Book Blog Archives - The Art of World Building
Jul 022020
Birthday Observances

Many celebrate a birthday on the day they were born, but all birthdays in a given month could be officially the same day in an authoritarian regime that restricts and standardizes such events. An important religious day could affect this, especially if the god is believed to have come into existence that day; everyone is sharing a birthday with a god. We can make up other scenarios.

If we do this, people could have two birthdays: the actual day and the universal one. The former might be privately and quietly celebrated by family and friends; if the universal birthday is state sponsored, other celebrations may frowned upon. We can even use this to get our characters in trouble for celebrating their actual birthday.

There are other religious holidays that might be observed across multiple cultures, but only if that religion is prominent in all of them (think of major religions on Earth for inspiration). In a later chapter, we will look at creating religions and these events, but for each, we should decide how these impact culture. The simplest variant is that people take the day off from work to observe the holiday; a formal government, likely in SF, might sanction this so that people are paid that day. In a fantasy setting, this is less likely, as the concept of paid holidays might not exist.


Most of us look forward to holidays because we’re paid and get a day off, especially a three-day weekend. This is something that’ll be on the mind of characters in similar situations. Others may know that a day is coming up and expectations need to be met for prayer or family gatherings. Even characters who are off adventuring will be aware that they’re missing a holiday and loved ones might be wondering what happened to them. An exception would be when they’re so busy running for their lives that they not only forget about holidays but what day of the week it is. Still, can you remember the last time a character thought about a holiday in a story? Authors tend to ignore this altogether.

Some holidays are reserved for civil rights leaders who impacted culture, a political figure like a first president, the military (especially in a military junta), or even wizards if wizardry is commonly accepted. Major wars, disasters, or first contact with an alien species (that become allies) are potential holidays. More events were discussed in Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2).

There may be several holidays, or even a season of them, that strongly impact the culture, like Thanksgiving in November through New Year’s Day in the United States. Retail has turned this into a major shopping opportunity, but themed movies and decorations abound, too. Such a scenario is arguably more likely in a modern or futuristic world than in fantasy, but we can still have sales of smaller magnitude at festivals. Some cities might be known for better festivals, causing widespread travel to reach them.

Some countries may refuse to acknowledge a holiday or ceremony for ideological reasons. An authoritarian regime is unlikely to appreciate people celebrating a holiday from a democratic country even on their own time, particularly if that holiday celebrates a political figure who pushed for greater rights. Conversely, those in a democracy are unlikely to appreciate someone celebrating a holiday from a regime that promotes civil rights violations, even if the celebration is tolerated due to something like freedom of speech laws.


Ceremonies are often religious in nature and we can leverage a religion we’ve created to invent them. Some ceremonies dominate a culture for weeks, such as Ramadan in Islam, but only if that faith is widespread or even state sponsored. People may plan in advance if a pilgrimage is needed, meaning this impacts them before and even after the ceremonial period.

If people have left this culture for another land where the ceremony isn’t acknowledged, they may return home for it, possibly meeting resistance to the idea. Their parents might have originated there and instilled the faith in them, though they’ve never returned; it’s still on their minds even if their current homeland ignores the ceremony/holiday. Imagine needing to take a day of vacation for Christmas day because your country doesn’t acknowledge it. Adding a small detail like this to a character’s thoughts can make our world look more believable.

When inventing ceremonies, decide how widespread they are and if everyone is aware of one due to unusual prevalence. Some of us might’ve heard of one but know nothing about it if it’s less practiced. The details of a ceremony only matter if we’re going to show it, and in this case, we don’t have to explain each moment. If we say anything, it’s often best revealed quickly as a character’s thoughts. Have them think about what each step means, such as consuming a liquid that represents a god’s blood, or food that equates to their benevolence, or kneeling to show deference and humility.


Festivals can be based on holidays, ceremonies, or the reasons those exist, but they can also be seasonal, such as a harvest festival, a spring one, or a solstice. These need fewer explanation. Festivals are easier to create in the sense of justification, but if we have little reason for inventing one, the details of what take place can be harder to imagine. Fortunately, we can leverage Earth festivals for ideas.

Sporting contests are common, whether these are light-hearted (such as bobbing for apples) or potentially deadly, like a joust. Races are particularly rousing if our characters gain something important by winning. Food and entertainment, whether plays, singing, or other contests are bound to occur. If we’re out of ideas, we can also visit a Renaissance Festival for inspiration. For those writing SF, just replace everything with modern equivalents. A race would be in space craft. Fighting against holograms might replace jousting. Games may employ technology.

Jun 292020

How people spend their free time is a cultural element we can develop. If they are out adventuring and saving the world, they may lament not enjoying their usual pastimes, or find ways to inject them into their adventuring life. Using the United States as an example, men stereotypically watch a lot of sports on TV and may attend sporting events in person. Women shop, talk about their feelings, and gossip (or so men believe). Those with dogs must walk them or take them to the park. Both might take fitness classes or enjoy exercise like swimming, jogging, or biking, to name a few. Some people enjoy cooking while others enjoy eating out and can’t cook a thing. There are countless activities like fishing, off-roading, or travel.

We don’t necessarily need to invent pastimes for our world. Many of those just listed are universal, as are countless others. However, we can put a new spin on them. If we have a pet dragon, that presumably comes with different responsibilities than a dog. Decide what they are; this can be used on multiple worlds, with some minor variations. If hunting is a pastime and we’ve invented new animals, we can decide how challenging each animal is and what trophy typically results. New plants and animals may impact cooking (such as very long times at a low simmer to make something edible), but this is the sort of thing we can invent on the fly. Any plants, animals, magic, or technology that are involved in a pastime gives us leeway to decide how it influences that hobby.

It’s recommended to create a handful of activities for a novel-length work, less for something shorter, more for a longer work. With a novel, one or two can be shown during a scene, such as characters hunting or playing a game of cards or dice during an important conversation. The others can be mentioned in passing; a character can lament not doing one or mock another for their hobby. Two people can look forward to doing something upon arrival at a destination known for that pastime (or not). A character can be made to feel like they don’t measure up because they spend too much time on a hobby. These briefly mentioned ideas don’t need long explanations about rules or anything else. Consider this example:

Kier remarked, “I can hardly wait to reach Illiandor and play valends with someone who doesn’t lose within minutes.” He smirked at those around him.

His companions rolled their eyes and one replied, “If you spent half as much time on swordplay as on card games, we wouldn’t have to save you every other encounter.”

“Right.” Antar flashed a grin.  “Maybe next time we’ll just let you be killed and take back your winnings that way.”

The captain strode in. “No time for gambling ashore boys. We’ve a hanging to stop!”

What may take longer is the invention of games or sports, if the details are to be shown. Smart world builders will take existing games and modify or combine them. This is easier when the existing Earth game features an animal and we’re substituting one we’ve invented. It’s differing abilities might mean new rules, especially if it has abilities that create unique advantages; we only need to decide what those are and place restrictions on whether they can be used at all, under what conditions, or how frequently. Most Earth sports involving animals feature horses, elephants, or camels, as these are the few ridable options. Some games involve animals fighting each other, but there are likely few rules in such a case because animals, by their nature, are not going to understand or obey them, unless our invented ones are smarter.

Our invented species may also have attributes that are forbidden or restricted in use. Perhaps a team can only have one elf, for example, due to their skills. Maybe dwarves aren’t allowed at all because they can’t compete due to height. We can just decide how the game is played (by humans) and consider the pros and cons of others and what problems their attributes cause; these problems will result in rules to deal with them. All of this applies more to sports than something like card games, as physical attributes greatly impact the former but mental ones the latter.

Jun 252020

Transportation may not seem like a cultural element, but it is. Some cities, like Los Angeles, are known for their cars, while another might be known for motorcycles. Venice is known for gondola boats. Cities are known for pedestrians, bicyclists, and traffic jams, not to mention extremely limited parking. Residents and visitors take this into account; sometimes, they plan their lives around it. A science-fiction setting might similarly be known for certain types of craft.

There are subcultures that trick out of their cars with all sorts of aftermarket accessories. The same can be done for motorcycles or spaceships if those are personally owned. With a little imagination, perhaps we can do the same with wagons, horses, or even dragons and the gear we use to ride them.

The existence and state of public transportation can also have cultural impacts such as whether a settlement is known for people having to walk everywhere because public transportation doesn’t exist. Or maybe it’s free, or really expensive, either extreme impacting the willingness to travel. Crime with public and even private transportation (think of unlicensed taxis or services like Uber) is also on everyone’s mind. What kind of security is typical in the culture we’re inventing? It depends partly on the wealth available for police and infrastructure to deal with criminals.

Long distance travel is another concern. In SF, this is almost a given, but in fantasy settings, many people can’t do long-distance travel. Here, the horse or wagon are the typical methods of getting around, but they’re not the fastest or most comfortable way of doing so and necessitate either camping or staying in an inn. Both offer dangers depending on how safe the landscape is. In our modern world, we tend to assume that we can go on a hike without being mauled by an animal or killed (depending on where we live), but this isn’t true in a fantasy setting. Traveling over land poses risks, which come from other humans, species, monsters, animals, and possibly even plants, whether those are predatory or just poisonous.

If only a few people do have personal experience with distant cities or lands, those people might be admired. This can also cause people to lie about it. Significant ignorance or simply false information about faraway places could be prevalent in society. This can mean that word-of-mouth and rumor predominate. It can also mean that those who officially travel in some capacity, whether sanctioned by the government or knights errant, are looked to for news of the outside world. This, in turn, could lead to “street criers” hanging out near the city gates, collecting information from incoming travelers, and then going to the town square to disseminate that at specific times, like morning or evening, when people are drawing water from a central well.

In volume two, we covered calculating travel distances and times, but here we’re looking at the impact on culture. In a fantasy setting, many roads and paths are dirt—mud when it rains—more so in a village, less so in a town or city. The likelihood of muddy feet can impact footwear, dress hems, and pants cuffs in an entire region if rain is common; details of where steady rain is likely is part of Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2). This, in turn, can impact culture, such as people staying indoors during the rainy season. Perhaps going barefoot becomes common and it is part of culture to wash one’s feet on arrival inside somewhere, and locations are expected to provide the opportunity. The same could be done in dry climates, but now it’s the removal of dust that is a concern.

Is it customary to have somewhere to stable a horse for visitors? What about a parking space for vehicles? Do people double park and is that expected or an irritation? Imagine what sorts of issues might arise with SF vehicles that can hover or outright fly. Then decide what is considered customary and courteous; the ways people react to violations are likely similar to road rage here on Earth.

Jun 222020

Unless independently wealthy or living with their family, most people need a job. On a cultural level, what we’re looking for is a typical number of hours worked in a day and how many days per week. A related question is whether positions pay enough or whether people need additional employment, or to combine income with a spouse, extended family, or friends who share living expenses. Working out this detail for every position would be very time-consuming without much payoff for us or audiences, so focus on what’s most common. Do most people at a given class level need to work two jobs or is that uncommon? If it’s very common, it can become part of a culture and is therefore expected.

The 40-hour work week is a decent average for humans, who work more in some industries. But consistently going beyond an 8-hour day, 5 days a week leads to worker burn out (and to make our world different, we should alter this). If we need many characters with lives that are miserable in our setting, exceeding this is one way to achieve it. Laws sometimes forbid such a thing, which can lead to secondary jobs, though perhaps there are laws against that as well. But the state often mandates minimum pay rates, though such a thing is more likely in SF than fantasy due to increased government. Some companies allow variations, such as 4 10-hour workdays a week, so perhaps this is common in our fictional world. Maybe people must work almost every day but only 4-6 hours. Do they have long days mixed with short ones, with a name for each type?

Another employment issue is how early or late people tend to work in a day. Perhaps early rising is standard, or working into nightfall (or both). Taking a break during the afternoon, such as for an extended lunch break of hours, might be common in the culture. This is called a siesta and results from a combination of a big, heavy meal at lunchtime and excessive heat, both of which can lead to drowsiness. Consider adding this to any culture near the equator or other hot areas; that culture can spread to other regions that don’t have the heat. Many businesses will close for 1-2 hours during this period, a fact that characters will take into account when they need supplies. A siesta also lets people stay up later, extending social life. Is a siesta so common that sleeping chambers are part of the office environment? Imagine the privacy and security concerns subsequently raised and steps to mitigate them. These sleeping rooms might be coed or not; imagination the combination of coed and nudity.

Are children allowed to be brought to work? Can a woman breastfeed at work at all, and is this openly or is a room set aside? Are daycare facilities available in this society and do they provide adequate care? Maybe it’s so expensive that some mothers or fathers don’t work and stay home to raise children while the other spouse works.

On that note, are women in the workforce? Are men? What about children, and at what age? Is any gender or age group discriminated against, given better pay and benefits, or denied certain types of employment? Is there cultural shift underway or is the status quo rigidly maintained? When rights are restricted in a supposedly free society, there’s often a “two steps forward, one step back” shift toward more freedom, due to resistance. Decide if such a movement is needed in the setting and how it might impact the story. We don’t need incredible details on this unless it’s a major story element, but a decision about employment opportunities will certainly impact the outlook of all genders. For example, a woman who can’t get a decent job might take to adventuring (or piracy) if she’s got the skills and personality for it.

We can consider many aspects of employment, such as whether people get vacations or holidays at all, health and other insurance benefits, pay raises, and what type of abuses must be endured from management, coworkers, or the public. We can model a SF world similar to but more advanced than an Earth society, but fantasy might require reimaging employment; on the plus side, with less formal organization (i.e., companies), there are fewer policies, for example, to decide upon. That someone has a great or crap job, in their opinion, can sometimes be enough, and all we may need is their comparison to a better or worse life that someone else has, with a few details that amount to discrepancies between what is and what could be.

Jun 182020

A culture can be known for varying degrees of sleep, which the species/race makeup of that society can impact. A race that needs little sleep might have an active nightlife. One that needs a lot might have afternoon naps as commonplace. If that race dominates the culture, the impact will be felt. If it does not, then other races may judge them for how much or little rest they need.

In many Earth cultures, it’s standard for a couple (especially if married) to sleep in the same bed, but that’s a custom. It isn’t necessary. Consider keeping this in a society with low temperatures much of the year; in Game of Thrones, some women are referred to as “bed warmers.” This is unlikely in a hot climate and people may prefer their own beds, which don’t need to be in the same room, either. Imagine a race where the males always snore; the females may be used to it, or they may insist on different rooms.

Some other questions to ask are:

  1. Do children sleep with their parents, either in the same bed or room?
  2. What age is this frowned upon, if ever?
  3. Is the culture aware of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and preventing it?
  4. Do babies have traditional items slept with, like a teddy bear? We can mock an adult character who retains such an item or simply has one around for some reason, such as intending to give it to a niece.
  5. Do people sleep with a light on or total darkness? Perhaps a scented candle is traditionally lit on some occasion. If the environment is typically bright or daytime naps occur, maybe masks are worn just then or all the time.
  6. Do window coverings exist because of this and allow for easy manipulation?
  7. Do people sleep nude, in undergarments, or specific bed clothes? Naturally, regional air temperatures influence this.

The shape of beds is assumed to be rectangular due to our bodies being longer than wide while lying down, so no one will question this. But we can imagine that a bed for two does not anticipate them lying side-by-side. How about feet-to-feet, or head-to-head, in a very long bed? Circular beds are an option, as are those inspired by a culturally significant symbol, such as a heart for a honeymoon suite. There are also bunk beds, water beds, air beds, pods, ones that can be retracted into a wall, those on the floor (without legs), or even suspended ones, like a hammock. Something is likely to dominate. Decide what it is, what’s traditional, and what’s the latest craze. Don’t forget to mention those useless, decorative pillows, should they exist.

Jun 152020

In a modest society, bathing is in private, but some cultures have people bathing together, whether coed or not. We typically mean using soap, but a Korean Bathhouse has people soaking in a variety of pools of varying water temperate, even saunas. These can also be coed or not. A culture clash on modesty is easily done for this, with value judgments being made.

How often do people bathe on average? This often reflects a society’s understanding of hygiene, with SF worlds tending toward better education. Our fantasy characters may get one bath a week, taking any reasonable chance to swim in the interim. And a bath it likely is, not a shower, due to technology. Rarity may promote the use of perfumes as deodorants, with higher society possibly overdoing it, though they likely have more frequent bathing, a fact that easily distinguishes them from commoners; better kept clothing does the same.

Parents bathe children, but at what age does this stop? When do kids go it alone? If self-reliance is important, this may be earlier. If a child is rare (due to something like overpopulation that means a couple only gets to have one), then perhaps the parents fawn over a child and bathe him until he’s older. Does one parent or both assume responsibility for this? A child may also join either parent in a bath, meaning the parent is bathing, too. We might also see a family bathe together, all genders. If hot bath water is a luxury, decide who enjoys it first and last. We can use this when a character who got it last as a child, for example, gets the rare chance to go first as an adult and thinks about this during the scene, thinking back to childhood. Even without the luxury of warm water, who gets to go first when bath water in a tub must be shared?

At what time of day do people bathe, morning or night? It’s seldom midday but could be, particularly in a culture with a midday siesta due to heat. Those who are apt to get dirty during the day will likely pick night to avoid getting their bed dirtier than necessary, so this may apply to blue collar workers more than princes, for example.

Jun 112020

Cultures always have their own foods. For inspiration, we can easily leverage Earth analogues. What do we think of with Chinese, Indian, and Italian foods to name a few? Even a city like New Orleans has associated dishes. There’s New York style pizza and Philadelphia cheesesteaks. France and Champagne, Germans and beer, the U.S. south and moonshine. We only need to decide that something is particularly delicious somewhere or that they invented it. A drink or food can be notorious for its effect, taste, or smell.

But individual foods do not a culture make. Rather, there’s a taste, aroma, and consistency often associated with a culture. This could be red or white sauce. It can be pasta or rice (Italy vs. Asia) with seemingly everything. What is often unique is the sauce and spice combination. Are foods bland, spicy (mild to hot), rich, creamy, tart, tangy, etc.? We could go on, but food is one area where the values we decided on earlier are of limited use in deciding what a culture’s food tastes like. We can instead simply assign a style, though authors sometimes like to say something like, “Their food was as spicy as their lovemaking.” This can help us decide.

Its presentation, however, is another matter, as culture influences this. Japanese culture is often refined in appearance, manners – and how food looks on a plate. There’s a design aesthetic. Another culture might heap everything onto a plate, or pile meats and veggies atop a bed of rice. Granted, every approach can exist in the same culture, but we have the option of creating expectations. The dining style likely accompanies the presentation. How stately do chopsticks look, and the little white bowls of rice, soup, or tea?

When inventing foods in world building, it’s often the impression we want, as the audience will never get to eat them. We want to comment on the reaction to be served, not to mention consuming, anything. Why reaction? In the United States, fish is served without a head, but in other countries it will still be attached, a fact that bothers many American diners, to cite one example. There are also body parts some cultures eat and others won’t, like pigs’ feet. The existence of rice, noodles, various meat types, and vegetables will not change much on even imagined worlds, even if the details do or we create analogues, so we should spend more time on impressions and reactions.

Specific foods are often consumed at traditional times, such as turkey at Thanksgiving in the United States, or ham for Christmas and eggs for Easter. Believe it or not, KFC is a traditional Christmas food in Japan since the 1970s. We likely need a few of these items if a holiday is occurring amidst our story; we can take common foods and simply decide they’re had that day, possibly prepared or served a certain way.

Crops are harvested at different times of the year. This can result in seasonal foods that are also part of culture. Absent refrigeration or being stored somewhere cool, most fruits and vegetables only last a day or two without quality loss, but they can still be eaten days later, though there is risk of bacteria having grown on them, depending on the item. There’s a lot of variation to this, but some plants can still be associated with a whole season because not every apple tree, for example, needs to be harvested at the same time, and in our fictional world, with invented variations on plants, we have leeway for our decisions. In Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1), we covered creating plants like Earth ones, with minor changes. We can learn when a food is harvested and mimic this with ours.

Jun 082020

There’s an etiquette to dining, which means there are values that lead to expectations. Does this culture value savagery and baseness (like lust and gluttony) or rising above animalistic instincts to one degree or another? This leads to a general level of hearty gusto, decorum and refinement, or something in between. It impacts everything from how people are called to a meal, how it’s presented and consumed, and what happens when it’s over. To keep things simple, we can decide that there are three defaults: hearty, refined, or moderate. Subtle variations on them become what we tweak for each culture we invent.

To be stereotypical, the hearty choice might best suit barbarians, nomadic peoples, and those whose civilization is in its early stages. Meals might be had at any time, while standing around or right after an animal is killed. No one washes up beforehand and they show up smelling however they smell, wearing whatever’s already on them, likely dirty. Perhaps there’s no table or silverware, and if people gather at all, they stand or sit on the ground or maybe a pelt. To call others to a meal, they might simply holler once and leave it at that; if you don’t show up, that’s your problem. Or they expect you to notice and come over. Food is eaten with hands. Dirty fingers and mouths are wiped on sleeves, if anything. Belching might be common, and loud songs, stories, and ale flow. Anyone who needs to step away just goes, possibly losing their spot if they’ve even got one. To relieve themselves, maybe people don’t go far, doing it in sight. Those who want more of something just take it. Perhaps they eat too much, don’t share, and if there’s no such thing as leaving some for someone else. When it’s all done, no one cleans up other than to lick something clean or throw a bone elsewhere, like to dogs, who might be allowed to help themselves during the meal. This is a social event but mostly about eating.

Contrast all of this with the refined approach, again going for an extreme. Meals are likely had at a specific time that, if subtly changing from day to day, is still told to people in advance, usually politely; a guest might be asked to spread the word to others, and the meal doesn’t start until everyone is seated and perhaps a prayer is spoken; there’s no nibbling allowed before this. Hosts might also provide choices, such as stating that steak is the main dish and asking if corn or peas is preferred by the guest. The food is presented well, like a piece of art, with sauce dribbled over it and a sprig of parsley to one side. Everyone washes their hands beforehand and wears relatively clean clothes and is washed enough to prevent poor scents and appearance. Ornate silverware, china, and crystal goblets may adorn a beautiful table with napkins and possibly an elegant tablecloth, candles or soft lights bathing everyone. Food is not only eaten with utensils, but multiple forks, for example, are designed for use on specific dishes. Whether servants are present or not, food and drink are politely passed and/or served for dedicated bowls/trays and utensils no one’s eating with. Even an unheard belch results in someone saying “excuse me,” and permission is asked to leave a table for any reason, including the bathroom. Those who want more ask for it or go without if eating too much is considered gluttony, or perhaps they wait to be offered (and must accept?). No one ever takes the last of anything. When it’s done, everyone concludes at the same time and departs together, helping (or letting servants) clean up and restoring order, pushing chairs back in, wiping mouths a final time and cleaning the hands, too. This is a social event where eating is almost secondary.

In between these extremes are what we’d typically see and experience today in modern cultures. This means a roughly expected mealtime, casually announced. People are expected to wash up but often don’t, and only blatantly dirty clothes get a reaction. There’s one fork and knife per person; you get anything else you want/need yourself and come back. People serve themselves from plain dishes with either a serving spoon or something of theirs that hasn’t been in their mouth (think knife, shoving stuff out of a tilted bowl or plate). Someone eats the last of something without much regard for anyone else wanting it. People leave when they need, without permission, and often only the adults who live there clean up anything. It’s informal, satisfies a bodily need, and may not be particularly social.

These three basic scenarios can be altered, with more or fewer acts of refinement added/subtracted. In theory, a younger society might be rowdier while an older one could be more refined. Standards of cleanliness (which education influences) will impact the move away from the first example. There’s more judgment in the refined scenario, where minor offense can be given for something as trivial as using the wrong spoon for soup.

Here are some additional questions to consider:

  1. Can people invite themselves or others to dine? Are impromptu guests accepted?
  2. Is there expected attire and what might it be?
  3. Seating
    1. Who sits first?
    2. Are seats assigned an order or not, and how if so (rank)?
    3. Are some tables reserved?
    4. Does anyone enter or do something after everyone else is present or seated?
  4. Serving
    1. Who gets served first and last? Is that based on gender, seniority, or do guests or the hosts receive the privilege?
    2. Are extra portions viewed well or poorly? Is it considered rude or wasteful to not finish what you’ve taken? Is it bad to not eat much as if disapproving of the fare?
  5. Is it permissible or forbidden to brings weapons to the table?

We must still consider how many meals are common in a day, when they’re consumed, and perhaps what types of foods are associated with each. There are often traditional items. What comes to mind for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Few world builders have the time to invent an array of meals or even occasion to show them in our work, so we likely want to be generic. For example, in looking at the food groups, are certain ones associated with one of these meals? Fruits might be consumed primarily for breakfast, snacks, or as a side dish, as often happens in the United States. But perhaps a fruit or veggie salad is a common lunch item instead. Fish might be eaten later in the day after it’s been caught, but then fisherman are often out early and maybe it’s ready by breakfast, though that means fishing closer to shore. In fantasy worlds, there’s no refrigeration and we can use this to decide what is often in a meal.

In the United States, the early bird special means eating a few hours before most people, at restaurants. This originates from the expression that “the early bird gets the worm” because rain causes worms to be on the surface and the first bird gets plenty of options. We can do this or reverse it, meaning most people eat early and restaurants are eager to lure people in later, after the rush. Here we might use the expression ‘second mouse special’, referring to an idiom “the second mouse gets the cheese” meaning a mousetrap kills the first mouse and, having been sprung, poses no danger to the second, who eats their fill.

A big family dinner (or other meal) where everyone sits down at the same table is a part of certain cultures, but in others, people might eat while on the go or standing in the kitchen after making the meal. The latter is often caused by necessity. If family togetherness is a value, however, eating together is likely as well. Dinner is usually the most important meal for this, with the day’s events complete, but in our fictional world, it could be lunch followed by a siesta. Or breakfast with well-wishing for the day’s events. Find a rationale to justify which meal is for family gatherings, while another, like lunch, may be with coworkers or friends. A character from a culture without this may place no value on the experience and not understand it; this can help create a culture clash.

There are cultural aspects to guests. If someone happens to be present near a mealtime, it’s often courtesy to invite them, but perhaps our culture suggests politely showing them the door because this is a family occasion. We can spin these things. The guest might be expecting to leave and be embarrassed that they haven’t already. Perhaps when they smell the food cooking, they become uncomfortable and begin to excuse themselves. But it could be reversed, where the smell has them assuming they’ll be invited as in their culture, but it’s not what happens, leading to offense. Perhaps a guest is expected to invite themselves or even help themselves to any food and drink in our house. Or a host is supposed to offer, the guest declines once, the host offers again, and only then does the guest accept. Doing so sooner might be considered hasty or greedy. Remember that culture has a lot to do with expectations, whether those are met or not.

Language and Culture

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Jun 042020

This article talks about swear words, expressions, and other aspects of how language is influenced by and can reveal culture.

Creating Greetings

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Jun 012020
The Words

Analogues are useful when inventing greetings and farewells, but first, a few observations.

  • There’s often a word that means “hello” and a more casual version like “hi.”
  • We can wish pleasant times on them, such “Good morning” and “Live long and prosper.”
  • We often inquire about their well-being, such as “How are you?” This can be rhetorical.
  • We can state how happy we are to see or meet them, such as “Pleased to meet you.”
  • We can use a title, like “sir,” “Lord Kier,” “Mr. Smith,” or “Grand Master of the Seven Realms.”
  • We can introduce ourselves first, last, or in between (when additional people are there)
  • Using a given name is less formal than the surname

All we need do is combine these ideas while inventing variations that make sense for the context, which can be social, about station/rank, or both. Our cultural vision may have less impact on our decision because most greetings have certain values in common, those being respect, well-wishing, and a show good and peaceful intentions. If an individual doesn’t want to show those things, they don’t make the greeting or include every part of it.

Some ideas are a bit religious, like “many blessings” or “may the Lord bless you.” Then there are military ideas like, “May your sword never break,” “May your bowstring never snap,” and “May your arrows fly true.” Just think of a peril that might befall a profession and we can invent an expression. Or we can avoid these slightly negative sounding ones for something more upbeat: “may your staff always shine,” or “may your blade always gleam.” A scout might be simply told, “many sightings.”

Physical Gestures

In addition to (or in place of) words, both greetings and farewells can include gestures that may be optional, required, or at least expected. We should decide on this along with the gesture itself. That way, if something is required but our character doesn’t do it, this is a larger offense. If it’s only expected, it’s a smaller offense. If it’s optional, we pay little attention, and if it’s highly unusual, we notice it being done and perhaps wonder why, though being offended isn’t common.

There are different analogues we can leverage from both real Earth cultures and ones that other storytellers have imagined, but first, remember that touching others can spread germs. In a less technological society, like those in fantasy, people may be (and likely are) unaware of this. A prevalence for gestures that spread germs might exist unbeknownst to them, so we maybe shouldn’t have them avoid it as if they know something they don’t. In other words, don’t project our knowledge of this onto them and have them prefer other greetings because of it.

Beings from different planets have different germs and immunities, which naturally arises more in SF. It’s reality, but storytellers often overlook this because acknowledging it could place a substantial restriction on character behaviors and plot developments. This is a personal call each creator must make. Just as European diseases infected Native Americans, killing many, planet-hopping characters would do the same. Those big SF movies where aliens need incredible weapons to wipe us out may miss the mark in that they may only need to drop even a mild pathogen (or several) here and come back later when most of us are dead; the exception would be when they can’t wait for that.

The Handshake

The handshake done on Earth in modern times is so common that we often want something else on our fictional setting, with good reason. This gesture is too much like here. Variations already exist and we can invent our own or leverage these, which is recommended for speed of world building. For all of them, we want ease of depiction; no one wants even two sentences describing it.

Some easy variants are:

  • Forearm, bicep, or shoulder clasp
  • Interlacing fingers
  • Fist bump
  • Two hands

The details of handshakes vary by country on Earth. They are typically done barehanded, meaning failure to remove a glove could be seen as disrespect. In some countries, only the same gender shake hands, or sometimes one gender is expected to be greeted first this way. A religion like Islam discourages gender-mixing. Children can be included or excluded. Some prefer a weak grip, others a strong. While some use right hands, they simultaneously use the left to grasp the other’s right hand by the elbow. Sometimes a senior person is expected to initiate the gesture. One country considers it rude to have the left hand in a pocket during a greeting. While most handshakes are brief, some cultures expect people to hold hands for several seconds after the initial shake. In another country, that might be considered odd. There’s a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding for foreigners. There are also combination motions that must be known in advance to perform. They’re usually done by those belonging to a specialized group, such as athletes, musicians, wizards, or organization, such as a secret society.

Speculation about the origins of handshakes is that soldiers did this to show they didn’t hold a weapon, which could also have been a dagger hidden up one’s sleeve. Refusal to shake hands could be a bad sign. We may find this useful in a scene.

The Kiss

As a greeting or farewell, a kiss on the lips would be too intimate for most cultures except among lovers or family, but it’s an option, one that shows great comfort with physicality. It’s easy to imagine other cultures viewing this as a sign of promiscuity or lasciviousness. It’s also far more likely to spread germs. A kiss on the cheek is tamer and can either involve lips touching the skin or a cheek-to-cheek gesture with a kissing motion (or sound) from the lips, as if imitating. Sometimes a single kiss is done, but we’ve all seen each cheek getting the treatment. A kiss on the forehead is another option but can suggest patronization because adults sometimes do this to children, but maybe they don’t in our world. We have leeway to invent the interpretations, too. Finally, there is the kissing of the hand, which has been presented for the purpose. This has often been done to women or those of higher station.

The Bow

The bow seems more formal and may be appropriate in a culture where shows of respect are valued. It isn’t just the important people who may need this deference, but the whole population. The degree of bow is commensurate with the level of respect shown; while it might be customary to kneel before one’s king, if one is truly humble, prostration might feel appropriate. That might seem excessive to others. Even when one remains upright, there’s still a degree of bow, such as a slight bend or much more. What is appropriate might depend not just upon the relative social standing of those present, but upon the occasion, as something more serious and formal requires a deeper bow. In some cultures, people are exact about it and bowing too much is just as bad as bowing too little. We can decide for ourselves how touchy our peoples are.

A mere head nod would be the smallest gesture, followed by kneeling (one knee is less formal than both) and finally prostration (lying full upon the ground). These are levels of submission, which is why the more severe versions appear in religions. One version of bowing on Earth is Namaste, where we would place our palms together before our chest, bow slightly from the head, and say “Namaste.”

The Salute

A salute is typically reserved for the military and can be any number of fingers, though it’s typically all or the index and middle finger in a two-finger salute, with the other fingers bent and the thumb touching them. This can cause problems and has done so on Earth, as the Polish do the two-finger variety, like the Cub Scouts (children), and this led U.S. troops to assume the Polish were being disrespectful, as if implying they were kids. The result was Polish troops being arrested until the misunderstanding was cleared up.

In some places, a salute is only when a hat is worn. Others only allow it indoors when formally reporting to a superior officer. If enemy snipers are known to be nearby, no saluting happens (to avoid identifying an officer, who becomes a target). The palm can face downward as in the U.S. or toward the one being saluted. The downward version resulted from lower level troops working on tasks that dirtied their hands, and presenting the dirty palm to a superior during a salute wasn’t considered polite. A closed fist can also be used, and the arm can be extended forward (instead of bent to bring the hand to the forehead).

The origins of saluting are suggested to be from knights raising their visor to identify themselves, which was partly a show that they weren’t afraid of their foe, either. This can easily be used in the context of a knight who refuses to raise a visor and is taunted as a coward. In SF, salutes can be done with rifles. A salute can also be done with the sword, with enough variations in gesture that we can invent what we like. Pointing the tip at the ground is a sign of submission.


Sometimes we only nod at another person in passing, raise eyebrows, or just smile. We might say the briefest version of a greeting, such as “Hi.” We may give a small hand gesture, like a wave, but without raising our arm. What all of these have in common is not so much a greeting as an acknowledgement that we saw the other person and we aren’t pretending we didn’t. This is more important when we know them.

The military salute manifested in the tipping of one’s hat, by civilians, toward others as a greeting and gesture of respect. Sometimes the hat is merely touched, while other times it is removed, particularly indoors. Even today, some still consider it wrong to leave a hat on inside. After some gestures, like a handshake, the hand is placed on our own heart, though secondary motions are less common on Earth.

We can borrow ideas from animals, as this might feel more appropriate for beast-like species, such as trolls, ogres, and dragons, all of whom might use sniffing like dogs. A winged humanoid species might stretch and/or shake wings. Maybe subtle ways of fanning those feathers mean something, like annoyance, impatience, or happiness. Folding them in might be a blow-off. Wrapping them in front of oneself might be seen as evasive or a sign of being uncomfortable; maybe they’re just cold and this can be misinterpreted.

A species with a tail might raise it in a lazy swing, or crack it like a whip, making an actual sound. Some of this can be considered friendly or hostile. An Earth cat raises the tail in greeting, or slaps it on the floor when annoyed, and casually wags it when relaxed. Then there’s the fluffy appearance when startled, though that requires fur. Cats can extend their claws at will, so maybe we have a species that does the same, even giving a friendly scratch or bite. A dragon might puff some smoke out, but a little fire is an offense.

A society where everyone has a bladed-weapon at all times might gesture with it, whether sheathed or not. Maybe the gesture is just to unsheathe it by an inch and put it back, and doing more so is considered a sign of aggression. “He bared his blade!” an outraged character might shout, drawing his.

In worlds with magic or technologies we don’t have, wizards might make their staff give a pulse of light in greeting. A gun that has lights, whether a laser sight or just a flashlight, could be used for the same, especially if something like Morse Code signals are used on the field and have become a way to recognize allies. Maybe people position the staff or rifle a certain way almost like how a hat is tipped or a head is bowed. Since the powerful end of a staff is the top (usually), maybe it’s considered rude for a wizard to tip the top toward someone they’re greeting, but sliding the bottom forward can be seen as submission just as kneeling might be. Use your imagination.