Welcome to today's #WorldbuildingWednesday post! For those of you new to this series, I'm @oblivioncubed. In this series of posts, I break down what Worldbuilding means to me, how I build a setting, why I choose to build what I do, and hopefully provide you some inspiration to use in your Worldbuilding.
My world - Trothguard - is a setting I've created as a catch-all location for any tabletop RPG games I run, so everything I build is filtered through a lens of 'how will this improve the game for myself and my players?'.
Today we're going to dive into Creating Cultures.
Who lives in your created world?
Sooner or later, as creative people shaping worlds... we're going to have to answer that question. And that means we're going to have to think about more than just an individual - we're going to have to think about the cultures of the various people who inhabit the world.
But, what makes a culture? Well, the most common definition you'll find is that culture is made up of the customs, values, beliefs, symbols, and behaviors of a group of people. This is quite a range to consider, but we'll look at some ways to make this easier in this post.
Now, as far as I'm concerned, there are three main ways to create cultures for our settings and those are to Steal, Borrow, or Build. I'll mention Steal and Borrow in passing because I think they have some value and are a good starting point for new worldbuilders, but the bulk of my focus today will be on building a culture from scratch.
As you might expect, this is by far the easiest route you can take. Just pick a real-world culture, re-name it, and plop it into your world. This can be used successfully, but your readers will almost certainly figure out what you're doing and once they've done so it can break the immersion you've gained from them if they're not expecting it. You might be able to get away with stealing a culture if you're doing alternate-history, or you've introduced magic to an otherwise real-world setting, or some similar scenario.
In general, I try my best not to use this method as I rarely write fiction that would benefit from it, but I have seen other worldbuilders use it in the past and so it earns a place on this list.
This is a method I use a bit more often than the previous one. Borrowing aspects of a culture can be really useful and is much easier to incorporate, though your audience will very likely figure out the core element that inspired your culture and it can colour their expectations. In another worldbuilding community I frequent, it's very common to see people talking about their "Not-Roman" cultures (or whatever base they are using) when they borrow significant elements from a single culture. The distinction between this and Stealing/Re-Naming is largely that when you borrow elements of a culture, you're generally also pairing them with unique elements of your world and then deciding how that new culture would adapt and change.
Depending on what you're creating your world for, this can be a really easy and useful way to establish familiarity with your audience. The videogame series Valkyria Chronicles is a fantastic example of this. They're very clearly combining their fictional elements with Europe during WWII. The names are different and the cultures have unique feels to them, but there's enough of the underlying foundation that inspired them that it takes no time to see what they're based on.
In some ways, I think borrowing might be easier on new worldbuilders than purely re-naming a culture is since you don't have to stick as closely to the 'source material'. Much of my own worldbuilding lately has been via this method, as I tweak D&D races to fit within my world.
Now, that said... let's get to the actual meat of this post.
So, as I said before... When we're defining what "culture" is, we're looking at the customs, values, beliefs, symbols, and behaviors of a group of people. There's more to it than that though because some of these elements will be influenced by external factors present in your world.
The first, and most obvious external factor is simply: Where do your people live?
The climate, location, flora, fauna, and available resources of the area in which your group lives will play a huge role in shaping their culture. Some things to keep in mind here are:
- Weather/Climate will (generally) play a part in several aspects of your culture. Clothing, housing, and holidays could all be influenced by the climate your people live in.
- Location (Mountains, plains, forests, jungles, etc) will also exert an influence. What resources are common/hard to find? What flora and fauna are abundant/can be grown or raised in this location? Is there easy access to lakes or oceans?
The second external factor that might be relevant to your world is: Does magic exist?
If magic (or divine intervention by active gods) is an element of your world, this will probably have some kind of effect on each culture you build. How it directly influences your culture will depend a bit on the scope of your magic system, but will almost certainly have an effect on the social norms, values, religion, and symbols of that culture.
If magic does exist, consider:
- How common is magic?
- Who can learn it/who has it?
- What otherwise limiting factors are alleviated by magic? (Can magic provide water for your arid desert people? Can it help your people to cross greater distances? Can it provide heat or cold to counteract the natural climate? etc)
With the two most major external factors accounted for - let's now look at a few major defining elements of culture (some of which are hinted at via our external factors).
What your people define as "normal" behavior and social interaction is a big part of what defines their culture. Further, what happens when you break those conventions is too. Consider:
- What values do your people hold?
- How are gender roles defined?
- What actions or behaviors are considered rude, immoral, improper, or taboo?
- What actions or behaviors are commendable, sought after, and praised?
- How are criminals and outcasts handled?
Social Class and Leadership
How your society structures itself and who leads it will be important cultural aspects, and will often be based at least in part upon what the culture values. A people who value trade might appoint the most successful merchant or bureaucrat as their leader. A heavily religious people might appoint a priest or the church itself to rule. Consider:
- Are social classes rigid, or can you advance up the social ladder?
- Do slaves/indentured servants exist, and can they earn citizenship?
- Is leadership easy or hard to change? Is it appointed, or are you born to it? Does an individual lead, or is it a group?
- What defines and separates each stratum of society? What perks do those with higher social status get?
Language & Communication
This may not seem immediately important as a cultural aspect, but how your people speak and interact with each other is definitely a defining aspect of a culture. Consider:
- What is the pace of normal speech? Do they talk fast, slow, or somewhere in-between?
- Do they use gestures while speaking?
- What is considered a conversational distance? Do people generally stay an arms-length (or more) apart, or is it common to be very close when speaking?
- How is communication handled in large groups or busy settings?
- What unique traits does their writing system have?
Death & Religion
Whether or not your culture has a predominant religion or set of beliefs and how they handle their dead can be very important defining features for your culture. Your culture's values can both shape and be shaped by their religion and their death practices. Consider:
- What beliefs do your religion preach? How does this impact social norms?
- How do your people worship?
- How are the dead handled? Are there special ceremonies or burial rites?
- How does the dominant religion or society itself handle cults or splinter religions?
Holidays, Festivals, and Ceremonies
Special days and events can tell us a lot about our cultures. Consider:
- What prompted the event? Is it a seasonal, religious, military, or something else?
- Are there any special foods, clothing/costumes, or practices associated with the holiday?
- What is the purpose of the event?
Art, Story, and Entertainment
Our culture is reflected in our art, stories, and entertainment, and as such it is something you'll want to define while creating your new culture. Consider:
- What types and styles of art are highly valued?
- What stories, legends, and histories are important, and why are they important? What do they tell us about your culture's beliefs and values?
- What types of entertainment are common? Are plays, concerts, gambling, sports or other types of entertainment common?
Housing & Clothing
Both housing and clothing will usually reflect the location they live in, but also will be influenced by the art aesthetics of the culture. Consider:
- What materials are used in construction of houses and the creation of clothing?
- Are embellishments and decorations added, or are they utilitarian in their design?
- How are your clothes influenced by the culture's taboos and social norms?
Symbols and Ornaments
Interspersed in the other elements of culture are symbols and ornamentation. The things our culture finds particularly important will usually be represented via symbols and ornamentation which we use to adorn clothing, integrate into statues and buildings, and express in our art. Consider:
- Why are these symbols or ornaments important? Are they religiously significant? Are they social symbols? Are they considered patriotic or representative of the nation or government?
- How prolific are the symbols? Are there special practices or beliefs associated with them?
Relationships & Family Dynamics.
Last, but certainly not least, we should give consideration to how a typical family operates and how relationships and courting are done in our world. Consider:
- What responsibilities are each member of a household responsible for?
- What is expected of children? What is expected of the elderly?
- How are dating and courtship handled?
- What marriage customs exist? Are couples allowed to separate, and if so, what does that require?
Whew! What a list!
It's a lot to think about, and we cover a huge amount of ground in this post - but I hope that it has given you enough food for thought that you'll be able to use this as a framework or at least inspiration when creating your own custom culture. This list and these prompts are by no means exhaustive, and I'm sure as you go you'll think of things I missed, didn't think of, or omitted. As always, use whatever you find useful and don't worry about the rest. There's NO wrong way to do this!
Thanks for slogging through this massive post with me, and, as always, Happy Worldbuilding!
Thank you for reading today's #WorldbuildingWednesday! I hope this has provided you with some inspiration!
Next #WorldbuildingWednesday we will look at Religion!
If there's something else you'd like to ask me about, please do so! I will make every effort to answer it next Wednesday.
For previous #WorldbuildingWednesday post you can read them here:
0: Introduction to WorldbuildingWednesday
1: Starting the World
2: Kingdoms, Factions, and Notable People
3: Creation Facts and Creation Myths
4: Shaping History
5: Myths & Legends
5.a: Player Visions (Supplemental)
6: Gods & Lesser Deities
7: Mythical Beasts & Monsters