There are so many customs and culture-related items that we could disappear down a research rabbit hole, so we’ll focus on things likely to be useful as storytellers and gamers. In addition to working out details in advance, world builders can refer to this chapter when creating scenes.
While much of culture can be invented when we need it, the disadvantage is inconsistency if we’re not careful and take notes. We can invent something earlier in a story or series, then forget and contradict it later. Generally, people (like our characters) don’t care about customs until encountering ones different from theirs or when expectations are not met. In the latter case, judgment about the offender results. This is one value to us as storytellers.
If we need a reason for characters to not be accepted warmly, failure to follow customs is a solution. This can be individual characters or whole groups rejecting someone. It can be wise or fun to include a character who is more well-traveled than other characters and understands how to navigate other lands without offense. This requires at least two cultures: the one our characters are from and the one in which the story takes place.
What is Culture?
Culture is an abstract, complex concept. Most of us have a vague understanding of what it means, but when we’re building cultures, we need clarity to know what elements to invent, why, and how. Culture is a social group’s lifestyle. It is symbolic communication and often taken for granted, which is one reason we have troubling grasping the concept. It is a set of expectations. It evolves over time, though slowly, sometimes with bursts of social change. It not only differs across sovereign powers, but within regions and settlements. The culture of football players is different from that of rock musicians. Nonetheless, if they exist in the same society, they’ll share other elements of culture; to coin a term, we might call this “cultural scope,” which will be discussed further in this chapter.
The case can be made that values, beliefs, and morals are the origins of culture. These are ideas. And they manifest as rituals, habits, customs, art, music, and the use of language. When broken down this way, it becomes easier to determine what work must be done, and in what order: the ideas, then the manifestations. This is how we’ll approach inventing culture, rounding out our concepts before deciding what they’ve resulted in.
Even if inventing the ideas first is helpful, we may have a few of the resulting manifestations in mind because we thought of them first, but this is fine. We can work backwards from them and try to determine what ideas they imply. For example, if rigid formality exists in greetings, we can infer that people feel oppressed or suppressed, or that open expression of feelings is frowned upon. This can help us create more manifestations, but it can also suggest some values: that emotion is considered weak, that dignity is prized, or that appearance is important. We’ll look more closely at this.
Every culture exists somewhere: in a sovereign power (or several), a region, a settlement, a social group, or a race or species, to name a few. Every sovereign power has a form of government, which will greatly impact the cultures within it. We must therefore know what this is. Residents of a democracy have leeway to create culture whereas a totalitarian government may be forcing culture upon people; the culture will be very different.
Creating Places (The Art of World Building, #2) detailed our primary government options and, at a high level, what life is typically like for inhabitants of each. We want to consider how much freedom and control people have over their lives. The less freedom, the less variation in culture at the lower levels of region, settlement, and social group. And the more oppressive and rigid a government, the more likely residents live in fear and avoid any violation of expectations, which could result in imprisonment, torture, forced labor, or death. Before embarking on the invention of a culture, decide what the sovereign power’s government is, even if you’re creating culture at the social group level. It’s wise to create culture in the following order:
- Sovereign power
- Social group
The reason is that ideas and manifestations at the sovereign power level influence the regional level, and so on down to the smallest social group. If this seems like a lot of work, most of what we need to invent is at the top level and, being inherited by lower levels, only needs modification as appropriate if our tale or characters need it. Each person will belong to every level above their social one.
For example, Kier could be in the knight social group while Antar is in the archer one, but both are in the warrior one, the settlement culture, the regional one, all the way up to the sovereign power level. Some elements can be true in multiple cultures, such as nerds acting roughly the same way in Japan as in the United States; in reality, each will have its own nerd culture, but we’d still recognize some similar elements, in theory.
We may want to invent the most universal items early, then more localized variations. But we should always make a note about scope in our files. For example, “Throughout the Empire of Antaria (including sovereign powers and settlements that once belonged to it), wedding bands are worn on so-and-so finger.”
Every species and race is likely to have variations. The elves and humans in Kingdom Illiandor will not have the same dining etiquette, but some similarities will exist, just as the elves of Illiandor will share some dining etiquette with elves in another kingdom. This means that we could scope certain aspects as being typically elven and others as being of Illiandor. For example, let’s say that all elves drink only from the right hand, place a napkin in their lap, and never talk with food in their mouth, regardless of the elf’s origin (never mind that individuals can defy these customs). But all species of Kingdom Illiandor swear an allegiance to the king prior to dining. While more involved, this is believable depth.