Creating Culture: Where to Start?
World building. Everyone has to do it. It can be fun, or it can be grueling. What questions do you ask? What should be addressed? Is it just the physical setting that has to be dealt with? What about the people who live there?
I’m going to assume you have an image of what the world looks like in your head. That’s usually the easy part. But what about the people who live there? This aspect of world building often goes unrecognized. Unfortunately, without thinking about the culture, the world is going to suffer. Culture impacts everything about how a person views the world. You’ve heard of culture shock, right? That’s what happens when you interact with people from cultures different from your own and you have to adjust accordingly. Do that to your reader. Create a culture so rich and vibrant that your reader falls in love with the people in the background of your novel and wants to live there.
That’s why we love Tolkein and Lewis. The Shire or Rivendell or Lothlorien are so vibrant and distinct that the reader wants to live there, or at least travel through. If you’ve read the Narnia series, can you honestly say you didn’t go to your closet and peek behind your clothes looking for a world of your own? The Narnians are so wonderfully created that you love them. It’s not just about the beauty of the world. It’s about how the dwarves interact with the centaurs and fawns.
How do you do that? What do you include?
Each culture has a few unique views on key aspects of life. I’ll go into them briefly here, but keep your eye out for posts looking into each of them in more depth.
1. What terms do they use to define their family?
There are some cultures that define their family by generation (you’d have siblings, mothers, fathers, and grandparents), and there are others that refer only to their immediate family as their family (I’m looking at you, United States). This heavily influences how their culture responds to marriage, and what a socially accepted pairing would be.
2. What is their view of the afterlife?
Do they get sent to a spiritual recreation of their own world (i.e. a village, a large city) or do they get sent to a garden paradise? Do they still work? Does their soul have to journey to get to the final destination? Do they get reincarnated? Does their spirit come back to talk to the living in animal form? Or are they just gone? What are their burial rites? Are they cremated? If so, why?
3. What are the sacred and the profane for these people?
If a soul can come back in the form of an animal, how do they identify it as different than the average animal? What happens if they kill the soul-animal? Will it be treated the same way as if they had killed a living human? What marks something as foul? What are the portents of death? For some tropical cultures, death omens include anything from carnivorous animals to rotten smells.
4. How do they view magic?
Is magic something you study and learn through books (like Gandalf)? Is it something that requires external tools such as wands or pendants? Is it something innate that the person does accidentally (i.e. wild magic vs. the Gift in Tamora Pierce’s series the Immortals). Is it more western or eastern? Western magic would be viewed as the stereotype of witches in covens (like you see in Supernatural). Eastern magic would be viewed as the witch hunts that happen in many African countries and ruin lives regularly, in which someone is accused of being a witch and because they can’t prove that they didn’t do it (since the magic is more like the “I have bad feelings for you and the world made you sick,” rather than the intentional “I placed a curse on you to make you sick”). Or, is it more like the magic seen in Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, where magic and technology or science are one and the same?
Magic systems are lots of fun to work with, but also a lot of work. Put in the work and you’ll have a great system to depend on in your writing. For help developing a magic system, check out My Literary Quest’s post, Magic Systems 101.
5. Where do they live and what do they eat?
Are there any rules governing where men and women can interact? Is there a female side of the dwelling and a male side? Are there taboos on whether or not a boy should eat something set aside for a girl? What would be the social consequences? Do they hunt? Are they agricultural? Are they horticultural? Do they go to the store to buy what food they need? What do they eat at celebrations? (On that note also, what do they wear?)
6. Lastly, what type of religion do they have?
There are many types of religions. There’s ancestor worship, animism, shamanism, or the more typical religion that most people think of with a church and a leader. Is the culture’s religion individual or do you need someone else to facilitate it? Can a man talk to the gods or would he need a woman to intervene on his behalf? Are there priests or priestesses? If someone gets sick, do they go to a shaman or a doctor? How do the gods talk to them? What do the gods require of them? What religious festivals or holidays are there?
I hope this has been helpful in your world building process! If you have questions or other thoughts, let me know in the comments or on social media @AuthorJJHanna.