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Fictional cultures are the backbone of the imaginary worlds authors conjure up in their stories. They can make or break a story, as they provide context and depth to the plot. A well-crafted fictional culture can transport readers into a different world, making them feel like they are experiencing something entirely new and exciting. It adds layers of complexity to characters, societies, and conflicts, which helps create powerful stories that resonate with readers.
Furthermore, fictional cultures allow authors to explore different themes such as politics, love, power dynamics, religion, and social issues from a unique perspective.
The creation of an imaginary world means there is no limitation to imagination; you have complete creative freedom when designing fictional cultures. And through these unique cultures, readers can gain new insights into their own reality.
What is “Culture”?
Culture refers to the shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, artifacts and other characteristics that define a group or society's way of life. It encompasses everything from food preferences and fashion trends to language use and art styles.
Culture is passed down from one generation to another through socialization processes such as education or direct exposure. When creating fictional cultures for your story-worlds it's important to consider all aspects that make up culture in real life – practices around birth/death/marriage rituals', festivals/celebrations associated with seasons/life events/stages/important people/groups/cultures etc., social hierarchies (race/class/gender), religious beliefs (myths/gods/spiritual practices), artistic expression (music/painting/sculpting/dancing etc.) etc.
This article will walk you through some of the practical steps to create vibrant, realistic, and believable fictional cultures. It is intended as a starting point for brainstorming ideas that can be fleshed out further in the writing process. We'll go through the foundational elements you should consider when creating your fictional culture, such as geography and environment, history and origins, social structure and customs, language, art, and literature. Hopefully you'll be inspired to think critically about your world-building process and taking a holistic approach while designing your fictional cultures.
The one thing I want to note before we move forward is that this is just the start. You can, and should, use this as a starting point. You have full discretion how much detail you want to add or subtract when creating your own unique culture. Remember it's all about what works best for your story!
Geography and Environment
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to create a fictional culture from scratch? One of the most important things to consider when doing so is the geography and environment of your world.
This includes climate and weather patterns, natural resources, and topography. Is your world arid and dry?
Or maybe it’s a lush tropical paradise? The climate of your world will impact everything from clothing choices to food sources for your fictional culture.
Consider whether they live in a coastal region with frequent storms or in an area with harsh winters. What kind of natural disasters do they face?
The natural resources available in your fictional world will play a large role in the way your culture develops. Do they have an abundance of fertile land or are they forced to rely on trade for sustenance?
Is there a rare mineral or metal that is highly valued by other cultures? The topography of your world will also impact the way your cultural group lives their daily lives.
Will they have mountains to navigate around or vast open plains where visibility is high? Will there be bodies of water like lakes, rivers, or oceans that impact travel routes?
History and Origins
Next up in considering how to create a fictional culture is history and origins. Every culture has its own creation myths that explain how their people came to be.
Will yours have gods or supernatural beings at the center of their origin story? Or maybe their origins are tied to scientific explanations like evolution.
Significant events throughout history can shape a culture’s identity as well. Did they experience war or famine that still affects them today?
Maybe there was an event that caused them to migrate from one location to another. Cultural traditions can also stem from historical events such as religious holidays, commemorative festivals, etc.. Do members of this cultural group celebrate certain holidays throughout the year?
What about cultural norms and beliefs, how did they come to be? Were they influenced by interactions with other cultures or something unique to their own?
When creating a fictional culture, think deeply about the history and origins of your group. What myths and stories define them?
What events have shaped their identity? And how do those traditions continue to play a role in their daily lives today?
Social Structure and Customs
One of the most fundamental aspects of any culture is its family dynamics. In most cultures, the family is the basic unit of society. However, different cultures have different ideas about what constitutes a family and how families should function.
In some cultures, such as those in parts of Africa and Asia, extended families are the norm, with several generations living together in one household. In other cultures, such as in Western Europe and North America, nuclear families (parents and children) are more common.
Marriage customs vary widely across different cultures. Some cultures place a strong emphasis on arranged marriage, where parents or other family members choose a spouse for their child based on factors such as social status or compatibility. Other cultures place greater emphasis on courtship and romantic love as the basis for marriage.
Gender Roles and Expectations
Gender roles refer to the expectations that a culture has for men and women in terms of their behavior, responsibilities, and social roles. Gender roles can vary widely from culture to culture.
For example, some cultures may expect men to be the primary breadwinners while women stay at home to care for children. Other cultures may have more fluid gender roles where both men and women work outside the home or share domestic duties equally.
Parenting practices are another area where cultural differences can be very evident. In some cultures, strict discipline is seen as necessary to ensure children grow up obedient and respectful of authority figures. In other cultures, parents may adopt a more permissive approach to child-rearing that values independence over obedience.
Caste System or Social Class Structure
Social hierarchies refer to the way that different groups in a society are stratified based on factors such as social status, wealth, or occupation. In some cultures, such as in India and parts of Africa, caste systems are used to define social status. In other cultures, social class is determined more by wealth or occupation.
Rules for Social Mobility
Social mobility refers to the ability of individuals or groups to move up or down the social hierarchy. In some cultures, social mobility is highly restricted and people are born into their position in society with little chance of moving up. In other cultures, there may be more opportunities for upward mobility through education or hard work.
Power Dynamics Between Different Groups
Power dynamics between different groups can have a significant impact on the culture of a society. For example, if one ethnic group holds most of the political power in a country, it may influence the way that other groups view themselves and their place in society.
Similarly, if one gender holds greater power than another within a culture, it can lead to attitudes and behaviors that reinforce those power imbalances. Understanding social structure and customs is essential when creating a fictional culture.
It requires careful consideration of how family dynamics work within your culture; what marriage customs exist; how gender roles shape behavior norms; what parenting practices are common; whether there is a caste system or social class structure present; rules for upward mobility; and lastly how power dynamics impact different groups within that culture's society. Cultural nuances add layers to any story being created and make it come alive for readers looking for depth beyond plot alone.
Language, Art, and Literature
Language: Expressions, Rules, and History
Language is an essential part of any culture. It shapes how people communicate and express themselves. When creating a fictional culture, language plays a critical role in conveying the nuances of the society.
To make it believable, you need to develop unique expressions and rules that reflect the culture’s history. One way to create unique expressions is by thinking about what values these people have and how they might express them.
For example, if your culture values bravery above all else, their language could be full of phrases that involve courage or strength. Another way to make your language unique is by incorporating unique grammar rules or pronunciation.
Perhaps this group uses different tenses than we do in English or has a particular way of pronouncing certain letters. The written history of the fictional culture should also be considered when developing their language.
Think about who developed their written language and why? What are some examples of ancient texts that reflect this society's beliefs?
Art: Visuals, Dance, and Music
Artistic expression is another critical aspect of a fictional culture that can reveal much about its people. Different groups can have different styles of visual art influenced by the materials available to them (like wood or clay) or specific historical events (like war). Perhaps this group prefers abstract art over realistic depictions because they believe it allows more room for interpretation.
Dance and music are other forms of artistic expression that can reveal much about the fictional culture's beliefs and values. Certain types of dance may be reserved for special occasions like weddings or funerals while others may be used for everyday entertainment.
Music can also vary significantly from one society to another; perhaps this world has never experienced Western music before! Music lyrics could tell stories about important historical events in their past.
Literature: Myths and Folktales
In addition to language and art, literature is another way to express a culture's values and beliefs. Mythology can have many purposes: explaining natural phenomena, teaching moral lessons, or even just entertaining. These stories could be about anything from the origins of the world to the feats of a legendary hero.
Creating fictional folktales could be an excellent opportunity to delve into this society's history and provide context for their values and beliefs. Maybe there’s one story that every child hears growing up that explains the importance of forgiveness or perseverance.
When creating a fictional culture, language, art, and literature are crucial components that need careful consideration. These elements help bring your world to life by conveying what makes it unique. By crafting unique expressions, visual art styles, musical styles, folktales/myths you can give readers an immersive experience that helps them see what makes your society different from others.
Creating a fictional culture is not just about creating characters; it’s an opportunity to build a whole new world from scratch. The possibilities are endless when you approach it with intentionality and attention to detail!