news Archives - The Art of World Building
Jul 082020
 

This Saturday you can join a no-cost webinar where Randy Ellefson will answer your world building questions! The meeting should be about 40 minutes and will be recorded for replay.

If you have questions, it’s strongly encouraged that you send them in advance to mail@randyellefson.com, though a limited number will be taken from the chat. Feel free to include details as this makes the answer better for you and Rand. We hope to see you there!

Meeting Details

Topic: World Building Webinar #1
Time: Jul 11, 2020 01:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)

Join Zoom Meeting
https://zoom.us/j/94714547522?pwd=ZXlWd3VUdTNYMklyNk5Ddkp1eXYyQT09

Meeting ID: 947 1454 7522
Password: 9Wtmme

Jul 082020
 
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #3): Armed Forces

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is armed forces. You can read more in Chapter 3, “Creating Armed Forces,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “What Government Type Do They Work For?”

Virtually all armed forces groups work for a government, so determine this before doing anything. A democracy and a dictatorship will have different armies, for example. How? The latter will be extremely rigid, far more so than the other, including potentially no personal life at all. The military isn’t known for great freedom even in a democracy, but imagine how much worse it is in a totalitarian government.

Tip #2: “Create Symbols and Colors”

In the real world, we immediately recognize the symbols of the military and make judgments about anything emblazoned with them, from personnel uniforms to buildings and ships. Not creating these is unrealistic, while creating them takes only a minute.

Tip #3: “Decide How People Join”

Knowing what it takes to become a member helps us decide on skills or how elite a group is. This also creates a reputation for members. Are there prerequisites, like the ability to ride a horse or fly a ship? Are certain races forbidden/prized? What physical traits does one need? Can one acquire missing ones like improving strength? What sorts of tests must be passed and how many chances does one get? This adds pressure and pride/humiliation for those trying to join.

Tip #4: “Understand and Use Existing Ranks”

Know what a lieutenant, major, and colonel is in the army and their respective navy or air force counterparts, then use the same ranks and job functions, even if you change the titles for your world, which isn’t recommended. Only those in the military usually know these things and aren’t bored with them. Confusion (or exposition) is the only result of being clever here.

Tip #5: “What’s Their Reputation?”

We all think certain things of each military group in our sovereign power, and so do our characters of theirs, so decide what the group is known for. Are they respected? Feared? Do you pick a fight with one or avoid that? Are you impressed or scornful? This matters even when our characters are not from such a group, because they’ll often have to deal with those who are.

Summary of Chapter 3—Creating Armed Forces

Military groups like the army, navy, air/space force, and knights are a staple of both fantasy and SF. We can leverage existing ideas or craft our own. Doing so means deciding how someone joins and leaves a military group, including requirements, tests, and training. Some species and races might be forbidden or assigned special roles, and throughout history, famous members can inspire pride or loathing we can use. When devising military units and ranks, it helps to understand Earth analogues, so some basics are included in this chapter. The world view, uses, locations, place in society, and symbols are all important elements of memorable armed forces and this chapters covers them all.

Buy Now!
Jun 302020
 

Episode 27.3: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture, including greetings, farewells, language, expressions, slang, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What consider when creating greetings and farewells
    • What elements are typically present
    • What can be omitted
  • Gestures that exist in cultures
  • How language is affected by culture
  • How to create expressions and slang
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 27.3 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part three. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes greetings, farewells, language, expressions, slang, and more. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Greetings and Farewells

Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of these episodes from artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon.com.

With world building, we are always trying to figure out what to do and what to skip. One of the most useful things we can do when it comes to creating cultures is creating greetings and farewells because these are things the characters will actually say to each other. If a work is a TV show and it happens repeatedly, sometimes fans of those shows will say these greetings to each other. An example would be saying “Namaste” from the TV show Lost. In Game of Thrones, people often say “seven blessings.”

Sometimes these expressions become popular enough that they enter into the common language that we often use, so this is one area that I do not recommend skipping. Greetings and farewells will exist in virtually every culture. The only exception I can think of is a culture that is so barbaric that they haven’t even evolved to that point yet. Even then, they are likely to at least grunt at each other. It’s worth noting that even animals will make recognition of another animal, especially those of their species. One reason for that is rivalry, especially among males, for females.

So, yes, at the very least, the greetings will exist. The farewells, maybe not quite as much. And if you think about it, we do make a bigger deal out of greeting someone, but often, when we are saying farewell, we may not say anything. We might just give a nod. We might even just turn and walk away. It depends on how casual the setting is.

One reason that greetings may be more prominent is that they really set the tone for the coming interaction. This is something to keep in mind. If we have already come up with our cultural vision, and that vision includes being very respectful to people, then the greeting is also going to be probably more formal and, of course, respectful. On the other hand, if the cultural vision is very casual, then we might end up with a very casual greeting, like, “Hey, what’s up?”

For both greetings and farewells, a general tip is to keep them brief. I remember watching Game of Thrones and it would take something like 30 seconds for all of Daenerys’ titles to be read off by the end. The first few times it was okay, but as this continued, the greetings just started to grate on my nerves as someone in the audience who just wanted it to be over with because I’d already heard all of them before. These technically weren’t greetings, but it’s the same idea. Keep them short.

Another reason for brevity is that a greeting is not exactly the heart of the conversation, now is it? We have much more important things that our characters need to say to each other. The case can be made that one of the most useful reasons for a greeting is to show culture, but another is to show that someone does it poorly, or skips it and causes a minor offense to another person.

When we’re inventing greetings and farewells, we probably want multiple versions of these. The reason for this is that some settings are formal, some are very casual, and others are somewhere in between. For example, in English, we have “hello,” “hi,” “hey,” “yo,” and then stuff like “what’s up,” which can even be shortened to “sup?” That’s a lot, so we don’t really need to go that far, but I would recommend at least two, maybe three of them.

It can be easier to start with the most formal and then try to come up with shorter versions of it. One reason for this is adults are usually the ones who come up with the way someone should be greeted, and then younger people tend to shorten things out of laziness. I doubt an adult over the age of 30 came up with “what’s up?” Very casual greetings like that can apply to a social group within the larger structure of a settlement, region or sovereign power. One way of looking at this is that the more formal greetings might be more widespread and universal almost, and then these more casual versions might be applied to one group or another.

Typically, the casual versions originate with one group, and then they sometimes catch on and spread to the wider population. This brings up a point that these more casual versions are often a kind of bonding mechanism and a way for peers within that social group to recognize each other. In addition to this social aspect, greetings sometimes have a practical origin. For example, the handshake originated from each person trying to show that they did not have a weapon. Sometimes people had a knife or a dagger hidden up their sleeve, and the shaking of the arm was supposed to cause that to come loose. Another version of this is each person grabbing the other person by the upper arm because, of course, you would feel the blade was in there.

Knowing the origins of a few of these helps us think of other versions, especially if we have a different kind of weapon in our world. We’ll talk a lot more about the physical gestures in a few minutes, but let’s focus on the words first. As we all know, in any greeting, there is typically a word that basically means “hello.” The words often include some sort of wishing pleasant times upon that person. Some examples of that would be something like “good morning” or “live long and prosper” from Star Trek. Technically, the latter one is a farewell.

Another thing often included in greetings is some sort of inquiry as to how well they are doing, such as “how are you?” You may remember in the U.S. there was a commercial running a few years ago where a guy would walk into a bar, or some other casual scenario, and someone would say, “Hi, how are you?” and instead of just letting that pass, because it’s a rhetorical question, he would actually give a really long answer to this. So, the point I’m getting at there is that this is, often, a rhetorical question. You’re not necessarily supposed to answer it. This would be an easy way to do a culture clash where someone from one culture doesn’t realize it’s rhetorical and does give an answer just like the guy in that commercial.

Greetings can sometimes include some statement about how happy we are to see them, such as “pleased to meet you.” Then, sometimes, there’s a title like “Sir,” Lord,” “Mr. Smith,” or even a really formal one like “Grand Master of the Seven Realms.” In some cultures, we may introduce ourselves first before asking the other person’s name, or vice versa. Then, using your given name, or your first name, as we call it in the United States, is less formal than using the surname, or last name.

So, when we are trying to come up with the words that people say, these are all elements that we can mix and match to come up with their greetings and farewells. To some extent, the cultural vision that we have developed for this culture may not have too much of an impact because there are a lot of universal elements, like the ones I just listed, that are incorporated into greetings. But if we do have a cultural vision, it’s certainly very helpful to leverage that, if we can, when doing this.

A final remark about the words is that sometimes a profession, like being a swordsman, may have something to do with what is said. For example, I might say, “May your sword never break,” or, “May your bowstring never snap,” if you’re an archer. If you’re someone who does scouting for the military, looking for dangers, maybe something to say to that person is “many sightings,” as in “may you see many things that are worth reporting on.”

When people belong to a specific social group, we should have already defined what makes that social group exist in the first place and we can leverage that to come up with these greetings and farewells.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, Artofworldbuilding.com has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

You can also join the mailing list at artofworldbuilding.com/newsletter. This gets you free, reusable templates from each published volume in the series. You don’t even need to buy the books to get these. I also send out contest information, free tips, and other stuff to help with your efforts. Please note I do not share your email address with anyone as that’s against my privacy policy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Sign up today to get your free content and take your world building to the next level.

Gestures

Let’s start talking about physical gestures. The words are almost mandatory in that we almost always say something. It’s a little bit less common for us to only make the gesture, unless we are far enough away from the other person that they wouldn’t hear the words anyway. In other words, unless the situation prevents it, words are typically expected, but physical gestures are a little bit more optional — or, at least, that’s how it is in the United States. In another culture, like Japan, something like the bow might be required, and skipping that is going to be the thing that gets you into trouble. This is an important distinction to make. In some cultures, one thing might be expected a lot more than the other. But in the United States, we can really interchange the physical gestures with a word, so we can do one, the other, or both. And of course, in some cases, we can do neither. Which one of these is more prominent in your setting?

When it comes to these gestures, one thing to keep in mind is that throughout human history, we have had a different sense of the spreading of germs than at other times. Today, we’re very familiar with this, but even 200 years ago we didn’t have any idea about a lot of this. A culture that is not well informed about the spreading of disease might be one that is doing more physical intimacy, such as kisses on the cheek. A culture that is more aware of how sickness can be spread might have greetings that have physical gestures with more separation between the parties, such as a bow.

It’s worth noting that in science fiction, where there is space travel between worlds, the pathogens are going to be completely different and no one is going to have immunity from a pathogen that exists on another planet. Of course, our characters are usually wearing a space suit of some kind. In a show like Star Trek, this is one of the things that they kind of gloss over, the same way they gloss over people not understanding a foreign language. The universal translator took care of that problem, and there seems to be this implication that the doctor on the ship has some sort of immunization that he can just easily give to everyone so that sickness has been largely eliminated from science fiction — either that or if someone catches something, it’s relatively minor, like the common cold.

What we don’t usually see, because it’s pretty dramatic, is something like what happened when the British arrived on the shores of North America — and the other countries, like Spain and France, also did this — and all sorts of pathogens infected the American Indians and wiped out a lot of them. As a side note, in science fiction, if an alien culture really wanted to just wipe out the Earth, all they would have to do is release a pathogen that we have no immunity to. They don’t need to show up with all these space ships. Writers probably ignore that most of the time because it would make every sci-fi alien show the same when it comes to aliens discovering the planet.

Despite all of this, physical interactions are often part of any sort of greeting or farewell, and that includes the handshake and its variations. One thing we may want to avoid is the actual handshake that takes place on Earth. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it is so Earth-like that it’s just going to remind people of here. So, we can do some variations on this, like interlacing the fingers. Then, of course, there’s the fist bump that was popular for a while here. And then we can use two hands, or we can grasp someone by the forearm, the bicep or do this kind of shoulder clasp where you put their hand on their shoulder.

With some of these, we can actually keep the handshake itself, such as if I use my right hand to shake your hand and then I put my left hand on your shoulder at the same time. You, of course, would be doing the same thing to me. Then again, maybe you wouldn’t be. If I’m a man and you’re a woman, maybe you don’t do part of this. Or if I am subordinate to you, maybe I do not put my hand on your shoulder, but you do it on mine, almost like you’re some sort of father figure. The point here is that both people do not have to do the exact same thing. This is true of everything, not just the handshake.

There are some other details from Earth that we can manipulate. For example, these are typically done barehanded here. Not removing something like a glove could therefore be considered disrespectful. We should always be on the lookout for ways that we can make someone screw these up so that they offend somebody. Don’t just invent how it’s done right, but make a note about how it can be done wrong and what that typically means to people.

Sometimes one gender is expected to make the gesture first, but we can change this and have older people be the one expected to do it. That seems to suggest that those with higher social standing do it, so maybe it’s not age, but something else. Children are often not expected to do it the same way, or they’re cut some slack for not getting it right. They may have their own greetings.

Another issue that comes up is the strength of the grip. Some people us a weak one, some people do a strong one, and for some people it’s in between. Some people place a lot of importance on this, and I have had the experience where some guy has essentially crushed my hand in his because he’s trying to make a point about how strong he is. But that can actually be considered rude when it actually hurts, and that has happened to me where I have felt some disrespect for this guy for crushing my hand. So, that’s one way that this can go wrong — too much, or not enough, force.

Sometimes these gestures can also go on for too long. There was an infamous video, probably several of them, of Donald Trump shaking someone’s hand and essentially refusing to let go. When something like this happens, it becomes awkward for the other person and anyone who is watching it. This social aspect is important because we can be judged not only by the person that we’re greeting, but by anyone else who witnesses what we do.

As a result, there can sometimes be a lot of pressure on how we go about these, and that’s especially true if we are doing something like greeting royalty. Most of us won’t have the chance to do that, but our characters, in theory, if they are traveling and they’re going to save the world, they’re going to be running into some very important people. If they’re going to a specific kingdom to ask for help from the people who are in charge of that kingdom, then instead of just having everything go smoothly, one of the ways we can have it go wrong for them is for them to screw up the initial introductions. This is both simple and believable.

Either with a handshake or without it, another version is the kiss. Doing this on the lips is, of course, considered very intimate. So, most of the time, we may kiss the top of someone’s hand, for example, or one or both cheeks. If we’ve invented a species that has something like really sensitive ears, then maybe kissing them on the ears is considered going too far. Once again, we should figure out how long this is supposed to be so that we can decide when people mess this up. Even without kissing on the lips, it’s still pretty intimate to get your face that close to someone else’s where you’re kissing them on the cheek.

Now, if we’re going to have greetings like that, maybe the culture also prizes something like cleanliness and not having something like body odor because it might be a little bit more uncomfortable if you’re a little disgusted by that person, but you have to go through with this kind of greeting. If people in one culture, or from another species, have a different sense of how much cleanliness is appropriate, then this is another way to cause a kind of conflict. This is one of the funny things about greetings because the whole point is to make sure that our interaction goes well, and that’s what we’re hoping for, and yet it can go wrong right from the start.

World Building University

If you’d like to learn world building skills through instruction, I’ve launched World Building University. There you can find one free course you can take just by signing up, which has no obligation. Other courses are in development and available now. You can preview parts of every course, all of which include video lessons, quizzes, assignments, and sometimes downloadable templates that are even better than those found in the books.

To get your first free course, just go to worldbuilding.university.

More Gestures

For most of us, bowing seems like one of the more formal ways to greet someone. Naturally, our barbarians are not going to be doing this one. Or are they? It’s a way of showing respect. The degree of the bow also correlates to how much respect is being shown. Generally, the deeper the motion, the more respect. Similar to the bow is the kneel, where we get down on one or both knees. What both of these have in common is how long you stay down. Maybe the motion is quick, or it’s slow, and maybe you have to stay in that position until you are released by the person to whom you are bowing. In all cases, we should decide how touchy the culture is about how well this bow is performed.

Then there’s the salute, which we mostly associate with the military, but can exist in other scenarios. The number of fingers used is something that we can vary. We can vary the position of the fingers, as well, such as having them be straight or having them curved so that they touch the thumb, for example. This is another area where Googling this can give you more ideas as you see variations that exist here on Earth.

One anecdote that I picked up when I researched this is that in Poland they use two fingers, just like the Cub Scouts, and this led to the U.S. troops assuming that the Polish were being disrespectful to them. How far did this go? Well, the Polish troops were actually arrested until the misunderstanding was cleared up. That seems a little excessive because it is, but we can do the same kind of thing to get our characters in trouble. In some places, the salute is only done when a hat is worn. In other places, it’s only done when inside.

If you’ve seen any war movies about Vietnam, you know that officers were often saluted by others, but sometimes other people were told not to do that because it essentially identified an officer who could be then targeted by a sniper. So, a practical situation can lead to variations. We can also have the palm facing downward, outward or inward. Upward could be an option, but it’s kind of hard to pull that one off all the way. We can also close the hand altogether, such as when we make a fist.

These variations should give you some ideas on ways that we can make variations of our own. If you’re wondering about the origins of the salute, it is believed that knights used to raise their visor to identify themselves, and also show that they were not afraid of their opponent.

Most of the gestures we just described are somewhat formal, so there are other versions, like the casual wave that we give to people. Sometimes we just smile, nod our head at someone, or maybe even raise our eyebrows. Generally, we want to acknowledge the other person. Just decide on two of these: the formal one and the informal.

Subscribe

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For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

For Android listeners, you can download the Stitcher radio app, which is free, and search for The Art of World Building.

This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

Language

Let’s talk about language. According to many, the way we speak carries as much meaning, if not more so, than the words we actually say. One of the problems with email is that it doesn’t carry tone as accurately as the human voice. It is, therefore, easier to get ourselves into trouble and have a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what we’ve said, or our intent, when we use the written word versus when we speak. This is not to say that people get things right just when they are speaking, but it’s a little easier.

Many of us take tone for granted, but what we want to focus on with world building is not the tone with which a specific person says something, but what sort of tone the culture in general uses. For example, are they eloquent or very casual? Eloquent language has a tendency to be wordy and have longer words in them. Casual has shorter sentences and shorter words. When we think of elves in fantasy, they often come across as being very eloquent, even though we can’t understand a word they say. This is partly the language that Tolkien created for them, at least in The Lord of the Rings. But other races, such as the Klingons in Star Trek, have a very harsh and guttural sound to them. So do the Dothraki from Game of Thrones.

Even if we can’t understand a word of the language they say, the tone of it comes across. When we characterize this, we may want to think of a relatively neutral audience, like ourselves, and how we would view these languages. It is from that vantage point that I would say that Dothraki is harsh and Elven is eloquent. But an elf would not only think that Dothraki or Klingon is harsh if they were in the same fictional universe, but they would probably think that something like English is harsh. This can be an important distinction to make in your notes, or we can just make a kind of general note to ourselves as a reminder that something like elves think all other languages are kind of harsh, and only certain ones are especially so. You could have an elf say something like, “Your language is so ugly, but at least it’s not as bad as Klingon.”

One thing about tone is that we judge people based on this tone, and one thing that can mean for us is that we can characterize a whole species, or a culture within that species, just on their tone.

Review

if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at artofworldbuilding.com/review. Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again, that URL is artofworldbuilding.com/review.

Expressions and Slang

Within language, we should also pay attention to slang and expressions. Most listeners of this podcast have probably seen Star Trek and heard a certain amount of the technobabble, but that’s not really what I mean. We need curse words and related expressions. When I watched Game of Thrones, it bothered me for a while when people would drop the f-bomb. Not because the word itself bothered me, but because it reminded me too much of Earth. This may be one reason why Battlestar Galactica went with the infamous “frak” instead. Of course, that can also be jarring because you realize how they’re using it and that they’re still reminding you of Earth even though they’ve changed it. If memory serves, they did that, partly, to get around censorship.

At this point, the f-bomb is so universal that we can go ahead and use that the same way we can use various words for excrement. These are bound to exist in every language, and these one-word swears are very convenient to use. It’s important to note that some words can be a benign word in one language and something offensive in another.

For example, in the U.S., the word “bloody” doesn’t mean anything in particular, but it does in England. If I say, “This bloody car won’t start,” in England, that’s the same as saying, “This ‘effing’ car won’t start,” in the United States. On the other hand, if I say, “I’m not going to pick up that bloody knife,” in that context the word doesn’t mean anything like that. This is one way that we can take an ordinary word, like an adjective, and apply it to another scenario where it becomes offensive.

A good way to make our swear words stand out is to combine words, and we’ve done this on Earth. Two examples would be “dumbass” and “bullshit.” There are many others that I won’t repeat here to keep this more PG, but one way we can do this in our setting is if we have invented an animal, then we can replace some of these, like the bullshit version, with some other animal and then the word for excrement. Why do we choose a bull? Well, it sounds good to say bullshit, but a bull is also supposed to be a very strong animal. In theory, that would suggest that its excrement is especially nasty. Maybe in a fantasy world we would say “dragon piss.”

All we really need is something objectionable, including parts of the body. This is why anything involving your butt is considered bad. If we have an animal with an especially nasty horn, then we can use that horn plus something else to come up with a name. If the species is called “jack,” then maybe we say “jackhorn,” and that is the same as “jackass.” Maybe it suggests that you’re going to get speared by one of these because you’re the sort of person who deserves it.

Expressions can be a little harder to invent. Two of the ones we need are ways of saying that we agree with someone, or disagree. If I think you’re wrong, maybe I just say “you’re wrong,” but maybe I use the expression “you’re full of crap.” In the U.S., when we agree, we say things like “okay,” “sounds good,” “alright,” “yeah,” and “right.” And we all know what a pirate says.

And “pirate” seems like a good place to stop. In the next episode, we will complete our talk about inventing culture.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from my album The Lost Art called “Lagrima.”  You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

Jun 162020
 
Episode 27.2: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture. This includes how the body is part of culture, from clothing to hairstyles, body modifications, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to create cultural body modifications, hair styles, tattoos, body language, clothing, accessories, and more
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 27.2 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part two. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes how the body is part of culture, from clothing to hairstyles, body modifications, and more. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Cultural Appropriation

Just a reminder that you can buy transcripts of these podcasts by going to www.artofworldbuilding.com or to Amazon.

Now that we’ve discussed the ideas that lead to culture, it’s time for the fun part, and that is actually inventing customs. There are so many options that we could create that we’re going to try to focus on the things that are most useful to world builders. So, neither this episode or the corresponding chapter of Cultures and Beyond is going to cover everything. However, the things we’re going to do are going to get you the most bang for your buck, and the basic idea of what we’re going to do is something that we can apply to other items that I don’t cover here.

As we get started, I want to mention a term you’ve probably heard, and that is cultural appropriation. I talk a lot about using Earth analogues, so the question is, are we going to be accused of borrowing something from Earth and having that be cultural appropriation if we show it in our fictional world?

First, let’s talk about what cultural appropriation means. What we’re talking about is an element of a culture that is taken outside of its context and used by someone who’s not from that culture, but it’s done in a way that can be considered insulting or devaluing that, especially if it’s done in a shallow way.

For example, something like wearing a hairstyle from another culture could be considered that because it’s just your hair. An example of this would be white people with dreadlocks. Do world builders need to worry about this sort of thing? Well, I don’t really think so. One reason is that there is a limited expectation that world builders are going to invent a very detailed and thorough culture, and the reason for that is it simply takes a massive amount of time.

One way to avoid it seeming like we’re just doing it in a shallow way is to tie that cultural element we’ve borrowed back to the cultural vision of the culture that we are inventing. That will make it seem like it springs from a value, a moral or a belief. An audience member on Earth who comes from that culture may then see this as a kind of homage and actually be pleased that it has been included that way. In the end, it comes down to respect. I’ll also remind you of my Rule of Three. Make at least three significant changes to anything that we borrow.

This has a caveat with culture. If we want to borrow a culture wholesale, then yes, we need to make at least three changes — probably a lot more. But if we’re going to just take a single element, like the dreadlocks, for example, well, there’s not too much you can change about just that one thing. It’s really the combination of multiple things if they’re all coming from the same culture. As an example, when I watched the Avatar movie, as much as I liked it, I couldn’t help thinking — and I still think this every time I see it — that James Cameron basically took Native American culture wholesale and just transplanted it to a fictional world.

Japanese culture is another one that tends to get stolen wholesale, and there are very few changes from it, so you recognize it when you see it. And this is always bad partly because it breaks the willing suspension of disbelief that the audience has. It reminds them of something back here when they’re supposed to think this is another planet — and one that has no relation to us. And yet, there’s the same culture from Japan. One way to get around this is to divide things up. So, let’s say we like the Japanese culture around dining and we use that with a few minor changes. Well, don’t also take the way they dress or the way their bedrooms are laid out. Don’t take everything. Just take one section of it. The result will be that we may remind people of that culture, but we don’t look like we just took the whole thing.

Body Culture

Let’s get started with some manifestations. We’ll start with the body. This is going to include body language, things like hairstyle, body modification like jewelry, gestures, clothing, and, of course, accessories. Now, we may not cover all of that in this episode, but it is all in the book.

At first glance, the body may not seem like a cultural item, but it is. An example would be ageism, which does exist today, where we may not respect our elders. And then, a long time ago, larger women were actually considered more attractive because they were considered better bearers of children and that they would survive childbirth better. But today, of course, we expect everyone to be thin. So, this is a cultural idea.

This desire to be thin can result in eating disorders, and even models who are already fit are having their photos photoshopped for magazines covers. Whether they’re the one behind it or the magazine is doing it, it doesn’t really matter. From a cultural standpoint, there’s still this enormous pressure to be thin. While those are specific examples, there’s also the general appearance of someone in culture because, in business, we make ourselves look really presentable, but then if someone is dressed in a very casual way but they show up at a job interview, that is considered a negative. Unless, of course, the culture of that company is fine with people walking around in shorts and flip flops. When I worked at NASA, we had a running joke that anyone wearing flip flops, shorts and a Hawaiian shirt was probably one of the scientists because they could get away with anything. Could I have shown up like that? I don’t know. I never tried, but I certainly wore casual clothes to work. That was the culture there.

Let’s talk about body language. The way we walk, sit and stand are all influenced by our culture. Many of us have probably heard of that idea of someone being trained to walk by balancing a book on their head because this is supposedly going to make their posture upright. The desire for that erect bearing is a cultural idea. How many of us have been told not to slouch? The way we would use this is mostly to characterize an entire culture as having an erect, proud bearing, or most of them being very causal. That erect bearing may originate from a cultural vision of looking like you have your act together, and where appearances are important. Dignity might also lead to this.

The culture could be strict. An oppressive culture, because of the government, might have people walking around with their backs hunched. Walking tall in that culture might be something that gets you into trouble. The authorities could read into it that you need to have your spirit broken.

Another body language issue that’s very important is eye contact. How often have you been told, as a child, not to stare at someone, especially if they look different? Doing so is considered rude, but looking away in other circumstances might be considered weakness. If we make contact, are we expected to acknowledge the other person in some way? Such as an actual greeting or just nodding our head? The way we would use something like this in a scene is to have two characters make eye contact, and then have one of them look away, and maybe think to themselves that they did so too soon, for example.

The concept of personal space is another one that comes up in any culture. We don’t really need to define this, such as saying two feet is fine and less is too close. We can just have one character think to themselves that someone is standing too close for their comfort. That said, perhaps this person is creepy and that’s why this is happening, or the person who feels that the other is too close has some sort of issue that makes them feel that way about a lot of people. In other words, if we have the character think this, we may also have them think to themselves that there’s something about that person that makes them feel that way, or they’re like this about everyone. Basically, we can characterize one of the two people while getting across a cultural expectation.

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Hairstyles

Let’s touch on hairstyles. This is something that will definitely apply to social groups. For example, in the 1950s, in the United States, men were expected to have fairly closely cropped hair, but in the 60s and 70s, many of them grew it out long as a sign of rebellion. Hairstyles are a very good way to characterize a social group as opposed to the entire country, for example. But we can do it on that level. What if wearing your hair a certain way is done during a holiday season, or some religious event, and it means something to people? Maybe women usually wear their hair up in a tidy fashion, but then they wear it long and in a more flowing fashion at certain times of the year. A difference like that is probably going to come from a belief, and it may be religious in nature.

Something to bear in mind is that hairstyles change relatively frequently, so what was fashionable a decade ago might no longer be today. The main reason to care about this is only if we want to comment on someone wearing an old hairstyle. If it’s a tradition, it could last a lot longer because it’s going to go back maybe 100 years or more.

And then there’s the wig. Most of us have seen period films where men are wearing these really long, white wigs that have some sort of powder on them. This was definitely a cultural phenomenon. This got started in France by Louis VIII on accident because he was covering his baldness. Other people, of course, associated him and the wig with power because he was a king, and it spread to other countries and it just became the thing. This actually led to a taxation on the powder that they used on those wigs, and that is part of what led to the cultural change where that stopped happening. Another reason behind it, incidentally, was that it was easier to control things like lice by just shaving your hair and using these wigs.

On the subject of hair color, we often associate Asians as having black hair and Nordic types having blond hair, but this is not actually a cultural issue. This is obviously just something about the body and this naturally happens. But, that said, of course, for whatever reason, we talk about the prized blond hair and blue eyes. Some people really desire this, and as a result, they dye their hair that way. If we have elves that are known to have golden hair, and people are aspiring to be like them, then maybe humans are going around dying their hair that way. That could be considered appropriate for human royalty, but maybe not for a peasant. This is one way we can use this sort of thing.

And for men, facial hair can symbolize things like strength and manliness. Some guys will wear one for that reason, and maybe an entire culture is doing so. We typically see this with fantasy where all of the dwarves have a beard.

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Body Modification

There are many ways that we may choose to modify our bodies, and these can be part of a cultural group. Sometimes these take place during some sort of rite of passage or a ceremony. This could result in a celebration if it has been done, and maybe some shame on somebody if they haven’t done it when they are expected to have already experienced this. For example, let’s say that you’re supposed to get your nose pierced when you turn 18, but it’s done by your family, but you were a runaway or an orphan and it didn’t happen. As a result, you’re now in your 20’s and everyone can tell you never had this happen.

Of course, you could get someone to do it, but maybe it’s part of the society where they don’t let you have that happen if it wasn’t done under the right circumstances. Therefore, no one will do it for you. Maybe you try to do it yourself and botch the job, and that leaves a scar that is visible. These are all ways that we can work this into our characterizations. We can decide that these happen at any sort of milestone, like a wedding or a childbirth, or just turning a certain age. We don’t necessarily need to explain it because it could just be an expected tradition. But, of course, explanations often help us characterize things.

The source of this expectation, instead of just being a cultural vision, could be that maybe someone important in the past had this body modification, and this was esteemed, the same way that Louis VIII had that wig and people associated that with power. Well, maybe this body modification is similar. All we really need is some reason for it to be desirable, and it’s always wise to make those explanations as short as a single sentence.

One thing to note about body modifications is that it often causes a judgment, and many of those are negative if that judgment is coming from someone who is outside the social group that is making those modifications. Those who don’t have a tattoo may be negative about those who do, especially if someone has a lot of them. Of course, doing so is shallow, but people are.

Let’s talk tattoos. While there are individual tattoos that anyone can have, sometimes a social group will have a specific tattoo that everyone is expected to get, whether that’s the tattoo itself or even just its location. These tattoos will always mean something to the group, and it will come from their vision.

Some tattoos are not permanent, like henna, and these may only be done during certain kinds of ceremonies where they’re expected to be washed off in the day or two afterward. We can decide that women have more feminine ones than men. We can make them be multicolored or primarily one color. A quick Google search on this will turn up various traditional tattoos that are done by one group or another. Some of these are hard to describe and a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Piercings are another area where we do have individual style, but, again, this could be expected by a social group. While just about anything can be pierced, here on Earth the ears and nose are the most widespread. They also go back the farthest, to ancient times. Stretched earlobes and lips are another kind of piercing that we often associate with Africa. The number of piercings, the material, the size of them and even the style can all be expected and represent some sort of value, and they might be something that is more expected of, say, nobility for their wealth. Someone could also wear a piercing to identify themselves in some way, the way that gay men used to wear only one earring to indicate their orientation.

There was actually a belief and a superstition in the Middle Ages that if you had a specific piercing, that would improve your long-distance sight. The origins of such a thing might be someone having great eyesight and having that piercing, and they become associated with each other and other people start doing that piercing, hoping that they will also have that sight even though these have nothing to do with each other. This is one reason why it can be fun to invent these.

Another body modification is branding, though on Earth this is really frowned upon because it’s too much associated with slavery. A brand not only marks property, but it can be used to humiliate someone. One way to do that is to put it in a very visible location. But there’s no reason this has to be a negative. We might have a religion that considers it an honor to have the god’s symbol branded into their flesh. Since that is very permanent, that could be considered a great sign of devotion.

Sometimes branding is done for punishment, such as for a military person who commits an offense like deserting. Basically, if the culture feels like anyone should know that this person has committed a specific crime, they might be branded for it. Today, child molesters have to register on a sex offender website, but what if they were branded so we didn’t need such a technology?

Lastly, let’s talk about implants, which is something that’s definitely going to be a big option with science fiction. We can make technology be part of the body. This can be done either to enhance an ability, a sense, or just to replace a lost or damaged area. It could be tradition that we receive a certain type of implant when we reach a certain milestone. Those with that implant would probably have an advantage of some kind. But it could be a negative. What if people are considered more likely to commit crimes once they reach a certain age, and therefore they get this implant to track their whereabouts? Such a scenario could certainly lead to a lot of cultural changes, such as people really valuing their freedom before they reach that milestone.

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Gestures

Gestures are another area of the body that is part of culture. While many gestures are part of something like a greeting (and will be discussed later when we get to that), some of them stand alone. There is one gesture that, for many of us, immediately comes to mind, and that is the raising of the middle finger. This is done to show displeasure, and it’s important to think of that when we’re trying to create an alternate version. How did this come to represent that? Well, it’s supposed to be representing the penis. The remaining knuckles that are bent are supposed to represent the testicles. This is why it means “fuck you.”

As it turns out, on Earth, there are cultures that do variations on this, such as having two fingers representing two penises. But it depends on which way the hand is facing, whether it’s considered rude or not. There’s another hand gesture that is supposed to represent a woman’s privates. I’m not going to go through all of these, but I did cover them in a little more detail in the book. There are times when a gesture is considered fine in one country and is considered rude in another, and this is something we actually run into here on Earth. For example, the “OK” symbol in the United States has the tip of the index finger and the thumb touching each other with the other fingers fanned out, but that gesture is considered to represent the anus in some countries, and therefore it is rude.

The devil horns gesture can essentially be an accusation that someone’s wife is having an affair with a man who is more virile like a bull. Even something as simple as shaking your head for “no” and nodding for “yes” is not universal and can lead to misunderstandings. Crossing your arms can be considered standoffish in some countries, but in others it’s considered arrogant. Shaking two fists at someone in Austria is supposed to be for good luck, but in other countries it could be considered a threat. The foot can be considered unclean, therefore showing the bottom to others is considered highly offensive.

Another interesting aspect of gestures is that sometimes it’s only offensive because of our location when we make that gesture. For example, doing that while you’re standing over the threshold of a doorway can be considered good or bad. The doorway is considered a transition, therefore a gesture that normally means peace could be seen as rude, as in you wish that something bad happens to that person. What we need to do this ourselves is just think about what a location means and how we can spin a normal gesture that is done somewhere else into having a different meaning there. Generally, we have a lot of leeway to invent gestures and what they mean, so this is an area where we can have a lot of fun.

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Clothing

Let’s talk about clothing and accessories. By itself, clothing is a subject that we could spend way too much time on, so we’re only going to cover the basic ideas and how these can be applied to other areas of clothing that we are not going to talk about. What we’re after is a general sense of style. Sometimes this is impacted by technology. For example, we all take the button for granted today, but while it was invented a long time ago, it wasn’t until the 1300s that buttons were used to fasten two pieces of clothing together, like the two halves of a jacket. Before that, they were just decorative.

How did this affect culture and dress? Well, people wore looser and baggier clothing, and if it was tightened it would’ve been with something like a string of some kind. A cloth being just draped around you like a toga was also a style. Once buttons were used to fasten clothing, then tighter clothing was also introduced. Imagine the affect of suddenly more form-fitting clothing having on people’s impressions. This could lead to resistance to that because it might challenge an idea of modesty.

So, one decision we can make is whether buttons exist for tightening clothes in one society or another, and how that affects dress. Just because it existed in one sovereign power doesn’t mean it exists in another, even if people from these sovereign powers mix a little bit, because we might have this cultural resistance to the button and the resulting styles of clothing. This is a good way to distinguish two cultures from each other.

We might think that only a barbaric society may not have buttons that are used this way, but even the Romans didn’t and they were smart enough to have aqueducts and dams. And, of course, they had the Roman Empire where they conquered so many lands, and yet they still didn’t use a button to fasten their clothes. It seems incongruous, but it happens. But even though that happens in the real world, we may get flack from an audience who does not understand that kind of thing.

Clothing can be used to indicate your status, your gender, your rank and your social class. It can also be used to indicate what you are doing at this particular moment. If I’m wearing a suit and tie, I’m probably not lounging around at home in that. Unless I just got home or I’m about to leave, we associate that with work. There’s no reason we can’t make up certain types of wearing our hair or styles of clothing that are only done when people are doing a specific activity. What we often see in science fiction works is someone wearing the exact clothing in every single scene. In books, this may happen because authors haven’t thought about it, but it also might be because it’s considered a waste of exposition to keep talking about what someone is wearing — and there is some truth to that.

In science fiction, anytime someone’s part of a crew, like a starship, they’re usually wearing their uniform everywhere, and therefore we can get away with it. But, in many cases, we really should pay more attention to this. More adornment on our clothing tends to be associated with finer people, or those who are rich. For example, in Ancient Rome, the tunics often had colored band, and the width, number and color of these indicated your social standing. We can pretty much make up any version of this that we want for ourselves. Naturally finer fabrics suggest more wealth, while coarser ones are for the poor. We can do the same thing with colors where richer colors are considered for the wealthy, and the plainer colors, like a drab green, is for the poor.

The more important an indication of status is to the culture, the more likely these visual elements of it will exist. Think about our modern world where many of us don’t really care about status, and therefore you could have people who are on the same experience, like a boating trip, and some of them could be making twenty thousand dollars and some of them could be a millionaire. You won’t necessarily be able to tell, by looking at them, based on their clothing.

Clothing can also reflect what is important to the society, a group or individuals. For example, if hard work is considered admirable, then maybe the clothing is kind of dependable, simple, and very coarse, and it’s mostly unadorned. On the other hand, the rich don’t need to work, so maybe they’re always dressed in finery. Modesty is another element that we need to pay attention to because women might not be allowed to show something like cleavage or a side boob. Maybe they can’t show the ankles, the knees or the thighs. How low must a dress go? Are they required to wear a dress or can they wear trousers? Pants were considered masculine for a long time, and therefore a woman wearing them was frowned upon because she was thought to be trying to act like men. We can leverage this idea and show how people are being judged for defying a cultural expectation regarding clothing.

Accessories

Let’s finish up by talking a little bit about accessories. This includes things like bags, eyewear, footwear, gloves, any headgear like a hat, jewelry and things like a watch. In both fantasy and sci-fi, we might have weapon holders, and in sci-fi we might have wearable devices. With any of these, we can have expectations about when it is okay to wear them and when they should be removed. Sometimes this is practical like the bottom of shoes getting dirty, and therefore you’re supposed to take them off when you enter someone’s house. Certain types of hats can be worn at some locations, and sometimes it’s unacceptable to wear the wrong kind of hat to the wrong thing.

One interesting tidbit is that a woman’s hat is often considered part of her ensemble, and therefore it doesn’t need to be removed. But a man’s is expected to be based on where he is going. Some cultures think it’s rude for a man to wear a hat indoors. Most of us don’t even know why, but we expect people to remove them. We might even be the person telling someone, “You have to remove your hat.” And if they question us, we may not have an explanation for why. This is funny because we can enforce cultural expectations without even knowing why we are doing them.

I’ll use wedding bands as another example. This is traditionally worn on the left ring finger in the United States and some countries. The reason for this is that the Romans believed that the vein in that finger led directly to the heart. Even though we know better today, the tradition remains. But it’s not universal. Other countries where the ring in different places, and for similar reasons where there is some sort of association with that body part.

Some accessories might result from a function. For example, maybe we have a winged species that is often used as messengers, and they carry the messages in scrolls. That scroll case might become an accessory that they are typically seen with. How do we use this for culture? Well, maybe there are times when they want to indicate that they are not working, and therefore they leave it at home. Perhaps wearing it gives the impression they are willing to take a message from someone, and therefore if they walk into a church with that, they’re considered to be trying to work and that could be frowned upon. Therefore, maybe it’s expected that they take it off at the door, just the same way that people remove shoes in some cultures.

This is the kind of thinking we want to do when we are inventing any sort of cultural item that has something to do with the body, or anything else, as we’re going to discuss in upcoming episodes. I ended up talking a lot more about the body, so we’re going to end up talking about other things in subsequent episodes about culture.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from The Lost Art called “Villa-Lobos Prelude #1.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

5 Tips – Organizations

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Jun 132020
 

5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #2): Organizations

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is Organizations. You can read more in Chapter 2, “Creating Organizations,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “What Do They Want?”

Every group wants something, so decide whether they want to control an object, possess land, hold power, uphold philosophical ideas, or something else. Not knowing what they want and why makes for an unconvincing group. We also don’t understand what will drive them, upset them, or make them go too far when thwarted. A goal is everything.

Tip #2: “Decide Who Their Friends and Enemies Are”

It’s too simplistic to decide that an organization operates without allies and enemies. Whether individuals, species, kingdoms, or other groups, those connections decide who they are. We sometimes must create those other groups first, but circle back and finish this connection. It will pay off.

Tip #3: “Create a Power Structure”

Does power rest with a committee or a single strong man? Is that strength physical or supernatural? Knowing who’s really in power and why helps us create tension within the group. Otherwise, they seem to just get along with each other too well. Tension is a story’s lifeblood, so don’t overlook threats to those in power and how it can taken away, and by who.

Tip #4: “How Do People Join or Leave?”

Can people leave this group or are they murdered for trying? What do they lose if leaving? How do they join? What must they do to be accepted or remain? This can add tension for members, who may be tempted away by other characters in our story.

Tip #5: “Create a History”

An organization has people with a shared viewpoint, so what events caused them to band together? What ideas drive people to them? This can be the rise or fall of an idea or government that they miss or want to oppose. Leverage other historical events already in the setting, by creating a group (or two) who dislikes what’s happened.

Summary of Chapter 2—Creating Organizations

Organizations for good or evil are a staple of both fantasy and SF. This chapter discusses both group types and their world views, plus common traits like goals, enemies, friends, and their source of (and quest for) power. How members join and leave such groups is an important element, as some organizations might prevent or inhibit departure. Prerequisites can also bind a member to the group. The history and actions of a group are an important part of its reputation.

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Patreon Reward – Ep. 17

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Jun 032020
 

Patreon supporters at the Knight Tier have a new item available: a downloadable PDF of “The Art of World Building Podcast Transcript – Ep. 17!” All previous episodes are already available!

Get Reward/Join!

Podcast Episode 27.1 – Creating Cultures

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Jun 022020
 

Episode 27.1: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture, defining what culture is and is not, how to develop a cultural vision, and the types of cultural depictions we’ll likely need.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Where culture originates
  • The difference between culture and custom
  • The difference between customs and traditions
  • Why you should develop a cultural vision and how to apply it
  • Why we need to avoid “race as culture”
  • How much culture to invent
  • The different cultural depictions
Coda

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 27.1 Transcript
Intro

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part 1. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes defining what culture is and is not, how to develop a cultural vision, and the types of cultural depictions we’ll likely need. This material and more is discussed in chapter one of Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Defining Culture

Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of every episode from this podcast. In fact, you can actually buy the podcast episodes themselves as audiobooks. You can just go to artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon and search for that title.

To get started with culture, we should have a good idea of what culture is. Most of us have some idea, but, at the same time, we’re also kind of vague about that. So, let’s get specific.

One way of looking at culture is that it is the lifestyle for a social group, and that social group could be anything. On Earth it could be Christians, another religion, metal heads, punk rockers, nerds, jocks or pretty much anything. Each one of these groups has its own culture. At the same time, they belong to a larger culture. So, we could have all of the groups I just mentioned living in the United States, which has a sort of broader culture that encompasses all of those. You can think of this as a culture scope. And when we are trying to invent culture, we should figure out what scope are we inventing it for. Am I just creating something for a little group like the metal heads, or am I creating a culture for a region or a country?

Culture is also a set of expectations about how people are supposed to behave. Anytime we have a culture clash between one character and others, what’s usually happening is those expectations are not being met. Anytime an expectation is not met, that usually causes a negative reaction. That negative reaction causes some emotions, and it also causes judgment about the person who is not meeting our expectations — whether those judgments are fair or not. A simple example would be that if you’re driving a car in the United States, you’re on the highway and you’re going to turn off, you’re supposed to use your turn signal. That’s what our expectation is. That’s part of our culture. So, if someone doesn’t do it, you’re behind them and you don’t understand why they’re slowing down, and then, at the last second, they suddenly turn off the road, sometimes we get angry that they were rude to us by not letting us know what they were planning to do. At its simplest level, this is basically what culture is.

Culture Origins

The next question, then, becomes, “Where do these expectations come from?” The answer is basically values, beliefs and morals. These are what we might call the origins of culture, and they manifest in specific ideas. For example, if the value is being polite to people, then in the example about the car driver, they weren’t being polite to us, or they weren’t being courteous. And if courteousness is a value, then they have offended that value. The important point here is that we’ve got the points of origin, which are these values, beliefs and morals, and then we have the manifestations. To some extent, they really do come in that order, and that’s the order that we’re going to talk about them today.

In other words, when we are trying to invent a culture, we should start with those beliefs, values and morals, and then work on how they manifest. That’s not to say that we can’t think of specific issues that are happening, the specific manifestations, but we always need to have some idea of what the original source is, otherwise we might be creating cultural aspects that conflict with each other. I think of that as cultural vision, and we’ll talk more about that in a few minutes.

So, let’s take a look at the points of origin for a culture. As we get started here, I want you to think about a kind of hierarchy where culture might exist at the sovereign power level, such as a kingdom, and then at the regional level within that kingdom, and then the settlements within that, and then within there you would have different social groups. That said, those social groups can exist across different settlements and regions. One reason we want to think of it this way is that there is a kind of inheritance from the larger picture, like the sovereign power level, all the way down to that small social group.

One reason to think of it this way is that we may want to focus first on the government type that this place has. Why does this matter? Well, a democracy is going to have a very different set of ideas that are being promoted by that government versus a totalitarian dictatorship. In Episode 14, which was actually three different episodes (14.1, 14.2, 14.3), we discussed in some detail the different types of sovereign powers. So, I’m not going to rehash those details, but I want you to pay attention to that hierarchy when you are starting to create a culture.

The Influence of Morals and Values

Let’s talk about morals and values. What’s the difference? Well, an individual’s values come from within and they can change in time. By contrast, morals are taught by society and are usually kind of deep-seated, and they’re slow to change if they ever do. Morals are like a guideline for how to live rightly.

Now, despite these differences, we can actually treat them as the same when we are trying to invent a culture. In the book, I have a list of traits that we might want to consider. And I’m not going to go through the whole list, which isn’t comprehensive anyway, but I’m just going to mention a few to get your head in the game here. So, we have acceptance, compassion, courage, fairness, honesty, integrity, justice is a big one, politeness, respect, self-control, and tolerance. A more high-minded society will value different traits than a barbaric one. So, which one of those would you think prizes dignity, equality, politeness and tolerance? Which one of them is going to maybe focus on things like self-reliance, courage, respect and integrity?

This is one way that we can start approaching the grouping of these values. A more democratic society, or one that has more freedom, is going to value many of these traits that I’ve listed, but a more oppressive one, like a dictatorship, might have a different set of things that they are concerned about. For example, that oppressive society might tell its citizens that they need to be obedient, humble and sacrifice themselves. It’s worth pointing out that the government will be pushing that as the culture, but individuals within that culture might have a very different set of traits that they value. For example, perseverance in those harsh conditions. All of this is why we want to consider the government type.

The Influence of Beliefs

Another source of culture is beliefs. Many of these originate from religions. When we are inventing a religion, which was covered in the previous episode, we can take some of those ideas and make them more cultural. A good example would be Christmas. This is obviously supposed to be about Jesus Christ, but, in our culture in the United States, at least, this has been turned into something that’s much more materialistic with all the presents and general celebrating of family, even if you are not a Christian. This has become such a big deal that the entire holiday season from Thanksgiving through the end of the year is considered an actual season of holidays as opposed to just Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s. This is a cultural phenomenon and it’s one that has taken over much of the United States during the last five or six weeks of the year.

There are other concepts from Christianity in particular that really permeate life in the United States, and that includes heaven, hell, the devil and many of our common swears, which I’m not going to repeat here in order to avoid offending any of you. But let’s take a look at heaven and hell. A basic idea here is that if you behave well and live a good life, you end up in heaven, and if you’re bad, you go to hell. This is a basic value idea that is part of a belief, and also, then, part of culture. In fact, this is actually part of the psychology and philosophical outlook of many people in the country. This is true even if you are not a Christian or you don’t believe in the stuff. You still like the basic idea of bad people get punished when they die and good people get rewarded. You’re one of the good people, and some jerk who just made you mad is going to get what’s coming to them sooner or later. Right?

One way that this can affect culture is that there may be a day of the week, for example, that is reserved for religious observances. So, for example, in the United States, for many of us, that is Sunday. For other people, it is Saturday. This depends on the religion. I know that many places might be closed early on a Sunday because many people are supposedly in church. Why does this matter? Well, if I want to go to the grocery store, I know that a lot of people are going to be at that grocery store on Sunday afternoon. So, maybe I want to go in the morning instead when there’s hardly anyone there. This is exactly the kind of thinking that characters of ours are going to do in their world.

So, even if we don’t intend on using religion, for example, in a major way in our storyline, part of the world is still going to be impacting the decisions people make and when they choose to do something. It’s also a really good way to slip in some world building into the storyline where a character basically says, “Well, I don’t want to go tomorrow morning to do so-and-so because it’s going to be so crowded. Maybe I’ll wait until people are observing this or that religion.”

Of course, what I’m talking about here is using an Earth analogue, or taking something that happens on Earth and we’re modifying it for our fictional world. If we do this in an intelligent way, it’s going to resonate with the audience and seem like our world is more believable. In this scenario, I would be thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I would do. I’m going to go to the grocery store Sunday morning instead of in the afternoon. I totally get this character, and they’re practical like me.” But if I’m religious, I might be thinking, “Well, this person should be going to church at that time.”

Superstitions

There are beliefs that are not religious in nature. They may be based on something like a 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 your path. If we want to use an animal that we’ve invented the same way, then all we really need to do is something like give it a trait that is ominous, such as having a poisonous tail, and then making this animal somewhat rare in the location where this superstition has originated. For example, a black cat crossing your path is not going to be scary if that happens every day because there are thousands of black cats living in your area. On the other hand, if a black cat is rare, okay, now you can assign something strange to this.

Sometimes understanding the origin of a superstition can help us invent some of our own. Passing under a ladder is a good example because that’s basically unsafe for not only you, but the person who’s on the ladder. The black cat idea may have come from the association with witches. We can create these same kinds of associations ourselves. Bear in mind we don’t necessarily have to explain these to the audience because it’s actually better if we don’t. A little bit of mystery goes a long way. But when we’re trying to invent these, we can make a note of these associations in our file so that at least we have some sort of rationalization for what we are doing. And it’s not because we need to explain it, but because it helps us think of something in the first place.

If I have a world where wizards are considered dangerous, and wizards tend to have black cats, for example, well then, there you go. I can just decide the black cat is considered bad. Now, obviously, that’s too similar to Earth, but you get the idea. This is one of many ways we can leverage world building we have already done to create more world building. I’m not going to go over all of these, but there are other ideas in the book where I discussed some of the origins, such as Friday the 13th or the breaking of a mirror, and these can give us more ideas on how to go about this.

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Customs vs. Culture

Another area we should touch on is the difference between culture and customs. This one is simple. Customs are part of the culture. One way of looking at it is that a custom is one way in which culture manifests. For example, in some places it is customary to remove your shoes when you are going inside. When we talk about inventing culture, it’s almost easier to talk about inventing customs because most of us have a better grasp of what that means. To some extent, the two words are interchangeable and that is how I’m going to use them throughout the rest of this episode.

Two other words that are sometimes used interchangeable are custom and tradition. So, what’s the difference? It’s mostly the length of time that they are practiced. Customs are newer, but a tradition is something that is passed down from generation to generation. If we are inventing something that’s only been going on for 20 years, that’s probably a custom, but if it’s been going on for 200 years, that’s a tradition. Does it really matter? Not really. The one area that it might is that since a tradition is longer standing, it may cause greater offense if we defy the expectations that are embodied by that tradition. But this is mostly mentioned for clarity. We don’t really need to worry about this when we are inventing a culture.

Cultural Vision

Earlier I mentioned a term of mine, and that is “cultural vision.” That’s what I want to talk about now. The basic idea is that we should have a common element or vision from which we create things like greetings, dining and clothing expectations, because if we don’t, then we might create these manifestations of culture that seemingly contradict each other. For example, what if the culture has very formal greetings where there are multiple bows, gestures and elaborate phrases? And then we have a dining scene where we might expect similar fine manners, but instead we show people just shoving unwashed hands into food bowls, or licking their fingers and finally shoving that hand back into the food again. These two extremes contradict each other.

So, before we get too far into inventing cultural elements, we should determine a vision that seems appropriate, and these are always tied back to values, beliefs and morals. I’m going to give some examples here. We could have a cultural vision that prizes being refined, cordial, dignified, formal, high-minded and having controlled emotions. Or we could have one where the vision is hardy, boisterous, unrestrained, very familiar with each other and informal, maybe even crude and very open emotions. The first of those would maybe be appropriate for royalty, while the second might be something that barbarians exemplify.

Another cultural vision would be formal, overly apologetic, not being a bother to other people, being polite to a fault and maybe very restrained in affections. Where am I getting that from? Well, there are several movies that I watched in the 80s that depicted British culture to be that way.

Another vision might be people feeling entitled, or being very demanding and bold, proud, self-righteous and self-absorbed. As it turns out, that is what some other countries think of Americans. As with many things, we can borrow these examples from Earth and use them in our invented world. With analogues, I usually talk about my Rule of Three, meaning to make at least three significant changes. But we don’t necessarily have to do that with cultural vision because we don’t typically show the vision; we show it through manifestations as customs. It is those customs that should have a certain amount of them being different between Earth and our invented world.

What that means is we can steal a culture vision wholesale from Earth and just use it without changing it. This might even be considered wise because it’s difficult to create a culture. Nobody does this except for world builders. In the real world, a cultural vision kind of springs up by itself or is at least promoted from those in power of government. Even then, it’s going to be scores of people who are pushing something, not a single person who has to get it right. Well, I shouldn’t even talk about getting it right because that’s kind of a bad concept in world building. We don’t really need to get something perfect, especially something like culture because no one from our fictional world is going to show up and say, “Hey, you got it wrong.”

Race as Culture

Something else we should be aware of, especially if we have invented fictional species or races, is the concept of a race as culture. What do I mean by this? Let’s say we’re the ones who invented elves and we take a lot of time to invent a culture for elves. That’s great, but is it realistic that all elves are going to have the same customs? The answer is of course not, unless there’s such a small population of them that they’re all part of the same culture. But if we have elves living in one forest, and then 100 miles away there’s another group of elves in that forest, and 500 miles away from both of them there’s a third group, each one of them is going to have a different culture.

But one of the things we often see in both fantasy and science fiction is that a race is presented as having this kind of mono-culture that is exactly the same regardless of where anyone lives. This is not realistic and some people have pointed out that this is a flaw in world building, and it’s one that we should try to avoid. But there’s a problem with avoiding this. That might mean that we have to invent, in that example, three different cultures. Well, that’s a lot. Even inventing one culture is difficult. Now we have to create three or more? Well, I don’t think this is actually as hard as it seems. What I would suggest is that we create a culture for all elves, and then remember that hierarchy idea I was talking about before? We had sovereign powers, and then within that we had regions, within that we had settlements, like cities and towns, and then within those we had social groups.

Well, we should create a culture for all elves, but then what we’re going to want to do is create some variations between different regions, and then different cities, and then within different social groups. However, we only need to go so far with this because if we’re not going to use one of those other groups of elves, for example, then we don’t really need to worry about it. And when it comes to inventing those variations, well, world building, like a lot of writing, is the act of making decisions. It’s just decision after decision we have to make all the time. So, any time we can’t really decide between two choices for our custom or a culture, well, do both of them. Keep one of them for one group of elves, and make the other cultural decision for the other group. The more we do this, we end up with one overall culture for elves, but then if we have, say, wood elves in one forest, and high elves in another forest, whatever the names people use sometimes, we’ve got slightly different cultures for each one.

One way we can use that is if our characters are used to one group of elves, dealing with them, understanding their culture and how not to offend those elves, and then they’ve traveled 1,000 miles away and now they’re running into another group of elves somewhere else, they might try to give something like a greeting in a way that they think is not going to offend those elves, but it actually offends them anyway because the culture is slightly different. This is how we can use that. Again, we don’t have to go overboard with this kind of thing. A few touches will just get across the idea that not everywhere is the same.

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How Much Culture to Invent

One of the questions we always wonder about is, “How much culture should I invent?” So, let’s take a look at that. If we aren’t careful, we could spend the rest of our lives inventing a culture, which is also true of world building in general. So, let’s try to avoid that.

Asking why we are inventing culture can help us decide what to focus on. One of the reasons is that we are trying to portray a more engaging and realistic world. The more different it is from Earth, the more people become curious. And if we add enough details that are consistent with a cultural vision, then it can seem more realistic. Another reason is to make our story appear like it’s taking place somewhere other than the familiar. In other words, not on Earth. Lazy world building is all over science fiction and fantasy, and one of the easiest ways to spot it is when the culture is no different from anything on Earth, or from what we imagine medieval or renaissance periods were like here on Earth.

Another reason to invent culture is to cause a culture clash in the form of tension that happens from expectations and misunderstandings. In other words, if we need something to go wrong when our characters are traveling, culture is a great way to do that. We don’t need our characters to commit a crime to get themselves into trouble when they arrive in a new settlement or sovereign power. They can just do something minor that offends somebody, and maybe that person is too aggressive, picks a fight, and the next thing you know, people are getting arrested and we’ve got a story problem.

We can almost divide up these into minor offenses that might make two characters dislike each other and cause some difficulties, to more serious breaches of etiquette that can lead to ruined agreements, like a treaty, and then imprisonment or even death. All of those can alter the trajectory of our story, and this can be a great reason to invent culture.

All of this can help us decide how much culture to invent for any location, and then how much those cultures need to differ, and on what subjects they differ. One way to approach all of this is that when we are outlining a story, we can just make a note that we need some sort of culture clash to happen prior to a given scene, or right at the beginning of it, in order for it to cause the resulting calamity. We don’t necessarily have to have worked out the culture when we are planning this plot moment. It’s almost like writing “fight scene” into a fight. Instead of working out exactly what happens, we can just write in there, “Culture clash.” Then, later, when we do some more world building around our story, we can figure out exactly what cultural clash seems most appropriate for this story and for what we need to happen.

Another reason we might need culture is if our characters are traveling across a landscape and passing through many sovereign powers like they do in The Lord of the Rings, then each one of these is going to have some cultural differences, and if we treat them all the same, well, it’s not believable. But when we create a culture for each of those sovereign powers, we don’t necessarily need to go into every conceivable detail. What do we need? Well, in the next episode, we’re going to go into details about some of those items.

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Cultural Depictions

Another concept to cover is cultural depictions. What do I mean? Well, when we show culture, there are going to be items that are only seen, ones that are only heard, and then there are ones that are performed. I only mention this way of dividing things up for clarity as we look into what to invent and what to bypass. Some of this will also depend on our medium. If we are an author, the visual aspect doesn’t come up very often, but if we are a gamer or in the film industry, the visual aspects do come up. In those mediums, things like architecture, clothing, hairstyles and body language can be taken in with a glance. But for authors, a lot of that would have to be described, and that can often be considered too much exposition.

That actually gives us a good excuse to skip some of that if we are an author. We’re going to talk about all of that in more detail in the next episode. Rather than skipping visual depictions altogether if we’re an author, we may want to mention the impression that something or someone creates. That can be more important for the audience than a listing of, say, all the details of what their clothing looks like. We can sometimes combine both of these by talking about how those details gave an impression to other people or the character who’s observing them. When it comes to both clothing and something like architecture, we may want to avoid using terms for everything because a lot of people aren’t going to understand what those terms actually mean.

When it comes to audible depictions of culture, the words our characters say are most of what we need. Sometimes culture actually dictates that we not say anything, or it may dictate that we say them in a certain way. Some of this is, once again, easier to depict in gaming or film because the characters will actually be saying these things, but authors have to use adjectives to describe how someone speaks. This can mean that something like tone is something we comment on once in a while, but not all the time. Instead, we might want to focus our world building efforts on the actual words and phrases people use.

There’s also this idea that it’s sometimes not what we say and do, but what we don’t that is revealing of ourselves. For example, if someone gives us a compliment and says we’ve done really good with something, we’re not supposed to go, “Oh yeah. I know.” That can be considered a rude response to a compliment. It can also be considered egotistical, and we prize humility, so therefore you don’t react that way. Instead, the expected response might be just to nod at the other person, or politely say thank you and then change the subject.

There are other versions of audible depictions, such as the desire to be quiet in a library, or muting your phone when you are attending a meeting. Loud music in a bar is expected, and the result is that we often have to shout in someone’s ear in order to be heard. As a result, we are getting much closer to people than we are normally allowed to do in our culture. Even our voices or the way we speak can be part of our culture. Some languages are considered to be very flowing, while others are considered to be kind of grating and harsh. This style can be reflective of values.

Lastly, there are the cultural depictions that are performed. For example, eye contact. In some situations, we are expected to maintain it, and in others we are expected to avert it. Attitudes about respect, deference and domination all influence what we are supposed to do. There are also expectations about what side of the street people are supposed to walk on or drive on. Perhaps we are expected to remove a hat or shoes when entering certain places. Whether a cultural depiction is visible, audible or performed, many of them are combined into kind of hybrids that we’ll talk about more in the next episode.

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Where to Start

Even though there’s another episode about creating culture, I want to talk about where to start now. The order in which we create a culture isn’t that important, with one major exception. We really want to decide on the ideas and beliefs, and then come up with a unified cultural viion before we get too far into those manifestations. We will get the most mileage from the culture ideas that we’re going to talk about in the next lesson, including things like greetings, farewells, habits and other daily life ideas.

Despite what I just said, we don’t have to start with a cultural vision. We can think of a few examples of culture and custom that we want to have in our story, and then kind of work backwards from there and see if we can figure out what value, belief or moral seems to be behind that, and the use that to start creating other manifestations.

Closing

All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from The Lost Art called “Bach Prelude.” You can hear more at RandyEllefson.com. Check out artofworldbuilding.com for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

New Course Launched!

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May 252020
 
Accelerated World Building

Accelerated World Building

World Building University (WBU) has an Accelerated World Building course that is now available! This course walks you through decisions on what you invent for your setting and what you can skip. And this will speed up your world building!

Piers Anthony Quote

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May 202020
 
Cultures and Beyond (Vol. 3)

Cultures and Beyond (Vol. 3)

Endorsement from Piers Anthony, NY Times Bestselling Author

I read Cultures and Beyond, The Art of World Building 3, by Randy Ellefson. I reviewed the prior two volumes, Creating Life and Creating Places, when they were published. Each volume is a comprehensive discussion of its subject, useful for new writers and surely for established ones too. I have been writing and selling novels for more that half a century, and I have been learning things here. I recommend all three for background reading for those who are serious about the worlds they create. The present volume is amazingly informative about the several aspects of culture, covering armed forces, religions, supernatural aspects, languages, and everything in between. It even lists all the American military ranks. Take a supposedly minor aspect, creating names. I have a small collection of books of names, which I use for my characters, trying not to duplicate myself too often, but I see I am an amateur in this respect. Naming names can be a science! Every section of this volume is similarly detailed. I am not sure whether reading it would cure the dread Writer’s Block for those who suffer it, but if a writer runs out of inspiration, reading this book well might restore it. Certainly it should be on the shelf, as it were, ready to check when uncertainty threatens.