How to Insert Unique Cultures into Your Fantasy World

February is Fantasy Month 2

Yesterday, we discussed the various races you might want to include in your books. Today, we are going to talk about the culture(s) of your world. What are they? How are they different? How do you show that they are different? What kind of hierarchy or caste-system do they contain, if any? And where do your characters fit within the culture of the realm?

Think about the differences between Rohan and Gondor in Middle Earth. Even though these are both human cities, they are vastly different in terms of culture. Their cities are different, their architecture is different, their clothing is different, and they value different things… and yet, it is still easy to believe that they both co-exist in the same world.

Highlighting different cultures in my world is something I focused on heavily when writing the Turrim Archive, and I’m sure I will tweak and work even more to bring out in the edits. But on a small continent that is home to six different countries, I wanted to make each of these regions distinct from each other with different foods, customs, clothing, names, and beliefs. Their architecture is different from one country to the next. Their political structures are different. And as my characters travel from one country into another, I wanted them to be struck by some of those differences (just as we notice differences when we travel abroad). My hope is that the world of Turrim will feel real to the reader. That it will be a place in which a person can become immersed because it isn’t just one sort of place, but has interesting things to see and experience in each part of the world. Freedom Destinations recommend these 5 Canadian rail holidays. Canadian train trips offer stunning scenery and provide more than just transportation from point A to B. Though train travel in Canada tends to be more expensive than bus or sometimes even air travel, train travel is relaxing, scenic, and social. The romance of the train is alive and well on Canada’s major rail systems.

I want to share an excerpt with you that exemplifies what I’m talking about a little bit, as my main characters have a day in which to explore the city near the Academy they have enrolled in, which is located in the country of Ondoura, the neighboring country to the one they grew up in. (This is still a VERY rough draft excerpt, so be kind):

Grayden wasn’t sure what he had expected, but Doran was nothing like any place he had ever been. He had half assumed the capital of Ondoura would be a kind of mixture of Elricht Harbor and Dalton, but he was wrong. The first thing he noticed was the heat. Even though it was late autumn, the air blowing in from the sea was warm and sticky, and carried a scent of spices on its back. He knew they were much farther south than Elricht Harbor, or Dalsea, but it was still difficult to truly grasp how different the weather was here on the southern border of Teldorin. As they stepped out of the carriage onto the cobblestones, Grayden noticed that the gaps between the cobbles were wide and filled with yellow sand. Tall trees the like of which he had never seen before rose up here and there, providing shade from the hot sun. He and Wynn made a valiant effort to keep their mouths closed and act as though they were something resembling nonchalant, stoic Academy students, but they failed miserably. After a while, they stopped trying.

The stone buildings were another new sight. Their own home village was comprised of either log cabins or huts made from wattle and plaster with large timbers helping keep everything together. Some of the houses had wooden shingles, though most were thatched. But these buildings had slate tiles covering their roofs, and their walls were made from a gray or reddish-hued stone and covered in elaborate carvings. The designs were wholly unfamiliar, but beautiful. Many of the structures were supported by various columns, all of them short and squat. Grayden had to admit that the city was impressive, but he secretly preferred the white stone and soaring arches of Dalton that drew one’s eyes up towards the mountain top.

The buildings drew closer together as they ventured closer to the harbor. Cathrin, who was leading them, stopped abruptly.

“The Doran Market,” she said, sweeping her hand out in front of her.

Grayden stared. It was so different from the Dalton marketplace, which had been set up in a huge courtyard, with all the sellers at tables or booths that were open to the sky above. Here, the booths appeared to be part of the outsides of the buildings, though upon closer inspection Grayden realized that they were separate, but so heavily decorated with each seller’s wares it was impossible to see where the booth ended and the building it was set up next to began. Glowing lanterns hung down on either side of the path, illuminating the various items for sale, and casting some eerie shadows on the faces of the merchants who had gathered to sell their items. Above them, large, colorful fabrics stretched between the buildings overhead, creating a false ceiling for the entire marketplace that daylight filtered through. And everyone appeared to be shouting. Bells chimed, animals whinnied and brayed and bleated, and sellers clad in simple robes of cloth as brightly colored as that of the makeshift roofs called out the items they had for sale as Grayden and his friends passed by. The smell of fish and herd animals mingled with scents of perfume and spices in a strange, not unpleasant way. It was at once overwhelming and amusing, as various entertainers were also situated throughout the criss-crossing streets of the market showing off their talents and begging for stin from anyone who lingered to watch.

One of the tiny details that I chose to focus on with giving each country its own unique culture was in my naming conventions. I have a set list of real-world cultures that I am drawing from for each of my 6 countries, and I make sure that any characters from each of those countries has a name that originates from one of those real-world cultures. Behind the Name is one of my most-heavily relied upon resources for this series!

When considering cultures in your fantasy realm, you don’t necessarily have to have everything figured out. Maybe you have an image in your mind from a movie or a picture. Maybe you had an experience traveling to a different country that fascinated you and you want to bring some of that experience to a reader. Maybe you are making the whole thing up as you go. But this is where you get to describe things and do your best to help your reader see what you see. This is one of those places that I usually have to go back and work on in edits. As someone who is not at all a “people-watcher” I tend not to notice or care what people are wearing or doing around me, and so I often forget to put those details into my first drafts. Whenever my husband and I are in a crowded place like a mall or an amusement park, he will often ask me things like, “Did you see what that woman’s shirt said?” or “Did you see what that guy was wearing?” And I’ll generally respond with, “There was a person?”

However, while description is good and necessary, this is also going to be one of those places where you will want to insert those little details as much as possible, without necessarily going into massive amounts of background information. If the people in your culture greet each other with a salute or a kiss on both cheeks or a bow or by touching ankles, you don’t need to go into a dissertation on where this practice originated in your world and why it’s still used. Just show your reader that the character does it and move on. Your readers are intelligent, and if they’re willing to suspend their disbelief for magic or made-up worlds or mythical creatures… they can probably figure out from context that, “Ah, that’s how people in this world greet each other.” And they will appreciate you assuming that they are smart enough to figure that out.

Consider the climate in the various parts of your world, as well. The weather patterns over different areas will affect the culture in that area. (I’m a bit of a weather nut, so this is something I probably overthink, and a lot of it never makes it into my stories, but it’s fun for me and I enjoy it).

Mountain SegueWhat is the most unique or intriguing culture you’ve read in a fantasy book? What made it so compelling or different? What details did the author give that made it stick in your mind? Do you like it when things like clothing and architecture are described, or do you not notice things like that?

Tomorrow we get to talk about politics!!!! (No, not the kind that make everyone mad… the fictional kind, where you get to decide how your world is run).

~ jenelle

Elves and Dwarves and Humans, Oh My!

Dwarves Elves Friendship

Ah, the conflict between elves and dwarves in Middle Earth! Which do you prefer? Elves or dwarves? Why? Most people have a fairly strong preference. One of the reasons behind that is because Tolkien took the time to create deep cultures and histories for each of these races, and he made them complex and varied, as well. And he made them relatable. They aren’t so very different from humans that we can’t empathize with them at all.

One of the reasons I love the above quote so much is because it so perfectly encapsulates much of what we know about the interactions of elves and dwarves. With these simple lines he shows their history and their humanity. He gives us a picture of two races at odds with one another, and yet, like in many feuds we have seen time and time again in our own world, neither side has any idea of what they are actually fighting over. 

Today, we get to ask a question about one of my favorite aspects of world building: what intelligent species inhabit your realm?

One of the most fun things about world building is deciding and creating the intelligent races you want to see inhabiting your story world. Part of the reason it’s fun, is that it involves character creation… and while world building is something I’ve had to learn, characters are blissfully easy for me. They sort of step into my imagination fully formed and full of their own ideas and back stories (yes, very a la “The Man Who Invented Christmas”), and usually they bring all of this along with them and are pretty willing to share it with me right away. I’ve had a recent few give me a bit more difficulty, but characters are usually the part of the process that comes easiest… so today we get to hang out in comfortable territory for me! (lucky you!)

When you are creating a fantasy realm, you get to decide who inhabits your world, and since we’re playing in the fantasy sandbox, that means you get a few more options than people writing say… just about anything else outside of the speculative fiction boundaries (speculative fiction, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a way of lumping everything on the fantasy-to-science-fiction spectrum together in one easy to say genre label).

So, who do you want in your realm? The sky is, quite literally, just the beginning of your limits. You can stick with just humans, as I tried to do with the Turrim Archive (that failed miserably, but I didn’t even mean for it to, and I’m not going to tell you what other races showed up, but I didn’t invite them, they just jumped into my story without my permission, took up residence, and refused to leave).

You can follow the high fantasy 3-race structure of humans, elves, and dwarves.

In The Minstrel’s Song, I included humans, dragons, gryphons, merfolk, unicorns, pegasus, and a few others, giving each race their own unique cultures and characteristics, but making each race fully capable of both good and evil, just like humans. Dragons in my world are not “all good” or “all bad.” They have the ability to be either. In that story, the human and myth-folk kingdoms have had a long and varied history. In the ancient past, the human and myth-folk kingdoms experienced peace and viewed each other as allies. Dragons and their human riders patrolled the skies, helping to keep the peace. But all it takes are a few misunderstandings to form a rift. Eventually, the humans came to fear the myth-folk. Wars were fought, and the myth-folk retreated into hiding. At the beginning of King’s Warrior, most of the humans in the world have never seen a dragon (or any other myth-folk creature) and don’t even believe they ever existed. (We’ll talk more about dragons and the like later on next week, I just mention them here because in this series I treated them more like a cultural entity than like a fantasy creature).

When you are creating different sapient creatures for your story world, I recommend thinking carefully about why they exist. How do they help you tell a better story? If your main character is a half-elf or a dragon or a gnome, how does that help you tell the story better than if they were simply human? What characteristics does that allow you to play with? What tropes does it allow you to subvert? What tropes does it allow you to hit in a unique or brilliant way? Remember, tropes aren’t bad. Tropes exist because audiences love them. You don’t always have to subvert them, but if you’re going to include a trope (and you probably are, because there is nothing new under the sun), be careful it doesn’t become a cliche. Use it purposefully, and make it work for your story to develop your character, give depth to your world, or further your plot.

In Revelod, there are quite a few different races. There are humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, giants, drakin, and titans. The humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, and orcs are all fairly standard to other versions you’ll find in most other fantasy novels. The drakin and the titans, however, are ones my husband created from scratch.

The drakin are descended from ordinary humans, who used to be enslaved by the dragon lords in Seyberron. However, 300 years ago, one of the Ari took pity on them and gave them the strength of their oppressors, allowing the human slaves to rise up and overthrow their overlords. This strength and other draconic traits gifted to them by the Ari were passed along to their children, causing the formation of a new race. While their heritage is human, they are now something that is partially human, partially dragon. They live in nomadic tribes and have a slightly longer lifespan than most humans. They love history and lore, but are deeply emotional and often unpredictable… a side effect of their draconic side.

The titans are a race that also descended from ordinary humans. During the Tytan War, the Haedrus Spire was the land of turmoil and destruction thanks to the Tytan Giants.  Driven by two of the Vanimor, the people of the Haedrus Spire lived with war and death as their constant companions.  After  a decade of war, two of the Ari took pity upon the Haedrian people and bent the Rules of Intervention and provided the strength and resolve the Haedrian people needed to stand up to the Dreadlord Tytan Giants wreaking havoc on the land.  Thus, was born the Titan people. Titans are a hearty people like dwarves, but they prefer wide open spaces.  The innate power of their Ari patrons blessed them with the ability to enhance their size and abilities to bolster their ranks on the battle field. They are forces to be reckoned with on and off the battlefield.

When you are considering what sapient races to include in your world, an additional question you might want to consider is: where do they come from?

Have these races always existed, side by side with the humans of your world? Does your world even have humans? Why or why not? Are they like traditional elves and dwarves, where they were created alongside humans? Or are they similar to the drakin and titans of Revelod and were once human but were somehow altered to become something new?

The good news is: this is YOUR world and there’s really no wrong answers here (huzzah!) If you want dragons, you can have them. If you want elves or purple-spotted gorantulas who live peacefully in the highest branches of an impossibly tall forest… be my guest! I am currently considering a flash fiction about crotchety old ice elementals who are rather put out at a perceived lack of respect by mortals… so… that should be fun to write.

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Let’s chat! What fantasy races do you get most excited about when you see them featured in a story? Do you prefer elves or dwarves? (or neither?) Why? What are your favorite fantasy races to write about? What are some fantasy races you think are underused that you’d like to see more of? Are you enjoying fantasy month? I truly hope so! Make sure to go to the pinned post and check out some of the other awesome bloggers who have joined the link-up! There are some truly awesome, thought-provoking, entertaining, and informative posts that have been written and I don’t want you to miss any of them!

~ jenelle

The Fantastical Beasts of Nälu – Guest Post J.L. Mbewe

Twitter DH creatures

The Fantastical Beasts of Nälu

by

J. L. Mbewe

Thank you so much for having me, Jenelle!

One of the things I love about fantasy are the fantastical creatures and beings we encounter. It can give the story a wild sense of wonder or terror. For today’s post, I thought I would invite you all to journey with me to the world of Nälu, where The Hidden Dagger Trilogy is set.

The world of Nälu has many fantastical beasts. No doubt, you’ll find realistic animals such as horses, goats, camels, and bears among such creatures as dragons, imps, trolls, and harpies. If we travel deeper, you’ll discover other beasties inspired from our own world as well as from movies and myths from around the world.  

Hidden Dagger

In Secrets Kept, we have a chance to glimpse the letanili from the third floor of Cuthbert’s Inn. Like a massive elephant with tusks and horns, it was a beast tamed by the Giants. Not too exotic yet.

Fleeing from imps and the men who killed her father, Ayianna and her companions travel into the cursed Inganno Forest, where she encounters a tu’yan mutat, creatures of death bred by Lord Stygian during the dark ages. After Stygian fell, a few escaped the purge and made the forest their home. They can hunt you in your dreams, confusing you, paralyzing you, and before you know it, they’re upon you. It’s a cat-like beast twice the size of a large dog with a mottled coat, a stubby snout, jagged fangs, and a pair of glowing eyes. Once you see those eyes, you know death is near at hand.

After Ayianna and her companions survive the Inganno Forest and the harpies of Nganjo, they set out across the shifting sands of Zriab desert. Here, they encounter a natural predator and an unnatural one, spurred on by the Tóas Dikon, a tainting of the true giftings, a type of dark magic, if you will. The türuza is a giant skink-like creature that lives in the sands and hunts those foolish enough to wander through the desert. The unnatural tögo or sand leeches as they were called, were sent by the Sorceress. These little humanoids are yellow like the sand with a large circular mouth filled with hooked teeth. They latch onto their victims and suck out every last bit of moisture.

In Darkened Hope, Ayianna and her friends set out to find the ingredients that will save her mother’s people from the Sorceress’s curse. Their dangerous trek takes them across steep mountains and deep into the heart of the jungle where ape-like creatures hunt them at night and Kael and Vian take on a gloru’bor, a wingless dragon the seize of a horse inspired by the Dilophosaurus from Jurassic Park.

In Curse Bound, the third and final book, Kael enters the stone maze beneath the Kha Vaaro Mountains where he discovers little cave dragons and massive carnivorous centipedes. As the battle between the Sorceress and the Alliance looms ever closer, the Sorceress opens a portal to the underworld and unleashes an army of creatures with a humanoid body covered with fur, bearing wolf heads and sharp claws.

Writing this, I’ve noticed that a lot of the creatures in Nälu are deadly and sometimes used by evil. Something that I intend to mix up a bit in my future story worlds. Ha! I hope you’ve enjoyed this little excursion into Nälu! 

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Tell me, what are some of your favorite fantasy creatures? 


jlmbewe-profile (2)About the author:

Writing as J. L. Mbewe, Jennette is a tale-spinning, stargazing, rock collecting, art dabbling Hufflepuff.
She loves taking readers on adventures filled with fantastical creatures and characters, all questing
about and discovering true love amid lots of peril. When she isn’t writing, she’s an undercover graphic 
designer at PalaCreative. She is currently living her second childhood with her wonderful husband and two precious children who don’t seem to mind her eclectic collections of rocks, shells, and swords, among other things. Her debut novel, Secrets Kept, was nominated for the 2014 Clive Staples Award.

Her second novel, Darkened Hope, was a semi-finalist for the 2017 Alliance Award.

Follow J. L. Mbewe around the interwebs:


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~ jenelle

How to Tackle One of the Trickier Aspects of World Building…

Creation Myth

I am going to step very carefully here, because this is a tricky topic. And of course it’s right here in the middle-ish of our month-long exploration of world building, but it can be an important bit to consider:

Who or what are the deities, otherworldly powers/beings, planes of existence within your world? And what do the people who live in your world believe about these things?

Now, just like with everything we’ve talked about, this question may not come into play in the story you’re writing. But if it does, it can be one of the most challenging parts of your world building.

Remember how on Friday when we were talking about history and origin stories I told you that your own world view would most likely incorporate itself into these aspects of your story? Well, when we’re dealing with cosmology, that’s even more true.

For myself, as a Christian, I always want to handle this part of my world building with care. If I’m going to imagine up a creator figure for my world, then I have to answer some questions: is this creator like the real one? Do I want this creator to reflect truths about my Creator? Do the characters believe in their creator? If not, then what do they believe in? My hope is that my stories would always point my readers in some way to my Savior, Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t mean I am always writing an overt allegory or inserting Bible verses into my stories. I pray over my writing a lot. I find that when I write, asking God to be a part of the process is more important than trying to fit Him into my fictional world. If He wants to be in my story, He shines through whether I intend for that to happen or not.

In the Minstrel’s Song series, I wrote a series of countries that basically had forgotten about their creator. Throughout the stories, some of the characters are reminded of him and come to serve him, and by the final book it becomes clear that he had a plan all along and servants carrying out his plans and that the characters were never as alone as they felt… but I don’t want to give away any spoilers!

In Turrim Archive, I have six different countries and the people all believe fairly different things. Though there is an actual Creator of this world, most of the people in the world don’t know about him. I even wrote up what the various people groups believe, even though none of this may ever play into the actual story… I like knowing where everyone is coming from. It helps me make sure they are acting and speaking in character.

The people of Dalma are hardworking and pragmatic. There is not much that is fanciful about them. They are farmers and shepherds. Custom and tradition is important to them, but not at the expense of common sense. Mostly agnostic.

A much flashier and superstitious culture, the Ondourans believe in several gods and have temples scattered throughout the city where the devout can leave gifts in attempt to garner favor. The inhabitants of the city range from mildly superstitious to extremely devout. 

The Telsumans believe firmly in a creator, but they also believe that he is distant and uninterested in the affairs of his creation. Like a blacksmith who crafts fine weapons and tools and then sells them with no intent to stay informed of their path beyond his door. They do not wish to anger him, but mostly figure that it would take rather a lot to gain his attention.

The three countries of the Igyeum has been informed that the Ar’Mol is a god, or at least, the ruler placed over them by the creator, and that they should obey him as though he wielded the power of the heavens. Some truly believe that this is the case. However…

The Maleians also believe in a creator, but they perceive him as equal parts angry and passive… there is little kindness in their interpretation of him.

The nomadic tribes of Palla believe in spirits, both good and bad, who waft about in concert with the desert winds.

In secret, some of the older and more traditional Valleians believe heavily in spirits and three planes (heavenly, earthly, netherworld). Much of their belief system is linked to nature, and their holy places are found in nature (clearings, tops of hills, mouths of rivers) rather than built by human hands.

But religions and belief systems are only part of today’s discussion. Another important aspect of figuring out the cosmology of your world has to do with the various planes of existence. Now, your world may only have a single plane of existence. Or it might have several. If you are writing a story with the fae or a portal fantasy, you’ll have to figure out how these worlds intersect and where.

Let’s take a look at Revelod for a second. My husband created this handy little “map” for me so that I could envision the worlds within worlds. Remembering that this started as a D&D world, it has quite a few different planes of existence to explore:

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The map that I showed you the other day all exists in that blue circle in the center, the Middle Realm. Attached to that are the Morofell and the Wylderfell, homes of fae-like creatures both light and dark. Perhaps these are the dominions of the Seelie and Unseelie hosts… or something else… I haven’t decided yet. But they cross over with the Middle Realm and are connected to each other.

Then there are the planes of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth… These are essentially the realms from which elemental power is drawn.  They may be traversed, but only at great peril to the traveler as they are the natural realm of elemental beings not physical beings. Whether or not there are established dwellings, cultures, or creatures in these locations is not known as there have been no successful mapping efforts for these realms as no traveler has ever returned from these locations. (Sounds like a fun place to send my characters on a quest… no?)

The Astral and Ethereal Seas are sort of in-between places, separating the physical and elemental planes from the both Arimoth (the home of the Ari) and Vanimoth (the prison for the Vanimor). The notable exception to this sort of “nothingness” in these planes is Easamoth, a floating continent… I don’t know what’s on that continent or why it’s there, but I’m sure there are plenty of stories that could be told about it!

Now, you may not need anything quite this complex. Believe me, most of my worlds don’t! But again, it all depends on the story you’re writing. Lots of books have worlds and planes of existence that intersect/overlap in unique and interesting ways. I’ve included a few examples below:

The Star Fae trilogy by Sarah Delena White is a great example of how this sort of “two worlds sitting next to each other and affecting each other” thing can be handled.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis have multiple different worlds, and in The Magician’s Nephew, we get a glimpse into a “wood between worlds” that sort of connects them all and allows for travel between them.

The Tales of Goldstone Wood by Anne Elisabeth Stengl is another great example of physical and fairy realms coexisting side by side with tenuous ties between them.

The Magic Kingdom of Landover by Terry Brooks is another example I love of a world-within-a-world/outside-a-world, where the MC, Ben Holiday, is able to find a magical entrance along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and steps through it into a kingdom full of magic and mystery… and problems! But while this world is solidly connected to ours… it is very much outside of it, as well.

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What are some books you’ve read that involve hidden or unseen worlds in them? Do you have any favorite portal fantasies (books that start in our world and then end up in a magical land)? 

Make sure to come back tomorrow, as we will have fantasy author J.L. Mbewe joining us to take us on an expedition around her realm of Nälu. It’s an incredible world, and one I am excited to have her introduce you to!

~ jenelle