World Building Questions

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    Catherine Roche

    What are some of the questions that you have answered or consider necessary to answer when world-building? Not only the basic ones like locations and government, the difficult ones like customs and culture.

    Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - For the greater glory of God
    Catholic, student, bookdragon

    Hope Ann

    I’ve assembled a questionnaire thingy of my own over the years. Things like national colors and flags (the symbolism is so much fun to add in). What is important to the people when it comes to laws and what do they not care about.

    One main thing I’ve started doing (credit to @kate) is figuring out the major ‘god’ of a culture and then their largest hypocrisy in relation to that god. For example, I have a nation whose ‘god’ (what they value most) is glory and fame. Yet their greatest hypocrisy is that they only see and value the flashy types of glory and ignore even greater sacrifices that don’t ‘look cool’. Another nation values duty, but to the extent that they will sacrifice the reason duty exists to perform their duty. There are numbers of other questions too, but this one is particularly fun and will help shape the culture and nation as a whole.

    Kate Lamb

    @writercatherine great topic! What @hope-ann said, obviously. 😉 Also I like to approach culture using four basic pillars: History, Religion, Geography, and Economy. Come up with a basic summary for each of those four and your culture is well-rounded and broad. All that remains is to develop each pillar more deeply and in better detail.

    What I like about this approach is that they all build on top of each other. History usually decides religion. What people value most usually springs from their past. Geography usually decides Economy, since it decides natural resources, trade routes, etc., and when you put all of them together Religion (created by History) decides what’s right and wrong as far as trade, government, and national relations go, which decides how the Geography (natural resources) should be used to further Economy.

    If that makes much sense. XD It’s a good way for me to keep it organized and split up into distinct facets without isolating everything from everything else.

    Let’s see, tagging other fantasy authors. @r-m-archer @daeus-lamb @karthmin @morreafirebird

    R.M. Archer

    Something that should probably be noted before I say what I’m gonna say: I probably occasionally get deeper in my worldbuilding than is strictly necessary, and I adore worldbuilding in books to probably an undue extent (I love reading whole books that are just about fictional worlds. No story, no characters, just the rich fantastical worlds that authors have whipped up), so I love reading about worldbuilding in stories more than some readers probably do. 😛 Just fair warning.


    What a country values is definitely important, like @hope-ann said. (I’ll have to adopt the hypocrisy thing, though. I hadn’t thought about that.) It affects your whole culture’s… culture. Just as an example, the popular entertainment in a country that values strength and war is going to be very different from the popular entertainment in a country that values religion and piety.

    I also like to find out what a country’s most prestigious occupation is. Generally this is also connected to your country’s main values. In a country that values learning and ingenuity something like a teacher or an inventor will be very sought-after. In a place where health and growth are valued, a healer would be held in high regard. Which then leads right into education, because your country is likely to have special training for those “elite” in the culture. What kind of special training does it take for someone to join that “elite” profession? What’s the competition like, either during school or once they’re getting into the business? How is it different from the normal competition in the ordinary schools and less sought-after professions? How does the value of that profession affect the economy as a whole? How skewed is it? Are “non-elites” outraged by the difference? How are they viewed by the “common people” in general?

    I just realized how much deeper I could/should go with that in all the cultures I’m developing right now, lol. Obviously that’s a somewhat narrow thing, but it can affect a lot more in your world and can shed light on the culture’s attitude as a whole. (Or maybe I’m just quirky and go oddly in-depth with these things. ;P)

    Other than that I don’t have any really specific or unusual questions. I like to know how they treat births, comings-of-age, marriages, and deaths (which both gives insight to the culture’s priorities and can be helpful if one of your characters is coming of age or gets married or dies, lol. Kinda learned that the hard way…), and I try to make those fairly unique from our world, but I don’t know that I always succeed. 😛 I gives a world a lot of depth to see something like that well-thought-out, I think.

    Focusing on the details is also really helpful for immersing someone in your story world. Even if there’s not a whole lot to differentiate your world from some familiar civilization (which I don’t recommend, btw), just tossing in a few unusual details can make the world feel so much richer. For instance the memory scars in Hannah Heath’s Terebinth Tree Chronicles, or things like the Lienid jewelry in Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Specific things like that make your world stand out as unique and make your reader want to know more about this world you’ve created. 🙂

    Speculative fiction author. Mythology nerd. Worldbuilding enthusiast. Singer. Fan of classic literature.

    K.M. Small

    @writercatherine I’m not too much of a worldbuilder: I fill out some questionnaires and figure out what I need to know for the plot. However, I wouldn’t recommend that method because it makes for some pretty stereotypical worlds and such 😛

    However, there is one storyworld I have that I’ve gone really deep in, and I’ve found that the key is to have curiosity. Just keep asking yourself what these people do and why, and look at the real world to figure out what’s missing from yours.



    "Beauty will save the world." - Dostoevsky

    Martin Detwiler

    Everything that has been said so far is excellent!

    One thing that I have found, if I may add a dimension to this discussion that hasn’t been touched on yet, is what I call fractured cultures.

    Too often, fantasy cultures are overly simplistic in construction (unlike this sentence), which leads to feeling like the culture is flat or one-dimensional. What I mean is, our temptation as authors is to create a culture that is based on a single principle or characteristic or atmospheric mood – and everyone in that culture conforms more or less to that basic blueprint.

    The reason for this is simple enough: its easy, can be thought-provoking, and besides, writer’s can’t account for every detail! Making more complicated cultures is difficult!

    But that, alas, is the task of a writer: to imitate life in such a way that it’s complexities are reflected accurately even in a strange and other-worldly setting.


    In setting about creating a realistic, 3D culture, take everything that those above me have said and heed it well. Then take it one step further. If the culture has a main virtue they extol, figure out three main ways that different parts of the culture go about this. Don’t have everyone do it the same way. If the culture has a main religion, figure out denominational differences, or simply create two competing religions (both of whom have sects within them!). If the culture has a caste system, figure out the unique attitudes and approaches to life that each caste brings to the table.

    Figure out the conflicts all of these differences create.

    Then think about how every old person ever (exaggeration alert)  has complained about how “times are changing” – and incorporate that into your culture as well: From within, cultures are nearly always perceived as being on the cusp of change, and some elements within it are excited about this, while others seek to remain the same.

    Also think about “new” (or even old) philosophies and approaches that dance on the outskirts of your central cultural axioms. These always add color and dimensionality, even if they are very fringe in terms of overall cultural influence.

    Think of their philosophical approach to reality, meaning, and language… Okay, I’m kind of kidding here (but honestly understanding the present philosophical development of your cultures is never a bad thing).

    In short, think in terms of motion: or, if you will, conflict and change.

    A culture that is not in motion is static and unrealistic, and will feel rather flat to your readers.

    You want a culture that is cohesive enough (from the outside looking in) that its major tenants and tendencies can be rather easily summarized.

    But you also want a culture that is diverse and active enough (from the inside looking out) that it feels dynamic and gives the impression of realism.

    Notice the shift in perspective between those two paragraphs. From the outside, foreigners think they have a pretty good grasp of the culture because it can be labeled (and therefore misunderstood when everything is interpreted by the label only).

    But from the inside, everything is far more complicated, diverse, and multifaceted. It all makes sense from inside, even though it might not actually be 100% internally consistent to the main dogmas of the culture.

    I’m not saying to shy away from finding one (or two) defining characteristic(s) of your culture. That can actually be a very good thing. But what I am saying is once you have found that defining aspect – take it to the next level by diversifying the approaches to that defining characteristic.

    Doing so can prompt the reader to examine that particular characteristic more closely as an idea. If honor is the central dogma of my culture, exploring three unique approaches to defining and achieving honor within my culture  can help me, my characters, and the reader all dive a little deeper into what honor is, how it is truly achieved, and how to maintain it. And so on and so forth.

    The only caution I would give is that before you sit down and create an amazing, mind-blowing culture, ask yourself how necessary it is to the story you need/are trying to tell. Some stories don’t need a ton of culture/world-building – because they contain other important elements of storytelling that are taking the brunt of the story’s focus.

    And then there are stories that could not be what they are without the strange and thought-provoking cultures that populate them. Oftentimes, fantasy falls into this category.

    As for myself, I have several fictional cultures that are woefully one-dimensional,  I think i need to go work on now. 😂


    Kate Lamb

    @Karthmin *high fives* That was my next point. 😛 Thank you for stating it for me.

    Another facet of this is ‘shadow cultures’. Cultures within cultures. Oftentimes these are remnants of other cultures— maybe foreign ones, or maybe pieces of the current culture that cling stubbornly to ways of the past or look too far into the future. Like ghettos and Chinatowns and Indian Reservations.

    Which brings up another important point— how healthily each culture approaches change. In this sense, nations are just like people. Just think of them as enormous characters in various stages of emotional development.

    This is one of my favorite graphs of all time:

    tytler cycle

    It’s called the ‘Cycle of Nations’, but it’s a perfect picture of human nature. Figuring out where your different cultures are here could go a long way to helping you understand and develop them.

    did I ever share this with you?

    Hope Ann

    @karthmin Ooo, yes. I love it. Like I didn’t have enough to rework in my own worlds after reading Sanderson. Though religious sects are quite fun to write. I probably have close to a dozen once all the ‘denominations’ are broken down.

    Also, what is cool when writing a ‘fractured culture’ is the move from seeing it on the outside to seeing it on the inside. Because all the subtle differences are rarely obvious at once. The Reader sees it from the outside, or from the pov of the MC. And then slowly it unfolds more and more and more. I’ve a theory that this ‘unfolding’ is part of what makes good worldbuilding. Not just because there are layers to everything but, because there are layers and then more layers, it gives the general impression that there is always more than what you see at first glance and readers can start pulling symbols and meanings out of the most random things one adds into the story.

    Yes, that’s a horribly long, run-on sentence. Hopefully it made some sense. XD

    And yes, @kate. I think you showed me? It’s been awhile. I forgot. 😛 But Shadow Cultures *rubs hands* I have a few peoples I can do that with. Of course, I then need to find places for all this in some book or another. Or a short story *nods* I could… try to do more of those.

    Kate Lamb

    @Hope-ann short stories are the compulsive worldbuilder’s salvation. 😛

    Hope Ann

    @kate So long as one can keep them short. But hey, the last one was under 5k, so anything is possible. XD

    Kate Lamb

    @Hope-ann I have faith in you.

    Hope Ann

    @kate yeah, yeah. You just want to read them.

    Kate Lamb

    @Hope-ann how dare you accuse me of such… such…?!

    Yeah, you’re right. *charming smile*

    Hope Ann

    *smirks* of course I am, darling. Now if  you excuse me I have a 140k novel I’m supposed to be working on without doubling it’s length, so…

    R.M. Archer

    @karthmin @kate Ooh. Those are both really cool things I hadn’t really thought about. I had thought briefly about the fact that my cultures don’t really have much variance – as in, I don’t know how different people feel about the main values – but I hadn’t thought about how to fix that yet. Fractured cultures and shadow cultures will both be super helpful. 🙂

    Speculative fiction author. Mythology nerd. Worldbuilding enthusiast. Singer. Fan of classic literature.

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