Worldbuilding: Shedding Light

How is your world lit? By sun, moon, stars and fire? Candles and lanterns? Neon electric, or oni balefire?

Lighting isn’t as easy to convey on the page as on the movie screen, but it adds atmosphere to your story. The hero facing a monster in broad daylight is a vastly different thing from facing it on a moonlit moor at midnight, or in a misty alleyway where even the sound of claws ticking closer is too muffled to predict where the monster is. Harsh bathroom fluorescents can add a stark emphasis when your character stares into the mirror and doesn’t like what he sees. The blazing tropical sun at noon can light a romance, or burn one to ashes. Flashlights bobbing in the night add a frantic note to searching for a lost child. And dawn breaking is the classic sign that the night of horror is over, and the cleanup can begin.

On a more practical level, lighting affects how your world works. Three big parts of society available lighting affects are reading, fires, and crime.

Reading is a big one. If you’ve tried reading by candlelight you know what a headache it can be. A steady source of light when it’s stormy or night gives you hours to read when the workday is done, making it much more plausible that your character could be self-taught in any number of subjects. How expensive that steady light is makes it more or less plausible that there are a lot of readers in your society, spawning a demand for technical manuals, self-help books, erotic literature, and the latest horoscopes. See the Ming Dynasty on in Asia, and the Renaissance on in Europe, for what happens when more and more people get hungry for the written word.

Fires, too, go hand in hand with how reliable your light sources are. If all you’ve got to light your way is flammable lamps, there are going to be a lot more fires in your society. Hence one of the reasons there was often a night watchman paid to walk the streets; calling the hours, reminding people to put out lights and candles, and there to raise the alarm if fires started. In societies where you have “colder” light available, by way of LEDs or even incandescent bulbs, the odds of accidental fire go down drastically.

Arson, of course, is another matter. And that leads us to crime, very much affected by light. On average, populated areas that are also well-lit by night have lower crime rates. Criminals don’t like to be seen committing their crimes. They might get caught. Also, more light means honest citizens have a chance to see suspicious types coming before they get close enough to commit a crime in the first place.

Just remember, no matter how much light there is, humans are still baseline diurnal creatures. We need a stable day/night cycle, a lot of us are pretty wiped a few hours after sunset, and most of us need it dark and quiet to sleep. Use light carefully!

31 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Shedding Light

  1. In some regions, it still has to be nighttime before you commit burglary. The same acts by daylight are housebreaking.

    Also, relighting those fires can be a real pain. It was normal to bank fires so you didn’t, and in colonial America there was a tool for the sole purpose of carrying coals from your neighbor’s fire.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. In *Winter’s Curse*, light spells are the first thing taught a new student of magic. But actually it’s an important point that you can make them invisible but warm. We would say infrared. They just know that it’s safer to camp that way.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This was the single biggest factor in making Log Horizon seem like a “real world. The faces on the spirit lights, and the personalities they were shown to have, just made everything more real.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. So here’s an oddball thought.

    A lot of supernatural things are marked by odd glows and lights.
    Those might be useful.

    “This bull has glowing horns, what does it mean!?”

    “It means we can use them as lanterns!”

    Depending on the cultural attitudes, most people might be reluctant to have close contact with demon parts, but the Demon Hunters might be more casual.

    Combined with a need to keep good records on the various demons and curses they encounter, the Demon Hunting community might end up being a lot more educated than anybody would expect.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. *G* This is one of the reasons the vampire picked Lee Cheong in Colors, BTW – you need to both be educated and have a determination to keep learning to make a good demon-hunter. Sure, a lot of people get by on “glowing things bad” and “stabby the heart and head”, but when you run into something not in the ancient tomes you need a geek! (Preferably of the Badass Bookworm variety.)

      Liked by 4 people

      1. The question then becomes “Who wrote the ancient tomes?”

        How were they able to come up with a solution to a novel demon when the people with more access to more tools couldn’t?

        “We’ve tried everything! Nothing works!”

        “According to this ancient text, the only way to get through its defenses is by yodeling while juggling flaming yogurt.”

        “…how the hell did they figure that out?”

        “You don’t want to know.”

        Liked by 7 people

    2. But do remember that you will need shades as well. Light can be seen for a LONG distance in the dark. The monsters will come hunting you if you leave that kind of sign out.

      Remember how they talk about fires giving away their presence in LOTR.


      1. Legit, worrying about finances and gardening, so my first thought when you mentioned shade was how to get around having too much light, or it being too intense for your plants. Light is very important for plants and animals! A lot of people put artificial lights in the chicken coop during the winter to keep their production up. Others do not. I am not planning on keeping chickens, but have found the videos about keeping them fascinating.


    1. I’m toying with an idea for a kind of will o wisp. Borrowing from Kryal’s yukiuso from Dragon King’s Temple, it’s a will o wisp that is kind of a hive mind similar to bees. There is a Queen Wisp that is semi-intelligent and burrows into a nest that is a fire (burning methane pockets, volcanic craters, etc) and send out “sparks” to harvest life-energy, usually ending in the victim’s death. It can be from animals or humans, although the sparks tend to go after larger prey, especially in swamps (lots of places to trap them so they can’t get away) because the bigger the creature, the bigger the energy source. The sparks bring the energy back to the Queen and once she’s accumulated enough stored energy beyond what’s need just to survive, she will split ( like an amoeba) into two. The young queen will fly off to find her own nest and begin the process again. The people (psuedo-elves? They’re cousins to humanity the way Denisovans are to us. Close enough to interbreed, different enough to that it’s noticeable) who live in a swamp made a deal with a Queen Wisp millennia ago that they would keep a fire burning in their town, and therefore safe from predation, for her and in exchange she wouldn’t harvest their energy. Over time this evolved into the Queens acting as a sort of border guard (these people were isolationist, permitting outsiders only in a few select towns on the very outskirts of the swamp) since outsiders were different enough that the queen could sense it.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Times and places with less daylight are more likely to have an oral tradition. Its too dark to read but its perfectly fine to listen to a storyteller.
    Also house fires have become much less common now that fireplaces and wood/coal stoves are not used for heat. Cooking over an open fire used to be a very common source of injuries too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I live up in the mountains, probably about 90% of people around here use wood stoves for heat because of power outages in winter. As well as the fact that it’s cheaper, and also wood fire heat feels more effective than electric heat, even when they are radiating at the exact same temperature.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. One of the reasons that “English cooking is bad” became a trope, is that English cooking had been done over an open fire for centuries… and then suddenly a lot of people were trying to cook over a coal stove in a tiny city apartment, without terribly fresh ingredients. So what was safe was boiling things.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Even stoves are better than what most people had.

      I recommend Domestic Revolution by Ruth Goodman, because it’s good, but also because it discusses how chimneys really came in in England during Elizabethean times. Yes, they were used before, but only for the really grand houses. When coal came in, and second stories in cities, chimneys became a necessity for the lesser orders.


  6. In Clan and Kin, one of the sources of fuel for their fires I’ve been thinking about them using once they get to the farm is dried cow chips. Collecting them seems like it would be a suitably “gross” chore that a boy Carl’s age (12) would find interesting. Plus, if the kid has something to do that means he’s actually helping maybe he won’t be wandering into the woods to throw rocks at zombies stuck in bog mud.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hm… not knowing anything about your story… picking cow chips seems like a task for a younger child. 6-8 years old?

      I would think that the 12 year old’s task would either be picking rocks out of the fields behind(?) the plow, or riding herd on the cows…


      1. My stories a Walking Dead and Gargoyles crossover fusion fic. Carl is the Grimes family’s very sheltered, suburbia raised son who’s probably never seen a farm animal outside a petting zoo.

        Other chores I could see him and Sophia, she’s the same age, being assigned are collecting eggs, feeding the chickens, feeding and milking Zerelda’s goats, butter churning, and KP duty until the walls are up. Though I could see them also pitching in with picking stones out of the fields during planting as well.


  7. In one of my fantasy worlds I have given sunstone some interesting light based properties— given that no one likes the dark, and indeed many are phobia levels afraid of the dark (for extremely understandable reasons), sunstone is in high demand and is semi rare because of it.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. There’s a simple (ish, blown glass is complex) way to improve candle and other lowlight- the lacemakers lamp. A glass globe filled with water and set near the work and the light source, will increase the amount of light and focus it more tightly on a small area. The link below shows a Victorian one, but I think they’ve been around since the sixteenth or seventeenth century in Europe.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Clear plastic cups filled with sparkling water set on a cell phone lamp make for surprisingly good improvised light sources at night.


    2. Candles in general are brighter than people give them credit for these days. Especially a good taper, I prefer to go for white ones to have on hand for emergencies. Not sure if there actually is a difference, but it’s generally simple enough to find them. Putting them in front of a mirror really helps light up a room too.


  9. For space based (or long distance teleporting/portals), there’s also the jet lag aspect– and for heaven’s sake, how is it that NOBODY calls in the middle of the night?! Or the ship’s daytime JUST HAPPENS to match where they visit on planet? Sometimes it can be planning– but sometimes they’re going to the capitol, and they only had a day or two warning. And there’s no indication of “night” cycles in the hallways…..

    (Which led to my trader-character having 25 hour days when he’s not going anywhere, and when he puts in a target location the ship shifts the day/night cycle to match the target location, pinned at when working hours start. He also has the worst sleep hygiene on at LEAST a dozen different planets.)

    Liked by 2 people

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