World Building in Fiction: How to Create the Culture of a Fantasy Nation
How to Create a Culture: The First Three Questions
So you've got your map and a general outline for a fictional world. It's time to put people on those continents.
If you haven't already, ask yourself the basics about each culture you want to create:
- What are the needs of this culture? Consider food, building materials, technologies and the position you'd like it to take relative to the rest of the world (for example, weak cultures require powerful relations to become stable). Don't go too far with this last point. You can develop more or less powerful cultures later.
- What are the wants of this culture? Consider luxury items, knowledge, technologies, military assistance, etc.
- How does this culture function? Is it patriarchal, matriarchal, hierarchical, etc.? Is it internally peaceful or are there any civil wars or power struggles? Again, don't go into too much detail. If there is a disturbance in the function of this culture, you can decide what it is once the world is more fully established.
A common mistake is making each culture and nation too different from one another. Keep in mind that these people share the same planet. They may be different races, but some things will be universally true about them.
Who Are the Leaders?
Leadership makes all the difference. Answering the question of how this culture functions is enormously important. Whether they fish or farm is just an aside. It is important as a reality factor and can change the course of their story. But leadership is key.
The figureheads of your nations work best when they are discernibly different from one another (in personality moreso than in racial traits). Like any other characters, they have their wants and needs. Those wants and needs are far more likely to shape the progress of the world you're building.
Naming Your Fantasy Country and People
Some people find names easy. Some people find them hard. Whichever one you are, do not, for the love of all things pronounceable, go to an online fantasy name generator. You will get things like Xygrophrnilaknib. See how offputting that is? I have seen names like 'Wyldrigrenkledrysllthen' that you can pronounce after thinking about it for a moment—but you'll still stutter over it every time the character is mentioned.
Remember that national names will also need to be modified. If you pick Xygrophrnilaknib for the name of a nation, you'll need the people to be Xygrophrnilaknib-ese/ish/an. Admittedly, it's an extreme example. But it has been done, and I do see it done now. Word to the wise, Goodkind managed a successful series with names like Richard and Michael and vague place names like 'Midlands' and 'Westland'. It can be done.
Tips for Avoiding Xygrophrnilaknib
Note down words you like the sound of and edit a few letters. Bear in mind that if the name remains similar to the word, there will be assumptions placed on that culture from the start. If you call a city Avarice, you can expect your reader to think it's full of greedy people.
You can go too far in simplifying names. It is difficult to make somewhere or someone convincing if you've called them 'Moonshine Greenleaf'. If you're going for the route of mixing words up, find ones that are less cliché.
Choosing Races and Avoiding Fantasy Tropes
Try to avoid cliché with races, too. The 'humans, elves and dwarves' have been used so much that they turn off a good portion of fantasy readers. Yes, they're easy; everyone who's read/watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy or played any fantasy MMORPG or Warhammer Tabletop knows what they are. We know humans are stupid and mortal. We know elves are snooty and have some gift of longevity. We know dwarves are small, hairy and like to drink.
Give Your Readers a New Twist on an Old Race
Avoid the stereotypes. Use the familiar races if you really want to, but give them something that makes them different from the norm. A good example would be the Druchii in the Warhammer game/books/MMORPG. They were Dark Elves, to you and me, who were admittedly snooty—but they didn't live in trees or beautiful houses, and neither were they very nice:
- Their children ran races to put human heads on spikes.
- They loathed other elves.
- They ran Arks to capture slaves for sacrifice.
- They had a matriarchal society with a King underneath his Witch-Mother's thumb.
- They had religious turmoil that resulted in the Queen Mother and High Priestess constantly warring with one another.
- The King had been banished from his homeland by his brother after walking through sacred fire and being hideously mutilated. His body was fused to his armour.
That kind of twist makes things interesting. If you throw something at your reader that they already know, they aren't going to be half as interested. A new society that piddles on their expectations will catch their interest. Fantasy readers are accustomed to learning as they go. It's necessary to understand the novel in their hands (or the game they are playing, if you're looking at this from a game-writing perspective). Give them something to do. Make it as interactive as possible. Teach them about your creations.
Example Races (or Make Your Own!)
I personally don't use fantasy races all that often. I have centaurs in my present project. The rest of them are humanoids with different physical traits, similar to how today's races differ from one another. You don't need extreme differences. However, there are some very interesting choices for races, some of which are listed below. Enjoy twisting them. Make them your own.
- Fairies/Faeries/Fae Folk
- Anthropomorphic Animals
- Mythical Creatures (dragons, phoenixes, unicorns, pegasi, kirin, etc.)
- Mermaids/Sea Creatures
And these are only some of the potential races offered to you. You can make up your own. Maintain their racial traits and develop their natural advantages. Golems would make excellent miners, but I doubt they'd swim all too well.
Setting Up International Relations
You've established the wants and needs of these nations. The best way to begin understanding how they get along is to look at those wants and needs. Do any of them clash? Do any coincide with one another? If so, you're set up for rivalries and alliances. If you've managed to get a handle on your national leaders (if you only have vague outlines or a name at this point, don't worry about it), do any of their personalities clash?
Here are some things to be aware of about places and leaders:
- A kingdom is a country ruled by royalty.
- A county is a section of a country usually managed by the Duchy or Count/Earl (or equivalent), who is typically loyal to the King. If there is a civil war, loyalty can be in question.
- An empire is not one nation alone. In order to create an empire and become an Emperor, a King must have either annexed or dominated at least one other nation. There can be Kings under an Emperor if he chooses to keep them intact.
I say the above because of the frequent mistakes I've read over time. Confusing these terms in your writing will take away the reader's trust.
Patriotic? Weak? Strong?
Remember that a patriotic country usually has ideals that it is the greatest nation on Earth (both England and America are among the countries that do this; historically, Rome and the Ottoman Empire did the same). Weaker nations rely on good-natured trade or military protection from stronger nations—otherwise they'd not exist, should said stronger nation be aggressive.
Conflict Is Fun!
When you set up relations, keep in mind that the people in these nations don't need to like one another. Conflict is fun; don't be afraid of it. It sets you up well in the future. Conflict creates some great character opportunities and banter.
Developing Trade and Currency
If you've already worked out whether this country has a resource worth trading, you'll know whether they have a boon to their economy or not. You will need some form of currency. Global currencies tend to run along the lines of 'gold, silver, copper'. You can do what you like with it, provided it makes numerical sense.
Trade relations are relatively easy to go through:
- What does one nation have that the other wants?
- How is it transported?
- Into which cities are the goods transported?
- How much does the nation rely on this trade?
Keeping Politics Interesting
You can go into detail on politics, if you really want to. I do because most of my characters have political influence. But really, provided you've given the country a method of leadership (King/Queen, Emperor/Empress, Clan Chief, Senate, etc.) and know vaguely how it works, it should carry you along. If your protagonist never goes near anything political, it isn't necessary to delve into the intricacies of which faction is for the King and which is for the Senate. You're just wasting time complicating a situation you'll never come across.
If you're unsure about whether your protagonist will ever come into contact with a politician or ruler, do this part anyway. Politics can create some very interesting characters, and you'll want every avenue open when it comes to the writing process.
If you intend to build on politics, ask yourself the following:
- What kind of leadership does this nation have?
- Are there disagreements about what kind of leadership it ought to have? If so, what do the other factions want?
- Do other nations have a say in the internal politics of this country?
- Does the leader have strong control over disagreeing minorities? Or is the disagreement a majority?
Don't Bore the Reader With Overly Intricate Politics
By the time you've answered the questions above, you'll already have some great drama potential. Politics can get intricate—very intricate. Be wary of going too far. Unless you're writing for a politically interested audience, you're going to need to gloss over all but the important bits.
Embroiling the Country in a Civil War
As much as politics is the realm of the nobility, civil war affects everyone. If you decide to have a civil war in place, remember that when your protagonist comes into contact with it, everything will be affected:
- Trade routes will often be shut down.
- Brigands will take up toll occupancy on the roads.
- Nobles will be sucking up everyone (and everything) for their militia, especially if you decide to base the civil war in a feudal society.
- The economy will be crumbling.
All of this can affect your characters heavily. There is little to no chance they could breeze through a country embroiled in civil war. If you've already decided on your protagonist and this is their home nation, you should bear the above in mind. A nice, fluffy home on a farm isn't realistic. Farms would have been sacked for their food, and farmers would have been put to work for the noble in question.
You want your reader to engage with your character. Very few people come from a perfectly idyllic background. In reality, those times in life are reserved for distant childhood and often short moments in adulthood (until retirement, one could hope).
'Be realistic' is the bottom line. Do your research. Find out how things really were. Modify it. Use it.
Plan Ahead Now to Prevent Rewriting Later
Advance planning in the fantasy genre is extremely useful. If you don't plan ahead and you suddenly decide that King Hoogaboom should be Queen Hoogaboom after you've written 20,000 words, don't underestimate how much rewriting that will be. You will have to comb through the entire text, change scenes, potentially change how the character responds to a situation and change how the rest of the world views him/her.
As you're answering the questions above about your fictional culture's needs, wants, leaders, races, names, politics, etc., just remember: This is all part of the planning stage, and everything can be changed later. If you dislike something, it isn't set in stone—after all, you're the builder of this world!