Fantasy Worldbuilding: A Deep Dive into Culture
Updated: Mar 31, 2022
When you write fantasy, you create an entirely new world. How much you want that world to differ from ours is completely up to you. But developing a fantasy world takes time. There’s a lot to consider, from the town where we meet your main character to the culture of a nearby city to areas where your character may travel throughout the story.
As your reader travels through your book, you introduce this world bit by bit. There are some aspects of the world and its culture that the reader needs to know in chapter one; others, you can reveal along the way.
Here are some things you need to consider when worldbuilding and creating a culture in your fantasy book:
1. Everyday Life
The first thing you want to show your reader is what day-to-day life is like in your world. In many fantasy stories — like The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time — things start out in a quiet location. You see a bit of how a typical day goes.
Often, this portion of the book also includes some sort of celebration or festival. While this isn’t technically everyday life, it’s still a bit routine. Try to choose an event that may be held annually rather than a grand celebration.
Use this as an opportunity to reveal more about the local or national culture by being selective with the cause of the celebration — religious holiday, a birthday party, celebrating the rule of a king or noble person. These types of celebrations can show what the people in this area value, whether they have respect for that thing, and what level of celebration it incites.
Within that celebration, you can also reveal:
What kind of food is served for a special event? How does it compare to everyday fare?
What kind of clothing do people wear for special occasions? How does it compare to their everyday clothing?
What does the celebration include? What draws people in?
Visits from people of significance?
Another thing you might play with is communication styles. This goes beyond language to include:
Colloquialisms and slang
One interesting example is the communication style of the people of Ademre in The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. Rather than expressing emotions with facial expressions, they use hand signs.
Rothfuss doesn’t outright explain the hand signs the first time we see them; that would feel unnatural. Rather, we catch on as Kvothe (the main character, who is not from Ademre) begins to see their meaning. What first seemed like nervous tics and fidgets are actually indicators and expressions of their tone and overall emotion — sarcastic, embarrassed, disgusted, angry, curious, etc.
So think beyond language when you think of communication. Also, consider things like how close characters stand to each other while they speak. In some cultures, they may prefer more personal space. In others, they may be very familiar, standing close and placing a hand on your shoulder or arm when speaking.
Think about the depth of emotion that is comfortably shared at the levels of strangers, acquaintances, friends, and close family.
All of these are forms of communication.
3. Navigating Social Situations
Piggybacking on the previous point, here are some other things to consider about culture at the one-to-one social level:
What is considered good manners? Bad manners?
Is modesty an important attribute here? Or are people more free to express themselves?
What do friendships look like?
What do relationships of respect look like (parent/child, teacher/student, leader/follower)?
What’s a major cultural faux pas?
What are the consequences of poorly navigating social situations?
What kind of power is acquired if you are socially adept?
Which traits are valued? Beauty? Wealth? Bravery? Cleverness?
Answering these questions will help further develop the cultural structure of your world, creating rules that your characters can follow, bend, or break entirely.
4. Social hierarchies or caste systems
Social hierarchies and caste systems are something of a convention in fantasy literature. It creates more structure for the reader and helps them understand the social pressures that the characters may face, based on their social standings.
In this area, think about:
What are the various social levels?
What are the expectations for someone of each social level?
Does religion play into the caste system? Race? Sex? Occupation?
What’s the lowest-ranking level, and what obstacles and restraints do they face?
What’s the highest-ranking level, and what freedoms do they enjoy?
If a lower caste person encountered an upper caste person, what would the reaction be for each?
This particular area of your world’s culture is heavy and can be difficult to write. However, it can be a powerful storytelling tool when wielded well and opens the door to real-world social commentary.
Whether the gods in your world are living alongside the people or ruling from the heavens, religion can heavily inform the cultural values of your world. This can include things like:
Which traits are valued? Kindness? Bravery? Purity?
Vikings believed that you wouldn’t get into Valhalla if you died of old age or natural causes. You only ascend if you die in battle.
Are there ceremonies around marriage, coming of age, declaring yourself a follower of a religion, devoting your life to religious work, etc?
What are the feelings around the family structure? Is marriage a valuable convention in this culture? What about childbearing? What kind of judgments could that incite?
How does it influence a person’s moral compass? Is there a line that your character is hesitant to cross because of religion? What could push them to cross that line?
What are the beliefs around sin? How aggressive is punishment? Does it vary based on the caste system?
What are the beliefs around death and the afterlife?
How do people commune with the gods?
There are many things that can inform the culture of the world in your fantasy book. I could probably double the length of this post and still not cover everything. But I hope I’ve provided some ideas to get you in a creative mindset. Feel free to use any of the ideas or ignore all of them! Ultimately, you have to build a world that interests you. That passion will shine through in your writing and draw your readers in for the adventure.