Lesson 3: Culture I

Lesson 3: Culture I

A Lesson by Mila

How to develop societies in your fantasy world and make them diverse!


Culture I

Every society has this. No matter where you go or travel to, you will find customs and traditions there that, very likely, you won't find anywhere else. In a similar regard, you may even find a few that bled over from other places.

Of course, you have your universal customs of saying 'hello' or 'excuse me' or 'sorry'. You have your international holidays and then you have the holidays only celebrated in certain countries. This is so because countries and nations develop on their on as well as around others, and culture and traditions form during such developments.

So how does this translate to our High Fantasy agenda? Surely culture cannot be THAT much of a big deal when writing your own world, because you're only going to be focusing on certain things, perhaps, that have nothing to do with the respective cultures and traditions of the nations.

Thing is, fantasy so often neglects to add in culture simply for that reason. Why worry about it if you're not even going to be writing about it, right? That's just more work off your shoulders. Consequently, though, in doing so, you have blocked off many segways into different areas of plot detail, depth and, maybe, even avoiding a writer's block. By neglecting the area of culture in your fantasy world, you are basically shutting doors instead of skipping past them. And the thing is, when you don't introduce at least a general aspect of culture at the get go, it may be hard later on to bring it up.

Here, I am going to go into the different ways one can introduce culture, different types of culture that can be addressed and how it can strengthen your plot when used correctly.

Part I: Introducing Culture

Unlike history, culture is something that, when used in moderation, can actually be a delight to read. Maybe not in bulk but, if you have two or three paragraphs regarding nothing but culture and tradition (as long as it moves your story forward and you have a reason for mentioning it), most people will enjoy reading about it.

But how does one introduce it? I think the better question would be what to even talk about when bringing it up, and with that in mind, I will put forth 3 aspects of culture that one should usually bring up first if they want a strong foundation to continue on:

1. Society Development
2. Gender Roles
3. Hierarchy

I will address each of these individually.


You will find that a development of society ties in greatly with your history. If you read through Lesson 2, I mentioned numerous times that a strong history can add depth. THIS is that depth. If you have a reason (like a history) for a society to develop in a certain way, you can take that reason and build on to it as your story progresses.

Why do girls wear their hair down only?

Why do guys have to be drafted?

Why is this place only ruled by queens?

Why is the architecture this way?

Society is subject to evolution just as living creatures are. If we can take one seed, say, which would be the beginning of a society (your history), planet it and water it (details, timelines etc.) and let it flourish, you have your society developed. To have a legitimate story to work with, it would do well to avoid merely mentioning this particular society doing one thing and not bothering to provide a reason why.

Perhaps girls wear their hair down because it is a feminine statement and it would be womanly to tie it up in public.

Perhaps this is a military nation and that is why guys have to be drafted.

Perhaps this nation has a goddess they revere and they believe their queens to be reincarnations of that goddess.

Perhaps that particular form of architecture is a system handed down through time and generations. (Think Romans and their arches and domes).

To write about society development in culture, one must have a starting point, and that is the history. The traditions handed down through time will provide explanations as to why things are the way they are.


The beauty of High Fantasy is that you can interpret the roles of genders in different ways than how they were done in our own societies. For one, you don't need to have men in higher roles than women. Similarly, you don't need to always have women as inferior. As long as you have an explanation for it (and that is a phrase I have and will repeat many times), then it is possible to put into your plot.

But how to gender roles affect the culture of a society? Well the obvious answer to this is that the roles of men and women tend to build a society and, consequently, destroy it as well. Kings, Queens, Dukes, Duchesses and so on, are all gender roles that develop a society.

But let's not even go with the higher scales of gender roles for the time being, let's talk about the lower scale: common folk.

Of course, your story will be written quite differently than others. Perhaps women will have more roles other than being housewives and mothers. Maybe you'll have working women. Tavern and/or brothel owners (who always tend to be madams) or even shop keepers. Perhaps you'll have stay at home dads (in fantasy, this is very rare) rather than stay at home moms. Explain it and then write it.

How the role of the gender plays out in the grand scheme of things is the true essence of culture. Maybe by tradition shopkeepers can only be women. Perhaps by custom, men cannot run a brothel.

The makers of culture (men and women) and the roles they play are parts of the building blocks that make up the foundation of culture.

Unless you haven't noted by now, history and culture tie in a great deal. Even so, culture can stand on its own so long as you have history backing you for when an explanation is needed.


It's a common trend in High Fantasy to have a monarch as the ruler of a nation. The main reason for this is because most High Fantasy stories are placed in a medieval setting. You have your monarch, your dukes/duchesses/barons/ etc. (if you so choose), your "rich people without an official title", your commoners/working class, and your peasants. This is a standard hierarchy that we see time and time again in High Fantasy, mainly because it fits nicely into the mold you're trying to create without all the hassle.

If you refer back to Lesson 1, on the world types, you notice that this could world for a realm or country etc.. But what about a world? What about a continent? Heck, even a realm needs some variety every now and then.

NOTE: I am not trying to divert you from using a monarchy. If that is what you want to do, many great authors have done it, and there is no harm is doing it as well!

Think A Song of Ice and Fire, with George R.R. Martin at the helm. He wrote seven kingdoms all being rules individually by someone and all the kingdoms as a whole begins ruled by whomever sits on the Iron Throne. This is a very organized spin on a monarchy that sort of leans more towards an "empire" of sorts. Seven kingdoms answering to one man and such. This is to show you that you can take two concepts of a world and how it is ruled and mold them together. This works especially if you feel like one kind of hierarchical scale is too dull, but two of them together can really make your story flourish.

But remember, children, that social hierarchy doesn't stop at the leaders of a nation. Nay, it continues down into the other rungs as well.

Take the working class
, for example, (and note that I am loosely using this term so it can fit all forms of social order, not just a monarchy) now, do you think that a banker will be held on the same footing as a shoe shiner? Do you think a farmer will be held on the same scale as a tavern owner? Perhaps they will, perhaps they won't. Usually, it's the perception of the society they live in which is the determinant of how they are seen on the social scale. Remember, this is your world. If you want a banker to be perceived as lower than a tavern owner, you can make that happen BUT if you're taking a non-popular spin on a common perception of banker > tavern owner, then you HAVE TO HAVE AN EXPLANATION! This may be fantasy, but that doesn't mean that certain things can be brushed off without a tiny reason as to why they are happening being provided.

In short: be careful when you form your scales of social hierarchy, especially when you're tackling the working class.

And remember, when you're forming the leaders of your nation, you have to be sure as to how you want to go about it, because no matter who you put in charge, power is fickle. You have to make it be as realistic as your story will allow and you have to make it flow with your plot. Remember, your plot is your baby.

Part II: Spiritual Views in Culture

I wanted to keep this one separate because this is a concept that can either take a lot of time or very little time to both introduce and expound upon.

Religion and spirituality in High Fantasy and it's continuous mention and importance really depends on the book you are reading. For this reason, you may or may not feel the need to expound upon a society's beliefs simply because it's just deadweight that you have to upkeep. (Note that a really bad enemy of a High Fantasy novel is mentioning something people will remember and then leaving it there without bringing it up again.)

We know there are certain rungs to a society, as in there are aspects that people expect to see when one is created. A government is one of them, some sort of economic system (we'll get to those in another lesson), something that separates it from other societies and some sort of spiritual belief. Now, this is your novel, if you don't want to shed that much light onto your society's spirituality (no pun intended there...) then more power to you. If, though, you do, you should know that there is more to the concept of religion than bowing and praying. I'll hit the main ones in this lesson, because the fine tuning and details are up to you to decide on, as the author.

1. A Structure of Religion
2. Life/Death and some sort of "Heaven", "Hell" and/or "Purgatory" complex

3. Judgement


So we can start with the basics here. Structure of religion is step 1 in any building block of spirituality. You'd think it would be how a religion develops that would be the first step and, in a pinch, you aren't wrong. But that is if you're going to take a historical approach with your religion and really focus your story and plots on the importance of how that belief came to be. If that is the way you're going, then yes, development of religion would be step 1.

But if you're taking a general approach and you just want to mention the belief (of course, historical aspects should be implemented when you're trying to explain certain practices and how they came about), you want to focus less (but not THAT much less) on history and development but more on structure.

As yourself these questions (and then come up with your own answers):

1. Does your religion have a name (where did it come from? If you want to to farther into it, why did it come from there?)?

2. Is there a prophet (or someone who started things off who could possibly be the inspiration behind the name?)? Be careful because the prophets of a religion aren't always the namesakes (ex: Muhammad and Islam). If there is no prophet, how did the belief come about?

3. Poly or Monotheistic? (Many Gods or One God?)

4. Is it a spiritual God or does your society believe that their God(s) walk among them? (ex: ruler being an incarnation of the Gods). The explanations behind this approach almost always pull from history, so be ready with a detailed explanation.

5. Holy Houses? Holy Books/Scriptures? Priests (or something of a similar like)?

6. Practices? Prayers? Traditions? Restrictions? (Usually restrictions when it comes to religion are placed on women, but you can take your own spin on this)

7. Their thoughts on other beliefs? (Are they more zealous or more accepting?)

Very likely more questions will come up as you answer these main ones. As you work through these, make sure you have a very good sense of where you want to go with it and how much of a role you want religious structure to play in your plot. How detailed or how vague you are with this will depend on your judgement, as the author. Make sure you take from other lessons on this (Re-read Lesson 2: History Part II about implementing information in your plot if you must) and do not bombard the reader with whatever information you come up with about your religious structure (or anything, for that matter!). Merely mention it as it is relevant and important!


I reckon some of you were quite eager for me to get to this part! ;) All things in their own time, children, all things in their own time! (Another mantra you should chant in your head when mentioning information in your story!)

Life and Death are two very important aspects in religion. Almost in ever belief in our own world, there is some sort of "Heaven" and "Hell" concept. Sometimes, there isn't even a concept like that, rather, reincarnation of sorts. And bad karma for the naughty ones! Either way, every belief has some sort of divide as to where the good go after life and where the bad go.

There are many ways you can go about this. For one, is there an afterlife at all? Is there a place where the good and bad go? Are the dead just spirits walking around? Who/what decides who goes where? Do spirits reincarnate instead?

But, of course, there's the main question of "what does life mean in your culture"?

I know what you're thinking. "Life means you're... living?" Yeah, well we all know that! But what do the people of the culture you're trying to build perceive as, for the lack of a better term "meaning of life"?

When you're putting this together, the best thing to do is first note if the society you've developed is a very religious heavy one. You'd be surprised how many aren't. I can tell you that in some fantasy novels I've read, the structure is more political with a taste of religious attributes. If that is the case, you can touch lightly on the "heaven" or "hell" deal. Like bad people go here and good people go there. Done. Nothing more needs to be said.

But, if you write a society for whom religion is basically a main pillar without which the society will dissolve to nothing, you have to try and dig a littler deeper than that. You have to be more precise with why someone goes here or where they go for what reason. You need to be consistent with your religion's beliefs. You should be cognoscente of what life means in that society, and how does the idea work? Are hosts for our souls? Is there a bigger meaning?

The reason I've seen a lot of fantasy authors ween away from going deep into spirituality is because we, in our own world, already have a hard time answering these questions, so how is asking them in a fictional world going to make answering them any different?

Thing is, you can have a society with a good dose of religion and other aspects. You don't need to have JUST religion or NO religion. You can find a happy place in the middle and be content with that. The good thing about this genre is that you can use your creativity and bend the rules a bit, and religion (life/death/afterlife/purgatory) is no exception to that!


When I say "judgement" I don't mean a judicial system for secular crimes, that's coming in another lesson (get excited!! :D). I mean judgement for who exactly is it that determines who goes where after life. Remember the questions I posed for when you're structuring your religion? Well answering those will help you come up with an answer for this particular question: who is the one person who places judgement on the dearly departed? Who determines the saints and sinners?

Normally, you have your priests and bishops and such that "speak for their God on Earth". Usually there are religious laws and bylaws that are followed in order to place judgement. As the author of your own fantasy world, you need to be careful with who you give the power to make these judgements because, remember, poly or monotheistic, it is VERY unrealistic (and, quite frankly, boring and redundant) even in high fantasy, to have one dude with all the power, especially in religion. And, when I say all the power, I mean someone who, literally, can't be overthrown at all. They're the real MVP, as it were, like they're IT!

That's SUPER boring.

No, when you're determine who the authorities are, and this goes for any character in high fantasy and, for that matter, in literature as a whole, you have to make that character have human traits. That means you're not going to have well-rounded religious leaders that make fair judgements. So, if you're going to go down that road, you have to keep that in mind.

As opposed to written laws, yes they are pretty much set in stone, but remember that laws in any holy book are ALWAYS interpreted differently if they're vague enough. Like the whole "thou shalt not kill" well, yeah, that's pretty straightforward, but religion in our world has branched off for the sole reason that not every law or statement written in a holy book is interpreted the same by everyone.

All in all, when structuring your religion and defining authorities and people with a certain degree of spiritual power and standing, you have to make sure that, yes, they follow the laws, but you have to make it believable. Fantasy may be a genre known mainly for magic, but realism is both your best friend and worst enemy. You probably don't want to be much of a realist when writing about dragons and, to a certain degree, don't be 100% realist when writing about religion... but in certain aspects of spiritual structure, it has to be used or your structuring could fall short.

Lesson 3: Culture is continued in Part II! -------->

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Posted 4 Years Ago

We're getting to that, in a different part.

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Posted 4 Years Ago

I would add in this that one of thing things you need to consider is how your society perceives birth, life and death (especially death) as part of the foundation of a culture.

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Posted 4 Years Ago

Hope it helps you! :)

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Posted 4 Years Ago

I'm stoked on this one. Its the one I need most when world building.
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