One of the most interesting, and also time consuming, parts of speculative fiction writing is the world building. There are numerous tools online to help you figure out what you need to think about, and also give you inspiration, but even then, the art of world building can take weeks, even years. Many writers are daunted by this epic task they have undertaken, and may even spend more time world building than they do writing, or they may get lost in the mire of fashion, architecture, agriculture, transport, and technology, and never even begin writing.
That’s where you want to put aside the ring-binders and stacks upon stacks of notebooks and strip your constructed culture back to its core. Below are three elements which when woven into your book will help to create a rich and interesting culture, without taking up as much of your writing time.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that the below only relate to developing a cultural element for your characters and world, they do not pertain to things like the environment. They are also not specific to any time period, location, or technology, so you can apply these core elements to just about any story. The second thing I would like to point out is that these are not a replacement for in-depth world building involving things like fashion, architecture, and technology, they are just a starting point. If you find yourself stuck on the world building front, or you are setting your story in an alternate “real world” but want to give your characters something unique to set them apart from other cultures, these points are for you.
What do they swear by?
This is a fundamental part of any culture. Cultures play largely into the development of languages, and so the words your characters use to express moments of honesty, devoutness, and determination will be reflected in that.
What do they swear by? What commands their faith or loyalty? Is it a god, their nation’s leader, the tribal elders, the sun, the moon, the elements, a natural phenomenon, or something else entirely? Decide what aspect of your culture is the most important and influential to people’s every-day lives and beliefs, and use it in their dialogue to convey this one simple, yet crucial, element of your culture.
How do they curse?
This is the inverse of the above, but just as revealing. Where before we asked what was it that inspired your people, now we want to know how they use those same beliefs to curse others or situations. What constitutes blasphemy (to speak evilly), profanity (to speak against the sacred or holy) or obscenity (to speak distastefully) in your world? In the English language the majority of obscenities are related to sex or bodily excretions, which is why we have insults like “piece of shit”, or “dickhead”, as those two aspects were considered to be distasteful to polite society. There was also a time when one of the worst things you could call someone was a “devil-worshiper” or a “witch”.
By understanding these two opposites: the sacred and the cursed, you can create a new layer of depth to your culture without having to develop your own language.
How to they deal with their dead?
Now we move away from language and onto ritual. This is perhaps one of the most core elements of any culture. The way in which we treat our dead reflects greatly on how we value life. It also determines what things are of importance to us, such as the afterlife, the soul, rebirth, memory, and legacy.
Some things to consider when you are developing funeral rites:
- How long does it last? Hours, days, weeks?
- Who officiates? A family member, a religious leader?
- What does the ceremony consist of? Do they tell anecdotes of the deceased, list their triumphs, weep for their loss? Is the ceremony one of mourning or celebration?
- What do they wear? Are special garments required? In western culture people wear black to funerals to symbolise death and mourning. In the east they wear white.
- What do the dead require? Does the deceased need a token or item to carry with them into the afterlife? Should they be buried with their possessions, or nothing at all?
- And most importantly: What are the social ramifications of failing to uphold these rituals?
Other interesting aspects to consider are how the bodies are dealt with. Is burial the preferred option, or do they cremate? Are bodies dropped into the ocean? In the mountains of Tibet, the ground is too hard to dig graves, and wood is too precious to build a pyre, so the people carry out a “sky burial” which involves offering a body to the elements to be eaten by carrion birds. This also feeds into the endless cycle of life because the deceased is able to give back to nature the nutrients they took while living.
On the opposite side of that is the deliberate refusal of funeral rites to a deceased. Something that is often considered to be of great disrespect in many cultures is to bury the body in an unmarked grave, thereby robbing the deceased of any chance of mourners, and effectively striking them from the records. This was often reserved for violent criminals or people who had been shamed by society, and reflects that said society values memory and legacy very highly.
Once you have these elements in place, you have the building blocks to start layering on other aspects. Understanding these core elements of your culture, and finding ways to include them in your writing can go a long way to creating a detailed and believable world and society for your characters to inhabit.