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World-building and The United States of Westeros/Andor/Tatooine/And So On

I was talking with a friend yesterday about world-building. This is a regular semi-ongoing conversation for us, but this time, he was looking for some specific advice on how to make the different cultures in his world distinct and realistic. Since this is something I’ve been doing a lot of recently (and since I spent 11 years at school supposedly studying human cultures) I consider myself minimally qualified to offer some advice. So I’ll do that here — but first, a caveat for all you world-builders out there.

It might sound obvious, but no matter what genre you’re writing in, if you’re coming out of an American tradition, your world is going to reflect elements of American culture. And if you’re writing for an American audience, your work will sell a lot better if there are certain things in it. Things like a protagonist who pushes back against their oppressive culture, or who saves the day all on their own when the army’s been defeated, or who rises up from the masses to bring justice to the people (ok, that last one was a conscious semi-subversion of the trope, but still).

I thought about this yesterday when my friend was explaining how “the people of Culture X generally have these personality traits”: my first question was what deviance looks like in their culture. Part of this comes from my training as a sociologist (that even in the most conformist cultures, there will always be people who buck the trend), but I’ll admit that just as important a motivation is that those are the stories I’m used to reading. If we as readers (especially Western readers) are presented with a monoculture as the protagonist’s culture, we’re going to start looking for the people who are exceptions to it. In part, that’s because we know that’s how real cultures work (more about that later); in part, it’s because that’s what we as Westerners are used to looking for from our heroes. Western heroes, especially modern ones, are the ones who resist authority. Even our military characters are quasi-firebrands who don’t just blindly give or take orders.

So when you’re worldbuilding, just like when you’re plotting, you need to accept that you’ll have blind spots based on your home culture — and so will your audience.

When you’re writing, unless you’re really conscious of it, your target audience will be people whose worldview has at least some things in common with yours. The first time this hit home for me was in 2004, when I was studying abroad in South Africa and went to see the so-bad-it’s-mostly-good apocalypse flick The Day After Tomorrow. It’s a climate-change disaster movie, and the big final shock shot is the entire Northern Hemisphere covered in ice. Very unsettling… unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere. The theater where I was sitting just burst out laughing.

In addition to your own blind spots, you also want to keep your audience’s in mind. If you make your cultures too different from what readers are used to, and don’t want to make your story be about that difference (the way LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness is kind-of-sort-of about gender), your readers are going to miss things. A few months ago, I was picking the brain of another friend who’s a medieval historian: he pointed out that on the first day of a class with new undergrads, his job is to make them understand that medieval people didn’t think the way modern people do. In medieval Europe, most people knew very little about the world outside of the twenty-mile radius around their village; ritual (religious and otherwise) was one of the few ways that society made sense, not something to be pushed aside when you got bored with it; and strict class divisions were the natural order of things. George RR Martin has incorporated a lot of these elements into ASOIAF (it’s why basically all of his viewpoint characters are nobility, making them better-educated, better-traveled and possessed of more agency — thus looking more like modern people) but even he’s made some adjustments from strict historical accuracy to make his books more accessible to his target readers. As this post by author Dr. Sanjida O’Connell puts it, “You need to find authenticity, rather than accuracy.”

Movies and TV shows do this all the time. A movie about the 1920s won’t have every detail of speech and dress and manner looking the way it did at that time, because modern viewers would miss things or misinterpret them. Blogger TPD Whitehead makes this point, using Deadwood (disclosure: a show I’m familiar with only by name) as an example:

…[P]eople in the Wild West did not use swearwords like ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’, they used words like ‘tarnation’ or ‘nincompoop’. The problem is that if a modern drama used those words as swearwords, at best it would come across as a parody. As such, by using swearwords which modern audiences find offensive, they created an air of authenticity which would not have been created had they used historically accurate language, and I think this is an idea that should be generally observed.

In the same way, your fantasy world has to have a few familiar things for your readers to cling to. Even if your characters aren’t speaking English, you’ll inevitably have to use some English idiom when they speak (if only because speaking without idiom is HARD). Even if your main character’s not human, she’ll have to think like a human on some level or there’ll be nothing familiar for readers to relate to. To get your message across, sometimes you need to walk the line between “really cool, innovative and different” and “comprehensible to my readers.”

All that said — a few things I’ve discovered in the last few weeks that might be useful to you as you set out to build a world.

  • If you’re creating a new race of people, think about the difference between biology and culture. It’s customary to say that humans have no single culture, but when I started developing my non-human races and went online looking for “elements of culture”, I found a discussion board post (which after 20 minutes of searching I now can’t find again) stating the things that all human cultures (though not all humans) have in common. They’re things like “humans care for their offspring until they hit puberty”; “humans create lasting social bonds with sexual partners”; “humans eat a particular subset of animals and plants”; “humans are social”; “humans have religion.” Thinking about the issue on that level, I sat down and worked out the biology of my race (on a basic level); their life cycle, how they reproduced, what they needed to survive, etc. That allowed me to come up with a list of elements that would be common across nearly all cultures, and another list of diverging points (basically, anything that my brain spewed out in the form of the question “Do they do this or this?”) that I could turn into cultural differences.
  • If there’s more than one sentient race in your setting, which is common in SF/fantasy, think about how that would change basic social interactions. Speculation about the sentience of other apes, dolphins, corvids or octopus aside, our world doesn’t have that distinction: there are humans (who we’ve done a fine job of fragmenting into a million different subgroups) and there are animals (who are also fragmented into subgroups). If you’ve got multiple races, think about how they view each other. Are members of the same race with wildly different cultures more hostile to each other than they are to members of other races? Do the different races not view each other as “people,” or view some races as “people” but not others? This is a really important element that can greatly enrich your story.
  • If you want to showcase multiple cultures, human or otherwise, please, please take some time to develop differences in your secondary cultures and avoid the Planet of Hats (warning: TVTropes link. Follow at your own risk). This post by Stokes explains what’s going on with the hat-planet folk — that by default, humans suffer from the assumption that “we” are individuals, but “they” are a stereotype, and that comes through when authors are writing. Most of us take time to develop our protagonists’ culture and show how different individuals buy into different aspects of it to a greater and lesser degree, and show conformity and deviance, but it can be easy to skimp on that where secondary cultures are concerned, especially if they’re the enemies. Tad Williams is very good at this; so is NK Jemisin.
  • And finally, a link out of my professional world that might be useful for world-builders. The American Sociological Association has 52 sections, kind of sub-associations for people interested in particular things like race, education, religion, disability… y’know, the sort of stuff that makes up cultures 🙂 If you’re looking for a way to add texture to your culture, just look at the list and see what areas strike you. Do you want to think about how your culture views the elderly? How they handle war? How they do medicine? As I say to my students when talking about research projects, sociology studies anything that humans do, because everything that people do is part of human society. And whether your protagonists are human or not, they have a society.

So that’s my — er — $1.50 on world-building. Now, I should probably stop mucking around on the Internet and head back to my own world, because those cultures aren’t going to finish themselves…

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