How to create fantasy cultures
As a reader, one of my favorite things is entering a new world that feels like it existed in all of its glorious complexities far before I opened the book housing it. In other words, the setting feels real despite magic or dragons or whatever is in store. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of fantasy?
But that level of authenticity can be very difficult to obtain without a lot of time … say if you are on book 8 of your series you might be there. By then it feels real and you’ve pretty much covered all the ground.
Scifi and Fantasy rely heavily on world building. It is an essential part of the genre. Would Game of Thrones be the same without the Ice Wall, without the old gods, and lost cities across the sea…? Would Pern be the same without dragons and threads?
But how do you create that level of an authentic and unique world from page one of your novel?
At its core, world building contains an ecosystem and its inhabitants. A culture develops out of the interactions between the two, because what is available in the ecosystem will spur adaptations that become traditions to overcome hardships which, in turn, define a society. As that society develops it will work really hard to alter the ecosystem to suit its needs and make life easier for the inhabitants, like farming instead of hunting and gathering. Or cities with aqueducts.
A culture is “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social or ethic group. The sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.”
There are a few key terms there. It is behaviors as well as beliefs. We are talking traditions and religions such as carrying a bride across the threshold or even getting married in order to demonstrate commitment. And these elements are passed on to the next generation.
So a culture has a shared history, a shared religion (even if variations exist – and the older the culture the more variations will exist!), and shared customs stemming potentially from early adaptations by the original settlers needing to survive. These are experiences of people transmitted through time.
And that is why creating cultures is powerful for world building. You are developing a history with a sense of place that defines a group all in one sitting. And the fastest way to do this … what did I say is the essence of a culture? An ecosystem and its inhabitants interacting. We’ve been focusing on inhabitants. We need an ecosystem. And the quickest way to do that and create a world for your book is to create a map.
Which is good news as, I have several ways to help you get started with making a map! Check out my Map Making 101 post and check out Jesper Schmidt’s new Fantasy Map Making book for even more in depth tips!
Once you’ve drawn a map complete with weather systems, mountain ranges, and oceans you’ve created the environment. Now you need to develop civilizations that adapt to it — or fail. Both work to give your world depth.
Pick a settlement if you’ve dotted your map with them. If not consider that most civilizations arise near water. Because water provides not just something to drink for people, livestock, and plants, but also transportation and power (milling). The oldest civilizations in your world will begin near water.
Now that you have a city, town, or village look at the ecosystem around it. What is it? Forest, tundra, plain, or rocky islands? Will that ecosystem support a settlement by providing lumber, crops, or game? If not, can they import what they lack? Or will the people be nomadic?
Based on the climate and ecosystem, what is the food source for this settlement? Are people farming? Catching fish? Hunters? The need to grow or catch food will create niches within a culture, just like other trades will develop such as builders, blacksmiths, magicians…
Which leads directly into the next question: What type of tradesmen/craftsmen would be in this culture? Are they merchants and sailors or knights and peasants? This can be based on the ecology (by the sea) and the era you’ve chosen for your novel.
Consider what type of government should exist here? This too should be based on the timeframe and the needs of the story. Are there kings and queens, statesmen? Who has the ultimate authority to make the rules?
That seems simple enough, but it isn’t the end. That was a snapshot of now, but cultures develop through time. They have a history. Start layering in the nuances of this culture living in this place in this world. Think about how the society developed. What sort of history did it have? Were they constantly at war to protect fertile land from close neighbors or did huge mountains or deserts protect them from others, allowing more peaceful pursuits to develop like art and music?
History ties back to the first question: will the ecosystem support a settlement? Has it grown so large that resources are scarce and the city is hungry enough for more they would go to war? Or is it slowly starving as merchants and the wealthy look for greener shores? Not every town and village in your world should be at its peak of prosperity.
Delve into this place. What would you smell if you stood in that town or camp? What food would you eat? Are there spices or onions? What rituals might have developed out of the history or habitat? Are they always listening for a warning note? Do they teach children how to hide?
This is where you put yourself, a character, and, hopefully, the reader within that culture as if you were writing a travel blog. Which is actually a pretty good technique to capture the depth of understanding you are looking for. Once you do that for each area of your map, you truly have a world built for your novel!