Fantasy writers often talk about how world building is a crucial step and must be well done for a story to be believable. I think that culture building is equally if not more important. Everyone lives in a culture (there is no such thing as ‘natural Man’) and your culture affects every aspect of your life. If you don’t build a realistic culture people are going to notice; it might not be glaring but there will still be a subtle sense that something is off.
I’m going to go over a few areas of culture that are important to consider when you’re building.
Language is almost insidious. Feminists know about language, as do gender studies people, so of course the mainstream writes it off (F.Y.I. our culture hates feminists). However, it is more than thinking about phrases like ‘man and wife,’ it has to do with concepts of space and time, numbers and personhood. Some languages have no words for numbers above two or three. You have one, two, many, and people in cultures with languages like this don’t differentiate between say twenty and thirty of something. They’re both many. Try to imagine an economy in a society that doesn’t bother counting above three. Even what colors you recognize depends on your culture and the words in your language. Read 1984 and be afraid, be very afraid.
The Mixtec in Mesoamerica buried their dead under the floor of the main room in their house. If they moved they opened up the floor and took the bones with them. What does that use of space tell you about their culture?
Space is something we notice when we enter unfamiliar places. If we think that doors are in the wrong places or people use the other side of the street it can make us uncomfortable. Consider what the layout of buildings, towns and cities can tell you. A grid layout of streets implies central control and city planning while winding, narrow streets are evidence of more organic growth over time. The layout of a house can show gender roles in the segregation of workspaces or just the segregation of women to a separate area from men and visitors. Public and private areas of a house contrast what a family wishes others to see and what they want to say about themselves with how they interact on their own.
Buildings can display wealth and power. A palace is meant to impress everyone who views it and your rank in society determines which areas you are able to view. Temples, cathedrals, and important government buildings can make the viewer feel small and insignificant. Your use of space textures your world and positions your characters. It also allows readers to orient themselves or it disorients them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
If you’re writing about people living in grand houses, research/visit some. Space can be used to control or convey subtle information and making your characters aware of it can add depth to their interactions with the people and world around them. And when I say space I mean buildings, yards, gardens, fences, roads, gates, walls, and the areas they enclose.
Bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states are the four broad categories of social structure used to classify most societies. As they increase in complexity they decrease in equality so that you go from the egalitarian structure of a band where decisions are consensus based to a state ruled by a small elite class. There are all kinds of variations within each category, so anthropologists really hate these four even if we can’t stop using them. Rank in society is either earned or inherited; as you move up in complexity you also increase the likelihood that rank is inherited. Elites like to keep their power to themselves and their kin whereas more egalitarian societies put emphasis on achievement. With them you get to be in charge because you’re the best organizer, or warrior, or hunter.
So far I’ve written primarily about state level societies. They’re literate, they have governments, economic classes, specialized labor, standard weights and measures, and armies. If you’re writing fantasy, you’re probably dealing with state level societies. Evil dark lord with tons of minions? It’s a state. A kingdom with happy peasants? It’s a state. A peaceful village surrounded by fairies and gumdrops and fields of unicorns? Well that depends. It could be a tribe or chiefdom instead of a state depending on what other characteristics you have. If the village lacks an overarching government and you don’t have a separate artisan class or much inequality it’s probably a tribe. If it’s part of a network of villages, there is pronounced inequality, and you have tribute going to the person in charge of the network, it’s looking more like a chiefdom.
I love kinship, especially fictive kinship. Fictive kinship is when you call your parents’ best friends aunt and uncle but it can get far more complicated. It’s probably best to stick to the basics for now. Kinship tends to be patrilineal or matrilineal, you belong to your father’s family or your mother’s family though in some cases you can get bilineal descent in which a person is a member of the mother’s line and the father’s line. Western cultures are patrilineal; you get your father’s name as your family name and you marry into your husbands family and take his name. In some cultures this is reversed and a man will marry into his wife’s family.
Who you can marry and what counts as incest is based on your kinship system. Yeah, I’m talking about cousin-lovin.’ Today Americans look down on first cousin marriages whereas they used to be common and desirable among the upper classes. Some societies favor first cousin marriage but only with certain cousins. Their definition of incest includes the cousins who would be within your line of descent. In a matrilineal system cousins on your mom’s side would be off limits but the ones on your dad’s side would be a great choice.
A lot of kinship comes out in your words for family members. In Chinese there are different words for your father’s mother and your mother’s mother. They also distinguish between your father’s older brothers and younger brothers. Confucian teaching put a huge emphasis on respect for elders and familial relationships, so it’s no surprise to see this level of distinction in kin names.
Gender (which has its own article), food, medicine, and religious practices are all major elements too and I could just go on and on. But the thought of having to think of them all can be daunting, so it’s good to remember that you can make a major change in say one area and end up with a society vastly different from our own.
A quick example of great culture building? Terry Pratchett’s dwarves! Dwarf culture feels organic and has depth in Pratchett’s books even though they are comedies that parody our world. Pratchett takes the simple but crucial step of reversing the cultural meanings of light and dark: to enter the light is to be blinded and ignorant, to be endarkened is to see clearly. And they only have one gender! All dwarves are male! Yes, they have two sexes, that’s how they reproduce, but they only have one gender in the first few books.
Go on and try your own for fun, or share ideas below!
Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of Priscilla the Evil along with several short stories and another novel on Fictionpress. She is starting grad school in the fall and until then is spending her time revising before continuing querying and doing some archaeology. You can visit her blog here.