World Building—Creating a Culture (part 1)

Wheel of Time MapI’ve been thinking a lot lately about world building and how to create a deep, memorable world, and how that world will shape my characters. It’s not something I think about consciously a lot, but how we build our worlds and our cultures directly affects how our characters think, act, and live.

One of my favorite worlds is the world in The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan. I love it because the cultures are so well-developed. The story opens with the main character and his father walking toward their little village before the spring festival. It’s sort of a quintessential medieval type place, with an inn, a green in the center of town, thatch-roofed houses, and so on. Nothing really bad ever happens there. People just live out their lives from day to day and not much ever changes. There are stories of trollocs (giant monsters something like a cross between trolls and orcs) and of Aes Sedai (the magic wielders in the world) but no one has ever seen one and their existence—if they exist at all—doesn’t affect the little village or anyone they’ve every known personally.

The culture in the town is such that when trollocs and Aes Sedai show up in the little village, no one knows how to react because they’ve never experienced such things before. Then the main character leaves home and discovers the rest of the world, where in the Borderlands, there are skirmishes with trollocs on a daily basis, and where in Tar Valon, where the Aes Sedai headquarters is located, Aes Sedai are everywhere. In some lands Aes Sedai are respected and welcomed, while in others they are outlawed and put to death.

And the cultures go far beyond just what they think of Aes Sedai. Each country has its own specific style of dress, hair, and skin color. The Aiel “savages” in the wasteland to the east are all have light-colored eyes and fair hair in some shade of blonde or red, wear clothing that blends into the sand and rocks, and are known as some of the fiercest fighters in hand-to-hand combat in the world. The Sea Folk to the south are tattooed and wear multiple earrings and brightly colored clothes and are very secretive about their culture. The Tinkers are pacifists who won’t raise a hand, even in self-defense, and travel the world converting people to their way of peace.

Every single country in the world has its own distinctions and so, as you’re reading, if you see a character dressed all in white, KKK style, with a golden sunburst embroidered on his robes, you know he’s a Whitecloak from Amadicia, and his purpose in life is to wipe out the Aes Sedai. If you see a woman with dark eyes, honey-colored hair in multiple braids, wearing a slinky, form-fitting gown, you know she’s a Domani, and she is probably well-trained in the art of seduction. If you see a man with two braids with bells on the end, you know he’s from Kandor in the north.

And so you get this robust sense of the world and its inhabitants, because Jordan is so adept at creating these well-developed cultures.

There’s another book that I actually use as an example in the class I teach on integrating fantasy elements into real-world settings, where the author has created this complex religious system with multiple deities. Each deity has its own backstory, and its own powers and desires and specific ways to worship it. She spent the first 73 pages (literally—I’m not even kidding) explaining this system and how it worked, which is not how I would have done it, but by the time I finally got to the actual meat of the story, I knew why it was significant that this particular deity was the reigning deity in a particular land, and what it meant that someone was a servant of this or that one, and how it would affect the outcome of the story.

Many fantasy stories employ allegory to address things like religion and racism and so on. Often you will see a particular race that is enslaved or considered “less than” in the eyes of the elite.

Think about your favorite worlds. Why do you like them? What do they contain that make them deep and interesting? Then apply those things to your own writing.

As you’re writing, think about the specific things that happen in your world that shape your characters. What kind of deities do they worship? Is it a Christian novel, and there is one True Deity that your main characters find or try to share with others? How is that affected by the culture around them?

What kind of clothes do they wear? Is there a traditional dress that they put on for special occasions that they don’t wear any more for day-to-day use but is still part of their culture (like a sari or a kimono or lederhosen)?

What kinds of holidays do they celebrate? Are they religious days or days to celebrate harvest or springtime or solstice?

What kinds of racism are there? Are there multiple types of races, like humans, elves, and dwarves, or are there different races of humans (as in The Wheel of Time)? Which of those races are considered superior or inferior, and why? What happened in the past to create this inequality?

How can you play on these elements to create a deeper, more diverse world?

Tell me in the comments about the culture in your world and what you’ve done to make it unique!

About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

15 comments on “World Building—Creating a Culture (part 1)

  1. Nice introduction to the depth of cultures and world-building! Shared.

    • Thank you! I’m going to do several on the subject. I’m far from an expert, but I’m trying to apply what I’m learning and share it as I go.

  2. Great post. Very insightful. Learning to read like a writer – to dissect what you love about another person’s work to glean from it – is a vital skill. Not enough is said about it in writing circles, IMO.

    • Thank you! It’s a good skill to have, for sure. A lot of times we read something and we love it or not, but we don’t necessarily know why either way. Analyzing and understanding why we feel the way we do about something is hugely helpful when it comes to incorporating tools into our own work. “I liked that–I’ll do something similar in my story,” or “that didn’t work for me, I’ll try it a different way in my story.”

      • Yes, precisely! This isn’t something I’m used to doing either. I’d love to learn how, though. There are certain methods, I’m sure. Is that, maybe, a potential topic on your blog for newbies? I’d be all over it!

        I’ve been watching and playing a video game with my son called Destiny. It’s really cool, and I LOVE the setup, the world they’ve built, the characters. They have things called “Grimoire cards” which reveal more of the backstory, and some of them read like short stories. They are so gripping, and they reveal some but not all. What’s in subtext drives a reader crazy to know more, learn more, and BOY HOWDY do I want to write like that.

        But I don’t know how to imitate, or even decipher, how they did it, exactly. And because they’re all online, those Grimoire cards aren’t easily and readily accessible for study. (I prefer to read on a tablet.) It’s also hard for use to decipher the order of those cards as players, and which are related to which, that sort of thing.

        But WOW, they are so well written and so compelling.

        So, learning that skill is high on my list of things to do as a writer. 🙂

        • I had never thought of “how to analyze” as a potential topic. It’s a good one, though! I’ll have to brainstorm how to make that into a process. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Sometimes the smallest thing can lead to major details about a world and its cultures.

    Such was the case for my “Spider Dance” research. How spiders feed led to details about end of life practices, palace construction, aspects of pre-courtship rituals, the hierarchy of humanoid slaves (some of whom are glassblowers who make & maintain the plumbing in the spiders’ palaces), and more.

    Similarly, (for a different milieu) a chance detail about Arctic foxes led to how the young of the Vulperi are raised as well as key points of life: birth, rites of passage as the young mature to adulthood, marriage, funeral rites & practices, etc. An odd book about lichens & fungi (I picked up at a garage sale) provided material to develop both their farming and funereal methods (including memorials and taboos).

    Little details–major world-building.

    • Cool!
      I’ve done that sort of thing, where I find something real and ordinary and follow the “what if” train to create something really unique.

  4. One of my WIP has a culture where the ruling class is weak and sickly. They place so much emphasis on appearing the part that it has affected their breeding, daily activities and verbal expressions.

  5. […] these things into my own worlds, and I hope they’ll help you with developing yours. Last time, I talked about fleshing out your world with diverse races, religions, and customs for different […]

  6. […] continuing my series on world building. Start by checking out Part One and Part […]

  7. […] continuing my series on world building. Come check out Part One, Part Two: Stereotyping, and Part Three: Building a […]

  8. […] continuing my series on world building. Come check out Part One, Part Two: Stereotyping, Part Three: Building a Religion, and Part Four: Climate and […]

  9. […] and the technology that is available at that time. If you’re just joining me, come check out Part One, Part Two: Stereotyping, Part Three: Building a Religion, and Part Four: Climate and Clothes, and […]

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