Worldbuilding-- How to develop the culture of your novel

Jan 24, 2012

Because I write mostly science fiction, building up the worlds in my stories is a huge part of the planning and writing. But even if you write contemporary fiction, your book is set in some kind of world-- a high school, a certain city, a flavorful region of the world.

There are lots of components to building that setting and world, and I've been thinking a lot lately about culture.  Culture is basically the shared knowledge, values, and practices of a group of people, and it is a HUGE part of any fictional world (or at least it should be, in my opinion).

I didn't really understand how different culture could be until I traveled to Ghana for the first time. Before I went, I was all, "Culture shock? Ha. I can handle anything."

Then I got there and freaked out a little.

At first, I thought the culture shock came from having to bathe from a bucket in cold water, and cramming with six people I didn't know in the back seat of a taxi, and being asked why I didn't eat the chicken bones (they suck the marrow out). Then I realized that the biggest problem with culture shock is that I couldn't forgive Ghana and its culture for not being MY culture. I didn't understand the values behind the behavior, so I couldn't accept it. Once I was able to learn from the people around me, and to look at behavior or customs and say, "this is the way it is because of this reason," I was able to love it.

So today I wanted to talk about how you can look outside your own culture to create a new culture for your stories by using that basic principle. (If you're really interested in learning more, this is where I pulled a lot of information from.)


Building a culture in your story is as simple as this diagram. Ha! Okay, if only it were that simple. But once you understand and can identify these different things in your fictional world, voila! You've got the beginnings of your very own new culture. And it centers around, as I mentioned, values.

A value is anything a group of people considers important-- objects, conditions, thoughts, characteristics, etc. What do they identify as "good" and "bad"? Maybe they're a warrior culture and value the ability to be cunning and ruthless, or a culture of dispossessed jesters that value wit and sarcasm. Whatever values work for your story, your culture can value them-- or even NOT value them, if that's the point you want to make.

Rituals, in the next circle, are actions performed that have some kind of symbolic value as dictated by tradition. Maybe your high school crowd has a hazing ceremony for kids coming into a certain club. Maybe there's a certain greeting people exchange, like the hand-shake-while-snapping-fingers-together that I learned in Ghana. It could be birth and funeral customs. In The Hunger Games, the Games themselves are a ritual. Even if you never fully show them in your story, they're an important part of culture to develop.

Heroes-- well, that's easy. It's people (alive or dead) who are role models. They represent those values your culture prizes. They could be Oprah or Michael Jordan or Alastor Moody. Maybe some parts of your culture-- a certain class, maybe-- values one person, while another class holds up someone else as a hero.

Symbols are what we think of most often when we think of culture. It's dancing, or slang words, or objects, dress, food, hairstyles, or even events that define the culture and are significant to them. It's the dish fufu that is the national pride in Ghana that they insist every foreigner has to try, and the light sabers of the Jedi in Star Wars. It can even be national holidays that commemorate events (though this often ties into rituals as well).

These three things-- rituals, heroes, and symbols-- make up the practices of a culture. They are almost always tied to your culture's values. There are a lot of ways these things can show up in a culture: in gender roles, politics, and communication. They can vary in the same culture between social classes or generation gaps.

In other words, it can get really complicated.

Which, honestly, I like. Not every book needs a complicated culture; in some books, it might get in the way. But even if it only comes out through your characters, culture can strengthen a story. How does the main character feel about her world, in contrast to how other characters feel about it? How was your character shaped by the culture? Even if you can develop just enough culture that you can use it to strengthen your characters, you'll strengthen the whole world.

So, my friends, have you developed a strong culture for the world in your book? How do you approach worldbuilding? What books do you think did a particularly fantastic job of developing the world and culture?

30 comments:

Rachna Chhabria said...

Love this post, Shallee. It will help me a lot as I am planning a few books on a small tribe who have the ability to do magic(I have to create rituals, symbols and give them an unique culture).

Ruth Josse said...

This is timely for me since I'm gearing up to write a new story. Sci-Fi/Dystopian. Hello, worldbuilding! Thanks for reminding me about the importance of knowing the ins and outs of my worlds, even though I may not use all the information.

Whenever I think about great world building, The Hunger Games pops into my head.

Janet Johnson said...

What a great post! Like you said, culture is important in any work, even contemporary. And a story is always richer when you can let the culture eke from your character.

Laura Josephsen said...

Oh, this is a fantastic post. These are great, great things to consider in building culture.

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

I know exactly what you mean; in historical fiction especially, it's important to understand how different cultures can be. The characters don't just live differently; they have deeply held values we might not understand. We have to know what's important to them and why they think the way they do. If we apply our own culture to hist fic novels, we end up with modern characters in fancy dresses.

Jenny S. Morris said...

As always, awesome post! Families can be little cultures as well. I know the Morris' have their own traditions and behaviors that took me a while to get to know AND they value humor over almost everything else. That's what I tried to do with my characters is show that family culture since they are teens in the U.S.

Angela Cothran said...

I have a different culture in my MS. And after looking at your chart...YAY! I did it right :) Thanks for the info.

Misha Gericke said...

I'm going to bookmark this post as a reminder. :-)

Although I don't really approach my world building from this direction, it's good to know that I didn't miss anything.

I basically wrote the world of Doorways assuming that everything existed and I had to discover the cultures. So I even got culture shock in my own mind. :-D

shelly said...

I try really hard to stick with worlds I know. Most times I bring in things to the known world and spice it with the other-worldly.

Jolene Perry said...

I write a lot of contemp, and there is def some world building...
I'm putting finishing touches on a sci-fi, and there was a lot to keep track of. And two cultures to write... I don't know how people do that w

Jolene Perry said...

With every book they write.

My two-part comment was thanks to my 5 year old.

J. A. Bennett said...

I think I might need to bookmark this, really valuable information!

David P. King said...

One of the best ways I've found to build a (fictional) culture is to think way outside of your own, or present your cultural perspectives in a different point of view. I consider myself a good guy. Can people look at my culture, and me as a nice person, and come up with ways to make me look evil? Absolutely!

It works in politics, after all. :)

Faith E. Hough said...

This is so great and insightful. I mostly write historical fiction nowadays, so culture is easy--all I have to do (ha) is read about it, immerse myself in it and try to understand it. Creating one from scratch is so much harder, and I applaud everyone who does so succesfully!

Krispy said...

Great, useful post! Totally bookmarking! :)

My favorite recent read, The Scorpio Races, had great world-building and I think it's because it touched on a lot of these aspects. It made not only the story feel real but the place too.

Shelley Sly said...

You make some great points! The MS I'm primarily focusing on takes place at a fictional summer camp, so I had to world-build to make that setting believable.

Leigh Covington said...

Once again you rock the blogging world girl! I always learn so much here. I know it helps me be a better writer. Thanks for being willing to share your knowledge with us. I love it!

Lynda R Young said...

This is a truly great piece on world-building. Working out the 'whys' is exactly how I approach world-building. I'm currently in the thick of a new world at the moment and it's so complex, but I'm loving it.

Caitlin said...

Love, love, love this post! I feel like you always have some of the best tips. Bookmarking this post, thanks!

Meredith said...

This is such amazing advice! Like everyone else, I'm bookmarking it. Thanks so much, Shallee!

cherie said...

Excellent post, Shallee! I have an MG Fantasy so I'm a bit familiar with worldbuilding, but I haven't thought of culture building. In some stories, the settings and plot will dictate the culture of the society, but I like the thought of building your own culture to suit your world, instead of the other way around. Thanks for the helpful tips!

Caitlin said...

Just dropping back by to let you know that I gave you an award over at my blog!

Wendy Swore said...

I'm saving this post for future reference. Very informative! I never thought of the why behind the actions quite like that before. Thanks!

Nicole Zoltack said...

Love this post! It's so important with sci fi and fantasy to create whole other worlds that are uniquely their own - with customs and religion and value that might be very different from our own. It can be a lot of fun to create, but it's a lot of work too.

2Peeeps Health and Fitness said...
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Angie said...

Awesome post! I love culture. Sometimes I think I should have studied anthropology instead of English. That's a great description. I suppose I've cheated a little, because I mostly used my own culture, which is somewhat unfamiliar to many.

Dreadnaught said...

Followed.

Ill share this with some of my friends who are trying to get a book together. Good info here :)

Christy said...

I love this simple diagram that explains such a complicated process. Rituals, heroes and symbols. Thanks!

BragonDorn said...

Sounds like something I should get on top of.

Ghost Walker said...

My god I cannot thank you enough for this post! Currently working on my first novel and I know that culture is huge. Thank you!

 
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