There are a lot of elements to consider when you’re building a fantasy world. It can be hard to know where to start. Which elements of culture are the most important? Different authors might have different answers, but here are the four elements I think operate as the pillars of a fictional culture.
Element #1: Worldview
The worldview of a culture colors everything that culture does, so it’s an important element to develop. I talked about this more in-depth a few weeks ago, but worldview is the axis on which a culture turns. Without an awareness of what that axis is and how it moves the culture, you might end up with a culture that feels off-kilter, like it’s just barely off the mark. If you feel like your fantasy world is missing something, it might be that you’re not digging into the goldmine of worldview.
Element #2: Religion
Religion is closely interwoven with worldview, since the worldview of a religious person or culture will be influenced by their faith. The prominent religion in a culture will affect how its people act, what laws it passes, and what sorts of taboos it has, among other things. It might also affect what type of government the culture chooses and what the culture believes about science. It might affect their interactions with other cultures. It’s up to you whether you want this religious view to be the correct one in your world. A strong fictional religion is one that impacts the lives of its followers and operates like a real-world religion, with faith at the core and works forming the shell that others see.
Element #3: Traditions
As with the other elements of culture, tradition is tied in with its neighbors. Tradition is born out of worldview and religion and reinforces both, as I talked about a couple weeks ago. Traditions are a big chunk of what bring your culture’s worldview and religion into the tangible so that you can make them accessible to your readers through your characters’ actions. As with most things in writing, worldview and religion need to be shown rather than told, and traditions are a great way to do this. Traditions could be things like holidays and festivals, or they can be simple everyday things like prayers before a meal or chanting a mantra when you get up. Traditions are consistently repeated actions, no matter the frequency or size of the action, that reinforce beliefs. And these ought to be present throughout your characters’ lives, just as they’re present throughout our own lives. We take them for granted, our characters may take them for granted, but our readers will appreciate the glimpse into your character’s world and values.
Element #4: Education
Like tradition, this is an element of culture that both stems from and feeds back into worldview and religion. Education passes on both information and values, and it can encourage or discourage certain worldviews and faiths. This then impacts character voice, as you determine how your characters would have been trained to think. Education will also impact your character’s everyday life in your story. If they’re still students, it might impact their flexibility. If they’ve completed their education and they’re looking into careers, what education they had could impact their prospects. Are they content with their available options, or would they rather have a job they’re not currently qualified for?
Education can give a great look at the values of a culture, since education systems can and should differ significantly based on the values of a culture, as I explored last week. Education is an underutilized tool in displaying culture.
Bonus Element: Government
Government draws its influence from all four of these core elements of culture, which is why I didn’t make it a pillar itself. Government is decided based on a culture’s worldview and religion, and maintained through the influence of all four pillars. While it does feed back into a culture’s worldview, education, and even religions and tradition, I see it as secondary to these four. If you want a quick guide to government types and what cultural values they go along with, check out this post I wrote for Lavender Bleu.
What are your thoughts on these elements of culture? Are there any more important elements you think I missed? Do you develop these elements first, or do you prefer an inside-out approach to worldbuilding? Or do you mix and match? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!