When you create a world, you need to create its inhabitants. If you are writing in a historically accurate version of Earth, you have established cultures into which to fit those inhabitants. However, if you write any sort of speculative fiction, you have the opportunity (and often the need) to create fictional cultures of your own.
How do you create a culture? I’ll highlight 3 methods:
Steal a culture
This is common, and has its uses. If you’re going to write a fantasy analog of WWII, you can put a new coat of paint over British, German, Japanese, and American cultures, giving them new names and details, but keeping the core values and cultural touchstones essentially intact. If you want to pay tribute to the Trojan War, you relabel the Greeks and Trojans. This saves a lot of mental energy for the reader once they figure out what your analogs are (and they’re going to), but it saves you even more. A quick list of your cultural conversions (Greek = Oichos, British = Londinious, etc.), and you’re good.
It gets a bit sketchy when you’re writing what purports to be original fiction. Your readers are looking for something original, but you’ve repackaged some Napoleonic Era Russians and French and took away their black powder weapons and replaced them with magic. You’re going to get called out on it. Worse than the lack of originality is the incongruity of plunking magic into a culture without taking into account the changes it would cause to that culture.
Borrow from a culture
There are a lot of advantages to borrowing from Earth cultures. The pieces you take are real-world tested and many of them will be familiar to your reader. When you borrow a piece of a culture, you incorporate it with unique elements of your fictional world, with elements of different real-world cultures, or both.
How do you mesh a borrowed concept with your world?
- Identify some aspect of a real-world culture that you’d like to imitate
- Pick a people from your fictional world
- Using the borrowed element as a starting point, consider how a people with that cultural element would have evolved in your world
The last bit is the trick, and it gets into the territory of the third method …
Build fictional cultures from scratch
Building from the ground up is the most difficult but more potentially rewarding method of creating fictional cultures. It also has the most pitfalls. Just as plot holes can ruin a story, so can culture holes. “Why do these people fear droughts if they have a dozen wizards in each city who can conjure water?” “If no one is allowed to harm a pig, why are there people eating bacon?” “If they are living on a little island, how come no one seems to eat fish?” Sure, you can try to patch your way around these things, but you need to identify them first — or avoid them beforehand.
To start planning out a culture from a clean sheet, consider the following:
Where do they live?
Climate effects how people live. Do they need to worry about heat, cold, or both? Do they have access to rivers, lakes, an ocean? Is the land flat, hilly, mountainous? Are the surrounded by desert or forest?
Humans are adaptable creatures, and will find ways to fit in wherever they can sustain a community. They’re going to clothe and shelter themselves appropriate to their environment.
What resources do they have?
The Aztec civilization thrived without metalworking or the use of beasts of burden. They crafted things from stone, bone, and wood. Egypt built around the fertile soil of the Nile floodplain. In more modern times, oil has been the economic basis of many nations.
People will use what they have at hand, and trade what they have for what they lack (pending trade relations with a culture that has matching needs). They will learn to master trades that use the resources they have in abundance. People with clay will learn pottery and make homes out of brick. Metal deposits will lead to industry and to superior implements of war (in comparison to neighbors who lack such metals).
Bear in mind that food is also a resource. Humans will eat whatever is at hand, learning to cook, prepare, and enjoy just about anything that isn’t toxic. Grasslands will give rise to herds of cattle, whether wild or domesticated. Oceans and lakes are filled with fish. A good source of cultural flavor is the literal flavor of their food; vegetables spices vary by region, with people making the heaviest use of ones that grow readily nearby. Access to a world-wide scope of spices is a modern development.
What technologies do they have?
I wrote a whole article about science in fantasy. Even if you vary from Earth’s path of technological development — either by altering its past or projecting its future — you should have a rough idea of the corresponding era. Keep in mind that as science advances, superstitions are squeezed out, but not necessarily forgotten. Consider the leftovers of bygone eras when you have more advanced societies. We even have them today: when someone sneezes, does anyone still think they are suddenly at risk of demonic possession?
Technology affects how people live their lives, and the presence or absence of a particular technology for a given era can throw quite a contrast against Earth’s history. Imagine if we’d made it to the current era without figuring out antibiotics or vaccines. Imagine if gunpowder was developed in Roman times (it was certainly within their technical know-how to produce, if only they knew to try).
How does magic fit in?
In the same article with the discussion of science in fantasy, I cover how magic comes into play. For culture-building purposes, magic and science are nearly interchangeable. They both delve into how a society is able to effect the world around them. In the case of magic, however, you need to consider:
- Who has the magic? Is it common or rare? Hereditary or random?
- Is magic respected, feared, or both?
- Are magic users a part of society (rulers even?) or are they shunned?
- What social constructs have been built up around magical rituals or objects?
What do they believe in?
There are two halves to this one.
What are their religious beliefs
Are the people monotheistic, polytheistic, agnostic? Are their beliefs actually correct? As the writer, you are free to have your people believe in non-existent gods, believe in a misconception of the gods, or incorrectly deny the existence of very real deities.
How do these believe effect daily life? Is there an organized clergy? If so, what role do they play in society? How much does religion play into the daily life of the lay person?
What are the culture’s values?
While individual values will vary, there is a cultural value system that is generally accepted, even if it’s not spelled out (and for story purposes, putting your protagonist at odds with societal values will never go out of style). While many traits are considered virtues, not every culture will make the same list. More importantly, the hierarchy of values will almost certainly vary.
Consider these examples of conflicting virtues:
My master’s table overflows with food. Dare I sneak the excess from his larder to the starving peasants?
(Charity vs. Loyalty)
I can tell by the omens that a storm will destroy the crops within a month. I’d best harvest now, but should I spread the word? I’ll make a fortune if mine are the only crops at market.
(Cleverness vs. Compassion)
It’s not my business, but no one should abuse their servant like that, especially not a knight!
(Politeness vs. Bravery)
Depending on the hierarchy of virtues within a culture, it will influence the wider reaction to the decisions in these examples. Do the people rise up to defend the butler who stole his master’s food to feed the poor, or cluck their tongues that he should express more gratitude for his position. Do the merchants silently applaud the farmer who cornered the wheat market, despite begrudging him the price he demands, or are they aghast that he put profit above his peers’ livelihood? Do the other bystanders boo the knights into shame when his actions are called into question, or do they turn their backs as the knight beats the impudent commoner for daring to question him?
This is one that you’re likely to end up borrowing in broad terms from Earth history, even if you change some specifics. Earth has tried out quite a number of forms of government, from anarchy to pure democracy, theocracy to communism. While you can certainly delve outside these archetypes, I’d generally advocate at least loosely basing your government on something that has been tried out on Earth (successfully or not). Politics is complicated enough without getting into developing a whole new paradigm. It will risk bogging down the reader with a lot of information to flesh out, otherwise they may incorrectly assume it to be some form of tyranny, monarchy, or representative government. I’d only go to something unique if it was going to play a major role in the story.
One exception would be magocracy (rule by the magically gifted). It’s a fairly straightforward modification to an oligarchy or dictatorship, with the criteria for achieving and maintaining power altered to reflect magical ability instead of some other factor.
How do they make their living?
Based on geography, resources, and technology, consider what use people find for those in their professional lives. If you have metals, there will be metalsmiths. If you have cattle, there will be ranchers. Have a look through my list of 50 minor characters for some ideas of people to populate your world, and how you can use them to convey all the culture you’ve been creating.
Who are their friends and enemies?
Trade smooths out the edges of cultures. More metropolitan societies tend to be better rounded and less extreme. Their predjudices are tempered by firsthand knowledge of other cultures. Xenophobia tends to reinforce oddities in culture, especially when those oddities can be made into points of pride to separate the populace from the “others”. Every culture that has contact with the one you’re designing is going to leak in at least a little. Foods, fashions, technology, science, religion. Cross-pollination happens slowly among friends, and often quickly and violently in the wake of wars. New rules and values may be imposed by a conqueror, and a foreign way of doing things becomes the accepted norm. Even if an invader is later driven out, remnants of their culture are going to remain.
How do they fight?
For better or worse, many times a fantasy culture is going to revolve around how they behave as one of the participants in a war. Take all that you’ve learned of your new culture, and extrapolate that into how they would approach war.
- Decide what resources they have and how they would apply that to making weapons
- Use their virtue hierarchy to determine the rules of warfare (killing of noncombatants, deceptive tactics, allies and betrayals)
- Come up with an organizational method for their fighting forces that falls in line with their style of governing
- Determine the size of the forces they will assemble. Is their force professional, volunteer militia, conscripted, or some mix.
You should hopefully know enough about your people that you have a sense of how they would behave on the battlefield. Whether they are wild fighters screaming boasts to the god of war or staunch professionals marching shield-to-shield, you should be able to see from what you’ve decided about them as a culture.
This is just what I needed to read! I've recently started fleshing out a culture I'm building from scratch, and this will prove most useful. Thank you!
This article was exactly what I was looking for. Simple questions to ask that make sense for my world and don't require too much details. Thank you.