Cultures (synonyms: customs, peoples, traditions, societies; example toponyms: The People of Long Lake, Gravpunks, the Asteronian culture) are a collection of shared histories, traditions, beliefs, social hierarchies, art, languages, fashions, and other elements held in common (or mostly in common) in a group of people. Fictional cultures are many and varied, from nomadic spacefarers to underground mutants, to cyberpunk gangs. All groups possess a culture to their own, from stoic dwarves to pacifist elves, and the creation of fictional cultures is a major worldbuilding element that can help transport an audience into a unique and nuanced fictional setting. Designing cultures can make a world seem both more foreign and simultaneously more familiar. While audiences may not understand a world-specific greeting, for instance, they will understand what it represents and a world will feel deeper for having such elements.
While cultures can certainly span civilizations, worldbuilders should also consider if smaller groups (gangs, rebel cells, guilds, etc.) also display aspects of a unique culture, subculture, or counterculture. This may be particularly true for elements like fashion and slang.
Fictional cultures are often used to highlight important aspects or examine weighty issues within our own real world cultures.
Designing Fictional Cultures
Many worldbuilders use real-world cultures as the basis for fictional ones. Vikings and Romans, for instance, are popular cultural archetypes to include in fictional settings. However, while using real cultures can allow designers to examine facets of that culture, it also risks trivializing or romanticizing cultures in ways that may alienate an audience. In addition to this, many worldbuilders will wish to create entirely novel cultures for their fictional settings. For these reasons, it may be best to approach the design of fictional cultures through a bottom-up approach. Designing the various aspects of a culture in an individual capacity may more easily create a novel and unique culture that is better tailored to a fictional environment without the problems of relying on a real-world element and the risks associated with that.
|Fashion & Clothing|
|Religion & Beliefs|
|Arts & Entertainment|
|Food & Drink|
Caution: Real world cultures are nuanced and complex. Using them as a basis for fictional cultures comes with risk.
Cultural Universals are things that every known culture on Earth contains. They can act as a resource for designing fictional cultures.
Culture may manifest itself in different architectural styles and often designers will develop architecture that showcases a culture’s or people’s traits, beliefs, and general tone. Dwarves, for example, may possess stout buildings made primarily from stone. Elves, on the other hand, may use more slender, delicate architectural elements composed of wood. While these are two extreme examples that exist within fantasy worlds, the ability of architecture to showcase a fictional culture holds true for even the most realistic of settings.
Fashion & Clothing
Fashion and clothing can be a striking and immediate showcase of a culture. Uniforms may be indicative of a military or strict hierarchical society. Body adornment is a cultural universal and designers should consider elements like jewelry, face paint, and tattoos. Different civilizations and cultures can have vastly different fashions and these differences can be used to create a more rich, diverse, and immersive fictional setting.
Colors, materials, and designs may be constrained by the local region, dyes, and weather. They may also be influenced by the local culture, and clothing may be in style, traditional, or taboo.
While large cultures may possess entire languages unique to themselves or to their region, smaller communities or groups may use slang to help foster a sense of community. Also consider regional expressions and how they may be used to create unique identities for cultures.
Religions & Beliefs
A culture may share a religion or certain beliefs about the nature of existence. Designing fictional religions and gods (which may or may not be real) can create conflict and drive a larger narrative as well as helping to unify a culture.
Having a shared history is important in the formation of culture. A galaxy-wide diaspora may cause individuals to more tightly cling to the traditions and ways they held before being scattered across the cosmos. This shared history of tragedy serves to further cement a culture.
Food & Drink
Different cultures may eat different foods. They may have different ways of preparing it and different etiquette surrounding it’s consumption. Food and drink, and the social events involved with eating, can be a great opportunity for a worldbuilder to add additional detail to a fictional world.