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Stories will not be written easily. A story without a heart is dead, and the only place it will get a heart is from the author.

Creating a Fantasy Culture

Creating a Fantasy Culture

 

Good worldbuilding* can make or break a book.

A well-developed culture can make or break your worldbuilding.

In so many fantasy (and science fiction) stories, the culture in a world entirely unconnected from our own seems distinctly European.

“But Athelas!” you gasp, “you mean all countries didn’t wear longswords, ride horses, and fashion full-body armor? You mean all cultures don’t wear medieval-style dresses, and not all cultures put moats around their castles?”

Why, yes, that’s exactly what I mean. You catch on fast.

Not all countries resemble Great Britain in medieval times. Not all countries hold the American ideas of clean. In order to create a believable world, you will have to put significant thought into the culture of your countries, even if you decide to echo countries from our world (which I have seen done very skillfully before). You’ll have to work hard to get it to the point where you’ve created a realistic world – but it can be done, and it is a very enjoyable pastime.

Characters will make your readers love your story. Developing your setting will take them there.

What You Will Need

  • A good imagination
  • Careful record-keeping.

Some people say you should start at the very basics – at whether or not they’re human or other creatures, if they keep dragons as pets, if they have special abilities, and other things like that.

That sounds like a very good idea to me.

But if you’re brave, I have a better idea.

First off, find the feel of your country. That’s a hard thing to pin-point, but it will shape everything else you do with your country, ever. It will be in your novel and in your history, in your notes and in your language.

Sit back. Think of the style you want your culture to have.

One easier way of finding the feel of your culture is to write a “tagline” for your country. In that tagline, give a quick sentence or paragraph that captures the feel of your culture as a whole.

For example: “The people of Robegēn are a group of stubborn farmers, peaceful people who can beat back any invader before they knew what hit them, lovers of history and knowledge.”

Sometimes you may want to do this after you finish the rest of the basic worldbuilding steps. However, it will take a long time to create a culture, and it’s likely that if you don’t do this beforehand, you will lose the feel of your people before you finish creating them.
That is never good.

Now figure out how fantasy-ish your people are. This is, after all, an important thing to know.

Values

What does your culture, as a whole, value? This may be summarized in your tagline; it may not.

Different cultures all value different things. In China, they value dignity. You do not make someone lose face. In America – well, let’s skip over America, actually. In a country with a history of war, they may value peace; or they may value bravery in battle. Some cultures value family; some value solitude.

Cultures as a whole have a way of creating a certain amount of character about them. Though they’re a whole group of people, they are people raised by the same people as generations go on; they’re bound to be taught the same thing growing up as their parents learned as they grew up. This may not be certain characteristics they possess, but rather, subtle differences from other cultures.

For an example, look at ancient Mesopotamia as opposed to ancient Egypt. The Egyptians had a certain quality in them that taught them to accept their ruler as their deity; the Mesopotamian people had a definite amount of independence in a way that manifested itself in their rulers being repeatedly assassinated and replaced when they got to the point where the people were unhappy with them.

Quirks and Traditions
Before you go on to governments, hierarchies and religions, take a moment to figure out certain quirks in behavior, practices that they have or do not have. Why do this now, you ask? Well, simply because it’s fun, and you’ve worked hard up until this point.

For example, the people of Robegēn do not eat oblong fruits from trees. At one point they did not eat any fruit from trees, but after the Famine of Nen III, they decided it was necessary to eat some fruit. Many cultures have these types of “quirks.” All of them had a reason at some point in the past, but most have been forgotten by now. None of the people of Robegēn could tell you that they don’t eat oblong fruits from trees because of a certain snake in a certain garden.

Now feel free to move on to governments. Do they have a king? Would they permit a female to rule? Do they elect their rulers? Do some research on the different types of government and figure out which your people would establish.

Going deeper than most people would advise you to at this stage, you can ask how much they would accept from their leaders; how far will they allow their freedom to be taken away?

Religion

Who do they worship? Have they got it right, or have they got it wrong? In what ways do they practice their religion? Are they open about it, or silent about what they believe?

There are many other things you’ll learn about your culture, but these basics will set you up to learn the other things as time goes on.

What sorts of fantasy countries do you have? How have you spent time developing them?

*My spell check is telling me worldbuilding is not a word. My spell check is wrong.

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11 thoughts on “Creating a Fantasy Culture

  1. Precious @ Clockwork Desires on said:

    Reblogged this on Clockwork Desires and commented:
    A wonderful post about creating a unique fantasy culture. You guys should totally check her blog out!

  2. Natasha Roxby on said:

    Great suggestions, Athelas! Where do you suggest beginning one’s research?

    And I agree with you on “worldbuilding” being one word. My spell check tells me that “storyline” isn’t one word. My spell check is wrong, too. 😛

  3. I’ve actually just been focusing a lot on my world building! This is an immensely helpful post, so thanks! 🙂

  4. I’m currently plotting an epic fantasy novel, and the world is a huge part of it, so this post came right in time. I think finding the feel of a culture before determining the other details is a wonderful tip. That way there will be a satisfying sense of continuity throughout the world.

  5. Great post. I’m a big fan of worldbuilding, and I agree that it’s a word. I’m doing my own worldbuilding for a sci-fi world that’s colonised in the future. It will have a long history and be fairly isolated from the rest of humanity. Actually, I’ve been building the world since 2000. It’s a lot of fun. I think I’ll do my next worldbuilding post today, though not about culture.

  6. I’d love to see a storyworld based off people like the Inuit. Or how about a culture similar to that of the Mongolians? Let’s make a world that reminds one of South America (there is a sad lack of alpacas in fiction)!

  7. I love worldbuilding. One thing I heard is that you should build deep, not wide. This means instead of coming up with a dozen different fantasy cultures, you should deepen the one, or ones, you already have. This is something I need to remember to keep in mind.
    Another tip if you’re writing nonhumans, or any humans who have powers, is to remember how it affects their culture. My Lazakal don’t loose their tempers easily, and it’s ended up leading to an almost pacifist race. This may be in part because they’re a creature with razor sharp claws and long teeth. If they started exchanging blows easily as humans, they’d kill someone.
    Chix are a small species that glides from tree to tree. Due to this, they cannot carry much extra weight, which is part of the reason they employ beasts of burden even in the space age. Since their beasts of burden are fierce in their own right, Chix are considered a serious threat in battle.
    If you don’t need humans to be the dominant species, there’s also no reason to make humans better than every other species. Is there a reason that the dwarves or elves can’t be the dominant species? I’m playing with this in my space opera, where the three foot tall Chix at one time were the dominant species on their home planet.

  8. Pingback: Worldbuilding Masterpost | BOOKSHOPPED

  9. So this is probably really random (especially since this post was from a while ago) but I was jumping around from various blogs and sites to other various blogs and sites looking for posts about worldbuilding, and I found this extremely helpful. Thank you!

  10. Anthony Morris on said:

    I do like this article, but I would make this observation… no, not every culture resembles medieval Britain. But the medieval period spans a thousand years, so which part of the medieval period are you talking about? The fifth century during the time of Attila (434 – 453 CE), just before the fall of the Western Roman Empire? The “Viking” period (roughly from the 8th to 11th centuries)? Anglo-Norman Britain (post 1066)? The time of the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1485) which might be labelled Early Renaissance? And where? There’s an entire continent to chose from, here.

    Also, mail (“chainmail”) was the go to armour for 2000 years, from the Celts in the 4th century BCE, right up to it was replaced by plate in the 14th century CE and even then with the early suits it was still worn underneath. And it was worn in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and East Asia, even as far away as Japan, so mailed warriors on horseback are by no means exclusive to Europe. A good example are the Persian Clibinarii (literally “oven boys”).

    And no, not all castles did have moats. Many did, because they make such good defensive measures. Also, not all castles were built out of stone, or are even defensive in nature, like the gorgeous late medieval German castles which inspired the Disney logo.

    So, there you go. Hope that helps.

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