Five Questions to Help You Create a Fictional Culture

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, then you’ve probably tried your hand at creating fantastic creatures and aliens of all sorts. But inventing convincing aliens or fairy-tale creatures involves more than just coming up with cool looks or inhuman superpowers. If all you need for your story is just a scary monster or creepy creature, that’s fine – but if you want an actual alien race or people-group for a fantasy world, then you need more than just the basics of creature traits.

Here are five questions that you can ask yourself as you’re inventing people, cultures, races, and creatures for your fantasy/sci-fi stories.

What role does geography or climate play in the culture or society?

A society that lives at high altitudes in the mountains would have different customs based on their geography than, say, a culture that lives in a swamp. Or a mer-creature culture that lives at the bottom of the ocean. If you want to have a fantasy culture that lives high in the mountains, try doing a little research on real human cultures that live in high-altitude areas. This is not to copy a real culture, of course, but you can learn about how and why they live the way they live, and adapt some elements to fit your fantasy world.

How does religion influence the society as a whole or individual lives?

Religion – or lack of it – is a major factor in pretty much every culture. It doesn’t matter if you want religion to factor into your fantasy story in a big way or not; but you as the author should at least decide how and why religion or the lack of it affects the culture you’ve created.

How does the culture treat its poor, sick, or vulnerable members?

Treating those who are different is another important, universal element in every culture. You can use this to indicate how you want the reader to view the culture.

What are the courtship/dating rituals, or family structure?

Family and relationships – that’s another universal element that, while customs differ from culture to culture, it’s something that everyone can identify with. Again, you can do some research on real human cultures if you’re looking for ideas, or wanting to base your fantasy society on some real cultural concepts. A culture that is run by arranged marriages and a controlled birth rate will affect a story in a very different way from a culture that practices polygamy and free love.

What is the technological level of the culture?

Do you have a medieval fantasy culture that uses crossbows and horses? Or spaceships with teleporters and energy weapons? Or something in between? Even if the focus of your story isn’t about the technology or lack thereof, the level of scientific and technological development and how things are used is an important part of any society.

There’s no right or wrong answer to any of these. And of course there are many more questions that you could consider, depending on how long your story is or how comprehensive you need your invented culture to be. Sometimes the culture you create will dictate the type of story; other times, you may have the story first, and need to create an appropriate culture.

What are some other questions or topics that you’ve considered when creating a fantasy culture?

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10 thoughts on “Five Questions to Help You Create a Fictional Culture

  1. What an insightful, excellent post. The Canadian in me couldn’t help but smile big time over the tip to consider the climate (and by extension, weather). It’s something of a half joke/half truth that talking about the weather is a national pastime in this country, so were I a fiction writer, I bet I’d remember to factor that into my writing. 🙂

    Have an awesome middle of April!
    ♥ Jessica

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    • Maybe I have Canadian in my blood somewhere, because I love the outdoors, and love talking about the climate and weather. 😛 So I will sometimes spend more time than is necessary describing the weather in my stories. 😛

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  2. The elements are a BIG thing with the Healers in my novels. I’ve only just begun to conceptualize how all the Healers co-exist. Mostly, I’ve been dealing with Land Healers. In the book I’m writing now, I go back to the beginning when the first humans enter the land and meet them. Should be interesting.

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