Have you ever been asked to define culture? It’s not an easy task. Culture encompasses so much and is so variant and fluid from people to people that it’s hard to slap a clear cut definition onto it. I was asked this question in many of my classes in college, and often students answered by throwing out examples of culture—beliefs, food, history, language—but that list may as well go on infinitely. So when a writer must develop a culture for a story, imagine what a task that would be.
I’ve noticed that the term “world building” gets tossed around a lot among writers. As it should—it is important. As a primarily fantasy writer, world building is one of my favorite parts of the job, but it can also be overwhelming. Remember how complicated culture was? Well, culture is just one aspect of world building. Have you received critiques on your writing about needing to develop your world and not knowing where to begin? Honestly, I don’t think I can make it any less overwhelming, but I can at least lay out some basic questions to help with conceptually understanding what it is. That way, instead of feeling overwhelmed, maybe you’ll start to feel excited about the vast possibilities open to your creative whims.
Of course, you need to know what the world you’ve created looks like: forest, jungle, desert, mountain, plain, cave, island, ocean, outer space, all of the above? What about the climate? Does it always rain where you character lives or could there be a drought? Is it windy, cold, hot, humid? Are there tornados or earthquakes? What about the seasons? Does your world model the four seasons of Earth? When do the seasons start? Do you have different names for the months and days of the week? Lastly, what about the months? How many days are in a month? Are there twelve months in a year?
Is that something you’ve ever considered that you could have thirteen months instead of twelve? We’re very comfortable with the rules of our world, and sometimes that’s for the best. You have to make a decision about how to balance recycling. How much should you copy from the real world or other widely read stories to keep your readers grounded in something they can comprehend and how much can you invent? You totally can make a world with a pink sky where people walk upside down and the trees are on fire and there’s only one hour in a day, but will people read it? It is helpful to give your readers a sense of familiarity. The more comfortable they are with the world, the more willing they will be to see what new concepts you have to offer. Don’t be afraid to push the limits just a little.
Next, you should consider the people in your world. This is where things become exponentially more complicated. It’s hard enough to fill a world with humans and provide them a culture, so think about creating a world with five different races of people. That’s five different cultures to differentiate and think through. Fun stuff.
Here are the big cultural points I would consider. Physically, what do these different races look like? What do they wear? Do they speak different languages? Do they have their own religion and if so, what is it? What is their history? What is their level of knowledge and education? What do they do for fun? What are their jobs? What do they eat? Do they have music, art, poetry, theater? Do they have stories, myths, or legends? Do they have traditions? You do realize, that I’m probably forgetting something, right? Those are all of the more concrete things, but also consider the abstract. What do they value? Are they more collectivist or individualistic? What do they expect of each other? How do they greet each other? What do they consider rude? I told you culture was complicated.
Can you believe I’m still not done? I just keep going and going. Now that you’ve got your world and your people, you have to think about the different systems that these people have put into place. What does their government look like? What are their laws and the punishments for breaking them? Do they have a military? Is there a “police force?” What are the social hierarchies? What is their form of currency and economy? What does the criminal world look like? Are there rebellions? Wars? Alliances? Do you have a headache yet?
I promise this is the last one. This is related to the concept of how educated the people are. What have they accomplished technologically? What is their knowledge of medicine? Is there magic? How does the magic work? What about time? Does your world follow the concept of seconds, minutes, and hours? Does that mean they have clocks? Or do they base time off of the position of the sun? If you’re writing a science fiction piece, then this category is critical and you have a lot more questions to ask. What have these people accomplished, and what are they capable of?
Now that I’ve riddled you with questions, you might be thinking that this is a little obsessive. And while I may agree with you while simultaneously thinking What writer isn’t obsessed with their story? I’d like to make one point clear. Don’t actually write about most of this. Listen, the more the writer understands about the world, the more it flows even if it’s never explicitly stated. Having this depth of knowledge provides layers upon layers of immersion and tangibility. It makes your story real. But as for what actually is explained or mentioned to the reader? Follow the story. If it’s plot related, then don’t hold out on us, but if it’s not necessary, then keep it to yourself. For the purpose of writing about a thoroughly developed world, the author should know the answers to these questions.
Patrick Rothfuss, writer of The Kingkiller Chronicles and an actual authority on the subject, has insightful things to say about world building in this interview, so check it out.
One more thing. Many writers are inspired by an idea and run with it, seeing where it takes them. If you don’t know the answer to these questions, don’t let that hold you back from writing. You may discover or figure out the answers along the way, and you can always go back and add the implications in later. That’s what revisions are for!
By Rachelle Clifford