During the Writer’s Digest Annual Convention, I had the privilege to talk with Theresa “Soni” Guzmán Stokes, Executive Director of the Historical Writers of America. During our conversation, I said that world building as I see it is fictional anthropology. There are so many things that interact and affect each other when creating a new culture that sometimes get overlooked by fantasy and sci-fi writers because they don’t look at their world like an anthropologist would a new culture to study. So let’s take a look at just a fraction of the things to think about when creating a new culture, and how everything around them can be interdependent with the culture.
A simple definition of anthropology is “the study of human societies and cultures and their development.” Now that is such a broad and all-encompassing statement it’s no wonder there are all sorts of sub-groups within the field of anthropology. Some of those sub-fields include social, cultural, philosophical, linguistic, economic, biological, medical, and forensic anthropology. That last term is probably familiar to anyone who’d ever watched an episode of Bones.
All that means that each one of those sub-groups is a field of research so wide and important that anthropologists can spend their entire careers studying just one aspect of culture. As a world builder, or a fictional anthropologist, you don’t have the luxury of focusing on just one field. You need to be able to think about them all.
I’m going to pick on fantasy for a moment now. One of the biggest failures of many world-builders is relying too much on fantasy tropes and trademarks. That’s dangerous in itself when creating your world if you want it to feel different. Yet, you want the reader to get certain parts of the genre that they are expecting, such as the “Happily Ever After” in romance.
Fantasy has so much to offer, and loses more when it relies too heavily on the Tolkien/Dungeons and Dragons/Robert Jordan style of secondary worlds. These worlds aren’t new cultures or experiences anymore. They’re “fantasy,” but not engaging worlds and often end up subject to very outdated ideas.
Why, if your culture is entirely new and different, are medieval cultural ideals the only way to recognize a fantasy setting? Why, if you have a female dominated world, does it just feel like a reversal of pronouns? Respect is not a finite resource that must be divvied up between genders or social classes. And don’t think that sci-fi writers aren’t guilty of this problem, too. Relying too much on “what you know” removes all the glorious possibilities of “what could happen.”
The best way to see how these things interact with each other is to look at cultures entirely different from your own. And not simply the big cultures, but the little isolated cultures that are almost extinct. Comparing those against your own is a great way to show you how everything in the environment affects how a culture develops.
Let’s take a moment to explore how you might go about thinking in this way. Every writer is different, so don’t take this as a prescriptive “This is the only way” kind of advice. I like to think of the changes I make to a world as a stone being thrown into lake with ripples growing out to affect everything.
For this case I’d like explore language, one thing that tends to be pushed to the wayside in many fantasy and sci-fi stories. Not for impractical reasons, of course. It can be narratively difficult to constantly need a secondary character translating for others in a scene when you want the action to move forward with main characters. But because of this, the way language affects culture is sometimes lost to expediency.
But language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The moment two languages meet they begin to share and change. In the same way, if two people with a shared language don’t interact, they will eventually create different dialects, if not entirely different languages. And language is vital to the way a culture sees itself. You instantly connect with someone who sounds like you and see one who speaks another language or has a strong accent as someone other than you.
How then do two cultures interact? When creating my epic fantasy world, I needed a common language for my characters to speak between the two disparate cultures. Since the two peoples have lived alongside each other for several hundred years, it made sense that a pidgin language would have developed quickly for immediate communication and eventually either one of the languages would become dominantly taught (though altered with the addition of new words and grammar) or the pidgin would become a creole language that would develop naturally with each generation.
I chose to go the creole route, but even then language doesn’t stop changing. Each side still has their old languages and continue to use words from those languages more heavily in their own lands. This means dialects form. Someone from either coast, far from the influence of the other culture, is going to use different words or pronunciations than someone on the border who has had to interact with the other culture daily.
Since my world has been at war for generations, someone who sounds like they’re from the border is often treated as if they speak too much like the enemy and can be distrusted by those who speak more like the old languages. This affects the way the characters interact with each other and what they are able to do.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that all this is done so that you, the author, can create a fully-developed world. Your reader will only learn the results of all this planning and cultural exploration through how the characters use this information.
I fully endorse doing research on other cultures, but it’s important to know who did the research and when. Anthropologists are people of their own cultures, and sometimes that can cloud the way they see another. Take the way mythology is taught.
Greek and Roman mythology is much more prevalent than mythology out of Africa. It’s not because Greek and Roman myths are somehow inherently better or more civilized than other mythologies, but because when the “classical canon” was developed, Latin-based languages and the history of the Roman Empire and the subsequent nations created after its fall were seen as “worthy” of study. African nations and cultures were seen as more “primitive,” and “unworthy” of study.
Our own cultural biases can impede the creation of new worlds. Whether it’s the fault of those we choose to research to help us, or our failure to see any other possible way to live, we need to be watchful that we give our world-building efforts the chance to be so much more than our own world.
What aspects of culture would you love to see more fully developed in fantasy and sci-fi worlds?