Building Cultures

(I'm breaking this post into two parts due to length. I'll post the second half next Friday.)

I love worldbuilding, I think it's part of the fun of fantasy. For me, culture building really starts with creature building, unless, of course, it's a culture of humans. Even then, I like to start with the terrain and environment. How does it affect the culture? What does it give the culture that they can use for themselves or sell? What challenges does it present for the culture? It is, in the end, all about the questions.

And, often, these questions have been addressed to some degree in the creature building as well. What don't they have? What do they want? What will they do to get it? What do their instincts demand of them and how does this influence their beliefs? How do they relate to one another? How do they relate to the outside world?

Once I understand the people themselves, I ask myself what sort of government they're likely to form. How they're likely to police themselves, what they're likely to consider legal, illegal, moral and immoral. How do the people see their government? What purpose does it serves in their lives? What different opinions do they have about it?

A lot of that is influenced by their resources and economy, what they have to sell and what they need to buy. A rich culture might believe that their wealth makes them special and so focus on their wealth when it comes to government. If they value money, there may be a focus on productivity over creativity, or a lot of shady, behind the scenes deals, or they might require heavy taxes and so create a sharp class distinction.

In turn, their economy is influenced by their place in the larger world, both politically and geographically. A country that has little access to trade routes may have to pay high tariffs to access the routes of other nations, reducing the amount of trading they can do. Even if they are rich in products, this might take a chunk out of the money they make, and create a nation which--despite its greater produce--is economically equal to the nations around it. It can also create a nation that is frustrated and ready to attack its neighbors.

Then I consider what part religion plays in the nation. Religions may be more varied in port towns or towns on trading routes, but have fewer or even only one in more rural areas. Religion holds a lot of sway with people. It forms, in essence, a second government and a second set of politics: what is moral vs. what is legal. Is the religion in opposition or concordance with the government? How powerful are the different religions and are there cultural battles between them? What advantages do their adherents and clergy receive? What disadvantages?

These, for me, are the two main poles of a culture. They both evolve from the root of who the people are. One is what they want to believe and the other is what they're willing to accept, and both tell the story of them as a people.

Building Cultures: Part 2

Where do you start building your culture? What's usually the first aspect you create?


Botanist said…
Well, I can't say "usually" because I don't have many examples to draw on, but I am drawn first to the physical/geographical aspects and the technological. Those tend to drive the few stories that I've started because they set very important constraints that channel the action.

I'm not too much of a people person, so culture and relationships are something I have to think through more explicitly, whereas the physical starting points tend to come naturally to me. I think I bring in things like culture and religion as I see the need, either because they have a part to play in the story, or to add depth.
Marion Sipe said…
I wonder if genre is a large factor in where people start their world building. It strikes me that the technological aspects are often more important in science fiction. Although, even when I'm writing sci-fi, I tend to fold those in later. Hmmm.

I guess I'm a people person and, in a way, I see cultures as almost meta-characters. It's fascinating to see how different writers view the worldbuildng process!

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