Writing Fantasy: How to Write Realistic Cultures

I am going to  have fun with this one.

Culture is a topic of endless fascination to me. Which is why, whenever I see fantasy writers who have obviously copy-and-pasted a real-world culture into their story, I can’t help but wonder “why? You could have done so much more!”. Of course, that’s just me being a nerd, and most people don’t care half as much about culture. They just want something that is different to the other culture(s) already in the story, and copy/paste works just fine for them.

However, the advantage of being a culture nerd is that, when someone needs help on the more nuanced parts of it, you know exactly how to help them.

Of course, the first thing I’m going to suggest is to take a real-world culture and move it out of its comfort zone. For example, taking Byzantine Greek culture and putting it into a world that more-or-less represents the world that Byzantine Greek existed in. A little bit boring, right? But wouldn’t it be cool to take Byzantine Greek culture and plonk it down in, say, a space station? You could have the ludicrously wealthy aristocracy, a culture centred around a huge space station that attracts trade from across the galaxy, court intrigue, eunoch soldiers, really extravagant iconography – and a group of rebels (real-world Greek iconoclasts) seeking to bring all that down and establish a galactic culture centred around free and uncluttered worship of technology.

My point is that you should be inspired by certain aspects of a culture, but not every aspect of it. If you take everything from a culture – its clothes, its government, its people, its timeline – then you have a copy/paste and it will be very obvious to whoever is reading that it is one. If you take small bits from each one, then, you can create something new.

Say, however, you don’t care about all that. You want to make a culture from scratch. So, then, what makes a culture a culture? How do they start? What should you include?

First and foremost, a culture is a system that gives the people that live within it a context. It teaches them that some behaviour is normal, that some isn’t, that this is the way the universe works and these are the ways it doesn’t. Once that is done, it surrounds you with like-minded people. It helps you to understand the world, and to communicate with others because, even when you start, you have much more in common with a stranger from your culture than you do with someone from a different culture. Culture, therefore, gives people comfort, security, and companionship.

When creating a culture, then, these are the things to bear in mind. What do people think about gender? Who should be in charge? Are people equal, or divided into different groups? Why are things this way? Did the gods make it this way, or is it just the ‘natural’ way things work?

Building off of that: how do people interact? Do people get married? Do they raise children as a community or does each set of parents raise their own children independently, like we do in the West? Is sex monogamous or polygamous? What about romantic relationships? Does everyone have the duty to serve in the army, or is the very idea of a standing army entirely alien to your people?

And so on, up the rungs of the ladder of existence, until you get to the top. Why are we here? What is my purpose? How was the world created? Why was it created? Every culture on Earth answers these questions, because ultimately, everyone on Earth asks them. If your culture can’t answer these questions, it will crumble when a different one comes along that offers better answers.

Once you’ve gotten through all these crazy questions, deciding what kinds of clothes they wear, what they eat and how they talk should be a walk in the park! But remember, if you want to make an authentic culture, answer these questions first before you go into the appearances and looks of your people, because if you start with these, you risk making a culture that looks alien at first but really feels like its just our own culture wearing a different skin.

Those of you who’ve read Game of Thrones will understand here: making the women of Qarth wear dresses that expose the left boob does not make them an alien culture. If anything, it tells us more about our own culture than the culture of Qarth.

Thank you for reading! As always, if you have any questions, or suggestions for things I should have included but didn’t, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you. I’m always happy to give advice, so if you have any questions relating to your own particular story, I’m always happy to offer my thoughts 🙂

Click here to see the other posts in this How to Write Fantasy Series.

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