You have a landscape — now, it’s time to populate it. Like a game of Sim City, you can only zone land for so long before you have to unpause and let people start inhabiting your creation.
Likely, you’ve already had some ideas about the people of your world — if you’ve started from a concept and drawn political boundaries or civilizations, the sketches are there. But there’s a lot of work still to do — you have to fill in the colour, now.
Who is it that populates your world? Is it primarily humans? Or are human settlers in a new environment? If it’s a fantasy world, are there typical fantasy races, like elves and dwarves? If it’s science fiction, are there aliens? What are all the different species or races that live here? Just one or two, or dozens of different kinds?
Even if your setting is Earth — is it an alternate Earth? Are there secretly faerie people living among humans? Vampires, angels? Alien visitors? Sea-people? Has humanity split into multiple distinct species, or have Neanderthals survived alongside homo sapiens?
For the world of Shadow of Death, I knew I wanted some fantasy tropes. The benefit of using races like elves and dwarves is that they come with certain expectations, and even if you want to make them unique to your world in some way, you can use people’s assumptions to your advantage so not everything needs a full explanation in writing.
Humans would be dominant — humans are easiest for an audience to relate to, and have the benefit of generally a wider range of characterizations, since they don’t have single tropes they fall into. But other races would be present — elves, bird people, orcs, etc. And part of the concept of Shadow of Death was the xenophobic, Shadow-worshipping lizard people, the “shissir.” So them, too.
While you’re thinking about what your people are, you also have to consider — more importantly — who they are. What are these people/species/races like? Where do they come from, and how has that affected them? How do they relate to other people/species/races?
And what’s their culture like? Do you want to draw on real-world cultures — perhaps something like a Roman Empire, an Arabia, a Japan? Or will you create something completely new?
Creating a culture is a whole task unto itself. You have to consider the history of these people, their religious ideas. How do they treat their dead? How do they treat each other? What kind of government do they use? What kinds of arts are in their society?
Some of these questions you can’t really answer yet — we haven’t gotten to history and religion. But you can start to answer some of them, or at least start thinking about them. When you’re populating your world at this stage, you don’t need to know every detail about every culture — but it’s good to have a very basic idea of all of them. Perhaps a one-sentence description for each major culture or race in the world. This gives you a rough idea of your whole world so when you go to detail the specifics of the few cultures you’ll be dealing with in your writing, it can be appropriately coloured by everything around it.
And that’s the important part — having just enough background detail in the world to make the world seem real. These people aren’t just whatever your story demands they be. They’ve been affected by other things in the world, they’ve lived there all their lives. When they react to another species a certain way, it’s because of where they themselves come from.
The dominant culture in Shadow of Death is the seafaring, mercantile and pirating culture of the sea. But this maritime locale is surrounded by a dozen other unique cultures, so I needed at least a basic concept for all of them — even if the characters never go to El-Shaer, its mere presence would affect how they act.
I had a lot of different fantasy races, but humans dominated the area, and had for hundreds of years. I also knew I wanted to draw on inspiration from a lot of real world cultures; thus, I have a human culture similar in many ways to Arabia. “El-Shaer is a vast desert of nomadic tribes and jewel-like coastal cities ruled by shiehks and sultans. They worship spirits of fire.” And I have a basic culture.
I added to this the main European-like western cultures, a China-equivalent, and a rough combination of India/Indonesia. These were my humans. I created a nearby bird-person culture, but only very roughly. The main race I needed to focus on was the shissir, because of their role in the story. I’ll get to the finer details of their culture later, when I really think about religion, mythology, history; right now, I have most of what I need: a jungle-dwelling reptile people; extremely xenophobic; they worship shadow and have great regard for life, for it is rare — but also believe they have the right to kill whomever they want. I still have to figure out why that would necessarily be true — I have some ideas, but the details are fuzzy — but this is a start.
My world is inhabited.
Now your world is a little more alive than it used to be. People are living here. And now I can delve into what makes these people tick.