Lately, we been talking a lot about creating cultures in our world building (don’t worry– this is the last post about culture :p .) So far, we have covered the Types of Government for countries and how Having a Cultural Focus can help make these countries stand out and be realistic.
This week, we are going to talk about how using a culture from the real world can create a great basis for your fictional culture.
I know it sounds like “cheating” or plagiarism, but this isn’t. This is just inspiration. In fact, if you are a fantasy writer, you probably are already using a base culture without even realizing it. Almost all fantasy novels use Medieval Europe as their base culture. They have the same social structure (kings, knights, serfs, etc.), the same government (absolute monarchy), the same technology (horses and carts, swords, bows and arrow), the same type of names, the same architecture (castles), and sometimes even the characters have similar accents!
A lot of writers don’t even think about this, but J. R. R. Tolkien (who really began modern fantasy) studied this culture and deliberately used it as a base for Middle Earth (including the languages!) I actually read a very interested book called J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey. Did you know that Tolkien got the name “Bag End” (The Baggin’s house) from the commonly used word “cul de sac” (which is directly translated as “the end of the bag”)? Or that his elvish languages are based off of Norse and Finnish? And Rohan, Gondor, and the Shire are all based off of England during different time periods? At the end of this post, I will put a particularly fun fact, but I didn’t think I should include up here since it is long. The book isn’t a particularly fun read, but it is very interesting and has helped me a lot in my own writing to see just what Tolkien did to form his world. If you are interested, here is a link to its Amazon page.
In any case, using a base culture is not “cheating. 😉 I have found that if I don’t deliberately choose a base culture, I unintentionally use the cliched Medieval Europe or my own culture. There is nothing wrong with this, but I like to go beyond cliches in my writing.
So sometimes it is fun to choose another culture to use as a base. Arabia in the 3rd century BC? A jungle tribe in South America? South Africa during the 15oos AD? So long as you do the research you can use any culture!
Since I am still in highschool, it is easiest for me to use the cultures I am studying. For instance, I have taken several years of Biblical Hebrew, so most of my fictional names are derived from that language.
You can use a base culture for many facets of your fictional culture. You can use it as a social, political, religious, intellectual, technological, or economic model (the acronym for that is SPRITE.) Or you can use different cultures as the base for your fictional languages.
Moreover, it is fun to combine cultures. Just be warned that you will need to deliberately ensure that this combination makes logical sense. Your world could have an Indian based language with the intellectual culture and values of the ancient Greeks in a society like the African Sahara nomads of the 5th Century AD. Why not?
The real world and real cultures can be really great inspiration for our worlding building. So do a little research and take advantage of it! I am sure that it will set your fictional world apart.
Do you have a favorite culture? Have you ever used a different culture as a base for your fictional world? I’d love to hear about it 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
Okay, so here is the Tolkien tidbit that I mentioned above: Tolkien translated this poem and found many of his dwarf names which he uses in The Hobbit. Then, in this list of dwarf names, he came across the name, “Gand-elf,” which is literally translated “staff/wand elf.” Why would a staff elf be in a list of dwarf names? So Tolkien had to write the reason himself. And now we have the wizard, Gandalf, who looks almost elven (and is older than the elves) but is a friend of the dwarves! I’ve put the poem below if you are interested.
(From the Norse Poem “Völuspá” translated by James Allen Chrisholm)
There was Motsognir, the greatest in speech
of all the dwarves. But Durinn was second.
These dwarves made many man-like-bodies
out of the earth as Durinn had asked.
Nyr and Nithi, North and South,
East and West, Allthief, Entranced,
Nar and Nain, Nithing, Dain
Bifor, Bofor, Bombur, Nari,
An, and Anarr, Oinn and Meadvolf.
Veig and Gand-Elf, Windelf, Thorinn,
Thror and Thrainn, Thekk, Lit and Vit,
Nar and Nyrath, Reginn and Rathsvith.
Now are the dwarves rightly listed.