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Creating the Culture for Your World

One of my favorite things in writing is world building. Sometimes I do it while I’m writing a first draft or before I start, but I always do it before I make revisions. I love developing a world for my characters, complete with days that they celebrate, how they respond to physical touch, their history, their respective gender roles, what they wear and the role of religion in their lives. These things are important whether you’re creating a new world for a fantasy story or you’re using Earth for a contemporary story. When you know these things about your characters and the world they live in, you can create a more realistic character.


Deciding Culture

Sit down with a blank word document, a notebook or a piece of paper and identify some of the things that shape culture. Ask yourself these questions, and any others you can think of, to identify traditions, values, religions and lifestyle for your cultures. What about your character? Does she fall with her culture, or is she divergent? Does she embrace it or does she want change?

*What celebrations are important in this world? How are they celebrated? Who do they honor? How often are they celebrated?

*What religion do most people practice? How important is spirituality? How does it affect behaviors and values?

*What are relationships like between men and women? How strict are these rules? Why are these rules important? How does your character break or follow these rules and why?

*If you were meeting up with your main character for lunch, would he or she be on time? Late? 30 minutes early? Is that normal for her culture?

*Describe the landscape and the temperature. Are there seasonal changes? Do the temperature and landscape affect how people dress or how they spend their time? Does that clothing become traditional or even religious in nature? Does it represent something beyond keeping warm or staying cool?How would you dress if you lived here?

*How do people earn a living? Who is the largest employer? How much time do people spend working? Do they make enough to live on? Do they have money to burn?

*How is the world governed? Is it a good system? What are the pros and cons of it?

*Is it safe? Do people lock their doors at night? What about when they leave to walk the dog?

*What do the people in your world value? Independence? Equality? Relationships? Money? Social status? Personal responsibilities? Truthfulness? Harmony? Wisdom? Time? Creativity? If your character has values that were at odds with one another, what would he select? Would he choose to give up his dreams to restore harmony in his family? Would he choose a job he doesn’t like as much to make more money? Would she give up a relationship, with a boyfriend, a parent or a friend, or lie to make it work?

Consider the real world for practical applications.

In the Real World

History and the things we value create traditions.

Not that long ago, on the Fourth of July, we celebrated Independence Day. For many, this day is associated with pie, picnics, barbeques, family, fireworks, independence and summer vacation. From this celebration, you can see that we value independence, time with family and that we like to party. But these celebrations can also show a personal past. For instance, many war veterans don’t like fireworks because it reminds them of bombs and gunfire.

Culture affects values, such as how we view time and relationships, and how we communicate.

Like many Americans, I value my time and how it’s spent. When I lived in Paris, that was one of the hardest things for me to get past. My friends would schedule an event for 6 PM. I would arrive at 5:45. My friends would start showing up at 8 PM. I tried to adapt. I left home an hour “late” and brought a book to keep me comfortable while I waited. Sometimes, I would pop in a cafe and drink an espresso. I never quite managed to show up anywhere two hours late. It still annoyed me.

When someone you don’t know well asks how you are doing, you probably say that you’re fine and return the question. That person says he’s fine and you both go on your way. It’s a polite thing to say, but it doesn’t hold any real meaning. But in many Latin American and African cultures that same simple question can start an hour long exchange.

Culture affects how we dress

In Oman, a country in the Middle East, temperatures are higher than 100 degrees, peaking at 122, for the majority of May through September. For the rest of the year, temperatures range from the low seventies to the mid-90’s. Oman is predominantly Muslim, so women must stay covered while in public and wear black outer garments, called burqas, that cover the body and the face. The fabric breathes and the covering can help women stay cooler. This culture values modesty, believes it keeps men from judging women on their appearance, and it encourages sexual purity until marriage.

Culture creates meaningful non-verbal cues

In France, if you’re a woman smiling at a man, you’re indicating that you’re sexually attracted to him. If you’re a woman smiling at a woman, you’re indicating that you think she’s stupid. Americans have a personal bubble of about 2-84feet. In many South American countries, people talk to one another only inches apart. In many Asian nations, proximity during conversation ranges from 6-8 feet.

What examples of culture can you think of? How can you incorporate them into your novel?

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  1. Thought Provoking Post, Michelle!

  2. I like this post, Robin. Gave me a lot to chew on as I work on my first draft!

  3. Interesting post. Someday I’d like to hear more about when you lived in Paris. Smiling directly can get people in trouble in Israel, too–usually especially with Arab residents.

  4. Robin says:

    Thanks, Michelle.

  5. Robin says:

    I’m glad, Pat. I hope you can find a way to work your character’s culture into the draft. :)

  6. Robin says:


    That’s really interesting, especially since here we consider smiling a friendly thing. It’s also interesting because about half of the time I had problems, it was with Arab residents. (I smile a lot.) What cultural trends and behaviors do you identify with Israel?

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