaries are? Features like the mountains, the sea, the river? All of these can shift over time; critical to know if you have a time-traveler or a cranky undead wakened from a centuries-long snooze. Political lines on a map? Even more volatile. Cultural differences, who speaks what languages, who eats what? See China and the constant conflict between the wheat-eating north and rice-eating south. Wheat survives cooler temperatures, and can be grown on isolated farmsteads by families working separately, while in preindustrial times rice required mass, coordinated efforts to control water and have it in the fields at the exact right time. One can favor a political system that allows people to make their own decisions, because the right time for you to plant wheat might not be right for the people a valley away. The other leans toward a more tightly controlled community, because everyone’s involved in making sure the irrigation is maintained. Adventurers passing through may notice the difference in foodstuffs; readers should notice the difference in how the kingdom or state works, and how background characters behave.

And this is only the start. You can go deep into how each culture you’re writing defines a boundary, and the territory it encloses. It could be as small as a fenced farm, as large as the wormhole network covering a galaxy. Whatever it is, likely some people are not going to agree with where those boundaries are… and of such disagreements, a lot of conflict will come right into your plot, free for the taking.

If you’re writing a story with any kind of adventure, your heroes are likely to cross some boundaries. It helps to know where they are!


24 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Establishing Boundaries

  1. The irony is that in most high fantasy, magic is used to create clear boundaries rather than being the muddled liminal thing it is in most folklore.

    The Heroes step from the fertile forest into the blasted wasteland of the Demon King and feel the life draining slowly out of them.

    One of the frustrating things I see a lot is magic being used to create absolute certainty in areas where certainty has never existed.
    They have things like unbreakable oaths, or truth serum, or perfect identification, but they never leverage it in ways that have an impact on society.

    Or they will have something like a really obvious liminal situation, the subjectivity of truth, and act surprised when it shows up.

    “You mean people have different opinions!? Amazing! In all my years of politics I’ve never encountered that before!”

    Liked by 6 people

    1. “You mean people have different opinions!? Amazing! In all my years of politics I’ve never encountered that before!”

      😆 Too accurate!

      In all seriousness, I’m trying to leave certain things liminal or “inexplicable/unexplained” in my stories, too. (You can pick up three for $0.99 on Amazon through my site today, if you’re interested. Planetary Anthology series is on sale over the weekend; ends tomorrow.) Having liminal stuff in stories is actually very freeing because it means I don’t have to come up with an explanation beyond “it’s weird, why are we surprised something weird happened?”

      Once upon a time, I tried to come up with answers and explanations for everything in my fiction. Now? Being able to just say “nobody in-universe has an answer, so neither do I” saves *so much* brain power for other story factors…

      Liked by 4 people

      1. And that’s the other side.

        “We know this with 100% certainty!”


        I’ve seen plenty of things presented as absolute when there’s no conceivable way they could be tested.
        Any failure is guaranteed to be fatal to everybody involved, or the people telling you can’t be trusted or it’s unique!

        If there’s only one Macguffin the the entire world, how do you know it can be ground up to be a perfect antidote?

        Liked by 5 people

      2. Yeah.

        Xianxia has those scholarly records that inexplicably classify every abnormal super rare natural treasure that can be used to transform a cultivator into an OP cultivator.

        Then there is the Nasuverse, where the ramblings of someone from a secret society of relatively few scholars are at times considered authoritative by the readers. Observation? Maybe. Theory? Kinda seems a bit suspicious to me.

        Liked by 4 people

    2. One of the frustrating things I see a lot is magic being used to create absolute certainty in areas where certainty has never existed.

      And it just gets *worse* when they have a Magic Authority doing it– prophecy is notorious for telling you exactly what is going to happen, AND having it blind-side you with Exactly What It Says On The Tin.

      The classic “No man of woman born” can be messed around with by not being born, being a woman, being a child, being an animal, being a totally normal guy named Noman, being an eunuch (Hm, would vasectomy count for that, in ancient terms? Male infertility is often described as “not a man”.) and possibly by being a large group of people… oooh, or a judge, then you’re being killed by the law….

      Liked by 5 people

    3. I’ve found this is because “magic” in most modern works is really a science. And science is classically all about categorizing what things are and are not. That is, science is all about finding boundaries. At least until we got to Quantum Physics and found that physics had the last laugh about a lack of clear boundaries after all! (Why yes, I am imagining a whole bunch of “magic races” laughing about matter being both a particle and a wave and the uncertainty principle behind the backs of all the scientists who supposedly know better.)

      However, “magic” as a modern concept hasn’t caught up (or gone back!) to this idea of things being “fuzzy”. It’s instead still tracking with the classical idea of science. If a kind of science not everyone can leverage for whatever reason. Which has honestly become part of how I know if something is “magic” or “science” in terms of feeling in works. “Science” can be leveraged by anyone if they have the right knowledge. “Magic” can’t be leveraged by anyone even if they *do* have the right knowledge.

      Now granted… most of magi and science (and even religion) centers around deriving order from chaos. And a huge part of that is about setting boundaries. A much smaller part is acknowledging when there *isn’t* a hard boundary between certain things… which in itself is a kind of way of ordering chaos!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Actually, the classic take on it _was_ more like a science… just with the caveat “most people don’t/haven’t/can’t learn”. After all, you need books, you need teachers, or maybe decades as a hermit doing crazy experiments to reinvent things from scratch, to even begin to get some of that secret knowledge.

        That said, I mostly agree with the rest of this. While there is the modern take of “it’s magic, it doesn’t have to make sense (or be self-consistent, or anything other than constant deus ex machinae)”, it’s also common to make magic _more_ self-consistent and subject to science than the “(future) SCIENCE” (that is pure deus ex machina with just the excuse that “well, we don’t know how it works _now_, but that’s the future, they figured it out sometime” even when it contradicts itself or creates self-prohibiting worldbuilding) type of “science” in that has become unfortunately common in SF. To the point where I argue that most of the time if the words used are “it’s future science” that means it will likely contain every trope of poorly written magic, just with the names/numbers filed off and replaced with “but, _science_ means it really works, even if you don’t understand it!”).

        Which, ironically, goes back to the first part I said up there. The modern usage of “Science” is a closer fit to the archaic usage of “magic”, while the modern usage of “magic” is (at least in the better written stories) actually closer to _science_ (and to the nominal _concept_ that was being claimed by the term “magic” in the past, or is being claimed by the term “science” nowdays).

        Liked by 3 people

      2. There’s a recent book, Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky, that I’m planning on writing a review of in the next few days. It plays with the definition of magic and science, and you might find the author’s ultimate take on things intriguing.

        …Long story very short it had more melancholy in it than I prefer, but it’s good – good enough I might want a hardcopy as well sometime.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. “Adrian Tchaikovsky” “it had more melancholy in it than I prefer”

        Yep, checks out. Russians are reputed to be good at melancholy.

        Liked by 4 people

  2. SEriously, perfect ‘slave crests’ could be a thing in empire building. Thus, even imperfect slave crests should be used by wannabes in attempts to create or secure polities.

    There are a lot of means by which attempts should fail, including with perfect crests. So, I find it a little bit disappointing not to have better political world building, and better examples demonstrated of regime failure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Leadership and scholarship are broad, difficult things, involving information moving between people, aka communication.

      Scholarship is limited by a combination of personal experience, the experience that your authoritative sources are drawing on, and by the limits of the theory developed by the scholars. Some cases of theory can be pretty good, when used with an understanding of the limits. Some theory is necessarily extremely limited, and is always dubious.

      Leadership, well, you maybe don’t entirely have control over your own behavior. People you can’t directly perceive or communicate with are very difficult, and even more not absolutely controlled.

      So, blaflaix has an extremely good point about these things. Many of them are information cheats, that violate the behavior we see with information in the real world, but do not allow for violation as profound as might be implied.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This goes well with yesterday’s post on limits. Like one thing White Collar did well in the first few seasons was lean strongly on the two mile area that Neal was allowed to wander in. It defined the area, it defined his limits, and an antagonist even took advantage of it. (He lured him to meet at an empty construction site, taunted him, and when Neal stepped forward to make it physical the tracker went off. He had to back down.)

    So. A boundary is just another limit. But I’d advise against pushing too hard on the boundary of sanity.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. The “only one way to look at it” thing bugs me at least as much as the “I am going to absolutely screw this around backwards and ACT like it’s clever, it’s just your opinion, maaaaan” stuff.

    Yeah, you need to put the effort into a different interpretation to sell it– like the net making you not dressed, but also not naked– but you also need to have a really good reason if there is one and only one way to take stuff.

    Especially in very poetic languages–which English is– you can get more than one obvious and poetic meaning.
    Example, this morning the priest mentioned that the kids are a hand-full– my husband was helping his mom up the stairs, so I was mother-henning the six kids. Our pun-prone daughter perked up, looked at the group, and said: “MORE than that, almost two hands full!” and held up both hands, with pinky and thumb down.
    Six kids, thumbs aren’t a finger… it’ll work better when the new baby gets here, but it still got Father and I both snickering. Because she’s right, a “hand” is also a number….

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yeah, that second is especially annoying when it’s clearly _wrong_. “You missed a step in your logic, and went with the converse instead of the contrapositive” or similar logic flaws, when it isn’t simply a case of “you could have easily used this really simple loophole, but instead you had to build a rube goldberg loophole machine, and didn’t test it before running it, and the marble actually gets flung off into the sunset instead of performing the desired end task.”

      Liked by 4 people

  5. You have different map ideas. For example, there’s an ancient mosaic map of Rome, and it was exact like a surveyors map, showing individual apartment buildings and alleys. Unfortunately most of it did not survive, but it was huge.

    There’s also a Byzantine Roman mosaic map of Jerusalem, and it only shows the important tourist buildings and biggest streets. (And it probably was for pilgrims and tourists, like those tourist brochure maps today that just give you a general idea of how to head toward the sights.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh, the tourist one sounds like the novelty maps that are made as welcome-to-town/fund raising ones, where you have any locally famous places, plus people who paid in as an advertising expense, with a cartoony/logo type setup that still lets you go “OK, where is the police/city hall/ambulance/fire department/water department/soft-serve yogurt in town?” (….alright, I’m joking, they don’t USUALLY have anything for sale in the City Operations area, and the water department is usually across the road, at least.)

      Liked by 1 person

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