World Building: Societies and Cultures

Creating a whole new world is going to involve creating cultures and societies that fit into that world. But where to start, what to do, and where to go?

Let’s do some world building.

Don’t follow history’s rules.

Draw from human history, of course, but what I mean by this is that your fantasy cultures and societies aren’t bound by the same development as real world ones. There will be some things that will need to be there in order to make sense, but you aren’t bound completely by those.

So break rules. Remember this is your own fantasy world, it can be anything you want. You can make any choice about it so long as you justify it in-world.

Start with the protagonist.

We see culture come alive in people, not history and lore. This will depend on the type of writer you are, but I think a solid place to start is with the protagonist and their culture and society. Where does this character come from? What are their values in respect to their culture? What do they know about the world? How do they see the world? How does it influence their choices in the story?

Seeing the world you created from the character who actually “lives” (so to speak) in it will help make your world come alive. Then you can start expanding it to other characters.

Location, location, location (and climate).

Location matters a great deal to culture. It influences language, art, dress, daily life, what they eat, what they know, and so on. It can influence big things, but I like thinking that it has an even greater impact on the little details of daily life.

Here’s a personal example. I live in an area that experiences very hostile, long, and very cold winters (for the most part). There have been winters here that were so cold that skin would freeze (I mean that literally) within 5 minutes of exposure or less. You could throw boiling water outside and it would turn to snow before it hit the ground.

However, myself and the people that live in this area have more or less acclimated to it. We put winter tires on the cars, bring out all the winter clothes/gear, can know just by looking at the snow what type of snow it is/how safe it is. We can look at a frozen lake and be able to determine how safe it is to walk on (or even drive on). Relatives of mine who live further south have greater difficulty with (what I see as) minor snowfall. Words like “cold” or even “blizzard” mean completely different things to us.

So if you’re creating a culture you need to think about how climate and location are going to influence the way they live their lives.

Things to consider:

  • What are the seasonal patterns in this world/location? Are winters mild/severe? Are summers humid/dry?
  • What do people do to survive in this location? Wear furs to keep warm? Stay inside? Keep cool somehow?
  • What grows/lives there? What trees, crops, and animals are there? Is their diet more fruit/plant based? Do they need to preserve food for long periods of time (Lutefisk comes to mind)? Do they eat a lot of red meat because that’s what’s available?
  • What skills and knowledge developed from having to survive in this environment? (Boat building, swimming, types of hunting and farming, weather prediction, etc.)
  • What do they build and what are these things built from? (Wood/stone, open to the outdoors or sealed off for warmth? Things like that.)
  • What weather do they experience? (Heat waves, storms, droughts, snow, etc.)
  • What natural disasters can occur in this area? (Hurricanes, sandstorms, tornadoes, volcanic eruption, floods, earth quakes, and so on.)
  • What natural resources are available? (Water, iron, wood, stone, etc.)

Water is the key to life.

Most societies in the past that didn’t have the technological advancement that we do were set up near water. Water provided drinking water (obviously), but also fed crops, transport (boats), food (water plants and fish), was used as a tool (water mills), and more.

So unless your society has/had the ingenuity to create aqueducts or some other way to transport water to the populace, they’re going to have some source of fresh water somewhere. Even with desert societies, there’s a way for them to get fresh water such as smaller bodies (like rivers), or underground water, or whatever.

What water and how much is available in your culture is essential to life there, and it will also influence their culture. If they live by an ocean or other large body, they might have a more maritime culture. It will have an impact on resources and scarcity, what they produce and when, whether they are stationary or nomadic, and so on.

Things to consider:

  • Where is the source of fresh water for this culture? (An ocean, river, wells/underground, and so on.)
  • How much water is available? Is it scarce or plentiful?
  • What water sources do they live near? (A seaside culture might have maritime knowledge such as some Nordic cultures and Polynesian cultures.)
  • How much work is it to get the water?
  • Do they have to move it around?

Language

I’ve done a couple posts on language, but language is a great tool for fantasy writers. It can help define and differentiate cultures. Language is also strongly attached to cultural/social identity.

Consider:

  • Are there “untranslatable” words from culture to culture? (The German “Schadenfreude” and such.)
  • How is the language a product of the environment? (What nouns do they have, what objects or feelings do they have words for that others may not.)
  • How isolated is the culture? How influenced are they by outside cultures and why? (Trade, conquering, immigration, etc.)
  • How do they speak? How fast? What does the language sound like?
  • Is there a “common tongue”? Who speaks it and why?

Nomads, raiders, and hunter gatherers.

Scientists don’t really know how people moved from being nomadic or hunter gatherers to settling in one place since that was before things were really recorded well. The key however is that at different points in time (depending on society and location) many cultures seemed to figure out agriculture.

Remember that for any animal, humans included, the quest for food and water is the most important thing because survival. So until humans could find steady sources of food and water, they couldn’t really stay in one place. Once agriculture happened and they figured out how to store food (like grain), they could settle in one place.

Now of course this varies. There are groups even today that are nomadic or hunter-gatherers. One is not greater than the other, it’s just how they developed. But keep in mind, a hunter-gatherer or nomadic society isn’t going to have a ton of time to sit around and do things like art (these cultures do have art but it’s stuff that is feasible for them to do. They aren’t likely to sit around for 20 hours for an oil portrait of themselves.) Things like clothing, and work animals are going to be different. The societal structure will be different.

Raiders should have a reason to raid. Even if it’s at a point where it’s sort of ingrained in the culture, there was probably a logical reason it started. The Viking probably had some sort of natural progression to their raiding reputation. They didn’t just wake up one day with the thought or ability to sail and plunder. Reasons could have been: Population changes, exiled criminals started it, poor farm land made them look elsewhere for necessities, or maybe at some point they just wanted more stuff.

So if you’re writing these type of societies, keep in mind what they’re going to be like and how they’re going to function. No matter what cool details you want, make sure it makes sense with the idea that survival is the most important. Remember, it has to make sense and be justified in the work.

Conquerers and the conquered.

Human history is full of this stuff. One culture had a significant advantage over the other and took over the other as a result, for whatever reason.

A scientist named Jared Diamond wrote a book called Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies in which he examines the question Why European cultures had such a significant advantage over other cultures, allowing them to go out and conquer? His argument is both very simple and also complex, and it’s a refreshing one that is not based in racial issues. The main point of his argument was that the geography of Europe (and other places on similar latitude) allowed them to grow specific types of crops and have domesticated work animals that pushed those places ahead of other societies as far as technological development goes. (I’ll post links at the end for better explanations).

Remember that when cultures collide, things change.

So think about your world. Who conquers who, how, and why?

Things to consider:

  • How did the conquered society change? (language, religion, values, art, etc.)
  • What advantages did one have over the other? (cereal grains, work animals like horses, weapons, disease they brought, etc.)
  • Why did they conquer that society?
  • What did they do there? (pillage and ruin it, create colonies, etc.)
  • What backlash or consequences were there? How much resistance are/were they met with?

Religion

I’m not a scholar on these matters (so feel free to tell me if I’m wrong), but I’m of the mind that religion reflects culture and not the other way around. Religion can influence culture, but when a religion develops or is introduced into a society, it will bend a bit to reflect that society’s existing culture. Just as how political policy often reflects cultural values.

When Christianity was introduced in early Europe (like Angl0-Saxon England) the religion morphed to fit the culture. Anglo-Saxons and even the Vikings could be considered warrior cultures, especially earlier on. When a religion is introduced into a warrior culture like this, the religion can also reflect that and the religion can change from benevolent to more violent.

You also need to figure out how the religion is structured if it developed naturally. What they worship and why, the influence the religion has on society, and so on.

I’ll do a whole post on religion later, but for now here are some things to think about:

  • How does the religion reflect the culture’s history and values? (warrior cultures or more peaceful cultures, etc.)
  • How did the religion develop? (Naturally or by conquering.)
  • Why did the religion develop or was introduced there? How? (conquering, did a church align with the political powers in exchange for conversion?)
  • Are they monotheistic or polytheistic? Why?
  • What is the religion’s message? What/who they worship? (Peace or violence, malevolence or benevolence? Do they worship actual deities or do they worship nature? And so on?)
  • How are non-believers treated? Why?
  • What is religion’s role in society? (Education, peacekeeping, medicine, etc.)
  • What stories and lore surround the religion (Such as Roman, Norse, and Greek mythology.)
  • How are the deities worshipped? (Rituals, sacrifices, trials of faith, etc.)
  • Is there life after death? Is there eternal damnation?

Education.

Education has a massive influence on culture and society. Even basic skills such as math, reading, and writing can really help to define a society and push it different directions.

Math was created out of necessity, probably. Writing was created to reflect spoken language and probably for practical purposes such as recording events or sharing information.

So think about how education works and why.

Consider:

  • Who gets educated and why? (Is it just royal people, is there mass education?)
  • How are things taught and shared? (Orally, practice, organized schools, etc.)
  • What things are taught and why? Who learns them? (Sailors learn how to sail, royal people learn about economies and trade, hunting/fishing/farming, etc.)
  • Who teaches things? (Are there scholars, is it religious, elders teach the younger ones, and so on.)

Relationships with other groups.

Consider how your society plays with others. Do they interact or are they isolated? Do they fight or do they work together? This will have a huge impact on economics, attitudes towards each other, trade, etc.

Consider:

  • How isolated are your people?
  • What are their political standpoint? Are they neutral or highly involved?
  • What do different societies feel about each other? Is there peace or tension?
  • What goods do they trade, if they trade?
  • What knowledge do they share?
  • Do they have wars?
  • Who are considered enemies? Who are allies/friends?

Social Structure. 

Many societies and cultures have different values on what is a good or correct social structure. Think in the society of creation various roles for groups and individuals.

Consider:

  • Is it a feudal society? Are there lords or warlords?
  • Are there clans? (Such as Japan and Scotland.)
  • What does the family look like? What are spousal roles? What are children’s roles?
  • How is the class system set up? (Royals, lords, peasants, local government, and so on.)
  • What roles do people take on? Do some take domestic roles? Are some hunters? Some farmers?
  • What skills do these people have? Metalworking? Fishing? Farming?
  • What do social values, politics, and economies look like as a result?

Social Values.

Cultures often vary differently on what is considered “good” and “bad”. Think about what is valued in the society you’re making. Why is it like that? How does it reflect culture and history?

Consider:

  • Does religion have an impact?
  • What is valued in your culture? (Wisdom, strength, loyalty, certain skills, warriors, etc.)
  • What is considered bad or shameful?
  • How/why are these defined? Who defines these things?
  • How is violence treated?
  • How do people in one society treat/feel about others or outsiders?

Art

Art plays a huge role in culture and society. It’s a means of expression, a point of pride, a way of recording history, and telling stories. Think of art’s role in your society. Why is it there? What kind of art exists there?

Consider:

  • Why do people make/own art? Is it for everyone one or is it a luxury?
  • How does art reflect the wealth and means of that society?
  • What kind of art is there? (Performance, writing, visual, tattoos, architectural, music, clothing, etc.)
  • Does religion have an influence? Does education?

Parting Words.

When building societies in fantasy, there’s a lot to consider. Build it from your characters, let them speak to you and tell you how their background reflects their opinions and decisions. Break rules, create big, dynamic societies with complicated rules and history.

Here are some links:

Guns, Germs, and Steel Documentary: YouTube

Hardcore History Podcasts

Writing Fantasy Cultures

More Building Fantasy Cultures

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