Why Cultural Worldview in Fantasy is Important
In the past I’ve discussed how to use fantasy worldbuilding to explore worldview (and why it’s important to include real-world worldview), and I’ve talked about how to build the foundation of your world (which is what will form the basis of worldview). But I haven’t actually talked about why a cultural worldview is important as an aspect of the worldbuilding process, so today I want to fix that.
Worldview Colors Everything
This is the core point. Everything else is secondary. A cultural worldview colors every aspect of a culture, influences how your characters think, breeds conflict when worldviews clash… Everything within and surrounding a culture is going to be influenced by that culture’s worldview. Therefore, it ought to be an intentional consideration. A culture’s worldview is the axis on which it turns. Since realizing this and becoming more intentional about cultural worldviews in my own worldbuilding, I’ve come to struggle to develop any culture that I haven’t found the axis of. Only once I discover the driving beliefs behind a culture can I figure out how it behaves, because its behavior is driven by that cultural worldview.
Let’s take an example from Deseran. Piradin’s cultural worldview stems from its origin myth:
According to Havanir religion, the god Havani came upon a fully formed earth and saw its great potential as wasted. Desiring to fulfill the world’s potential, Havani created men. For a time, men lived in peace as Havani intended. However, Havani eventually discovered that something was missing from man’s life, and that men also had no way to procreate like the animals did. Havani developed the idea of woman, but he only created one at first, to confirm that his plan would work. Thus, the first fight broke out. The men all clamored for the woman’s time, attention, and body, disrespecting her and fighting each other even to death. Havani tried to remedy his mistake by creating more women, but the damage had been done. Men had discovered the lure of competition, and continued to fight over even small things, and women endured continued disrespect from many men.
Havani sent a group of pure-hearted men to intervene, but they were unsuccessful. Havani withdrew the pure-hearted men, and the few women who remained unadulterated, from the rest of mankind and walked with them personally, teaching them how to live in peace and nurture and protect the earth as intended.
It’s this myth that leads to their practice of pacifism, their matriarchal society, their courtship practices, their hierarchy of crimes (abdication of family responsibility is one of the highest offenses), their approach to the treatment of animals, etc., etc. All of their behavior stems from this cultural worldview. And so does their opinion of neighboring cultures. Piradi relations with a neighboring culture that does a lot of hunting are strained because the Piradi believe hunting should be engaged in only when it’s necessary to control the size of the animal population
Cultural Worldview Influences Character Voice
As Kristen Kieffer mentions in her post on developing character voice, the culture a character lives in is going to influence how that character thinks and speaks and behaves. The degree of influence may vary. If a Piradi character were displaced to the U.S., they might cling to their Piradi culture and reject U.S. culture… thus displaying the influence of the Piradi culture and the lack of influence of U.S. culture. Just as we are influenced in real life by the cultures that surround us–whether primary cultures or sub-cultures–your characters ought to be informed by the cultural worldviews around them.
Cultural worldview is as much a character consideration as a worldbuilding consideration. Considering your character’s worldview, as informed by the culture around them, will enable you to create a stronger and more unique character voice. And the influence on character voice, in turn, will help your worldbuilding to seem more organic and meaningful.
Worldbuilding, character… The next cornerstone is plot, right? And cultural worldview contributes to this, also. Worldviews are a natural source of conflict. Take, again, the example of the Piradi and their hunter neighbors. One culture believes that humans shouldn’t injure animals unless it’s necessary, the other believes that hunting is a natural part of life. This produces external conflict. And this external conflict could provide internal conflict, as well. What if one of the Piradi struggled to reconcile their positive experience with individual hunters with their belief that hunting is a grotesque offense? Might they have trouble understanding how such good people can be so evil? Or perhaps how hunting can be evil if the people who practice it are so good? Internal conflict.
You could also have a character whose worldview shifts over the course of a story, first drawing its influence from culture A and then coming to see culture B as the right one. Or you could have a character who blends different worldviews and is spurned by members of both cultures.
Or you could go larger-scale and write about one nation that seeks to overthrow or conquer another in order to squash their conflicting worldview. Or a nation that tries to win others over to its worldview, with mixed results.
As with character voice, using cultural worldview to influence plot not only strengthens your plot, but also strengthens your world and makes it invaluable to the story. Worldbuilding ought to be an integral part of a book, and utilizing cultural worldview can be a great tool to ensure that it is.
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Let’s chat! What are some of the most prominent worldviews in your world? How do they impact the characters and stories within the world? How do they conflict with one another?
18 thoughts on “Why Cultural Worldview in Fantasy is Important”
This is an amazing post, and a fascinating idea! Thank you for sharing. While my fiction is firmly set on this earth (for now), there’s a lot to take away. My novel is set in my hometown, which, like the rest of South Africa, is a melting pot of cultures and worldviews. I hope to build most of the conflict around those clashes you describe. It’s not an easy task!
Thank you! That sounds like a brilliant setting for a story. Cultural melting pots can be so much fun to write. And it must be especially meaningful to write a novel about someplace you’re so familiar with! I pray your project goes well. :)
“Or perhaps how hunting can be evil if the people who practice it are so good?”
For some reason, this reminded me of the last line of dialogue right before *Part of Your World* in the Little Mermaid where she says “I just don’t understand how a world that makes such wonderful things could be bad!”
And actually, I think that’s another good example of cultural worldview! The merfolk all believe humans to be even awful creatures, because they fish, (and, if I remember correctly, they seem to have misconceptions and things like that about the humans), and this is, of course, the worldview that Ariel grew up with. But she keeps a collection of all these various contraptions and doohickies that they’ve made and she has such a fascination with them, and she wonders if maybe they’re not really so bad after all.
I hadn’t exactly noticed it in these words before, but *Fawkes* by Nadine Brandes, which I’ve been reading, does a really good job with this, with the Keepers and the Igniters, and Thomas’s uncertainty as he tries to figure out which worldview is right, and he has two main influences in his life, one of each worldview, giving him different information, and he doesn’t always know what to do with it all. So that’s really interesting to notice!