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.
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?
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.