God designed humans as intricate beings, and a single culture encompasses thousands (if not millions) of individuals interacting with each other in hundreds of different combinations and relationships. Reflect on your own life and the roles you rotate through each day: sibling, caretaker, student, mentor, friend. As a writer, how can you presume to play God and pack all of that complexity into your own worldbuilding?
The task sounds insurmountable, but let me reframe it. Can you learn to understand any culture you encounter? Yes, if you’re an alert and honest observer. Does that mean you can read minds? Not at all. Instead, you recognize the overarching patterns of thought and behavior and have distilled those into concise but revealing definitions, such as enlightenment, romanticism, or postmodernism.
Whether you’re writing historical or speculative fiction, the ideologies that drive your made-up society offer you a starting point. Then you can expand outward and upward to potential subcultures, sects, and even revolutions.
From the Inside Out
Worldbuilding often begins with what-if questions that accumulate uniqueness and intrigue like a snowball rolling down a mountainside. But the process is so broad that it includes everything from geography to art to magic to dialects. Culture-building, however, narrows the focus to psychology. How do your main characters absorb the ideas pervading their domain? And to what extent do others agree or disagree with their perceptions and attitudes? With enough time, paper, and curiosity, you can follow chain reactions down to the smallest nuance.
When you brainstorm to this degree of detail, you’ll realize that some ideas can’t sustain an entire novel. The Divergent series originally revolved around the principle that all of Chicago’s citizens must belong to one of five Factions or chaos will break loose. From the beginning, the characters and events cast doubts on the segregation, leaving readers feeling as if they’ve been thrown into an impotent experiment that’s all flash and no bang.
In contrast, the social movements and emotional states that a multifaceted ideology elicits will seem genuine without the aid of “because the writer said so.” The TV show Black Mirror (mature content warning), as well as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, both embed a set of dogmas in the framework of their societies that the characters have no choice but to engage with. Need more examples? I’ve compiled a list of worldviews you’ve probably come across at one time or another:
- Life is gradually improving (enlightenment, industrial revolution, evolutionary theory).
- Life is approaching the apocalypse (nuclear, environmental).
- Life is meaningless beyond our attempts to create meaning (postmodernism).
- Life is the introduction to eternity (Christianity).
- Life is fading from its ancient glory (Tolkien’s Middle-Earth).
A character could internalize and practice each of these concepts several ways, but you can scale the effects up or down as you trace a specific one deeper and deeper into his consciousness.
The Birth of a Culture
Now that you’ve dug down to the mental root of a culture, what steps do you need to take to cultivate one from scratch? The method isn’t as convoluted as you might expect, so I’ll guide you through a test run. You’re developing a culture that promotes two central beliefs: 1) to earn immortality, a character must avoid undue attachment, and 2) a character gains immortality when his children inhale the smoke from his burning body and his spirit merges with theirs. Although my sample premise is admittedly morbid, its extremeness will help demonstrate the breadth of the application.
Immediately you’ll notice the conflict in condemning relationships but valuing offspring. Polarized opinions are thus inevitable:
- One group deems that family is an acceptable attachment, and because children ensure immortality, they begin to reproduce at escalated rates. Family size becomes a status symbol because it means the parents’ spirits will endure for more generations.
- Another group fears attachment and treats marriage as a business arrangement that lasts only until each spouse has a child to raise. Aside from their perfunctory mating rituals, they shun communion with others, convinced that a spirit stays stronger the fewer people it inhabits upon death.
Despite the common tenets that unite these two groups, the tension between them is palpable. Both probably punish the unorthodox by preventing their corpses from being burned and reaching immortality. Outliers may align with one side but disregard half the rules, and the transgressions that disqualify someone from immortality would vary.
Over time, members of liberal sects may join villages, whereas stricter constituents may commit themselves to celibacy and establish a quasi-religious order that relies on new recruits (a la monasteries) to survive. The former would quickly increase in population, outnumbering the purists and reducing their traditions to ceremonialism until (and if) a revival occurs. As the spectrum of interpretations grows, you’ll more easily foresee the fluctuations in social conduct, the problems and abuses that fester, and the trajectory of the subcultures.
Although I presented you with offensive foreign beliefs at the outset of this exercise, the further you deconstructed the hard lines, the more familiar the divisions and cycles of society became. Invest enough effort, and you can decipher any resident of a culture no matter how wild the notion seems at first.
Integrating Your Characters, Plot, and Theme
Successful culture-building enables you to install a convincing “background program” that influences your characters both subtly and blatantly. Characters from the same culture will feel connected even if their upbringing or lifestyles don’t match, and characters from different cultures will stand out without the need to info-dump their heritages.
You’ll enrich your plot and theme too. Instead of truth floating at the subconscious level, you’ll boost it to the surface where the characters can compare new revelations to the views they’ve been taught. And since you’ve simulated the passing of time to expose all of your culture’s phases, the door to the past and future will be wide open. You can travel backward to uncover the bones of a civilization, or forward to showcase its legacy.
Reality is in your hands, and it can be whatever you want—as long as it doesn’t spring out of nowhere and trigger skepticism. Study the patterns weaving throughout history and recurring today, and you’ll soon discover that, as diverse as human beings are, we’re also startlingly similar. Countless stories could be written about that paradox, so why not add your own?
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.