Don’t worry. All you need is a funny hat and some strange shaped buildings in the background.
My Honest Thoughts on Worldbuilding Cultures
Building a fictional culture is probably one of my favorite parts of worldbuilding. Maybe it’s because it appeals to my sense of history. Regardless, I love when a world can not only show me cool technology or magic, but also present a fictional culture with depth and nuance. I also really like culture clash. Conflict fueled by clashing cultural perspectives is always fascinating to me.
In a way, cultures are a lot like characters. They have their own traits and are often good at certain things and bad at others. They also change, sometimes rapidly. Dynamic cultures are particularly interesting because of the tension that rapid change often creates. Adding internal struggles within a culture is a great way to flesh out a society and set it apart from the many monolithic cultures often seen in fiction. I get why so many cultures are monolithic. It’s easy. But real world societies seldom are that stagnate or if they are outside forces will quickly disrupt that stagnation.
Perhaps the most common issue I see is actually in science fiction and that is not having a culture at all. I’ve read a number of novels, both self and traditionally published, that had a futuristic setting with characters who could easily have been from modern times. I find this as jarring as watching media from the 90s. Even though the 90s was not that long ago, cultural standards have changed so much since that time. Kind of a missed opportunity really. I would love to have characters from the far future quote lame memes as wisdom from the ‘ancient’ times. At least that highlights that things have changed rather than using modern slang straight.
The other big pitfall that science fiction tends to fall into is the Planet of Hats trope where an entire culture is defined by one trait. Again, I get it. Worldbuilding is hard and takes time, plus a screenwriter has to have the script done in a couple of hours. If a writer does have the time, then they don’t have the excuse though. Even if the culture in question is only there for a chapter or two, adding a few details will still help immersion.
Fantasy tends to fall into the medieval times default instead. Fairy tale land doesn’t really have much of a culture either. Point is, even in fantasy land, having distinctive cultures will help the story and even a fantasy story’s culture needs more than ‘it has kings, knights, and princesses’.
A writer can get too deep into worldbuilding cultures, but I find this less an issue than writers getting distracted by their world’s history. But the best part about fictional cultures is that they usually must be shown, not told. Showing a core cultural value through culture clash can really become engaging if handled right.
Whenever I create cultures, I always start with values and taboos. These values and taboos are informed by that culture’s historical context. Sometimes, writers just give their people a cultural trait without first considering why they have that trait to begin with. Often these traits are heavily influenced by their environment. Contrast the orderly ancient Egyptian religions with the wild and capricious gods of Mesopotamia. Ancient Egypt had the Nile river that flooded like clockwork whereas the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had no such pattern.
Finding inspiration is fairly easy. Look up a translated tourist guide of your own country. See how other cultures view your own. I read a bit from a few of these and they were fascinating. Building a culture that resonates can often be done by stepping outside yourself and your own point of view, to show yourself a different perspective. That is one thing that writing can do after all, show the reader a new way of looking at things. A well written culture can enrich a world view and offer a new perspective. Kind of like those emails I get that explain to me in depth about how my perspective is objectively wrong.