The Writer’s Toolbox: The Wonderful World of Worldbuilding — How to Create *Awesome* Fictional Cultures

I have something fun to talk about today! I’m almost vibrating with excitement!

One of the most important tools in a writer’s toolbox is Worldbuilding, and it’s particularly important if you’re writing about fantasy worlds with fictional cultures. Worldbuilding is my absolute, #1 most favorite part of the writing process, but I’ve known a lot of people who just can’t seem to get a good grip on how to do it well. Maybe they have trouble coming up with stuff, or maybe they just don’t know where to start, or how to make everything come together consistently. Today, I walk you through my process, using a culture from my Current Secret Project (Oooh!) for examples.

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was thirteen — known consciously, that is. I was in the process of making myself a Future Writer a looooong time before that. Once I was conscious of this, however, I began to look ahead and figure out what things would be important for me to know how to do. The technical aspects of writing are important, of course, but I was going to be a fantasy writer, and fantasy writers draw on a particular set of skills and a particular core of knowledge. 

Who are the best fantasy writers, and why are they the best? I know this is a discussion that could go on for several days, so let’s go with a short answer: The writers considered to be the “best” in the fantasy genre are often the ones whose work has a signature sense of richness, of fullness, of lush completion. We love Tolkien, for example, because he did one thing, and this one thing has two aspects. The first aspect is that what he did was something that no one else was doing, and by doing it, he changed the literary landscape of fantasy forever. People are still reeling. Writers are still feeling the aftershocks. The second aspect of this thing he did that it was immersive. Like him or not, you have to admit that if there was one thing that Tolkien could do, it was that he could build worlds like a boss. Not only did he invent languages, but he invented different dialects of those languages, and wrote about the linguistic evolution of those languages. That’s brilliant.

Language is a part of culture, and culture, I noticed fairly early on, was something a writer with her eye on world domination creating something interesting would need to know a lot about. I could go on about the classes I took during my “apprenticeship” and how I chose them specifically to contribute to my future skill set, but no one wants to hear about that. I will say this: If you ever have the opportunity to take an Anthropology class? Go for it. With both hands and your teeth. Right for the jugular. Those things are like crack. Sometimes I couldn’t believe that I was actually getting credit for sitting in a classroom, learning about stuff I was just going to use ’cause it was FUN.

If there is no Anthropology class readily available, pick up a ANTH 101 textbook, or read Wikipedia, and familiarize yourself with some basic terms like emic/etic, exogamy/endogamy, etc. Having a very basic foundation is going to help you pull apart existing world cultures, figure out how and why they work the way they do, and piece them back together into something exotic that looks extremely original and clever. 

Okay, okay, I know! I know! You want to get into the meaty interesting part! Me too!

Super Secret Project is set in an entirely fictional world called Mithalgeard. (This is a subtle reference that linguists, admirers of Old English poetry, and fantasy fans may find vaguely amusing. Just go read this section of this Wikipedia page and you’ll get the joke.) When I was first devising the concept for the Super Secret Project (henceforth SSP), I had a significant bit of hair-tearing over where to start when it comes to building a universe: I can’t make cultures until I know what kind of environment they live in, I can’t make an environment without plants and animals, I can’t make plants and animals until I know what kind of biome… And it just kept going around and around, but that’s ecology for you: Everything depends on everything else. Like Jenga.

I needed a checklist. But who the hell has made a checklist for inventing a world the way I want to invent this one?!? NO ONE. “The gods, maybe!” I said, throwing my hands in the air with frustration. 

That was my moment of epiphany. There is a checklist for making a world: Genesis! So I stole my process almost wholesale from someone who has allegedly done it before. It worked pretty well. A culture can’t exist in nothingness, so you must make an environment for them first, because the environment is going to inform everything about them.

ALEX & GOD’S SUPER DUPER HANDY WORLDBUILDING TO-DO LIST:

  1. Create a void. (“In the beginning, she found herself in a new and empty space… And all was white.” —Mirrormask. “Now the Earth was formless and empty…” –Genesis 1:2)
  2. Create light: the sun, or suns, which will light your world. “Separate” the light from the dark — in other words, create night and day by placing your fantasy planet in its orbit and letting it spin.
  3. Create the sky (the atmosphere). Sometimes whether or not your critters are oxygen-breathing can be relevant.
  4. Separate land and sea: Make continents. Pro tip: When I made Mithalgeard, I forgot about tectonic plates. I suggest getting out six pieces of paper and taping them together into a large rectangle, and then penciling in a few vague lines for tectonic plates and arrows so you know which directions they’re going. After you do that, take the pencil or pen in your non-dominant hand and draw some continents. (The non-dominant hand means your coastlines will be charmingly wobbly, just like real coastlines! Unless you’re ambidextrous, in which case I guess you’ll have to use your toes.) Making continents is fun — be sure to reference some maps so you can see how real continents look. Plain, roundish continents aren’t much fun; make bays and inland seas and gulfs and archipelagos! Add mountain ranges or rifts at the boundaries of your tectonic plates, where appropriate. And FJORDS. Everyone loves a good fjord, and if you, Mr or Ms Worldbuilder, do not currently love fjords, you need to go read the Magrathea bits of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy again. (Fjords 4 Life.)
  5. “Create plants.” Do five minutes of Wikipedia research on biomes (different types of enviroments, basically: taiga, desert, swamp, etc.) and figure out how they slot together into your world (hot deserts and rainforests don’t just squish together right next to each other — they fade from one to another via a transitional biome, such as a grassland). Or assign them randomly, y’know, whatever works for you. I sometimes get all breathless when fantasy authors have science backing them, but that’s just me.
  6. Create stars and planets. This step could probably go anywhere, but it’s useful to know, for example, how many moons your planet has, because it’s going to affect the tides and therefore the cultures of seafaring and sea-adjacent peoples. Mithalgeard’s solar system has a good clean view of a neighboring galaxy, which various cultures have interpreted in various different ways — the gate of heaven, or the eye of their god, or “it’s just a blob of stars, guys, come on.” I seem to recall something I heard that George R R Martin invented Westeros as a planet in a VERRRRRRY long, highly irregular orbit around its sun, which is why they have such weird, unpredictable seasonal patterns (for those of you who are not acquainted with Game of Thrones: Winters and summers last for multiple years. Although one does wonder how you get a concept of “years” on a planet like that…).
  7. Fish! Birds! Animals! Come up with a few nifty ones. Here are some of my nifty ones: Star-in-the-marsh, a reed that grows in the swamp and has a single flower that glows at night. It is beautiful, particularly at night in large fields of them, but it lets off a smell like DEATH which attracts bugs. Then it eats them. Carnivorous bioluminescent marsh flower, FUCK YEAH! Also moonfish, which are fish that mate for life…and are bioluminescent. It’s awesome when stuff glows on its own for no reason.
  8. Make people! And people are social animals, which means… culture! Hooray! We’ve dismantled the Jenga of Creation!

Now, the last step is the most complicated, and you have to remember a lot of things, like how people move, and how cultures interact and trade beliefs, and how isolation affects the development of a culture, and the development of trade, and the development of seafaring technology (and how that affects trade and expansionism), and how environment influences religion, and linguistic evolution, and how environment influences social structures, and how environment influences — do you get the picture? Environment influences everything, and all technological achievements of mankind have been in some way related to getting their environment to be more comfortable and less prone to killing them.

I hope your brain isn’t buzzing yet. Honestly, all those things are important, and I could probably write a full blog post on each of them. Now let’s look at how I made up the people of the Ammat Archipelago!

Environment is key. The Ammat Archipelago is a string of hundreds of thousands of islands, ten thousand miles long, bounded on both sides by a mostly impassable barrier reef. It extends from the arctic north to the antarctic south. Fairly shallow channels lace all through the islands, and the proximity of the islands coupled with the barrier reef means that all these inner waterways are very calm and easy to traverse. The barrier reef (and the wiiiiiide sea beyond) mean that the Ammatan have developed in an extreme isolation.

To craft them, I wrote up a list of topics consisting of every aspect of culture I could possibly think of — music and manners and law and cultural perceptions and physical characteristics and birth and child raising and passage into adulthood and courtship and marriage and divorce and death and trade and currency and — *SUCKS IN A HUGE BREATH* — gender and sexuality and standards of beauty and philosophy and taboos and aberrant behavior and names and jewelry and clothing and hygiene and health and religion and magic systems and buildings!

The full list consists of more than that. It takes up a full page, and when I filled out everything for the Ammatan, the completed questionnaire was five pages long. God, that was good fun. 

There was no glorious start to the Ammatan. I had some placenames already made, and I had an idea that they were going to be primitive tribes. I sat down and I started filling out the list — the first six or so were all pretty easy things like geographic features, physical characteristics… Stuff I’d already made up or that I could arbitrarily decide on — need an eye color? Weird eye colors are cool. The Ammatan can have generally orange or yellow eyes. Boom — done. The only other thing that I knew about them was that they have an aversion to using wood, since they consider it sacred.

The first topic I had to think about was buildings. The biggest question you need to answer to be able to talk about their buildings is what sort of local resources they have — lots of reeds or other fibrous plants, lots of varieties of leaves… They weave and thatch huts out of what they have, and they take shelter in caves during dangerous weather. Easy! 

Thanks to a fortunate accident, I had mostly arranged the questions in a logical order wherein one topic led to another and did not have any prerequisite topics that hadn’t been answered yet. I started with their environment, then described things that were direct responses to their environment — travel, buildings, weapons — and then moved onto things that were responses to the responses — trade, how they treat strangers, food customs — and then responses to those — marriage customs, life rituals, social classes. At the end, I tackled the abstract concepts: philosophy, cultural values, education, laws.

There were 44 topics in total. “Manners” was the fifteenth topic on the list (I had done them pretty much in order), and the discussion of manners was the first place where I had mentioned the Ammatan gifting culture. As I was writing about manners, I sort of thoughtlessly threw in that when an Ammatan meets a member of another tribe, the two must exchange gifts. I didn’t think much of it, but that one line informed the entirety of the rest of the Ammatan culture: Combine the gifting custom with how easy it is to travel throughout the archipelago and you’ve instantly got a thriving system of trade. Cultures that trade prolifically tend to be more welcoming of strangers. 

The gifting appeared in other areas of their culture too: Each of the four stages of life (birth, passage to adulthood, marriage, and death) is marked by a highly structured ritual exchange of gifts. 

The other important aspect of Ammatan culture is how they view children — children are considered only slightly more advanced than animals, and are mostly treated that way until they can prove that they are adults (read: Human). Aberrant behavior is considered “childish” — meaning “animalistic”. The Ammatan therefore have a fairly low tolerance for people who are different. This leads to some unfortunately gruesome consequences — gruesome to us, that is. To them, immediately drowning a newborn with a birth defect makes total sense.

And that’s the last big thing you need to remember when you’re messing around with this kind of thing: Don’t take the easy route and model someone’s culture based on your own. Don’t wuss out on including the parts of their culture that are shocking to you, or horrible, or based on a mode of thinking completely different to yours. But don’t make a society specifically designed to shock, either. All human cultures have developed with the primary objective of surviving and somehow bettering their constituents’ lives. You might think of exceptions (ie Nero), but these are individuals or occasionally cults, not the society as a whole. 

Now ignore all of the rules I may have implied in this post and tell a good story. That’s all you have to do.

8 thoughts on “The Writer’s Toolbox: The Wonderful World of Worldbuilding — How to Create *Awesome* Fictional Cultures

  1. katemsparkes says:

    Amazing.

    I just got a Chapters/Indigo gift card for Mother’s Day, but apparently they have no anthropology textbooks for me to use it on. Boo.

  2. Wait wait! Not yet! If you’re going to buy the textbook, go to Amazon Marketplace! All through college, I never spent more than 20 bucks on a textbook if I could possibly help it. Market is the secondhand version of Amazon, and you can get super expensive textbooks for a FRACTION of the cost. You can access the market by searching on Amazon as you normally would, and then looking for the link on the book’s page which will look something like this: “14 new from $38.20, 87 used from $2.45”

    The numbers often look about like that too. I’ve never had a bad experience, and the books have always been in pretty good condition (sometimes some highlighting, but definitely readable and usable.) Why spend $40 when you could spend $4 for the same thing, amirite?

  3. G. Linder says:

    Thank you for the advice. I’m a fifteen year old aspiring writer, and this is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ve working on a world for over a year now, and it’s great get a bit of inspiration every once in a while to get myself going. Danke.

  4. Mikkela says:

    This is brilliant. I have always loved worldbuilding more than the actual writin of the story, which becomes a problem when I NEVER FINISH ANYTHING!! *ahem* aaaanyway, I have high hopes for my current project because I’m writing it with someone else, so we’ll hopefully drag each other along when we start flagging.
    This was comprehensive and funny and really really helpful. I loved it all. I don’t suppose you would be willing to give out that list of 44 topics? *smiles winningly* Because even regardless of how incredibly useful it sounds (it sounds really really useful) it seems like so. much. fun. Seriously though, this is the best article I’ve found on worldbuilding and that’s saying a lot because I’ve been looking for a while and I found some good ones.

    PS. Do you play Dungeons & Dragons? Because DMing (or even just making characters really) for that can give you a ton of worldbuilding to do. The Dungeon Master for a game I’m currently playing just had everyone in our group make a country (we rolled dice to determine the size and what race mainly lives there) in order to flesh out our world.

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