I’ve been inspired to blog about some of my thoughts on world building because of all the work I’ve been doing with my creative writing students lately. Last week, I talked about setting. This week I thought I would focus on culture.
This is a difficult aspect of world-building to tackle because it’s such a complicated thing in the real world. Sure, every society has a particular culture, but so does each community, school, and family unit. So, you have to consider all of these things when you create your own world.
Some of the questions you want to ask about the culture of your fictional world:
What languages are spoken?
What is the fashion like?
What types of jobs do the people have?
What transportation do they use?
What traditions and holidays are celebrated?
(The illustration at the top of this page depicts the biggest holiday in my fictional Land of Een: Jamboreen)
What food do they eat?
What do they do for fun?
The main thing here is to realize that everything is up for grabs. Don’t assume that your fictional world is a mirror of ours. It might be, but if you’re writing a fantasy story, then I feel that’s a lazy default. Readers of fantasy typically want to escape this world and explore a different one—and that means the author has to build something special and unusual.
Simply put, don’t assume that your world has the same beliefs, holidays, or even natural structure. For example, I really love what George R.R. Martin did with Game of Thrones—he made the seasons follow a completely different time cycle. In his world, summer and winter each last for years. And one only has to think of some of the delightful foods that the characters of Harry Potter can find in Diagon Alley or the village of Hogsmeade. These little details make for a rich reader experience.
When you start to think about all the nooks and crannies to explore in a world, it can be overwhelming. My advice is to start by brainstorming and generating lists—of everything. This includes names, foods, magical spells . . . anything that you know needs to be a special part of your world.
I’m a dedicated list-maker. I make lists for all sorts of things. Most of the time I’m the only one you can read them, but that’s okay, since they are only meant for me anyway. As a case in point, here’s a page from my sketchbook showing some of the items for sale in the market town of Trader’s Folly, which is featured in my upcoming Kendra Kandlestar book.
I find that this process indispensible. These lists give me fuel, and help get me thinking about a story. I can spend ten minutes here and there on these things and by the time I actually get to the writing part, I don’t have to suddenly stop and wonder what the details are—I’ve already figured them out. Or, if I get to a part of the story and realize I don’t have the details, then I skip that part, knowing that I have to go back and do that groundwork.
I recommend starting with something that seems mundane, and making it exciting. Food is a perfect example. I’ve had a lot of fun inventing food in my Kendra Kandlestar books. Some of the foods that the Eens eat are rather pedestrian, like carrot soup (Kendra Kandlestar’s favourite meal), but others have a bit more “pop”: fudgery pie, squibbles and pip, glum pudding, and Een cake.
Fashion is another area to explore. I always enjoyed the fashion in the Land of Oz. In that world, each country within the land is physically a different color, and so directly effects what the citizen to wear. For example, the Munchkin Land is blue—the grass, the trees, and all the houses. (Of course, I’m referring to the original book series, not the movie). This means that the Munchkins dress all in blue, from their boots to their tunics and frocks, to their pointed hats. Because Dorothy is wearing a white and blue checkered frock, the Munchkins assume she is a friendly witch because she is wearing their color (blue) and the color of a good witch (white).
In the Land of Een, the main thing about their fashion is that all the Eens wear braids (well, except the animals). There is an important reason for this; it’s done to honor a famous figure in their history, Leemus Longbraids. He was the wizard who first built the magic curtain in Een to protect them from the outside world. Many Eens wear simple braids, but then there are those characters like Kendra, and her mother, who wear more interesting configurations.
Another interesting aspect of a world is language. There are some true masters of this out there. Tolkien, of course, invented an Elvish language, and Richard Adams in Watership Down invented a “lapine” glossary.
You don’t always have to invent a new language though. You can just invent a style or accent. My favorite author, Terry Pratchett, does this to great effect, especially in his Tiffany Aching series, in which the Wee Free Men speak in a Scottish accent and have a particular lingo that not only brings their society to life, but also adds a lot of humor.
For Kendra Kandlestar, I have a few different saying that the Eens say, such as “Days of Een.” I had the most fun, however, with inventing a speech pattern for the monster creatures. The Ungers, for example, speak with “zums” and “zees”, so that a typical sentence might look like: “Youzum! Youzum no gozum therezum!” It’s meant to be difficult for Kendra to understand—and for the reader too. But my reaction from the kids is that they love this sort of language (I’ve heard stories from parents and teachers of kids walking around and speaking only in “Unger”).
There are many other aspects of culture I could discuss, but the final thing I wanted to mention in this category is transportation. My characters mostly use their feet (though my one character, Effryn Hagglehorn, rides a giant snail). My favorite example of unusual transportation can be found in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. In his re-imagining of World War I, the allies use genetically-manipulated animals as transportation, such as the giant, floating whale-ship. But I mostly like his idea that the society doesn’t use wheels as the basis for locomotion, but legs. This is a photo I took of Mr. Westerfeld’s presentation that I attended a few years ago:
The photo on the right is a motorcycle that was built with legs instead of wheels; Mr. Westerfeld showed this to his illustrator, Keith Thompson, and you can see the resulting illustration on the left. Imagine: a whole world with vehicles based on legs!
I thought I would end this post with just a few photos of the world-building work done by my students.
In the next post, I’ll talk about another important element of world building: Rules of law.