In this tutorial, I want to talk about what I think is perhaps the most important aspect of worldbuilding outside of the geography — culture. Because it’s not just about throwing out a scary forest with spiders and creepy elves. Cool as those things might be. Your world is more than its places. Your world is also its people. And its extra-people. That’s my term for non-humans. Yeah, I’m cheesy. But anyway.
At the end of the day, the audience is reading about the characters, how they act and react to things, the decisions they make, how they change, how their pasts influence the present. That’s where the real story is. But remember, those characters also come from different backgrounds. Different social classes, subcultures. The more dynamic and fascinating you can make those things outside your characters, the richer and deeper your world will be to the outsider. When you take us to a new physical location in the story, it makes sense for the characters of that region to act differently than the characters from the previous regions. They have different attitudes. They’re exposed to different things on a daily basis.
They have completely different cultures. There is probably going to even be a little culture shock. Not every character is going to be comfortable in every environment. They are going to stand out at times. They are going to commit social mistakes. They are going to inadvertently offend people. That’s realistic. Including these things, along with the nuances of why they’re happening, is what makes your culture believable. You’ve heard of cardboard characters? You can also have cardboard cultures. Let’s avoid that. Let’s make your cultures vibrant.
The farther away you travel from any one location, the greater the cultural distance grows. That’s apparent. Things are different in Thailand than they are in Dora, New Mexico. But there are behavioral differences between people even two towns away. Boulder, Colorado is a lot more liberal than the other cities in the area, for example. Some parts of town are more dangerous than others. Why is that? There are subcultures at play, which are influence by everything else. Gangs exist because of the socio-economic climate, attitudes, need for belonging and survival, etc. These subcultures exist on every level. You can have a subculture of only a handful of people. Every culture and subculture simply seeks to differentiate itself from everything else. Use all of this to your advantage when creating your world. These are the details that will make your universe sing.
I think there should be at least as many cultures as you have regions. This will also help you in creating individual characters. If you have already thought of common behaviors or beliefs among a specific culture, you have a starting point for certain characters who come from that region.
Culture Shapes Who We Are More Than We Know
Cultural conditioning is a thing. It’s pervasive. It influences us — every one of us — in ways we don’t even realize. It has an effect on our choices, thoughts, behaviors, responses. Even when we’re aware of it, it can be difficult to impossible to escape. Some of it is intentional, some of it just happens as a natural result of us living our lives amongst everyone else living theirs. Knowing this is very helpful to you, as the creator of your world.
Many creators only worry about culture when it’s obvious. Clearly a bunch of elves will act differently than the humans do. Humans who visit them will often be amazed at their architecture, style, customs, technology. Same thing with dwarfs. They have a totally different culture. When Harry Potter first went to Hogwarts, he discovered how different the world of muggles was from the magic-using one.
These are very obvious, though. It will serve you well to pay attention to everything beyond this. And because sometimes these details can be intimidating, I’m switching things up. I’ve created a little questionnaire for you. All these things have to do with culture. Considering them will help you make your characters and places shine.
- How might the region’s geography affect the customs of its inhabitants?
- What events in history may have helped shape a culture’s perspective towards something?
- Has there been any immigration to the region? What are some cultural influences that could have been brought over from a different region?
- What events might have contributed to a shared fear among a certain group of people? Plague? War? A creature?
- What are the primary values of the people? Do they look down upon certain attitudes or conventions?
- Are there any religions that might have an influence on that culture? What are the attitudes towards conflicting belief systems?
- What about local folklore and mythology? How might these influence the culture?
- Do the inhabitants have any sort of folk medicine or folk magic? What are some of the most common rituals?
- How might the folk medicine/magic of a region be influenced by the immigration of its ancestors?
- What are some superstitions that might be local to that region? Are there any conflicting superstitions?
- In Everwind, a fly in someone’s soup is considered bad luck in most places, but in the Verges it is considered good luck.
- How might the people of a particular region dress differently? Do they have unique fashion choices in other areas (hairstyles, makeup, architecture, décor)?
- How do they view death and the afterlife? What rituals might they practice in regards to this?
- How do they view sex, relationships and raising children? How might this differ from our own practices? What does a wedding ceremony look like in your world?
- Do they have any rituals that might seem strange to outsiders?
- In many present-day religions, people pray before meals or at bedtime.
- The national anthem is played before sporting events in many places.
- What are some of the common political views of the inhabitants? Do they support the current power structure? How do they view the way things are?
- What are some of the common philosophies about life? What are their attitudes towards work/career/business? Education?
- Do they have any strange laws unique to that region? How do the politics influence the laws?
- What about crime and punishment? Are they able to utilize something unique to their geography?
- In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), they throw people from the Moon Door of the Eyrie, which enjoys high elevation.
- Do they have any strange customs unique to that region?
- What is considered proper social etiquette? What is considered rude? Hand gestures? Actions? Words or phrases?
- What are some insults unique to that culture?
- How does language play into this? Are there any prejudices or slurs between cultures?
- Do they have any unique ways of greeting each other or saying goodbye?
- Are there any rites of passage?
- In Dune, Fremen must be able to steer a sand worm before they are considered adults.
- In Star Trek, Klingons who reach the Age of Ascension must walk through a gauntlet of warriors who poke him with pain sticks.
- The Vurg in Everwind must endure a series of painful rituals, including being skinned and getting their new synthetic skin.
- The Na’vi in Avatar must climb to where the banshees live and subdue one to bond with.
- In Flash Gordon, Arborean males must undergo a test of manhood which involves shoving an arm into a stump and hoping it doesn’t get stung by the monster inside.
- In 300, Spartan boys must go through a rite where they are taught to become hardened warriors.
- Here are 25 other examples of real rites of passage
- Is there magic? How might that effect the culture of a place? How might the culture effect the magic? How is magic viewed by people who can’t do magic? What are the fears?
- How about technology? How might the technology affect the culture?
- What is the economic situation of the region? How might that tie into the attitudes and practices of the people?
- What does the social class system look like? Are there castes? How do people view or treat others who are outside their social class?
- How does industry or agriculture influence the beliefs and attitudes of the inhabitants?
- What are some methods of personal expression and attitudes regarding that? What is the music like? The dancing? What other art forms are there?
- What are some common hobbies or pastimes the inhabitants might engage in? Are there sports or games that are important? What events do they like to spectate? How might this contribute to subcultures within that region?
- Are there any vices that stand out?
- Is a certain type of liquor, wine, or other beverage prevalent to the region?
- Are there any drugs?
- What are the views on gambling? Do they have any unique games they can bet on?
I hope I’ve given you plenty to think about in terms of culture. There are probably a bunch of other possibilities I forget to include. That’s why I made this list. Maybe you forgot something you might like to include. If you think of anything else I can put on here, leave me a comment.
Remember that culture is the fabric of your world’s societies. If you don’t put any thought into your world’s cultures, they’ll end up stale, cardboard. The more work you put into this aspect of your creations, the more your creations will stand apart. Sometimes, a rich atmosphere can cover for a story that’s just “meh.” You want to immerse the reader. They should feel like they’re inside a different world — because they are. If your world doesn’t feel different, there won’t be any incentive to go there. Give your people culture.
One thing I want to point out — if you’ve been following this tutorial series, you’ll probably have noticed that everything ties into everything else. Your map isn’t a standalone thing. It influences a lot of other things. Your culture is not a standalone thing. It will influence and be influenced by history, politics, geography, mythology, religion, etc. Everything we cover in this series will influence everything else. They tighter you can weave these elements, the more real your world will be. You have to start considering the implications of everything that exists in your world. How does each element effect the others? The more you’re able to do that, the better your setting will be.
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- Tutorial 1: Building a Universe
- Tutorial 2: Geography and Cartography
- Tutorial 3: Cultivating Culture
- Tutorial 4: History
- Creation stories and mythology
- Law, crime, punishment
- Technology and science
- Naming conventions
- Flora and Fauna