Creating cultures in fiction is an essential part of world-building.
Culture is a fascinating subject. Although most people tend to think of culture as heritage, it's really much more. It's how that heritage has shaped those people's world view, how they define themselves, and how they define their place in the world. Which might just be why creating cultures is one of my favorite things to do.
Getting ready to play Dungeons and Dragons almost always includes me coming up with a new race and a new culture. And it's one of the reasons I love writing science fiction and fantasy so much — I can create whole cultures from scratch. In fact, most of my fiction-based ghostwriting assignments include creating cultures simply because I love it so much.
Even if you are writing an Earth-based novel, having a deep understanding of the cultures here will lend further depth to your story. And if you happen to be writing an Earth-based novel with a nonEarth-based races? You'll be glad you read this.
Why can't you just use cultures you already know?
Technically, you can. There's no rule that says you can't use the cultures you know and just implant them into your novel. It happens often enough, after all. And depending on your novel, it can definitely save you a lot of time and heartache doing it this way.
And, for some fictional novels, this will work just fine. However, if this is the route you decide to take, please take care to do your research on the cultures you use. A culture is made up of several pieces, and missing one can leave your culture flat. Not having a deep enough understanding of a culture can leave it looking stereotypical or even mocking, neither of which would be a good thing.
Additionally, this won't work for every novel out there, particularly if your readers are expecting something original. If you promise an original work and end up giving them repackaged cultures, they are not going to be happy with your characters or your book.
What about borrowing elements from a culture?
Borrowing pieces from a culture you know, particularly if they are the more positive pieces, your readers may find them familiar. Authors borrow from fiction they admire all the time. The trick is, really, to borrow the pieces you want, plant them into your world, then fill in the gaps.
How would that culture be different had it evolved on your world rather than on Earth?
This is a little easier for your readers to give you a pass on, especially if it's written well, even when you're writing a piece of original fiction and promising new worlds.
But honestly, I feel that if you are going to borrow pieces from a culture, you might as well build your own. The amount of research and thought that goes into restructuring a culture to fit onto a new world is about the same as building a new culture. So unless you're writing a novel in which a restructured culture would be expected, then your best option would be to start from scratch.
15 Things to Consider when Creating Cultures in Fiction
- Where do they live? What is the climate like there and how would that affect their evolution? Would that have any effect on their clothing, their skin color, or their farming practices?
- What resources were available to them? How did they build their shelters, create their tools and art, or gather food?
- What are their core values? If another culture had to try to describe them, what would they say? If they had to describe themselves to another culture, what would they say?
- How do they believe they came into being? Did someone or something create them? How do they feel about this creator? Is there more than one?
- What is their education like? Can anyone be educated, or is it reserved for the wealthy? What type of education is there? (For some novels, this can also be extended to include forms of magic).
- What sort of technology do they have? And who among them has access to this technology? How was it developed? What does it mean for other cultures?
- Given all the answers to numbers 1-6, what sorts of industries do they have? What is their job market like? How about their economy? How do these stack up against other cultures in your world? How do these things affect their evolution?
- What are their politics like? Is there a ruling class, a caste system, a king? Is there some other form of government? Are they a democratic society? How about rebels and revolutionaries? Does anyone ever go against the government, and why?
- How do members of this culture treat each other? How do they treat their vulnerable (the elderly or the sick). How do they treat the wealthy? How do the wealthy treat the poor?
- Presuming almost all cultures have at some point gone to war over religion, resources, or politics, how does your culture fight? How do they do in wars? How many have they won? How did they treat the losers? How many have they lost? What did the loss affect?
- Who do they fight with? What are their foreign policies like? Do they have contact with other cultures?
- What courting or mating rituals are in place? Are they populous, or small? Are there laws in place regarding procreation? Can they marry outside their culture?
- What would be considered the most honorable thing a person in this culture could do? How did that come about? How does it affect their policies, their family lives, or their day-to-day activities?
- How do they die? Are there ceremonies involved? What about suicide?
- How do they handle justice? What sorts of crimes might someone commit? Do they have a death penalty? How are people detained for punishment? How do trials work? Who passes judgment and how quickly?
Like I said, there are a lot of different pieces to creating a culture. But once you have it created, your world will feel much more realistic, your characters will come to life, and everything that's at stake will become that much more real to your readers.
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Creating Cultures in Fiction FAQ
What are the elements of culture?
The primary elements that make up a culture are those that help shape the world-view of members within that culture: customs, values, marriage traditions, government, foreign relations, leisure activities, economy, language, religion, relationship with arts, and relationship with science.
Is religion a culture?
Religion and culture are inseparable: a people's religion helps shape their world-view, and their world-view shapes their culture, and their culture shapes their religion. But religion, by itself, is not a culture.
What are social and cultural factors?
Sociocultural factors are those traditions, values, and customs that serve as a defining aspect of a society. Their presence (or combination) is not found in other cultures in the same combination.
What is the difference between culture and tradition?
The key difference between a tradition and a culture is that a tradition describes a habit or behavior that has been performed for a long time between generations, while a culture describes how that habit or behavior has shaped the values and customs of a society over generations.