Reprise: Water, Water

It’s finals week. A perfect time for reruns. Regular posts will (most likely) resume next Sunday night.

Originally posted July 13, 2008.

It’s one of the classical elements, and necessary for life. In legend, it has been credited with births and deaths, healing and disasters. It’s been walked through, walked on, and floated over. Through the ages, it has sparked wars and commanded peace, and where it is has determined where life is. And now, it can serve as a worldbuilding and characterization tool.

In any world, water will be in some way a necessary force. You need a decent supply of it for people, and more for their crops. It’s heavy enough to be difficult to bring on long trips, but too important to leave behind. Rivers provide avenues for trade and the exchange of ideas, but also the risk of flooding; oceans feed those who live on their shores, but tend to feed on their ships. This means that water is something you’re going to need to take into account, on both a cultural/symbolic and practical level.

Let’s start with the nitty gritty. If you’ve got people traveling, water’s definitely going to be a limiting factor for them. How much of the stuff can they safely carry? Do they have any way of refilling their stocks en route? If there’s some sort of magic that provides the stuff, how will it affect the travelers; by the same token, how will its effect on travelers affect history? If water is scarce, do they have a way of avoiding becoming completely filthy?

If you have cities, how do they get their water? How well protected is it? An otherwise impregnable city could be completely destroyed by somebody who could get at the water supply.

If you have a river, does it have a flood cycle? What sort of terrain does it pass through? Are there parts of it on which boating is impossible? If so, how do your characters work around that?

What effects does the presence or absence of water have on the culture around it? This doesn’t just mean “Does it set off wars?”, but that’s part of it. Consider the following: In the American Old West, the theft of a horse was a capital crime because if someone’s horse were to be swiped out in the middle of nowhere, he’d probably die of thirst. Consider also what happens if water is scarce enough that desperation ensues; in one of the more obscure installments of Kipling’s Jungle Books, the uneasy truce between the creatures of the jungle during a drought, predator and prey alike, drives an entire plot.

Then you get into symbolism. Because of what it is, water has a lot, particularly in the areas where it is either ubiquitous or scarce. Next to oceans, it tends to be associated with birth and with life, but also with death and destruction. In other places, its uses in personal hygiene, as well as its natural clarity, grant it associations with purity. (Of course, this presupposes that the water is clear; in an area where pools of stagnant water are common, the cultural relationship with water may be more love-hate; on the one hand, it is necessary for life, but on the other, it is a source of mosquitoes.) How it is viewed in a desert may also vary; in one where it is always rare, it will have few if any negative associations, most of those few being the same sort of reasons why people dislike money, but in flash flood-prone locations, it might be seen as a fickle creature. Water is needed, but it kills as well.

Consider also the sounds it makes, and the reflections in a still pond; its properties, and its tendencies. Almost any of its traits can acquire some sort of symbolic association. And that’s not even getting into its relationship with magic; can it be created? Destroyed? Drawn from something else? Is it necessary for a certain effect, like scrying? If it has its own magic type, what sorts of effects and associations does such magic have?

The answers to these questions can do much to shape a part of a world or the people in it: traditions, taboos, legends, metaphors, and almost any other factor. Follow the water, and the worldbuilding is all downhill from there.

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