If you have been following my posting series on world building in novels, then we just covered various types of governments for your fictional world. However, simply having a government does not make a culture. If you want to create a realistic and powerful culture, we need to go beyond in our world building.
In the real world, people see Britain very differently from America. One is all about tea and the other guns, right? :p Okay, so that is a simplification, but the stereotype is there for a reason—though there are plenty of exceptions in both cultures. If you compare more drastically differing cultures (like Arabian to French), you will find that they value different things. That is what we want to create for our own fictional worlds.
In a sense, building culture is simple. You only have to ask one question: What do they value?
However, answering that question can be hard—if you already know what your culture values, then you are one of the lucky ones who doesn’t need to read any father. But if you are anything like me, then here are my best suggestions and methods to push for more in your cultures. You don’t need to use all of my methods, but hopefully, one of them will help you answer that basic question.
- Truth vs. Honor
This is actually a big deal in the real world. In fact, it is the main separation between the cultural West and East. What matters the most to your nation: telling the truth or preserving someone’s honor? Is the higher misconduct to lie in court or to ruin another person’s honor? Now, I believe that both are good and should work together, but that is only in theory. In reality, societies tend to lean one way or the other.
So where does your society fall?
- Look at the land inside the country
Is your nation in the middle of a desert? Those people might value water so much that they craft a religion or strict rules around it. This culture might consist of small bands of nomads since the land can’t support massive cities. This could lead to a really strong familial bond and a mistrust of outsiders.
See what I did? I took what I knew had to be true about the land and then I took it to its nature conclusion. You can do this with anywhere.
What would a nation in the middle of a fertile prairie value? Well, a good partition of the society must be farmers, but there has to be trade happening between the farmers. Maybe they value communal time with their neighbors. They are most likely to be friendly to outsiders since there aren’t many, and they are not crowded in a harsh climate.
So where is your country located? What can you draw from that?
- What job makes the most money?
Money drives the economy and allows people to live. It is a fact of life on this earth: people want money. So how would someone in your culture get the most money?
In a fishing culture by the sea, it probably isn’t the fishermen making the most money. Most likely it is the merchants and sailors who bring the fish to other nations. So is there an elitist society with the merchants? Is your nation a plutocracy (see my other post.) Do the fishermen feel wronged? Is there common war and thievery? Do foreign items show riches and not the locally made things? Is the sea seen as the ultimate chance for riches and freedom?
- Where is the nation located?
This is very similar to #2, but here I am asking about what is around your nation.
Is it surrounded by mountains and a desert/ocean? Then there probably aren’t many foreigners (so different might be seen as bad), and there probably are not many wars going on, and the people probably do not value fighting or warriors. The might mistrust those who aren’t from their area. Is there even a need for a central government (aka is it anarchy?)
How about a place where the nation is completely landlocked and surrounded by other countries. They probably value warriors a lot—in fact, defense and offense might be an integral part of their society.
- Pick a random virtue
Now, I would really only suggest using this method if the other four don’t work. Here you would pick a random virtue that you want your culture to extol above all others and focus on. Then you would build the society around that.
How would a country that extolled grace and mercy look? There might not be any courts or judges. Punishing a crime could be frowned upon. Would there be gangs because of that? Would there be people responsible for trying to get the criminals to repent instead of punishing them? (Actually, that could make a really interesting dystopian story. Could you see it: missionary police? :p )
So how do you create a culture in your novel? Do you have other methods than these? What do you think is your most developed culture? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
World Building Series:
- Map Making
- Types of Government
- Having a Cultural Focus
- Using a Base Culture
- Creating History, Legends, and Myths
- Thinking Through Technology
- Guest Post: Developing Fantasy Races