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

17 Comments

Chris Morcom

Oh look, I’m talking about Eberron again (seriously, I love the worldbuilding in that world).

One of the fun things that Baker did when he created Eberron was he looked at a lot of the stereotypical fantasy cultures–(racial and cultural), then either flipped them over to do something different, or put an interesting spin on them.

First off, you have all of the racially-insular cultures

The Aerenal Elves – Yes, they work with wood and live in forests–but they’re also a Mayan-inspired culture founded on ancestor worship…that they take seriously enough that their “greatest ancestors” are still alive as the Undying Court…because the Aerenal Elves practice an alternative form of Necromancy that pumps you so full of life energy that you keep on living.

The Orcs of the Eldeen Reaches – Peaceful, loosely-spread agrarian society with a lot of druids.

The Dwarves of the Mror Holds – Yes, they live underground…but are not culturally insular. The Dwarves are the bankers of the entire continent and have some of the most successful merchant princes alive. Oh, and they’re constantly at war with the Aberrant threats of Khyber beneath their holds.

The Gnomes of Zilargo – Intrigue obsessed, and living in an Orwellian (albeit a mostly-friendly one) surveillance state. (Secret police whose members could be anyone and everything)

The Halflings of the Talenta Plains – Dinosaur riding nomad barbarians. (Yes, it is exactly as metal as it sounds)

Then there’s the Nations that are melting pots of various sorts. “Non-humans” who grow up in these cultures tend to reflect that culture–rather than “All elves are tree-huggers” that you get in a lot of other fantasy…I’ll just sample a few interesting ones…

Kharnnath – Northern, militaristic, totally cool with Necromancy (they treat undead like organic constructs…use them for anything from shock troops to pulling farm equipment)

The Lhazaar Principalities – Coastal region/Archipelago filled with lots of tine princedoms. Most of which are pirates.

Droaam – The Monster Nation…a trio of Hags got backup from a clan of Medusae and a few legions of hobgoblins and brought to heel all the warlords in an area that nobody else actually wanted. They have founded a nation built on hiring out “monster races” for mercenary work–or entertainment. Ever wanted to enjoy a Harpy’s entrancing song in a safe fashion?

Thrane – Theocracy ruled by the Church of the Silver Flame. Technical leader is like…12. The former royal family of Thrane is still around, but has no power. They are not happy about it.

Breland – Home to the greatest academy of magic on the continent, and it shows.

And there’s plenty more where those came from…but I’ll stop now.

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jenelle

Okay… dinosaur riding nomad barbarian HALFLINGS?!?!?! I want to play one of those!!!!

Seriously… this world sounds so fun!

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Sarah Pennington

Once again, Sanderson is magnificent at this, IMO. Though you’ve already pointed that out.

I think that coming up with the different cultures is fun; it’s just hard to put into practice. And sometimes I have difficulty figuring out what’s reasonable and what’s going to seem super weird without a bunch of context. :P

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jenelle

Yes, that’s been really difficult with Turrim Archive, especially when I can’t just use real-world terms because they’d be out of place. For example: “Bazaar” might be exactly what I’m going for in terms of look/feel in the excerpt I shared in this post… but I’m not always certain using the correct word will add to or detract from the reader’s experience. Is it better to just call it a “marketplace” then describe and let the reader fill in a mental picture of a bazaar? Or should I just call it a bazaar and move on? Will it pull the reader out of the story, or will it keep them engaged? SO MANY DECISIONS!!!! It’s exhausting, being an author. Sometimes… I don’t even know. LOL

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Katrina Dehart

Details are very important! It gives the reader better imagery for the setting they’re reading about!

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jenelle

Yes! So true. I write fast and furious when I’m drafting, and adding in details during edits is one of my favorite things.

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Christine

I love that you draw from 6 different countries for each of your cultures. That’s such a fun way to world build!

I think they heaviest culture building I’ve ever done was for a King Midas retelling I wrote for NaNo ’18, Kings Bleed Gold. Midas’ kingdom was based off ancient Greece, I had an African inspired kingdom, fairy kind who were heavily Celtic inspired, and then dragons who were just kind of…their own thing. XD But I had a LOT of fun blending so many different cultures together in one world. I had never done that so deeply before because the idea has always overwhelmed me. But it turns out it can be a blast!

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jenelle

Oh, I’m not drawing from 6 different countries for each of my cultures. I HAVE 6 countries in Turrim. Each of those 6 countries has 2-3 different countries I’m pulling from. Like Avaleun, for example, is a mixture of Russia and China… which makes for some really interesting architecture/naming conventions! Even though they are real-world neighbors, they are VERY different culturally, so putting them together makes a fun, unique sort of experience while still being grounded in reality and a sense of “familiar.”

I remember you talking about your Midas retelling last year and I SERIOUSLY NEED THIS BOOK!!! Now, please. :)

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smudgedthoughts

Oh goodness… Apparently my brain is so fried right now that I have forgotten each and every fiction world I’ve ever visited. XD I THINK, however, that I will go with the most recent book I read, because not only did that one have an AMAZING world, but it was also just an amazing book in general–Illuminae by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. (Technically it’s a sci-fi and not a fantasy, but it’ll do. XD) The world in that story–or should I say, the universe–was so interesting and complex, and the unique format the story was written in only helped make the world that much more colorful. Technically they were always in space, which really shouldn’t be THAT interesting of a world, but the ships they were inhabiting almost seemed to live and breathe on their own (and seeing as though one was controlled by a rogue AI, I guess that might explain why, but I digress. XD) That’s something I try to do with my settings in my own books, so it was really interesting to see how other authors handled it. (That was rambly… Oops. XD)

Oh my goodness, Jenelle!!! “This is still a VERY rough draft excerpt, so be kind” >> *proceeds to post an absolutely beautiful excerpt from your novel* I CANNOT. That was awesome!!! Your writing is just…!!! *chef kisses fingers*

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jenelle

Hehe, my brain does that whenever anyone asks me a question. ESPECIALLY if they ask me something like, “Do you have any questions?”
Um, well, I’m sure I do… but they all ran away just now when you asked me that….

That sounds like quite the unique world. I looked it up, and… wow… that is definitely a different way to write a story! Reminds me a little bit of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, actually.

I never mind rambly comments! :) Ramble away. :)

Awwwwwww… KENZIE!!! Thank you!!!

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smudgedthoughts

UGH, SAME! It’s the worst. XD

Ooooh! I’m definitely going to have to read Dracula now. (I know. I’m that weirdo who’s never even read Dracula. XD) But I know for a FACT that my mom literally just bought a beautiful edition of Dracula from Barnes and Noble a couple weeks back, so I’m gonna have to steal it from her maybe…. XD

LOL! Thank you! I shall be sure to ramble more in the future. (I think it’s fear that I’ll ramble incessantly or not respond accurately enough that makes me hesitate to respond to and write comments… I need to change that…)

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jenelle

Dracula was one of the 2 books I’ve ever read that kept me from being able to fall asleep at night for weeks (The Oath by Frank Peretti was the other).

I always kind of forget that it’s written in the format of a bunch of journal entries… which is impressive, because that sort of thing has to be done REALLY well just to not annoy me… so the fact that I FORGET completely that that’s the way it’s written should say something. :)

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smudgedthoughts

Oh my goodness! That sounds seriously creepy… I need to read this book even more now. XD (Ooh! I read The House by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker a long time ago, but that’s the only Frank Peretti I’ve read. I should read some more of his stuff… [also I THINK it was called The House. I could be very wrong. XD])

Okay, but I’m kind of the same way when it comes to letter-format. It has to be written REALLY well, with a solid connection to the characters for me to enjoy it. I liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I didn’t love it as much as I loved the movie, simply because I couldn’t connect to the characters in the same way that I could with the film. I have a good feeling about Dracula, though… XD

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jenelle

The Oath is one of my favorites. I also like his Cooper Family adventures, they’re meant for a younger audience, but still quite creepy at times.

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