Book Blog Archives - The Art of World Building
Jul 092020

The order in which we create culture isn’t hugely important, with one major exception: decide on ideas and beliefs, and then a unified cultural vision early on. This doesn’t have to be first, as having a few ideas of culture can inspire the vision, but try not to go too far until an idea is achieved. If we still can’t decide on one, we’re risking incongruity.

It’s also important to create the social classes so that we know where the group for whom we’re creating culture falls, since this impacts many aspects, including their formality. The rest can be done in random order, but we’ll arguably get the most mileage from greetings, farewells, clothing/accessories, dining, past times, and daily life. It can be wise to keep ideas we don’t use for one culture but associate them with another instead. This helps set them off against each other. Or we’ll use that other one in another world altogether.

Jul 062020

If we haven’t traveled to other regions or countries much, we might not think architecture is part of culture, but it can be. We take the architectural style of where we live for granted but notice it in places that look very different. In some rural regions, a wrap-around porch is very common. In towns, bright pastel colors may dominate exterior walls, or everything is bright white stucco. In still others, murals or graffiti abound. Each of these influence the impression architecture creates, and this impression may be what we’re most after.

Saying construction is brooding and menacing, or quaint and homey, is more useful than using technical terms for building styles because many of us (including audiences) don’t understand those terms; authors should use them sparingly if at all. Materials can be commented on, such as clay, wood, stone, and metal, because these imply sophistication, sturdiness, and overall impression, and are easy visualize. The vibe that materials impart can influence how we feel about a place.

A log cabin with a thatched roof, or one made of bamboo, gives a very different impression than a steel and glass building. In between are buildings made of stone, tiles, and synthetic materials. The hue of these contributes to the impression of a location as drab or colorful, but this becomes cultural when such a style is not just in architecture but clothing and more.

Regardless of material, we can leverage the reality that villages often have narrow streets from when people only walked or rode a horse. Many roads aren’t wide enough for a wagon. Anyone who’s traveled to Europe has likely seen an “old town” where everything about the architecture is smaller, including the space between buildings.

One way to decide on styles is by government type. An authoritarian regime may be reflected in menacing, dark architecture that intrudes upon the psyche. A democratic one may favor bright colors and greenspaces. One that prizes order is likely to have well-designed spaces, possibly with geometrical layouts that include how gardens are structured. A poorly run or chaotic government might have housing that has sprung up wherever it could, where little planning has taken place; this could be true if war has taken a heavy toll, causing governments to rise and fall in quick succession over the past hundred years, leaving people on their own to “make do.” Even when a more successful government takes over, it may leave such slums as they are, even if crime and disease run rampart there. Such places intrude on culture because people consider the safety (or lack thereof) of them. It isn’t just homes that are affected, of course, but public buildings that are likely financed with taxes. Private businesses built and paid for by a company are impacted less in a fantasy setting where these companies don’t exist.

Necessity often dictates culture. Those in a medieval town may dump a chamber pot out a window into the street. Is this considered standard in our culture or are these people breaking a local law? The stench of many doing this could lead to people wearing a perfumed scarf over their lower faces; this becomes cultural and can outlast the original cause when society advances and people stop dumping poop in the street. Urban, suburban, and rural areas often have different styles, sometimes due to necessity or industry.

Culture affects the interior of buildings, too. In the United States, for what’s called a single-family home, we expect certain rooms. On the first floor, it’s the kitchen, dining area, formal dining room, formal living room, casual family room, an optional garage, and the laundry room (which might be on the second floor instead). On the second floor, we mostly expect multiple bedrooms and associated bathrooms. There may be a basement, and this could either be finished or unfinished with multiple rooms. Two stories with the optional basement is common in many areas, while single story, rambling houses appear in other areas and times. We can add expected rooms, such as ones dedicated to magic, religion, target practice, or weapons play. Rooms can also be designed with certain activities in mind but converted to another, such as a spare bedroom being used for a nursery. If our culture has a siesta, there is likely to be a room for this, or part of one, if people don’t always do this in their bedroom. This room might be closer to the front of the house for not only themselves but a guest to use.

Consider whether there are species and races of different heights in the setting and whether this is considered. For example, do dwarven homes have a front door tall enough for humans, and social room, too, but father inside, where guests are rare, the doors and rooms cater only to dwarves? If this is true in a society, people will expect and reach a conclusion about a dwarf whose home is exclusively dwarven-sized. Is he anti-human, for example? Or was this the only one available, prompting him to apologize to human guests all the time? Do people talk about him being anti-human behind his back?

Something we can leverage from history is the existence of utilities such as running water, power, and appliances. These impact the cleanliness of our inhabitants and their general fitness and longevity. Technology and medicine are the primary reasons that those of us alive today live much longer than in the past. In SF, we may just assume these (and better versions) exist, but certain things may or may not in fantasy. For example, running water actually can because it doesn’t depend on electricity.

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.

Food and Culture

 Book Blog, Volume 3  Comments Off on Food and Culture
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.

Culture and Dining

 Book Blog, Volume 3  Comments Off on Culture and Dining
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.