Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Six

CULTURE: MATERIAL AND SYMBOLIC

[image description: An example of a piece of material culture:
Anglo-Saxon ceremonial helmet found at Sutton Hoo. By geni (Photo by user:geni) GDFL, via Wikimedia Commons]

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).

Talking Culture Pt 1 What is culture

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.

Next: The Agricultural Revolution and the Rise of City-States

Previous: Forms of Government

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Six

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