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Worldbuilding 5: culture



Culture is a slippery concept; it's one of those terms we all know the meaning of until we actually think about it. For the writer, culture can be a two-edged sword: ignore it and your story lacks depth, colour and context; focus too much on it and you risk bamboozling - or worse, boring - your reader into putting the book down.

In this article, I will look at some basic ideas in worldbuilding and culture, and how to negotiate them in a way that satisfies writer and reader, without disappearing down a rabbit hole of pointless detail.

The first and most obvious point to bear in mind is that culture forms the framework for every book you have ever read; it's not merely a niche element of a niche genre. Thus most of the cultural issues that apply to real-world fiction apply equally to fantasy. The difference - that the world and its culture are invented - is less important than you might think.

For instance, you might be writing a crime novel set partly in London, a familiar setting, and partly in Kuala Lumpur, a setting most of your readers will know little or nothing about. How do you convey the difference? You might show this by using the local language, or by dress and physical appearance, or by the natural and built environments. You might describe exotic food, or music; you might have an opportunity to describe a religious or cultural event. You don't need to belabour the poor reader with excess detail; you just show them enough so that they get a feel for this new environment. And, of course, you include any cultural detail necessary for the story or the plot.

And that is precisely what you need to do when you introduce the reader to an invented setting. You must provide enough information so that the reader gets a feel for the world you present - its people, customs, politics and so on - and so they understand the events of the story in their wider context. At the same time, you should avoid offering so much information that the reader feels overloaded; you may have done a lot of research and creating when you built the world, and it's tempting to show the reader the fruits of your labour, but if it's not relevant to the story then it's worldbuilding for its own sake. Not every reader will be open to this approach.

Another point to consider is that you don't need to reinvent the wheel. The fantasy canon is extensive and, over time, some conventions have become established. These conventions can help the new writer (and the reader) in various ways. Whether or not your cast of characters includes giants, you can stand on the shoulders of giants to get the job done.

The most common setting for fantasy literature is a kind of mediaeval world, ruled by monarchs and aristocrats, with fairly basic technology. Along with humans, characters tend to include elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs, and occasionally dragons. Magic is often prevalent. If this is the setting for your project, then much of the leg work has been done for you; the broad strokes are already familiar to the reader, and your job is more about details than invention from scratch. Even if you include some unique elements, you can still use the conventions - and the reader's knowledge of them - for the bulk of your worldbuilding.

Here are a couple of cultural considerations you might want to think about when you are embarking on worldbuilding. This is by no means an exhaustive list; as with all aspects of fantasy writing, there are thousands of online sources for the details, if you feel you need them. I chose these points because they are not always covered on the fantasy worldbuilding sites.

The world of your story was around before the story started. That probably sounds counter-intuitive, but if you give it some thought, it must be true. Your story is an event taking place in a world that has a history, a past; a world that has a settled culture, one that the characters are familiar with. You can use that fact to orient the reader; characters can speak and act in ways that show the culture, and history, without resorting to long-winded explanations.

Everyday events are important. One of the simplest, and most effective, ways to show the culture of your world is to show characters going about their everyday lives: working, eating, playing. And you can extend this by including some special occasions: a festival, a wedding, or a funeral. In this way, you can show how characters live, how they celebrate or mourn, their religious beliefs, the food they eat, the way they interact with each other.

You don't have to describe a religious or political system in full. For instance, if one of your characters exclaims, ‘By all the gods!' then they have told the reader this is not a monotheistic culture. If a character raises a glass in a tavern and says, ‘The king,' you know this is a monarchy (and if the toast elicits muttering from shadowy corners, you might infer that the monarchy is not universally popular).

The overarching point here is that the strategies that work in a novel set in the real world are equally applicable in a fantasy setting; you don't have to invent a new way of telling a story just because your story is set in a new world. Fantasy is a fun genre and an interesting challenge for the writer; but in the end, it's the story that matters.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Worldbuilding 1: character names in fantasy novels.

Worldbuilding 2: the basics of writing fantasy fiction

Worldbuilding 3: geography and location

Worldbuilding 4: technology