Worldbuilding 101 – Part 5: The Next Five Building Blocks of Culture


So you want to build a fantasy culture for your novel? Hang on for the ride because we’re going to jet through this.

Last week, I posted about the first five building blocks in creating a fantasy (or any type of fictional) culture: Daily Life, Beliefs & Traditions, Language, Social Structure, and Technology. This is my own list. You can Google worldbuilding or culture-creating until you’re blue in the face, and you won’t find two opinions exactly alike. But as I posted about in Part 1, you have to start somewhere.

This week, we’ll pick up where we left off and talk about the last five (in my list) building blocks:

  • Agriculture
  • Government & Law
  • Economics
  • Arts
  • Education

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I started with a character, Velanna Ittai. After I got to know Velanna better through various “conversations” and interviews, I started thinking about what actually goes into a culture and a civilization. That’s where I got my ten building blocks.

And the best way I’ve found to figure out how to build a fictional culture is to learn some lessons from my own culture and go from there.

Agriculture

agriculture

Maybe this isn’t something you think about very often. That’s okay if it isn’t. City folks don’t always think about agriculture. You can just pop down the street to the corner market and buy a loaf of bread. But I’m in a different situation.

I live in a rural area. A very rural area. I don’t have a corner store with loaves of bread. I have a field of wheat, which is where loaves of bread come from. My neighbors raise cows and sheep. I’ve raised chickens.

Agriculture is vital to a culture. It determines the foods the people eat and, by extension, the quality of their health.

Example
Japan is an island nation, and while they do have arable land for crops, it’s limited. They grow some wheat, sure, but they grow more rice. Rice is a main staple of Japan. The main meat or protein consumed in Japan is fish. As a result, their diets as a nation affected their overall health as a people.

Look at the United States. We have tons of arable land, and we grow every crop imaginable. We eat beef and pork and chicken and fish. We eat bread and corn and rice. And our health as a nation is also reflected in what we eat.

So what about your fantasy culture? What kinds of crops does your fictional culture grow? Do they have a specialty? Here’s where knowing a little about agriculture will come in handy. Certain crops can’t be planted every year because they strip the ground of nutrients.

If your culture knows enough about farming to understand that crops need to be rotated, what will they rotate? Or if they don’t know enough about farming, how does the ever-diminishing harvests (due to overworked land) affect their civilization?

Are they a culture that eats mainly wheat or oats, or do they eat mainly rice? Do they raise livestock like cattle or sheep, or can they only manage poultry and wild game? And what about textiles? Do they raise cotton for clothing, or is there some other crop they raise to make material for what they wear?

Decide how your culture will manage their agricultural resources and consider how it will affect your culture overall. Because the old adage really is true: You are what you eat.

Government & Law

government

Here’s a biggie. How is the government of your culture organized? This also tells a lot about your culture. But don’t worry. It’s not nearly as terrifying as it sounds. It does help if you have a basic understanding of how governments work, but you can also find all the information you’re looking for in a Google search.

This is another example of how you can use your own experiences to help shape your fantasy culture.

Example United States Oman Sweden
Form of Government Democratic Republic Absolute Monarchy Socialist
What is the culture like? Governmental leaders are a direct reflection of the people themselves The people are used to tradition The people expect the government to take care of them

There are a hundred other forms of governments that you can use, or you can design your own. But keep in mind that the government structure you pick for your fantasy culture will affect the way your culture sees itself and the other cultures around them.

Economics

economics

How is wealth managed in your culture? How do they do business with each other? What about with neighboring countries?

It’s important to decide how your culture will handle money, as well as what their viewpoint on money is. Do people exchange money in order to purchase things, or do they trade and barter?

Where I live in rural Kansas, the bartering system is still alive and well. We don’t really exchange money on a lot of things among my neighbors out here. We trade services. My neighbor needed to run his cattle on our pastureland because we have a dedicated well for livestock. In exchange, instead of paying us for the use of our water, he cleared our back field of trees and does odd jobs around the farm with his machinery.

How your culture views money and the exchange of money will tell you a lot about your culture’s personality, priorities, and worldview.

Arts

the-arts

Here’s another touchy topic. What do the arts in your culture look like? This also includes the sciences as well.

Go to an art museum. Walk around and look at the paintings from different eras, and you’ll learn a lot about different cultures. Some cultures viewed being overweight as a sign of health. Some cultures viewed the human body as a representation of the divine. Some cultures viewed mathematics and science as the ultimate expression of life. And then you have Picasso, and who the heck knows what was going on in his head half the time? But you get the idea.

Does your culture paint? Does your culture sing or dance or play music? Does your culture study the origins of the universe, the minerals at the bottom of the ocean, or the human genome?

If you have a militaristic or Communist culture, their art will be more like propaganda. If you have a free society, you may see art that doesn’t look like art or hear music that doesn’t sound like music—but that is up to the artist.

What your culture studies and how your culture expresses itself has a direct correlation to what your culture stands for. Put some thought into it. Because it matters.

Education

education

The final building block of a fictional culture is education. This is another potentially touchy subject, but it’s essential to think about when you’re building a world.

Who controls the education of the culture’s children? Is it the parents? Is it the government? Does the King of your Monarchy decide what Little Timmy learns in math class today? Does the Grand Provost of your Militaristic Commune decide that Little Mary needs to complete seven more laps around the schoolground before she can pass her physical education class? Or does Mom make that call?

Whoever controls the education of a nation’s children controls the future of that nation. (Again, another very scary thought.) When it comes to building a world, how do you want the education of your culture’s children to be handled?

If it’s a militaristic culture, education will be more like boot camp. If your culture is libertarian, it’s likely that it’ll be everyone for themselves—you’ll probably have a lot of home schoolers. You get the picture.

How do the children in your culture learn? Is there a teacher and an apprentice? Is there a one-room schoolhouse? Or are children taught the basics at home and then turned out into the cold to fight each other to the death, Spartan-style?

The education of a child shapes a culture’s future.

Now we can start building

I’ve identified ten different building blocks for building a fictional culture. Again, this is my own list, but when I was designing a world around Velanna Ittai, these are the items I decided were essential.

Next week, we’ll combine all of this, and we’ll see how Velanna’s answers to my questions helped me bring an alien world to life .

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