A Quick Guide to Worldbuilding Cultures

In a previous article called Worldbuilding on the Crossroads I wrote about a technique writers can use to quickly create cultures for their worlds. For a background group this might be sufficient, but what if instead of a mere outline of a culture, you want to create an in-depth culture? A culture filled with customs, traditions, values and more? Well, I wouldn’t raise the question if this article didn’t provide an answer.

The process established below should be seen as suggestions, not as a clear-cut guide. The more complex you want your culture to be, and the more complex their history is, the more you will wish to jump between the different sections. The “finished” state of the culture you are building is up to you to decide, for cultures are complex structures which can be expanded upon without an end ever coming in sight. Such is the nature of worldbuilding. The work can never be truly finished, so it is up to you to call it quits when you have satisfied your worldbuilding needs. With those words of caution out of the way, let’s delve into this guide.

Environment and Migration

The first order of business is establishing the environment of your fictional culture. For this section you write down (in a few key points or sentences) what the environment in which your culture lives is like, and how they came to live in it. What climate does your culture live in? Did they always live in this climate? Has there been a significant migration of your culture from one climate/place to another? Did these people intentionally come to live in this climate, were they forced into it, did it happen in long-forgotten ancient history? Is their land prone to earthquakes, floods or other such events? What does their environment look like? What major landmarks and features can be found where they live?

Having gone through these questions, you may come away with something akin to: “A desert people who migrated into a swampland after being driven from their home by invaders centuries ago. The deserts were cold and made of coarse grey rocks, whereas the swamps are luscious, filled with vines and algae, but prone to rain and floods.”

You have now created a base to develop your culture from. It is from this base that you can create a great number of elementary features of your culture. For example, how do your people build their homes in the environment they are in? What foods can be foraged in this environment? What precautions must your culture take against the elements? How careless or carefree can your people afford to be? How did the practices your people developed in their previous environment carry over to their new environment?

Developing the appearance of your cultures’ environments gives you a basis to work with when it comes to their symbolism and artistic attitudes. For example, if a people lives in a dreary, grey land, how does this impact their usage of colour in paintings and other works of art? If they live in a land of mangroves instead of grasslands, does this change their perception of what an ideal world would look like? Does their environment influence their perception of an afterlife? If a people is surrounded by trees as tall as skyscrapers, what meanings might they ascribe to those trees? Perhaps the answer to these question is “not/none at all”, or perhaps the appearance of the environment turns out to be deeply impactful. It’s up to you to decide.

Attitudes and Beliefs

Having established the environment of the culture, it is time to use this knowledge to build the mentality of your people. You may already have some ideas about your people’s architecture, art and other material culture, but how have environment and history shaped their ways of thinking and of viewing the world?

What might an arctic people value? It is a harsh environment, so perhaps resourcefulness and communal cohesion would become matters of central importance to their survival. From this necessity, these arctic people might come to the conclusion that being diligent and hospitable are the highest virtues everyone should strive towards. From here you may think: “how would these values change if these people then came to live in bountiful forests?” How do the virtues your people have developed carry over to this new environment where worrying over communal survival is no longer essential? Do these virtues manifest themselves in different ways? Perhaps these people who valued hospitality as a necessity, now codify this hospitality into a series of commonly understood social rules. Rules such as: “Always give shelter to those who knock on your door. Always give the warmest place by the hearth to your guest.”

Another example might be found in their origin. What if a culture came about through intentional colonization? Perhaps a group of puritans fled from a culture of hedonism, crossed the waters to find a land where they could live as they wished, and found a tropical island in the middle of oceanic nowhere. With no outside threats and a land of plenty, would these people stick to their brand of puritanism? Would they soften their stances? Or perhaps they would double down and create a rigid moral system that permits no one to spend their time being idle on the beach with an opened coconut and a mango salad.

What does your culture consider to be virtues? What are sins? Is there a system of honour? Do your people care that much about sin, or are they more motivated by shame, guilt or fear? And from all of this, what behaviours would be considered sacred and venerable, or alternatively taboo, according to your culture? If a culture grown from war and turmoil in a land of volcanoes decide that wrath is a virtue and battle is sacred, would headhunting become a respected pastime? Would it be taboo in this culture to clean up your house and throw away the skull your great grandpa ripped from an enemy combatant’s neck once upon a time?

Material Culture and Customs

With the environment, general history and mentality of your culture established, you have now laid down the basis for your culture. You have created a deep culture, i.e. all that lies beneath the surface of a culture, and now it is time to use that knowledge to create the surface culture. Surface culture includes everything that is observable at a glance by people outside of the culture, from clothing styles to culinary practices, to martial arts and wedding ceremonies.

If a culture values modesty, how does this impact their style of dress? If a culture values temperance, how does this affect their music and arts? Would their music and art be austere, or do they not engage in it at all? If a culture has decided cannibalism is taboo, does this change their cultural perceptions of wild beasts that engage in cannibalism? Perhaps an animal that engages in cannibalism would be seen as a symbol of sin and filth by this culture. Perhaps in turn, the symbolized version of this animal becomes a symbol placed on the houses of ostracized members of their community.

What drinks can be made by a culture living deep underground? Perhaps wine made from fungus becomes ubiquitous. Would this make fungus-wine something dull and banal? Or would people living beneath the ground elevate fungus-viticulture to a high art, with certain styles and brand of fungus-wine becoming a sign of prestige? If food building sparks your interest, my article on Foodbuilding as Worldbuilding may interest you.

Subcultures and Countercultures

Once you have established a functional culture, you may decide to create subdivisions. Depending on the needs of your story and world, this step may not be necessary. But through creating subcultures, counter cultures and other cultural undercurrents, you bring life to your world. If there is a mainstream, some people will always want to divert from it. Some people will disagree with the values and virtues of the culture, some people may create an upper class, some people may get stuck in a lower class, and some people will develop subcultures surrounding niche interests and activities.

Again, you can use values, virtues, sins and more as a basis for these subcultures and counter cultures.  For example, if you have come up with a people who value temperance, a counter culture could arise that insists on gluttony and heavy drinking as a way of resisting the hegemony held by the temperate within their culture.

With counter cultures, imagine what your established culture would consider taboo and lean into it. Subcultures can arise from all sorts of origins. You could have subcultures based on cultural revival, in which practices that are no longer followed by your mainstream are brought back by the subculture. Alternatively, you can have subcultures surrounding niche interests, admiration and adoption of aspects from foreign cultures, or alternative lifestyles (nomadic or simple living for example).

Review, Redact, Adapt

Congratulations, you’ve created a culture! All that is left to do now is go over what you have written again and again and again and again and…

I would recommend that after the initial creation of your culture, you write down the key factors that form it. These naturally include values and origins, but if during your process you found that anything stood out to you in terms of sheer interest for example that their culinary practices played a key role in establishing their national identity, or perhaps that their styles of clothing are a source of pride I would catalogue these in a separate list from the broader culture outline you have established. This way you can easily remember the culture, the feel of it and how it functions if you take time away from your writing work.

Simply because a behaviour or custom could develop due to a culture’s circumstances, does not mean it needs to develop. Cultures ultimately remain human affairs and people might simply not adopt a practice even if it makes sense, so don’t feel pressured to make everything align neatly. If you have a fun idea for the culture which doesn’t fit in your outline, that’s not something to bemoan, but an opportunity to world build some new angles into your culture that you hadn’t previously thought of.

For example, you have an arctic culture, but you think it would be great if they wore wide-brimmed straw hats. Does that make sense based on your outline alone? Not quite. But if you think it adds to the culture, you can easily build it into your world. Perhaps a foreign people migrated en masse to this place and assimilated their wear into the local culture. Perhaps there’s a famous person on TV who wears this headwear and through a “Big in Japan” phenomenon, these arctic folk decided to adopt it for their own. How does this revolutionize the global straw hat market?

As a final note, I wish to acknowledge that this guide has not considered religion or technological advancement in any meaningful detail. I do believe that it is important for the reader to consider these topics on their own. The architectural necessities that an ancient culture had to consider in rough environments are not necessarily the same necessities as we have to consider nowadays, due to great improvements in technology. As for religion, belief is a powerful thing and can shape a culture immensely. You may decide to have the religions of your cultures grow from within, thereby adhering to the norms and values of the culture. Or you may just as well decide that religion came from god, the gods, the mind of a great philosopher or the mind  of a madman. There is too much variability in religion to neatly fit it into the structure of this article.

I hope this guide put the gears in your head in motion and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.

Further Reading

Roel Twen Karstenberg
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