Worldbuilding: Culture

Writing advice: “Write what you know.”
Me: “But what I know is boring!”

It’s one of many reasons why I tend more toward the speculative in my reading and writing. But even speculative fiction requires some grounding in reality, and I only have one short life’s worth of very limited experience. I know the people around me, how they live, what they look like, what they value. I can write about those lives, and there’s no reason not to. But I’m building a world here. If I fill it only with what I know, I will very quickly lose interest, and so would readers like me, because there’s so much more to the world than the little piece of it that I know.

So I strive to know more.

A recurring theme in our worldbuilding talks has been the need to look beyond lived experience, broaden your worldview, so that the world you build isn’t just the view from your character’s front door but a full-bodied, grounded landscape with the weight of a whole world turning under it. Difficult enough when you’re just building a planet—how much of it looks like what you already know, how much research is required to put together a believable seaside town or desert city if you’ve spent most of your life in the woods, what do other skies look like—but when you start to put together a group of people, the research is more involved, and getting it right is more important.

We tend to default to what we know, but there are as many ways to live in the world as there are people in it. Look at the world beyond your corner of it. What’s different? What’s new to you? How do other societies than yours organize themselves? How do other people eat, speak, work, make art, worship, travel, love? How do they build families, homes, cities, governments? Ask these questions of the world today, and then go back in time and ask them again.

Ask them in both broad and narrow contexts. When people come together—as a nation, as a religion, as an organization with a common goal, even as a family—the people who make up that group end up defining the set of normals and ideals for the whole. When a character leaves one group to enter another—whether by immigrating to a new country, or traveling to a new planet; by taking part in a colleague’s religious service; by marrying into a family; even by visiting a friend’s family for the holidays—they’ll likely experience some degree of culture shock as they’re confronted with new normals.

Maybe the shock presents itself as a deep, profound difference in values between the community the character comes from and the one they’re stepping into: how they care for the sick and the needy, how they settle disputes, how they educate the young. Maybe it’s the smaller things that upset a person: differences in body language, accepted public displays of affection, how conversations are conducted around the dinner table, whether folks wear shoes inside the house. If you find yourself reacting to any of these things, point made: even the small things are not small. A character may be horrified or charmed, may feel a need to change things in the new setting to suit their idea of normal or want to take the new ideas home with them to apply in their own community. How a character adapts to these changes—or doesn’t—can be key to developing a story’s conflict, and now we’re talking about character and tension in a worldbuilding post, because all of these things intertwine.

We’ve talked about how traveling even a little ways outside of your community can broaden your perspective of what a world can look like. But what if you want to look farther? Travel is expensive, so use the internet. Use your library. Read nonfiction: history, anthropology, archaeology, sociology. Read whatever you can get your hands on. You never know what random little fact will end up feeding your writing. And, who knows—maybe getting to know the whole world will give you a better appreciation for what’s unique to your corner of it, enable you to write about your own backyard with the same fascination you may hold for someone else’s.

The more you know, the richer your worlds—real and imagined—become.

This comes, of course, with some essential caveats. How does one draw inspiration from cultures not one’s own so as to represent a fuller, more diverse world without doing more harm by appropriating, othering, fetishizing, rather than erasing? That’s where the research comes in. If you’re basing a character or a civilization on identities not your own, know your sources. Find out how they’ve been used and/or abused in the past, so as to avoid perpetuating those abuses in your own work. The internet has a lot to answer for, but it’s opened up the world to us, made it harder to fall back on standards and stereotypes and cry ignorance. It’s all there, all knowable, all worth writing, and worth getting right.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. I’d encourage you to read some better and smarter writers on the subject:

Let Me Tell You by Cecilia Tan

The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building by Kate Elliott


4 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Culture

  1. I loved this! It is very difficult to see that your life is probably very new and exotic to someone who doesn’t live it everyday lol You forget that you have a culture too. I agree with reading and traveling broadly to improve your writing and world building skills. It’s always worth knowing alittle more and growing alittle bigger with ideas the just work alittle better.
    I also really enjoyed the section about how people organized themselves. We as humans have created so many ways to relate to one another and to govern ourselves. It would be interesting to see what our lives would be like if we chose different paths. Great Post!


    1. Thanks! And “exotic” is the perfect word because that’s exactly the sort of problem writers tend to come up against when writing about or drawing inspiration from a culture they don’t hail from. If we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see that our default is not *the* default, we can hopefully avoid the risk of othering and exoticizing real people in our writing.


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