I’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!