How Developing Cultural Arts Can Boost Your Story’s Worldbuilding

October 7, 2019

For many of us who write speculative fiction, worldbuilding is a key part of the process. I enjoy harmonizing the story world, themes, and characters. When I succeed, the results are rewarding, and I’m equally fascinated by complex cultures in the books I read. Since art both reflects and affects worldview, its role in a culture reveals many secrets.


In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, legends are retold as poems held sacred and true. In Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, legends are reduced to fairy tales that mothers repeat to their children and traveling bards recite at taverns. Though neither culture is better or worse for its customs, the two differ starkly in how they preserve and communicate historical lore.


Art matters. And so does the medium.


In the real world, the relationship between culture and art changes over time. Stunningly detailed paintings have been replaced by canvases dribbled with hundreds of colors. Our culture’s lifecycle causes shifts in how people express creativity. Understanding these patterns will help us reach a higher level of connection to the themes and stories we’re trying to tell.


The Evolution of Art

Over the course of Western civilization, art has undergone four major stages of development: mythical, classical, intellectual, and chaotic. Three inventions pushed art from one stage to the next by revolutionizing how we formulate ideas.


Before diving into this theory, keep in mind that Western civilization is a conglomeration of many cultures that have risen and fallen. Each individual culture hasn’t necessarily experienced all four stages. Additionally, remember that I’m looking at the broad strokes of real-world history to manufacture a tool for fictional worldbuilding. Because of this, the transitions won’t be exact. History happens by degrees, and although inventions catalyze change, the influence of each stage extends beyond the perimeters I’ve set. 


The goal is to clarify art’s importance throughout the ages so we can construct cultures that resemble reality. A large portion of this article is dedicated to explaining my theory, but don’t get bogged down. Afterward I’ll list three distinct applications that will serve to channel your own musings on the subject.


Stage 1: Mythical (Beginning of Civilization to ~800 BC)

Strong tribal identity and belief in the supernatural marked daily life in this stage. Literature was verbal and commonly relayed the exploits of royalty and a pantheon of gods. Songs and stories also exalted (or decried) the deeds of long-dead heroes, linking listeners to their ancestry. Homer’s epics are oral tales that were eventually transcribed.


Visual art forms, such as cave paintings, household idols, and frescoes, tended to be rudimentary and religious. Architecture honored family and religion. Places of worship were the most ornate and/or physically prominent (high points, ziggurats, temples), and houses were centers of society (the atrium in Roman homes doubled as a place of business).


Change Catalyst 1: Written Alphabet

At some point during stage one, a writing system developed, allowing facts and opinions to be preserved permanently. This made communication more individualistic and less communal. Ideas could now be recorded, shared, and read at any pace, which lead to deeper realms of thought.


Stage 2: Classical (~800 BC to ~1300 AD)

Culture began to spread, with the military as the main trigger. But during the second half of this stage, the pen proved to be just as effective—sometimes more so. Due to the written word, people began to look to manmade ideologies instead of faith for answers to life’s questions. Most literary works were heavily philosophical, and the authors ranged from Greek philosophers to biblical scholars to medieval poets like Dante and Chaucer.


Visual arts remained largely religious, except the symbology now encompassed the community’s values and heritage. Architecture continued to highlight religion and family, as well as politics. Castles, palaces, cathedrals, and political halls stood as monuments of power.


Note that the fall of Rome is the primary reason the classical stage lasted so long. Cultures still in the mythical stage seized Rome, which meant they needed time to absorb its artistic advances. This time period is roughly equivalent to the Middle Ages.


Change Catalyst 2: Printing

With a printing press, information traveled faster than by hand. Since ideas had less permanence in the human mind and could be exchanged freely, constant progress became the norm.


Stage 3: Intellectual (~1300 to ~1950)

During this stage, art separated into two strains. One elevated logic and reason while the other celebrated emotion and beauty. Yet both departed from traditional conclusions and sought out new revelations. Gradually, however, the answers that logic and emotion provided were exhausted, and Western civilization began to fracture.


Literature was complex, realistic, and philosophical, requiring familiarity with previous works to fully appreciate its significance. It eventually addressed questions such as: How can we confirm our knowledge is sound? And how can we ensure that others understand our creations?


Visual art branched into personal expression. The artist’s perception of reality took precedence over universal truths (mythical emphasis) and community values (classical emphasis). Architecture stopped reflecting society and became an art of its own.


Change Catalyst 3: Photography/Videography

Film transformed communication from a system of symbols that represented reality to actual snapshots of reality. This reinforced the notion that everyone has a limited perspective—the same scene from two separate angles will often look irreconcilably different—and feeds directly into postmodernism. Neil Postman tackles the subject at length in Amusing Ourselves to Death.


Stage 4: Chaotic (~1950 to Present)

Neither reason nor emotion can replace a foundation of religion and philosophy, so our civilization has collapsed. Meaninglessness (nihilism), the absurd (subjectivity), the pursuit of pleasure (hedonism), and the denial of objective reality (postmodernism) abound. Contemporary art responds to this existential crisis.


Literature has become intensely personal and sometimes borders on being ridiculous—or, far more commonly, is designed for amusement. While it may occasionally grapple with deep topics, it no longer resolves them.


The visual arts show humanity’s internal reality instead of external reality. Architecture either displays absurdist tendencies or focuses on comfort and utility.


In general, all art forms have descended toward pure entertainment, unlike the previous stages, in which such a purpose was considered degrading. Unfortunately, the majority of “high art” that attempts to balance this trend is so hyper-subjective that it cannot be a true antidote.


Applying the Theory

After journeying through the history of Western art, you may be wondering how it enhances worldbuilding.


Studying the patterns of change in the real world offers an advantage. We can either follow those patterns as speculative fiction writers to give the impression of realism, or we can purposefully deviate to make a point. Moreover, we’ll be able to deal with cultures that are fundamentally different from Western civilization—or human civilization entirely. But we can also utilize this theory in specific ways, and I’ll outline three of them.


1. Determine How the Stage of the Culture Impacts Its Art

Before worldbuilding, take a moment to pinpoint which of the four stages your story is in. How do the people communicate? Do they have a writing system, and if so, how popular is it? Or is everything verbal? The answers to those questions will inform where you place your culture on the timeline of growth. Some details will be irrelevant to readers, but as the author, you need to trace where your culture has been in the past, where it is now, and where it will go in the future.


Is the culture aging? Then be sure to convey a sense of discord, existential angst, and art fixated on progress, self, or the search for meaning. Come up with two opposing artistic movements and see what happens.


For example, a famous young painter may recreate classical artwork in a style that subversively mocks the originals and instigates the destruction or defacing of ancient monuments in his city. Such an extreme anti-classical movement would likely foster enough pushback to spur a revival of classical emphases in other regions. The result is a nation divided over artistic traditions and re-interpretations.  


Once you’ve positioned your culture on the timeline, tie it to the past. Your culture’s modern art should contain characteristics of previous works or continue a tradition. While this sounds like a daunting task, it will make your worldbuilding more unique and evocative.


Remember that the pattern is more important than the details. Change follows patterns, and if we learn to recognize them, we’ll be better equipped to craft rich and intriguing cultures.                


2. Consider How Specific Elements Could Alter Artistic Development

The ripple effect from one small (or big) factor can give your setting a ring of truth that will captivate readers. Furthermore, it will inspire them to meditate on the ideas behind both the story and the culture.


For instance, maybe your magic system allows writing to be recorded and copied from the beginning of human history. This births your culture with the communication technology of the intellectual stage but the youth of the mythical. Art would likely enmesh myths and religion into a highly complex, philosophical worldview. Stories and architecture would probably be structurally intricate, timeless, and adhere to objective standards for beauty.


C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy and Till We Have Faces demonstrate this flavorful blend of mythology and religion.


3. Consider How Clashes Between Cultures of Different Stages Would Affect Art

Imagine the changes that would occur if an alien culture in the mythical stage encountered an established culture on the verge of collapse. The infant culture would suddenly face the ideas, technology, and problems of an advanced (and decaying) culture, with only mythical traditions, religion, and community values to combat it. The older generation would cling to ancient customs while the younger generation would be more openminded. The aged culture might adopt the art of the infant culture and treat it as a curiosity.


A real-world analogy would be Europe’s conquest of America—or any colonization throughout history. Usually the younger culture gradually loses strength and merges with the lifecycle of the older culture. But what if instead the younger culture rejected the technology and corruption and prevailed? I think this would be a fascinating possibility to explore, and I bet readers would enjoy the ride.


Embrace Change

Whatever you do, remember that cultures are not static, and art constantly fluctuates. To represent either as immobile is simplistic, boring, and unrealistic. Artistically dynamic cultures may be harder to write, but they’re infinitely more compelling.


When we evaluate the ingredients of a strong story, plot is essential. Characters give hands and feet to the big questions we’re asking (or answering). But art opens a whole new avenue to subtly explore a story’s themes—all while building a robust setting.


So play with these four stages and see what events, individuals, or mindsets might cause artistic traditions to develop in diverse ways. A few what-if questions can act as a launchpad. Run with the ideas that come, and bring your fictional cultures to the next level of relevance and magnificence.



  1. DeepRun

    As an artist and writer, I greatly appreciate your article. I had never thought of it before via this sort of lens, but the old and new culture clashing happened in Egypt.

    The Pharaoh Akhenaten, thought to be the potential father of the famous king Tut, unpheaved the entire religious and artistic culture. Instead of having artists depict him in the traditional stylistic macho he-man Pharaoh… They carved likenesses of him with a pot belly and skinny arms. Realism over the stylistic. After his death, they hated him so much, they tried to erase every trace of him.

    Anyways, what a fascinating article and a great food for thought while world building. Thank you!

    • Martin Detwiler

      I love your example of this in Ancient Egypt! What a fascinating dynamic!

      I’m glad you enjoyed this article and I really hope it helps in your world building.


  2. Jean Detwiler

    Thank you Martin, for sending me one of your observations. I found it quite interesting.
    Words are very important, but also is the tone of the person’s voice when speaking to one another. Your Grandpa has trouble hearing, so sometimes he accuses me of yelling at him, when I am just trying to get my message across. Fortunately we still love each other and take life with a smile and a hug. Love to all

    • Martin Detwiler

      No problem, Grandma! I’m glad you were able to check it out. Thank you for reading.

      I’m glad to hear that you are tackling life “with a smile and a hug”. Excellent words to live by.

      Love you,


  3. Nathanael Toth

    Great article! I was thinking about something along similar lines the other day, as I’ve been learning more about the Inklings and some of their philosophical beliefs. Oftentimes we will use the term “worldview” to denote different religious beliefs. But there is another sense, which you explore in your article, in which worldview may refer to the thought structures with which we form those religious beliefs themselves – examples of which are Barfield’s theory of the ancient unity of language and Lewis’s argument in Allegory of Love. I think it would be really cool to capture that concept in fictional literature – the shift in the perception of reality from one age to another. In some sense, for example, one might say that modern atheism and modern Christianity share much of the same thought structures used to make sense of the word around them. In certain ways, they might differ more from early Judaism than from each other.

    • Martin Detwiler

      Good thoughts, Nathanael! Thanks for popping in with a comment. Always good to hear from you.

      You’re right. I didn’t put the word ‘worldview’ to these gradual shifts, but its perfectly valid to do so. It’s fascinating to consider how much thought has changed over the centuries – to the point that, as you mentioned, the acting presuppositions of modern day atheists and theists may be more similar to one another than to ancient thought.

      Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to explore Lewis’ Allegory of Love, and I’m not familiar with Barfield’s theory that you mentioned. My interest is piqued, however.

      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed this article!


  4. Catherine Roche

    Great article! Thank you!

    One slight note: It’s not *quite* accurate to mention Ronan art in the mythical stage when you dated it approximately 800 B.C., and the legendary founding of the Roman Empire is 753 B.C.; finally, considering that culture takes time to build. But you did date it approximately, so I’ll take my nerd self out now! Once again, a very good article!

    • Martin Detwiler

      Whoops! Thanks for pointing that out! The dates are intended to be approximate, as you noted, but you’re right. That’s a bit outside the range given for the mythical stage.

      Thank you! I’m glad you appreciated it!

  5. Chelsea R.H.

    This is a great article! The two cultures that clash in my fantasy novel are both in the mythical stage, though one is slightly more advanced and moving toward classical. Neither have a written language, but they have several complex spoken and signed languages and tell their stories and myths through dance and chants.
    One thing I’ve noticed is that in cultures pre-intelectual the people seem to be much more united by a single religion or set of values, whereas as intellectualism advances cultures begin to fragment in terms of what people believe and who or what they believe in. I think a lot of fantasy novels get that wrong and just have one religion per country/region/people when realistically there would be lots of other religions by that stage and there would be a lot of fragmenting by the people as they begin to chose their own beliefs, rather than just accepting those of their parents.

    • Martin Detwiler

      Thanks for adding to the discussion here, Chelsea! I think you’re right. Most of the time fantasy cultures are presented almost as monocultures. It’s certainly easy to create one oversimplification per culture – but it makes for less realistic, enjoyable reading.

  6. Karissa Chmil

    Ooh – I’ve never thought about worldbuilding through the lens of different cultures of art, but it’s definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind. (It would also be intriguing to dive into cultures that skip certain stages – a real-life example would be rural West Africa where you go straight from oral languages to cellphones. It’s a fascinating paradox.) Thanks for this article!


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