Culture vs. Custom - The Art of World Building
Apr 232020

Confusion can arise about the difference between culture and customs. Customs are part (italics) of culture, are a way that culture is represented, and are expected behaviors in given situations. When we invent customs, we’re also inventing culture. Since culture is a somewhat esoteric term, we’ll be talking more about creating customs, with culture revealed through them.

The words “custom” and “tradition” are sometimes used interchangeably because the only real difference is the length of time that they’re practiced. A custom becomes a tradition when it is passed down generation after generation. Customs are therefore newer. There’s no rule on this, but if we’re inclined, we can decide a tradition is over a hundred years old and a custom is more recent. Use “tradition” to refer to truly enshrined behaviors, the violation of which would cause a stronger reaction. Custom implies less formality, weight, or expectation – and less offense if violated.

Cultural Vision

World builders could invent various manifestations, like greetings, dining, and attire expectations, that contradict each other instead of springing from a common element. Imagine a culture where very formal greetings occur, with multiple bows, gestures, and elaborate phrases. At dinner, we might expect fine manners. Instead, we’re shown people pushing unwashed hands into food bowls, eating off their hands and licking their fingers, and finally shoving the hand into the food again. While this is extreme, these greetings and dining etiquette examples clash and don’t spring from a unified vision.

Before we get too far into inventing cultural elements, we should determine a vision that seems appropriate. These are related to values, beliefs, and morals. Some example visions are:

  1. Formal: Refined, cordial, dignified, high-minded, controlled emotions
  2. Exuberant: Hearty, boisterous, unrestrained, familiar, informal, crude, open emotions
  3. Timid: Overly apologetic, not being a bother, polite to a fault, restrained in affections
  4. Brash: Entitled, demanding, bold, proud, self-righteous, self-absorbed
  5. Modest: Sincere, polite, down-to-earth, informal, compassionate, humble, folksy
  6. Calculating: Friendly but distant, cliquey, rumor mongering, disloyal, fickle

If we wanted to be stereotypical, we might assume that royalty exhibit the formal one, while barbarians typify the exuberant. The timid one is based on a few 1980s comedies set in England, while the brash one is how some people describe Americans abroad. Those in small towns sometimes get the modest reputation, and teens sometimes experience the last.

In addition to those previously listed, a seemingly infinite number of cultures exist on Earth that we can leverage. As with every analogue, we should follow the Rule of Three – make at least three significant changes to it to prevent audiences from recognizing it. Otherwise they might recognize Japan, for example, when they see it by another name. There are so many aspects to culture that more than three major changes might be needed. How do we keep everything coherent? By following a cultural vision.

Regardless of our culture’s source, whether an analogue, entirely invented, or somewhere between, we should choose a guiding principle or vision. Taking the first example, of formality, we need only imagine how people act based on these. If Kier is from this culture, he won’t be chugging ale, slapping people’s backs in congratulation, eating with his hands, being unkempt in public, or revealing his affection for a woman in anything but the most subtle of ways. But if Kier has a visitor named Torrin, who hails from the second culture (hearty, boisterous, unrestrained, familiar), we can imagine Torrin doing all of those things. If this is happening in Kier’s homeland, Torrin may be judged as uncouth. If visiting Torrin’s homeland, Kier would likely be seen as boring, stuck up, and arrogant. This is the sort of conflict we can leverage, whether we keep the impact subtle (as in a comedy of manners) or deadly (so much offense is given that execution or a duel is demanded).

Race as Culture

World builders are sometimes criticized for a mistake – making a race or species synonymous with a culture. This means each settlement of dwarves, for example, has the exact same culture as every other dwarven settlement. This is as unbelievable as humans having a mono-culture across a world. Avoiding this is easy; just create different cultures. That’s time consuming and may explain why race as culture dominates the work of world builders, but all we need are variations.

We can leverage the cultural scope inheritance, where beards are prevalent on all males in a sovereign power, but those in one region or settlement braid theirs while others grow it to their waist, and yet another keeps it close cropped. This way, people can tell on sight where a dwarf is likely from. We don’t need to justify differences because few people understand where cultural elements originate. But we could always decide that long beards are the norm and the short ones resulted from a deadly case of lice generations ago. Maybe the braided style came by emulating a war hero who did that. Just make these up. It’s fun.


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