Cultural Ideas - The Art of World Building
Apr 202020

There are arguably three types of cultural sources: beliefs, values, and morals, with some overlap. Deciding which of each matters to a group depends on what impression feels right to the world builder. Think about the group’s role in society and its goals and motivations. We needn’t feel locked into our decision. If we don’t think of a manifestation of a specific value, that’s okay. These are guiding ideas that we’re unlikely to explain to an audience anyway, unless a character is monologuing their thoughts, which is a great way to reveal these ideas.

Morals and Values

An individual’s values come from within, can change over time, and are personal principles. By contrast, morals are taught by society, are usually deep seated and slow to change, if at all, and guide us on how to live rightly. Morals sometimes result from a fictional or true story; the fictional ones are often designed to demonstrate a moral. While these differences between morals and values exist, we can treat them the same when using them to invent culture. Here are some traits we can leverage:

  • Acceptance
  • Compassion
  • Cooperation
  • Courage
  • Dignity
  • Equality
  • Fairness
  • Generosity
  • Gratitude
  • Honesty
  • Integrity
  • Kindness
  • Justice
  • Perseverance
  • Politeness
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Self-control
  • Tolerance
  • Trustworthiness


A more high-minded society will value different traits (like dignity, equality, politeness, and tolerance) than a barbaric one, which might value self-reliance, courage, respect, and integrity. A society with more freedom might value most items on that list while individuals in an oppressive one might value courage, responsibility, politeness, and perseverance, while longing for things denied them, like kindness, dignity, and quality. The oppressive society itself might prize obedience, humility, and sacrifice, expecting citizens to adhere to these. The society’s government may prize values that are different from its inhabitants.


Many beliefs in culture originate from religions; those beliefs and how to invent them are discussed in chapter four in this volume, on creating religions. As we invent our world, we can take any religious idea and make it more cultural. An example would be Christmas; most would agree that the religious nature of this holiday has been taken over by the cultural aspects of it. There are other concepts from Christianity that permeate life in the U.S., including heaven, hell, the devil, and common swears. Religion’s influence on culture runs from holidays to working schedules and beyond. Leverage the beliefs of a dominant religion to create parts of a culture.

For example, if one day a week is for religious observance, or a few hours of every day are for prayer, then many will have work schedules structured around this. Even those who don’t practice the religion will be aware of these times if widespread. We tend to expect fewer people at stores or on the roads on a Sunday due to church goers, just as stores are often closed on Christmas. Our world’s inhabitants will be aware of these times and may plan for them, which is one way to sneak cultural elements into a scene.

As for non-religious beliefs, some are based in superstition. For example, walking under a ladder is considered bad luck, as is breaking a mirror, stepping on a crack, or a black cat crossing our path. If we’ve invented an animal for our world, we can use it in the same way, choosing a physical trait that makes it ominous, such as one type being poisonous when the rest aren’t (such an animal should be somewhat uncommon but not too rare or it never comes up).

Understanding the origins of such ideas can help us invent our own. Some are practical, like passing under a ladder being unsafe. Some may originate from a nursery rhyme. Then there’s the talisman that can keep evil away, whether it’s garlic and crosses for vampires or a rabbit’s foot. Associate an animal with something good like a benevolent deity and a piece of one’s body can become a talisman. Perhaps a plant has a root shaped like a humanoid and therefore any part of the plant, like garlic, is seen in either a good or bad light.

The black cat idea likely came from being associated with witches, so if we have a world with magic and a type of animal is often seen with wizards, who are also considered dangerous, a similar belief can arise; we can make this true in one culture and the belief may spread across others even if wizards elsewhere don’t often have such animals with them.

The idea that bad luck comes in threes is an example of confirmation bias, where we believe something and then look for the pattern, such as two bad things happening, prompting us to look for the third item. There’s debate as to the origin of this one, but the trinity is important in Christianity and we can do the same thing with a different number in our world. If we go with three, we earthlings will associate it with Earth.

Touching wood for good luck also has debatable sources. Some say it dates from when relics that were believed to be pieces of the cross Jesus was crucified on were sold. Some religions also worship nature and believe trees had spirits in them. Churches of wood were once used as sanctuary and knocking on them in a specific pattern was a signal for entrance. Perhaps pirates (who are notoriously superstitious) knocked on their ships before a bad storm. We leverage rationales but it’s important to note that not only do most of us have no idea where these superstitions originated, we don’t care, simply accepting them. Our characters will be the same, but our audience may wonder at the new ideas we invent, but explaining is best done in a single sentence, like this:

As she’d done since childhood, Tianna clapped her hands twice for luck, like the famous knight Kier had done to summon the horse he rode to glory at the famed Battle of Evermore.

The breaking of a mirror is another superstition, which arose after we stopped gazing in water to see our reflections. Technology provides ever greater possibilities for image capturing, and at my local Renaissance Festival, there’s a running joke that photographers are stealing the souls of those whose picture they take. Such literal interpretations are less common in a more educated world like ours, but they can be fun and useful to remember for fantasy settings. Disturbing that which holds the image, such as breaking glass or causing ripples in the water, is seen as sinister portent. Leverage such a belief as desired, forecasting how many years or misfortunes are thus foretold.

Friday the 13th is considered bad for reasons that aren’t agreed upon, but again, examples can give us ideas. Perhaps it’s due to Christ having supposedly died on a Friday, or one of his twelve disciples betraying him (13 were around the table, including him). Some speculate that 13 full moons in a year caused calendar problems and was considered unlucky; if we have any similar pattern in our time keeping system, this is one way to attach meaning to it. Another way to make a number and day unlucky is to have a prominent group of good people treated badly (i.e., executed) on that day in the past. Confirmation bias can make people start seeing bad events on such a day, thereby “proving” the superstition.

As we continue, we’ll see how beliefs like these can lead to culture’s invention. They are a point of origin, just like morals and values.


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