How to Build a Fantasy World Part 1: Culture

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Hi there! Hope you’re healthy – body, mind, & soul! You are your top priority so make sure you’re giving yourself the effort you deserve! ❤

As you may know from previous posts/Instagram, I have a “finished” manuscript to my first novel floating around.

I had to take a step back and get some more beta readers because I wasn’t having much luck with querying. So it may be a while yet until my baby is out on the shelves.

That being said, I wanted to chat about how I build my worlds.

World-Building is my absolute favorite part about crafting a story.

I love drawing the map, creating cultures, thinking up religions… All of it!

Because there are so many details, I thought one big post might be overwhelming.

So I broke it out into 3 parts that you can follow along. I will post them every Friday.

Keep in mind, this guide will be specifically for fantasy/sci-fi stories, or any story set in another world. Basing your story on the real world is a whole different game.

This first part will be all about culture.

Quick note: If you have multiple nations within your novel, you will have to repeat these processes for each one!

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Another quick Note: You should have a basic premise of your story already in place before you begin. This way, you stay on track and only build what you need.

Culture is basically the customs and social interactions of a set of people.

This includes behaviors, social structure, the way people dress and act, language, etc.

This can be quite the hefty task, but it can be done if you break it down.

You’ll need 4 basic pieces: Appearance, Belief System, Social structure, and Language.

Appearance:

What do people look like, and how do they adorn themselves?

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Most of the time, my MC comes to me fully formed.

Hair color, skin color, physical attributes, personality, skills…

Sometimes they even come with clothing preferences, and I shape their culture to make sense within those guidelines.

But it’s ok if you’re not sure yet. That’s where the creative part comes in!

The main question you need to ask yourself here is how does the majority of this society look, physically?

Are there major differences between people (some have two sets of arms, some don’t), or subtle ones (run-of-the-mill gene recombination)?

Are they human, animal, a mixture, humans with non-human qualities (claws)?

Wings? Pointed ears? Tusks? Cat whiskers?

Are they not human at all? Perhaps snakes or wolves or fish?

Example:
The people of A Court of Thornes and Roses series by Sarah J Maas vary between societies.
There are the humans and the fae, with all the normal differences to be expected between people born to the same society but different parents. Then there are other societies like the Ilyrians, the “lesser faries”, the Valkyries (a society but not a race).
This is a great example of variance between cultures, but also within cultures.
You’re only limited by your imagination!

Let’s remember here that you will have a wide variety of readers who will be different from you in a variety of ways.

The assumption that white & light eyed & able-bodied & neurotypical is the norm, and anything else is “other”, is not one that will do you any favors in your writing.

Nor will it serve your readers.

Please keep in mind that differences in skin color, hair color, eye color, gender, preference, abilities, and so much more are the things that make this world BEAUTIFUL.

And you have a moral obligation to be inclusive and respectful in your stories, regardless of what you look like, regardless of your abilities and preferences, regardless of your upbringing.

*dismounts soapbox*

Another piece of appearance is adornment: how does this society dress?

This can be a result of climate, beliefs, societal norms, and also personal preference (just like the real world).

You will need to decide what kind of clothes the society wears, as well as specifically what each of your characters prefer to wear.

Cold, snowy climate? Furs and boots will be pretty common! But maybe you have a weird character who refuses to wear long pants. Maybe he likes to feel the chill wind rustle his lower leg hairs.

What kind of jewelry does this society wear? And is there a difference between the classes?

Everyone has earrings, but only the rich have nose rings.

No one except the “low class” wear jewelry because it’s considered vain and sacrilegious.

Do people have tattoos? Do they have cultural significance, or are they simply personal preference?

There are lots of ways to adorn a body, and not all of them might be common to your own society, so don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

This is a fantasy world, after all!

Belief System:

What does this society believe in?

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Is there a deity? Multiple? Strict atheism? Do they hold a set of principles as their belief system (people are inherently good/do whatever you want, damn the consequences/warriors are highly esteemed/children are sacred/etc.)?

This may not look the same across the world, or even across the society.

Think of your own society. Your neighbor may share your belief system, but differ in their principles. Your neighbor may have a different belief system altogether!

Differences can add more believability, because it’s more realistic!

How does their belief system impact their society? Their government? Their customs? Their social interactions?

Think about real societies in our world. Religion/belief has a massive impact on almost every culture in our world. People go to war over beliefs. Borders are set, kingdoms made and broken.

What did religion do to your story’s world?

Example:
Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin is set in a pretty believable world (and kinda familiar). There is the Chruch, which believes witches are evil, and there are witches, who believe magic is only as good or evil as its user.
The religious aspect of this book is so believable because it is so very familiar.
Two sides who each think they are wholly right. Governments and borders formed through the influence of these societies.
I could go on, but it’s a great example of strict religious culture in a story.

Another example (because I can’t help but love this story):
The Remnant Chronicles by Mary E Pearson has, in my humble opinion, some of the best world building I’ve ever seen.
This is a post-apocalyptic world where the religion seems to have formed out of the events and oral accountings of survivors.
I won’t spoil anything for you, but the way Pearson puts in excerpts of religious text really adds depth. And the way everyone’s ideas and practices are a bit different is a beautiful depiction of the way a religion would come to be in this situation.
Highly HIGHLY recommend this series for anyone looking to write a religion-heavy story!

A final question to ask yourself, when it comes to actually writing the story, is how does this belief system affect your character?

In the previous examples, the character’s belief had great power over them. They spoke of it often, even in every-day conversation.

But sometimes religion is more subtle than that.

Take Christianity in the real world: there are the people who pray every day and talk about their beliefs on social media. They wear tshirts and go to concerts. Then there are the “Sunday Christians” who, for all intents and purposes, no one can tell are even religious until they show up to church.

I’m not giving you a lecture on right and wrong in our world, I’m simply giving an example that is familiar to me.

Is your character devout? Or are they “situationally religious”?

Is their society strictly religious, or do they allow an ebb and flow depending on personal preference?

Social structure:

Basically, how do your people interact with each other?

Photo by Joy Anne Pura on Pexels.com

This may already be taking shape after your government and religion are in place. Excellent!

But let’s ask a few questions to make sure you’re solid.

Are there castes/classes that aren’t defined by government but by social interaction (rich vs. poor, religious vs. secular)?

How does this society treat its poor?

Its elderly?

Its women? Its men? Its non-binary?

What is the separation like between the working class and the aristocrats?

Is there a mixture of backgrounds/cultures/ethnicities, or is the society pretty closed off? On that note, how do they treat outsiders?

What are their relations to other nations in their world, and opinions of cultures that are not their own?

How does this society view gender? Sexual preference?

What are “taboos” that people can’t or don’t talk about (sex, religion, money, political views, background, job, etc.)?

Example:
In The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood, there are multiple worlds, each with a unique society.
You can tell the differences as the MC travels worlds, going from a soft-spoken, religious society, to tougher, louder societies focused on fighting, to more scholarly societies. These differences are cultural, and the people will act accordingly (to a certain extent).
You can see the differences in worlds simply by the descriptions of interactions. There are even differences in appearance, due to the different worlds they come from.

This is a lot of questions, I know! But thinking through these details is really important to your story. You need to have a working knowledge of how this society interacts with each other so that your characters act in a way that fits the culture you’ve created.

Language:

Is there another language in your story?

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

The fact of the matter is, unless there’s some magical or story-based reason, your world will have differences in language (among many other things) between societies.

The easiest way to go about this is to stick to one culture, so all your characters speak one language.

If there are multiple languages, you can let the reader know they’re speaking another language, then put the text in italics.

If you want to go down the rabbit trail of creating a fantasy language, my best advice would be to pick a real language, and twist it. I did this for one of my worlds, and it was tough! But it did add a layer of depth to the story.


All in all, when coming up with these pieces of your world, try to keep your character and your story in mind.

Think about your characters and the dynamic you want them to have.

Are they Poor/Rich? Extroverted/Introverted? Do they have jobs? Are they in the ruling class? Are they from another culture entirely?

In answering these questions, you should ask yourself how they interact with their world.

When you think about your character, ask yourself what about their culture, their society, shaped them to be this person? What circumstances or customs pushed them to be who they are today?

Example:
Inej Ghafa from Six Of Crows is reserved and quiet, religious, and fiercely protective of those she loves. She’s a trained acrobat and fighter, and uses her skills to navigate her world.
-She might be reserved and quiet because of her family of origin.
-Religious due to her Suli heritage and her family.
-Fiercely protective because of her traumatic past.
-Her family trained her as an acrobat. It gave her confidence.
-She learned to fight because a friend in her city gave her the opportunity to take her power back.

I suppose, the question for Leigh would be, “What came first, the culture that shaped Inej, or the culture Leigh created to explain how Inej came to be?”

My characters usually come to me fully formed. Physically, mentally, spiritually. So, after that, I shape the culture to fit them.

Sometimes my story changes a bit as I lay out the culture and the geography. Sometimes certain pieces of a character have to shift because they don’t fit, or they create a plot hole.

Truly, you’ll figure it out as you go along. I know that’s not helpful, but just dive in! Think about whether this culture could survive in real life, or if some pieces don’t fit/are missing.

Let’s take a pause here, friends!
You have a moral obligation to make sure your stories include all people, not just those like you.
Ethnicity, identity, beliefs, customs, preferences, abilities, and behaviors vary from person to person. Make sure that your story includes a beautiful variety of people that appropriately and respectfully include the beautiful variety of your readers.
That being said, certain stories are not yours to tell. Make sure you are respectful in your depiction of an experience that does not resemble your own.

I hope this guide helps some fellow authors out there!

Part 2 coming next Friday!

I’d love to hear about your WIP or see the beautiful cultures you create in the comments below, or in my inbox.

Don’t forget to write this week!

Sending love,

MK

If Linux practiced some world-building, he would make a land full of green grass and sunshine, where rivers of yogurt cascade over mountains of treats, and human slaves play fetch all day.

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