Studying real-world cultures can help you in your endeavour to populate your world with realistic societies. You needn’t invent a culture whole cloth; you can base your fantasy cultures on one or more existing ones, or even blend two or more of them to make a new one. Just keep in mind that you might offend the real people whose cultures you’re fictionalising unless you’re one of them, so it’s important to be sensitive to their issues, and it couldn’t hurt to talk to a few of them as well, in order to get their advice about it.
On that note, when I first started writing this series many years ago, I wasn’t conscious of how Eurocentric it was, and this despite having about as much interest in Medieval China and Feudal Japan as I do in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, albeit considerably less familiarity with the history of those lands due to my mostly Eurocentric early education. Now that I’m moving beyond my original source material, this will definitely change, especially as I have since developed an ever-growing interest in the Islamic Golden Age as well.
The culture of your peoples or nations is probably going to be at least as important to your story as their subsistence strategy (if not more so), and to a certain extent it can even be said to be determined by their subsistence strategy. After all, the culture of a hunter-gatherer is bound to be greatly different from that of an agriculturalist. But before I go any further, let me explain what is meant by the word “culture”.
There are actually two different types of culture: material and symbolic. A peoples’ material culture is made up of all the physical objects they produce, from clothing to tools to art and architecture. Usually everything they make themselves is going to have a special character that is unique to that people. This could be in the form of design or ornamentation, but also in the materials they use (determined by what materials they can obtain in abundance), and will be especially important when the object has been made for ceremonial use.
Symbolic culture consists of the language and or dialect spoken (although forms of writing can be considered part of material culture when they exist in some physical form such as a cuneiform tablet or written scroll or book), as well as any customs, gender roles, taboos, religion or beliefs, values, and philosophical attitudes of the people as a whole.
Once you have an idea what kind of people you’re dealing with in terms of what their subsistence strategy is, their level of technology, and what resources they have in abundance, you can start thinking of things such as what kind of music they might produce, what kind of art, if any, whether they are animists, polytheists, or monotheists, generally optimistic or pessimistic, etc., and you will gain a sense of their vital spirit.
Here are a few things to ask yourself when thinking about creating the culture or cultures of those who inhabit your fictional world:
Do they frequently come into contact with another people whose culture is greatly different from their own? If so, have they adopted elements of this foreign culture?
What kinds of musical instruments might they have? What sort of music might they produce?
What materials and/or tools might they use to fashion jewellery or create art?
What sort of foods do they eat? How do they prepare them? Do they have any mealtime traditions, and if so, what are they?
To what extent might there be a division of labour between the sexes, and how might this affect gender roles?
What sayings, fables, riddles or jokes might they pass down from generation to generation?
To what extent does religion or religious beliefs affect their daily lives?
What stories do they tell?
That last one is important. A significant part of symbolic culture is one that both writers of fiction and gamemasters will no doubt be intimately familiar with, and that is storytelling. The stories a people tell (and often re-tell) each other may reinforce and preserve their culture, especially when passed on from generation to generation, as in the form of myth, legend, and folklore. It is generally accepted that long before the invention of writing there were among all peoples these oral traditions of storytelling. We tell stories not only to entertain, but to better understand the world around us, and our place in it.
For more on culture and what it means, I highly recommend you watch the video below (it’s under five minutes long).
In the next part of this worldbuilding series, we’ll explore the genesis and influence of culture more concretely as we examine a few real-world examples of early civilisation and how it first arose, as well as what happens when vastly different cultures collide.
Coming Soon: The Agricultural Revolution and the Rise of City-States
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7 Tips to Write Better Fantasy with History So you think you have an original fantasy world? That may be so, but creating something from nothing is nearly impossible. Much of what we create is repackaged. We borrow. We polish. We add a flame. Some of the greatest writers borrow from history to create their […]
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The next thing you’re going to want to consider is what sort of government (if any) each society that inhabits your fictional world will have and how stable it is. If you take a look inside any typical history book, you will quickly realize that the story it tells is mainly concerned with the political arena, and that the events focused on most are those that lead up to and take place during and after periods of political instability (or other crises, such as war, famine, drought, and plague, all of which can cause political instability but needn’t necessarily do so). Any period during which there is relative political stability is likely to be glossed over in a history book because history is really the story of how things got to be how they are today; in other words, it is the story of how things have changed, not how they have stayed the same. If things never changed there wouldn’t be much of a demand for history books.
Still, maybe you’d rather your fantasy stories took place in a time and place of political stability so that you can focus solely on the story of your characters and their daily lives. There’s nothing wrong with that; but you might want to write a bit of history for the region anyway, which your characters can allude to once in a while, in order to give the story more depth, as J. R. R. Tolkien did from time to time inThe Hobbit. On the other hand, unless you are writing your fantasy novel in the guise of a history book, you’re going to want any political events to be mostly just a backdrop for the real story which is of the characters and their daily lives and relationships. A great example of how this is done can be found in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. Even when he’s writing about political events and intrigues which directly concern the political higher-ups, it’s always from their very human perspective.
When it comes to the tidal forces of great events of government, war, and diplomacy, it is always how they affect real people that we want to read or hear about. That’s why history books can often be a dull read; their authors are constrained to cram many important events into a comparatively short narrative, with very little room for character development. That being said, once you know all the ins and outs of how your society is organized, you will be able to add this extra dimension to your storytelling in a natural way that will give it depth and interest without dumping a boatload of dry facts on the reader’s head all at once. For Gamemasters, of course, this will be a natural consequence of running your campaign, but it’s worth mentioning that it doesn’t hurt to have as much as possible of the history of your world already written so you aren’t constantly forced to come up with stuff on the spot. Also, this probably goes without saying, but if you do end up making a few things up as you go along, it’s important to take notes, as most if not all of your players likely will!
Likewise, whether you’re writing a fantasy novel or running a tabletop roleplaying campaign, unless you really like flying by the seat of your pants (I’m a plantser myself), it will help to have at least a vague idea of what sort of government (again, if any) your characters or player’s characters will be operating under, if only to give the world a bit more depth and realism (not to mention consequences). Perhaps from time to time the inhabitants of your fantasy world will discuss the latest political intrigue, or complain about the recent increase in taxes, or gleefully plot their bloody rise to the throne, but however you introduce these elements, it will help if you first create at least the barest outline, perhaps a political tree (like a family tree, only showing political relationships and hierarchies–and in the case of royalty, this may be a family tree as well), at least just so you can keep it all straight in your head. It’s not something you need include in your published works, unless you want to (but keep in mind that even Tolkien put his own diagrams of this sort in the appendices of his greatest novel, The Lord of the Rings).
The type of political system your society has is also going to be determined by the type of society as outlined previously. After all, a hunter-gatherer society is not likely to have tax collectors, trade commissions, or a paid police force. In general, the more complex the society, the greater the importance of law over custom, and the greater the importance of law over custom, the greater the need for officials and/or political institutions to enforce the law.
Government by a body of ranked individuals. Originally meant government by priests.
Government by priests or by religious law.
Government by the wealthy.
Government by the people.
Government by a single individual, usually royalty.
Government by two individuals. Oligarchy
Government by a small body of individuals.
Government by a body of elected representatives.
In a future post, I’ll get into a few of these different forms of government in more detail, as we explore the more complex types of societies that were able to evolve as a result of the first agricultural revolution.
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DRAWING ON REAL-WORLD HISTORY, POLITICS, AND CULTURE
Every worldbuilder, whether a novelist or a game designer, has to draw upon real-world history, politics, and culture to a certain extent. It’s important, however, to be sensitive to those nations and cultures that are not one’s own, particularly if they have been subject to colonialism, enslavement, and other forms of genocide. It’s a fine line to walk, to be honest. There are those who think that Frank Herbert’s Dune saga is problematic. Some even think of Tolkien’s Middle-earth in such terms, and that’s understandable. But it’s likely that neither of those works would’ve enjoyed such success if they were written today (and H. P. Lovecraft would’ve been cancelled for sure).
On the other hand, there are worlds like Ver-Draak, a fictitious planet in a sci-fi/fantasy series I’ve loved ever since reading its first installment, Where the Ni-Lach, for the first time at the tender age of thirteen. In this series, Marcia J. Bennett tells the story of the last Ni on Lach (the natives’ own name for their planet, which was renamed Ver-Draak by the colonialists who invaded it and proceeded to systematically exterminate its indigenous population). You could say that the Ni are a lot like Native Americans, but you could also say that they are like Aboriginal Australians, or any number of other native populations that suffered under colonialism to the point of near if not total genocide (and in fact sometimes they even reminded me of the Jews). The point is that they are not caricatures or stereotypes of those peoples, they are only (possibly) relatable to them. The Ni have green hair and crystalline eyes; they are obviously not meant to represent any one human race or nationality. I don’t think anyone could point to that series and say that it was problematic or offensive in any way, but of course that’s only my opinion. I only bring it up because it seems to me that there is clearly a wrong way to do this, and it’s been done, and overdone, and it’s still being done, and yet it’s easily avoidable with a bit of sensitivity and a modicum of research.
That being said, the following information is not meant to represent the real world in any way, but to offer structure to the fictional societies you might create, and is squarely based on my college-level understanding of anthropology (a field rife with casual racism, I might add). Thus below I list the main types of possible societies as I understand them, from simplest to most complex, using the diagram depicted below as a rough guide.
One of the first things you must think about in order to give your fantasy world a realistic foundation is how the people in your world sustain themselves. Much of this will also depend on the climate, topography, and of course the flora and fauna of whatever region of your world you happen to be developing at any given moment, but we’ll get to that in a later post.
I’ll also be addressing technology in the next few posts to a growing extent, not merely because the development of certain technologies makes certain types of food production possible, but also because the manner in which people obtain their food, their subsistence strategy, usually determines what kinds of technology they will find useful. For example, since a tribe of hunter-gatherers would have no use for a plough, there is no reason why they should invent one. Also, the more time you have to devote to obtaining or producing sustenance, the less time you have to spend sitting around inventing things.
The earliest and simplest of all human societies, the technology of the hunter-gatherer group will be minimal unless it exists alongside other, more complex societies. For example, you might arm your hunter-gatherers with wooden spears, or bows and arrows, as these would typically be weapons they could easily fashion on their own. But if they live in the midst of societies with more advanced technology you could also arm them with swords or even firearms if you wanted to (perhaps they obtained these through trade). The important thing to keep in mind is that hunter-gatherers don’t normally produce anything themselves that would require many people, animals, or resources (especially the kind that have to be mined, such as most metals) to create or maintain.
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle also does not usually support large populations confined to one area or the large-scale domestication of animals, so hunter-gatherers tend to be at least semi-nomadic, following their chief source of food (often big game), and thus their dwellings will not often be the kind that are built to last. They may also be warriors due to frequent contact with other tribes that may be competing for the same food sources, but generally they do not wage war on a large scale or for prolonged periods. That would prove unsustainable.
Though their ways and technology may seem primitive to those who grew up in modern, so-called civilised societies, it cannot be forgotten that it was hunter-gatherers who developed the fine art of knapping, expressed themselves artistically (and perhaps religiously) through all those elaborate cave paintings, and even erected monuments. Their semi-nomadic way of life also probably culminated at least once a year in a great gathering of all the tribes (most likely occurring some time in late spring or midsummer). To modern sensibilities, this might resemble an annual festival. It would certainly have been an important communal event, probably involving trade as well.
Horticulturalist societies tend to be less nomadic because they grow much, if not most of their own food, and that requires a fair bit of homesteading. Often these types of societies will be supplemented by some hunting and gathering, or more likely the small-scale domestication of food-producing animals such as cows, chickens, and goats. Their settlements are usually at least semi-permanent. They might spend their summers in one region and their winters in another. Or they may become nomadic hunter-gatherers in the winter, when they can no longer grow their own food. And of course, like the hunter-gatherers, they may also obtain food or technology they do not produce themselves through trade. But also, like the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, horticulture generally does not support large numbers, because gardening and/or small-scale farming will not normally produce enough of a surplus for that.
Pastoralists are typically nomadic or at least semi-nomadic. They may have evolved from hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, or perhaps even agriculturalists (see below). These are usually the folk that keep domesticated animals on a large scale, such as cattle, goats, sheep, etc. They are also most likely to have been the first to domesticate some type of riding beast, such as horses or camels. They may also be horticulturalists part of the time. But those that herd grazing beasts need to move around a lot because once the animals eat all the grass in one region, it may take some time before it grows back again. Many pastoralist societies develop a warrior class because 1) moving from place to place can often result in clashing with other tribes and 2) they need to protect large herds of beasts from others who would profit from stealing them.
Due to their mobility, pastoralists are also most likely to be traders, or raiders, or both. In fact, there’s a theory that the reason the Indo-European language family is so widespread is that its mother tongue, the hypothetical proto-Indo-European language, was spoken by wide-ranging nomadic pastoralists who descended upon lands spanning the entirety of Eurasia, often violently suppressing the native populations they encountered in whatever regions they happened to settle in. A lot of this is conjecture, of course, but much of it is based on contemporary accounts, and anyway we’re in the business of storytelling, not historical writing.
The society that is supported mainly by agriculture is a settled one. Agriculture also makes possible the production of surplus food which can support larger populations and more complex social structures. It enables the existence of entire classes of people who need not produce their own food, freeing them up to perform other functions. This makes the development of new technologies even more likely. Because agriculturalists are tied to the region where they grow their crops, they are more likely to have standing armies. Their territory has to be defended. This society is also more likely than the preceding ones to have instituted laws, complex systems of government, and even bureaucracies. Very large urban centers are also made possible by agriculture, because their populations can be supported by the large-scale food production which agriculture makes possible. Large, populous, permanent settlements also make significant mining operations possible, so these are the societies most likely to mass-produce metal tools and weapons. We’ll get to cities (and city-states!) a bit later, as they pretty much change everything.
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