So, I am currently working on two different short stories set in someone else’s world. However, I get to take my hand in these worlds through the stories I am writing. And one of the ways I get to do this is by designing some of the cultures that exist in these settings. So, I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about designing fantasy cultures.
The first thing I do when designing a culture is look at the geography of where the culture is going to be placed. Is it rocky mountains? Is it the high desert? Perhaps they live in pastoral farmlands. Then, I look for real world cultures that lived in similar geographic areas, and pick one or two that I like. Lately, I’ve been getting into the idea of smashing two real world cultures together, especially two that don’t seem like they would mesh, and seeing what I can. I haven’t yet been very successful at this, at least not to my way of thinking, but I am still fond of the idea. I blame Robert Jordan for this, with his Irish-Bedouin Aiel.
So, I’ve picked a culture. Let’s go with an example. Let’s say our geographic location is the artic north. What cultures in the real world work there? Vikings come to mind. As do Eskimos. Which one of these I pick depends mostly on the type of story I’m writing. Let’s go with the easy one tonight, and stick with the Vikings.
So, with that said, I now know that my fantasy culture is warrior based, probably due to poor resources in their region. They likely raid neighboring lands for food and materials, maybe even for women and/or slaves. That’s a rough basic sketch, but it works for now.
Now comes the part where you add little details that make this culture seem real. Remember that at this point, you’re creating a fantasy culture, so strict adherence to the real world culture is no needed. In fact, I advise against it. Start adding new things to the basic outline that you’ve described.
So, we know that in most popular stories about Vikings, they wield axes. I’m going to run with this, and say that in my culture, swords are considered the weapons of women, and axes the weapons of men. Never would a man use a sword, nor a woman use an axe. It’s just unheard of.
Throw in a few other little details like this, it helps define your culture some. Another example could be that the color black is the color of death, and so it is never worn. Another good one is to say that men do the raiding, but women do the defending. So, say that one group of my Viking people attacks another. The attackers would be men, but all the defenders would be women. The men of the defending village, if not out raiding on their own, would take the children and protect them should the women fall. But the women are tasked with guarding the walls of defending against attackers.
Now, something else to think about. This being a fantasy setting, what do these people think of magic? At this point in setting development, magic should be at least outlined on a basic level. Let’s go with my fantasy Viking culture. I’m going to say that magic exists, and it’s common enough that magic users are not feared or hated, but not so common that there are a lot of them, either. So, a person that is born that can use magic is sent to a special place where he or she is raised and taught how to use magic. It’s likely tied to their religion in some way. In fact, I like that idea.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. Religion is, in my opinion, important to a culture. I know a lot of fantasy writers want to avoid religion, or just make it some massive, generic religion that never references a specific deity. And that can work, but to me is unrealistic. And I won’t get into designing a religion in detail here. That could be a whole blog post by itself. But what I will say is that think about throwing in some culture-related religious ceremonies or beliefs.
So, back to my culture. I’m going to say that the chief god of these people is also a god of magic, and so the wizards in this culture are also priests.
Now, I have two distinct groups in my culture. Warriors and wizard-priests. Clearly, they are both important to this culture, which leads me to another question. What about everyone else?
Well, if they are resource poor, it’s unlikely that there are many farmers. Perhaps hunters and gatherers, which could still be warriors. Blacksmiths and shipbuilders would be respected non-combat positions. Healers, possibly magical healers as part of the priesthood, would also be respected. Everyone else would either be a slave or perhaps just a low member of the society. Likely, anyone that falls into this low category is not going to be mentioned in the story anyway.
So, that gives me a brief outline of my culture, and it’s enough to start with for a novel, and more than enough to run with for a short story.
I hope this has aided you in working up some ideas for your own fantasy writing. Until next time, keep remembering the future!