Worldbuilding 101 – Part 4: The First Five Building Blocks of Culture

Worldbuilding 101 – Part 4: The First Five Building Blocks of Culture

Last week, I talked about how I designed the basics of Velanna Ittai’s personality and culture by getting to know her. I interviewed her. I treated her like a real person and learned who she was, and that’s how I gained enough information to build an entire civilization around her.

What do we know so far?

Velanna Ittai is an Andarian, a race of people who choose to live without emotion, focusing on rationality and body of evidence instead. Andarians have very long lifespans. She is currently around 600 years old, which is approximately middle age for her race. She has a husband and a daughter, and the three of them are the last of their kind, due to a cataclysmic war centuries earlier.

Knowing all that, what do you think the Andarian civilization would look like? Keep reading. Today we’re going to talk about the first five building blocks of a culture.

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First of all, what does it take to build a culture? What parts make up a culture? Is there a list of cultural aspects you have to complete in order to create a fully functioning world?

It’s important to know that nobody actually agrees on all the different aspects of culture. It varies from one expert to the next. Google it, and you can get a pretty good idea of how wide and vast the opinions are. But in my studies and in my experience, you need the following ten building blocks to create a fantasy culture:

  • Daily Life
  • Beliefs & Traditions
  • Language
  • Social Structure
  • Technology
  • Agriculture
  • Government/Law
  • Economics
  • Arts
  • Education

That’s one of the great joys of writing fantasy. You can provide a whole new world for readers to experience and imagine what it would be like to live there.

Yes, that sounds like a lot. And it should be a lot. You’re building a whole world where billions of people live. Even though you may start building this world with an existing character, the more you learn about the world, the more you’ll learn about the character too. The more realistic your fantasy world is, the deeper your readers can explore.

That’s one of the great joys of writing fantasy. You can provide a whole new world for readers to experience and imagine what it would be like to live there.

So now that we’ve identified the building blocks we need, let’s start thinking about how we can use what we already know about our own culture to help us create a new culture.

Daily Life

blackboard-677578_1280The most important (and most relevant) building block of your culture is daily life. The daily life in a culture will include the types of food people eat, the clothing they wear, and all the other everyday norms we take for granted.

Everyone has a daily life. Ours may be so boring that we don’t think about it, but we have one. And your characters have one too. The more realistic your character’s daily life is, the better your readers will connect with him.

For example, let’s look at my own day.
(Here’s where you get a glimpse into the thoroughly amazing life of a writer, right? Sorry to disappoint. I’m pretty boring.)

  • I get up at 7:00 in the morning and walk for 45 minutes to an hour while I listen to an audiobook (right now I’m listening to the Harry Potter books).
  • I eat raisin bran cereal for breakfast, a ham sandwich and an apple for lunch, and for dinner I eat whatever my housemates have prepared. Or, if I’m making dinner, I confer with my housemates. But it’s usually tacos or some form of soup/chili or chicken prepared in various configurations. We’re Midwesterners, and meals are usually hearty but simple.
  • In between meals, I write. I work out of my home office. I edit. I design web pages. I make teaching curriculum. I do typesetting for novels and formatting for ebooks.
  • I take two breaks, one just before lunch at Noon and one at 2:00 in the afternoon where I drink tea with my roomie and chat about the day’s accomplishments.
  • After dinner, my roomie and I will watch movies or TV shows and color in our coloring books. Then, around 9:00 at night, I go to my room, journal until my eyelids droop, shut off my light, and go to sleep. That’s a normal day for me. That is part of my personal culture, my lifestyle.

Think about your own personal culture. What do you do in a day? What are some norms that happen to you on a regular basis? Everybody has them. The characters in the world you’re building do too. Take time to identify them.

Beliefs & Traditions

china-1177009_1280The next important building block of your culture is religion. Don’t squirm. It’s true. Even the people who say they have no religion have a religion. It may be a lack-of-religion religion, but it still dictates how they think and make choices. Some might call it worldview, but for these purposes, we’ll stick with religion.

Every culture has a religion or a belief structure, symbols and customs and traditions and rituals that form the foundation of how it interacts with the world. What is very important to realize about religion, however, is that even though every culture has a religion, its practical, everyday application varies from person to person.

Faith is individual.
Since I already admitted to eating raisin bran and having a regular tea time, I’ll just bare all and talk about faith too.

If I have to lump my faith (or my religion… ugh) into a category, it would be Christianity. Broadly speaking, that is the general framework of what I believe. But if you study it, you’ll find that the concepts of Christianity vary extensively within its general framework.

Without turning this into a theological essay, here’s an easy example:

  • Some Christians believe that a person has to complete good deeds in order to get to heaven.
  • Other Christians believe that a person must believe trust Jesus for salvation to get to heaven.

Without leaping into a discussion of which one is right, notice that both groups are considered Christian.

In all my years as a Christian (personally I prefer Christ-follower, if I have to have a label) I have yet to meet another believer who shares 100% of my same beliefs and opinions. I’ve met many who come close, but usually there’s several things we disagree on.

That’s the most important thing to note about religion in worldbuilding. You can’t have one main religion where everyone holds to the same exact tenants. You can have one main religion (that’s easier, for sure), but the details of its practical expression in life should vary on an individual basis.

Language

three-monkeys-1212621_1280This is a given. Every culture has its own language. You can make one up. You can use a language you know with a different grammar or syntax. You can even use your own language and come up with a reason why your alien race speaks English (yes, Stargate, my love, I’m talking about you).

Just realize that your alien folks probably shouldn’t talk the same as an Average Joe off the street. They can, but just be sure you can explain why.

Included in Language is the concept of idiom too. Idiom varies from language to language anyway because of culture. Ever tried comparing idiom between cultures?

What would you say if I told you I was watching carrots grow from underneath? If you’re American, you’d look at me like I’m nuts. But if I said it in German and you are German, you’d know that I was saying I’m dead. If I wanted to communicate the same concept to an American, I’d say I’m pushing up daisies.

See what I mean?

Social Structure

hand-853188_1280The next building block to think about when building a culture is social structure. A social structure is the conceptual framework that guides how people relate to each other. Social structure varies from country to country, usually. It can be tied to religion, regional location, or wealth.

The social structure in Kansas is different than the social structure in California or New York or Georgia. I think part of the sameness of the social structure in Kansas comes from the fact that we all realize a tornado could blow our belongings away at any time, so we rarely use our possessions to determine our status. Everybody is pretty down to earth in Kansas.

But think about the social structure in New York. The social structure in New York City (population 8.4 million) is a great deal different than the social structure in Pearl River, New York (population 16,000). New York City is bigger, louder, and the disparity of classes is extreme, while in a smaller city like Pearl River, most people will be very much the same.

silhouettes-81830_1280Social structure also includes gender relations. In some cultures, women are not respected as citizens. Women and children often have fewer rights or privileges. Again, this is normally tied to a religious system, but it plays a role in social structure.

How do people relate to each other? Is it based on how much money they have or what color their skin is? Is it based on the amount of education they’ve received, or is based around a powerful status or title within the community? Or are there very few differences between people?

Every question matters. Think about the social structure where you live. Think about the social structure in countries you’ve visited. The way people relate to each other creates bonds or barriers, peace or conflict, and it will determine the overall attitude of your entire culture.

Technology

camera-820018_1280The last cultural building block I’ll mention in this post is technology. The level of technology in your culture will determine the health, wealth, power, status, knowledge level, and connectivity of its people.

Think about the United States. Pretty much everybody has a smartphone now. We have the entirety of the World Wide Web at our fingertips. We can look up as much information as we want whenever we want. We can listen to music, watch cat videos, and play Candy Crush at the snap of a finger. How has that affected our culture?

The level of technology in your culture will determine the health, wealth, power, status, knowledge level, and connectivity of its people.

Well, we’re dumber than we’ve ever been as a culture (just saying). And most of us are overweight.

In comparison, look at a third world country with very little technology to speak of. Very few are overweight. Many are uneducated, although that doesn’t make them dumb.

Granted, technology doesn’t determine 100% those aspects of culture, but it is a contributing factor you need to consider when you’re building a world.

Daily Life, Beliefs & Traditions, Language, Social Structure, and Technology—the first five building blocks in a culture. You can’t create a believable world without them, so take some time this week and note the things that happen in your own culture. From there, you can use them to help you along the way.

Next week

We’ll continue with the next five building blocks: Agriculture, Government/Law, Economics, Arts, and Education.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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