Hey guys! So, given the popularity of the Guide to Creating Religion, as well as some personal requests from a few folks, I figured I'd get a little series going about culture in worldbuilding. I've wrestled with the idea of where exactly to start, specifically because culture is just such a vast subject, so I figured we'd get going with a less specific and more well-rounded subject: the Fundamentals of a Culture. Now, obviously, a lot goes into a culture evolving throughout time, but these are just some of the things I've found helpful to getting started.
Culture is the lifeblood of a society, what keeps its heart beating, and what makes it interesting. In worldbuilding, it might as well be a blanket term for damn near everything, but can be whittled down into something more cohesive, when one distinguishes it from history (though history is of course extremely important for culture to develop). Despite what a lot of conworlds out there might show you, it's pretty easy to create an entirely unique culture, one that isn't simply grafted from history and crudely pasted into one's own universe. An interesting culture is one that is something all its own—interesting culture is something curiously unfamiliar.
It's important to understand the difference between culture
, national identity
, and ethnicity
before we go any further. Culture
can be defined as the beliefs, values, norms, and practices within a society. Ethnicity
, however, is a broader term more focused on one's racial or physical identity within a specific ethnic group—for instance, a beast race man can be born into and raised in a human society (and thus become culturally human), but would always ethnically identify as his beast race, because of his physical characteristics. Sometimes ethnicity ties into culture, sometimes it doesn't. National identity
is how a person identifies with the specific concept of their nation, but isn't necessarily the same as culture. For instance, someone can be culturally German in Alsace-Lorraine, but ultimately finds their national identity lying with France. In some cases, though, they could nationally identify with Germany; it depends upon the individual, or the history of those two countries in that region.
Okay, So Where Do I Start?
Most everyone I tell my answer to this question hates me for it, but it's always where I end up starting: language. As painful as it may be, language is the key to opening that door to unbridled cultural development. You may think it's something that doesn't have a very large impact, but it has a strangely elaborate effect on created cultures. J.R.R. Tolkien himself had spoken on the subject many times, and even real-life sociology supports this idea with several theories stating that language and ritual culture developed in tandem.
But why does language matter so much for culture? Mainly, for two reasons:
- Language is a way of assigning symbols to concepts. Words are, in effect, symbols that represent concepts that need to be communicated with one another. This basic symbolism leads to the creation of more complex symbolism, and thus cultural traditions like myth and religion. In essence, language is the all-father of symbology.
- It allows people to understand each other's needs, observations, and thoughts in a group situation. Without language, I could only internally communicate with myself, and I couldn't tell my friend about the wolf I saw while hiking, or that my house burned down several weeks ago. Language facilitates more complex group communication, which in turn makes the group's ideals more intricate, because multiple ideas from different worldviews can be contributed. Language, unlike some alarm calls in the animal kingdom, is also capable of something called displacement, which defines past, present, or future tense. With the ability to discuss the past and future, and not just the present, sentient races are able to create history and wonder about the future, fostering the groundwork for culture.
Now, language doesn't have to be fully developed. I have somewhere around 30-40 languages in my world, and you can bet your ass they're not fully developed—most of them are just vocabulary. But that's all you really need to start with, and when culture becomes more complex, you'll notice your language will too.
To start with creating a language, try translating a whole set of text (you could even use this one!) into a real-life language using a translator. Note the common vowel uses, syntax, and styling of the language. It may be difficult to see at first, but all languages have a consistency to them, almost a "theme" to their phonology. Use those common sounds, and try to make up some words that fit with that system. Once you've got a few, tweak them around until you've got words that sounds really good to you, and still maintain a similar sound and style to them. You've essentially created a lexicon, a sort of phonological and syntactical reference that you can create the basis of a language. In the end, talent in inventing languages all comes down to practice, and it gets much easier the more you do it.
Also, I should note that it is entirely possible to create a new language from scratch. If you have a solid lexicon for your language that you've already made up, you can certainly build one with that. All that you have to do is make up some words that could be spoken in the same sentence as the "prototype" words, and tweak them until you like how they sound! Language certainly gets more complex from there, but developing labels for things is the first step to any language's development.
Rituals, when applied culturally, are things that we do repeatedly due to tradition or necessity. Ritualistic behavior is one of the ways you can compare both real-world and fictional cultures, because in very basic standards, humans (or any sentient species) all practice the same basic rituals. Funerals, marriages, hunting, worshiping, sacrificing, playing music, and dancing are just some of many ritualistic practices that most human cultures share.
For instance, in parts of India, deceased people may be put to rest in the waters of the Ganges, the same water that is drank and bathed in by locals. This is done because the waters are considered holy. However, in western cultures like my own, that practice seems improper, dirty, or disrespectful. Either way, though, whether you're burying your dead in the ground, or letting them sink into holy waters, it's not the ritual of disposing of the dead in a respectful way that's different—It's the way we do them that makes them different.
Consider ritual's role in your culture, and you'll find that it forms a lot of basic behaviors. I encourage you to observe your own culture, and find out what is ritualistic about it. You may be surprised at what you find—even the smallest things can be ritualistic, like drinking coffee every morning, or mowing the lawn. These small details can make the immersion of a culture seem so much more real and personal.
Also, try to research other cultures and see some of their rituals. Try to find out the reasons why they do those things, and how. Taking inspiration from the real world is often the most authentic path to realism in culture.
Geography is perhaps one of the most important cultural influencers, because it determines how people adapt to their environment, and how or when they do or don't interact with the other cultures around them. Mountains can separate peoples entirely, or a rich agricultural plain could be a place of constant war between two cultures, because they are unsure where whose borders begin and end. Geography can shape a culture's food resources, their primary trade materials, their xenophobia or lack thereof, or even the clothing they wear. Having a good grasp on the geography from an area is essential to defining the culture that lives there.
However, one caveat is that, in general, cultures are not completely uniform across entire countries, often due to their unique geography in their local areas. You can create generalized culture, but it's hard to give it a lot of really good depth—for instance, France has a generalized culture, but in actuality contains many different, but similar cultures within it, such as Occitan, Basque, and Breton. The three are very different from each other, but share many similar traits. One of the reasons for their difference is their geographic distance from each other.
Geography can contribute to culture in hundreds of ways, but some of the basic questions to ask yourself in the beginning could be:
- Religion: Does the geography affect the faith of the culture inhabiting it? Do they worship the mountains, the trees, the oceans, or the animals within it? Or, perhaps, does their geography create a tradition of atheism?
- Resources: What kind of food is available? Fish, wild game, cows, sheep, wheat, barley, melons, berries? What about trade commodities? Does your culture have silks, dyes, gold, silver? Does it have any special animals or food resources that the rest of the world would want?
- Isolation: How isolated is the culture due to their geography? No influence from outside cultures goes a long way. Do they want to break out of their isolation, or do they prefer it? Have they been influenced or absorbed by other nearby cultures, or remained completely pristine?
- Human-Nature Harmony: Does the culture like their environment? Do they live harmoniously in it, or do they live to develop and destroy it? Or, do they rest somewhere in the middle? This ideal can be a central key to defining cultures.
I hope you all liked this little write-up on culture, a lot of folks have asked me about it, so I figured I'd give my two cents and where I usually start out when creating a culture. This will be part of a larger series on culture, if you guys are up for it, and I hope to see you again soon!
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Shaman by Odobenus
Sacred place by merl1ncz
Border Crossing by jordangrimmer