While this may seem like putting the cart before the horse, when world-building, writers need to consider what their world’s cultures will look and feel like. This is a step some writers never fully realize, making their worlds feel like cardboard or a carbon copy of another world, built by another writer: Let’s face it, there are tons of Middle-Earths running around out there. Culture is important to have in your world, to have it feel-able as it were, especially since culture will shape who your characters are and their viewpoints.
So what is culture? Surprisingly, the answer can be different depending on who you ask. Dictionary.com describes culture as: “the quality in a person or society that arises from concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.; the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” An anthropologist would state culture is the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.
Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor described culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
When setting up their worlds, writers need to consider what the cultures within it hold dear — what they value. What arts have they perfected? What laws do they uphold? What morals are passed down to their children? What customs are performed and how did they get started? How have these aspects of culture morphed over the years to the current practices? Who or what group is leading culture? Are there subcultures within the main culture? Who are the great philosophers of your cultures and what philosophies do they teach? The questions are endless.
Before tackling these questions and others, I highly advise writers to look at the culture they inhabit and then branch out by researching other cultures. Through this research, writers will be able to see that continents, regions, countries, states, cities, towns, etc., will each have their own culture, some will even have more than one culture in them. There is nothing quite as rewarding as researching how culture has progressed, especially since it provides a lot of inspiration, different combinations to reflect different societies in your world, and mannerisms for characters.
Once a writer has a firm handle on the cultures that inhabit their world, they need to consider how these cultures will affect who their characters are; after all, people are often products of the culture they originate from. Yes, there will be rebels, there always will be, but the odds of all your characters being rebels are slim, unless they are all part of a subculture. Characters may very well have viewpoints and beliefs that are frowned upon nowadays due to the culture they have been raised in, but that is fine, since it is believable.
Beyond having characters that feel has if they have been raised in the culture, it is important for the writer to not make one culture holier-than-thou or exceedingly better than others in exposition. It is alright for characters to view their way of life as being better, but the narrative should remain neutral. If the point-of-view is first person or close-third, the narrative can be slightly slanted but the author should still provide hints that the other culture is not as bad as their biased narrative characters thinks it to be.
Each culture has their high points and their low points; it is important to not forget this — just like it is important to not transplant characters that stick out like sore thumbs in the setting where they have supposedly been reared or lived the entirety of their life.
[Writer’s Note: No doubt in the future, I will explore more in-depth some of the aspects that go into cultures. I know I plan to write an article on leisure activities in the near future.]