An Easy Guide to Crafting Fictional Cultures
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Let's dive deep into the world-building process, shall we?
Whether you're crafting an entire story world or delving into an alternative or fantastical reality here on Earth, developing fully-realized fictional cultures is key to fantastic world-building. But cultures are rather complex, nebulous beasts. Their ever-evolving nature can make them especially tricky to nail down.
So, what elements define culture? And just how much time and attention should you put into creating your own? Let's discuss all this and more in today's breakdown, writers!
Developing fictional cultures...
Culture, complex as it may be, can be defined simply as the customs, attitudes, symbols, and social institutions of a society or people group. Still kind of complex, right? Stick with me now.
It's imperative that all writers — whether world-building, developing historical fiction, or basing their stories in the present — consider the cultures in which their characters live and were raised. Why? Because culture has a massive impact on one's worldview, voice, beliefs, and beyond, regardless of whether they choose to align or rebel against the culture in which they live.
Thus, by better understanding our worlds' cultures, we can craft stronger characters, plots, and themes, improving the whole of our stories in one fell swoop. So let's not skimp on developing our fictional cultures, shall we? That said, how you choose to go about developing cultures will depend largely on your intent and personal preference.
Like the world-building process as a whole, fictional cultures can be built from the outside in or the inside out. In other words, you can choose to craft cultural details as needed when writing, or you can craft highly detailed cultures before developing your story. Bear in mind that neither technique is necessarily better than the other.
Do you intend your story to be an epic, sweeping fantasy or science-fiction adventure? You may want to fully-develop your fictional cultures before writing. Do you intend to keep your storytelling tight? Sticking with only the cultural details needed to establish your story world and develop your plot is likely the best way to go.
But what elements define culture, you ask? Let's discuss!
Breaking Down Popular Elements of Culture
Culture consists of both material and immaterial elements, though the immaterial holds larger sway over the definition of culture as a whole. That said, we'll discuss both as we break down the most popular elements of culture below.
#1: Social Norms.
A norm is a standard of social behavior expected of a people group. Norms can be formal, such as those outlined by the law or by the predominant religion, or informal, consisting of generally accepted values, attitudes, and roles.
When developing your culture's own social norms, consider:
- What defines criminal behavior & how criminals are charged and punished
- Whether the culture's predominant religion considers certain actions to be sinful
- How sinners are treated by religious leaders and society alike
- How gender roles are defined
- What values the culture holds dear
- What behaviors are generally considered to be improper or immoral
Social norms play into nearly every aspect of culture, so we'll discuss many of these elements in more detail below.
#2: Leadership & Social Classes.
Culture often comes with leadership, whether in the form of a government, religious power, and/or social hierarchy, the latter of which denotes a system of socio-economic classes as well.
When crafting your culture's own leadership and social classes, consider which forms of leadership exist, how each form of leadership operates, and who holds power within those systems. Consider, as well, how social classes are defined in your world and whether the culture relies upon a slave or servant class.
People groups often employ their own particular forms of communication. Beyond language alone, a culture's communication may also be defined by its unique gestures and mannerisms, dialects, forms of written communication, accepted attitudes and manners of speaking, and unique technologies.
In addition to each of these elements, don't forget to mull over your culture's communication politics, which indicate when it is proper to speak, to whom, and how. This include terms of address and topics considered proper among certain audiences and is often affected by social class and gender norms.
#4: Religion & Ethics.
Religion often plays a large role in defining a particular culture, as does its ethical standards. When crafting these elements for your own fictional culture, consider the deity(s) the people worship, what beliefs the religion preaches, how worship is performed, and what the religion teaches about moral behavior and life after death.
Consider as well the moral and ethical standards within your culture that may be derived from sources outside of religion. Review the values the people hold dear and consider how this affects their moral and ethical actions as a whole, especially as relates to economy and equality.
#5: Holidays and Festivities.
Whether derived from religious rituals, military events, secular celebrations, or beyond, take time to define the holidays and festivals that are observed within your fictional culture. What is the purpose of each celebration and how are they practiced?
#6: Arts & Entertainment.
Most cultures encourage the arts and entertainment in some way. When crafting your own culture, consider whether they value painters, sculptors, storytellers, musicians, dancers, or other artists. Are the arts applied in practical ways, such as painting urns or dancing as part of a religious practice, or are they encouraged to exist simply for beauty's sake?
Consider the same of any entertainments enjoyed within your culture. Do the people attend concerts or plays, enjoy household games or gambling, play sports, or enjoy any other forms of widespread entertainment?
#7: Stories & Histories.
Certain legends, fairy tales, historical events, and other stories often become popular within a culture as a means of entertainment, education, or warning. You may wish to craft a few tales or events of your own to help round out your fictional culture.
#8: Housing, Food, and Livelihood.
When developing your world's cultures, don't forget to consider how the people's basic needs are met. Define the nature of the dwellings in which they live, the types of food they eat and where it is sourced, and how they make their livings or otherwise contribute to society and their own safety and survival.
#9: Clothing & Bodily Care.
A culture is often most noticeably recognized by its outward appearance, specifically that of how its people dress and adorn themselves.
Take care to consider the types of materials available to the people in your culture, their values and mindsets concerning how bodies are seen, and the climate in which they live, then define the clothing, jewelry, makeup, and hair styles that are seen as proper or attractive.
You may also wish to dive deeper into understanding how the people care for their bodies, such as how they cleanse and maintain their skin, hair, and other features according to society's standards. Does your culture also practice any forms of body modification?
#10: Relationships & Family Dynamics.
How families, marriages, and other relationships operate can vary greatly from culture to culture. When crafting your own, consider whether the people marry and what is expected of a proper marriage, how children are raised, what is expected of children as they grow older, whether couples are allowed to separate, how families care for the elderly, and any other relationship dynamics that come to mind.
#11: Death Practices.
In addition to defining what the predominant religion teaches about the afterlife, consider how deaths are handled within your culture. Are memorials or services held? How do loved ones and neighbors mourn? How is the body handled after death?
#12: Symbols, Statues, and Ornaments.
Cultures often revere certain symbols, figures, colors, animals or elements of nature, or other such items. When crafting your own culture, consider what the people may find to be of particular importance. How do they commemorate these things?
Do they create clothing or household objects honoring these elements? Do certain ornaments play a role in religious practices or festivities, or are statues of memorable figures erected in homes or in public squares?
You may also find it helpful to define why these items are revered. Is it part of a religious practice, instituted by the government as a form of patriotism, seen as a social symbol, or used as part of the arts or entertainment?
These twelve elements of culture certainly aren't comprehensive. Culture, as we mentioned in today's intro, is an expansive and ever-evolving beast that often varies greatly from its counterparts. However, the elements we've covered today should give you a fantastic understanding of at least the common tenets and systems that define your world's cultures.
That said, do feel free to adopt only the details that you find best fitting for your book. The world-building process is highly personal to each author and story, so don't be afraid to craft cultures with your own unique flair. I can't wait to see you what you bring to life, writers!