Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds
by Michael James Liljenberg.
Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air,
over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'
So God created man in his own image, In the image of God he created him;
Male and female he created them . . .
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning - the sixth day.
Day 6: Let Us Make Man in Our Image: Anthropology
As the sixth day progresses we now get to the most important part of this series, developing the cultures, civilizations, and races that populate your world. This section involves a whole mess of ology's. It involves history, culture, social structure, politics, technology, religions, social morality, codes of honor and ethics, government, the military, sexuality and gender roles, biases and prejudices, racism, education, language . . .
I've put together a PDF Civilization Worksheet that will allow you to condense all the info from this tutorial into a single reference page
According to the Genesis narrative human beings have two fundamental traits: they are created in God's image, and they are divided into male and female sexes.
Sentience & Spirituality
Aside from all the theological discussion about what it means to be 'created in God's image', primarily what it is that humans are free moral agents with the capacity for creativity, rational thought, language, and emotion. It also implies that humanity has a unique place in the natural order. Since you are creating your own world, you get to determine in whatever image you want the races of you're your world to be. The title of this section 'Anthropology' is a bit of a misnomer, since your fantasy or sci-fi universe is likely to contain non-human races. What races will you have in your universe? What are fundamental characteristics of each race? In what ways will different races in your world conflict and cooperate? How do the different races or classes connect spiritually and physically with the world around them?
Created 'in God's image' also indicates that humans are spiritual beings with both a unique relationship with our creator, and a relationship with the physical world that is deeper than the physical senses. You get to develop the depth and breadth of the spiritual dimension of the characters in your story.
For example, in Tolkien's Middle Earth, the elves are tied to the world physically and spiritually. That is why the are immortal, they live as the world lives. Their role seems to be shaping and beautifying the world and caring for the creatures that live in it. Humans, on the other hand, have the gift of mortality. Their spirits were created to yearn for something beyond the world, and when they die, their souls leave the world for places and purposes unknown to all but God. The dwarves were fashioned by Aule, the spirit of rock and metal, as servants to literally help build the world and to repair the damage caused by the conflict with evil.
Sex, gender, & family
Humans are psychologically, morally, emotionally, spiritually, socially complex creatures. At the heart of all that complexity is sexuality and reproduction. How the sexes interrelate and procreate is fundamental to human society.
In the Genesis creation account the division between male and female is a fundamental part of humanity. Currently there is tremendous debate and controversy over the implications of that division. Are there inherent difference between men and women? Are the 'Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus' stereotypes about the differences between the sexes inherent and fundamental or the effects of cultural indoctrination and discrimination? Since you are the creator of your own world, you get to decide.
The entire Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan is an exploration of this issue. He has created a magic system in which men are naturally more adept with fire and earth magic while women are more adept with wind and water. Men are naturally stronger than women are individually, but women have the ability to connect together geometrically increasing their power. He further complicates this by adding the 'taint' to the male side of the True Source of magic that drives any male who can connect to the True Source destructively insane. With this foundation he gets to explore across his world various cultures that have different cultural expectations of men and women, different family structures, patriarchal and matriarchal social structures.
The complexity of human society is so great that a child needs 15 to 20 years to learn how to successfully live in one. This is why the family unit is the basic social unit. It is the place where children are taught the basics of language and social interaction, social norms and gender roles. In many societies it is also where you learn your basic trade.
That is why the structure of the family in a human society affects the whole social structure built on top of it. Many ancient cultures where polygamy (one man with multiple wives) was practiced viewed women as property with the marriage arrangement a variation on the man purchasing the woman from her father.
I once heard a speaker from India commenting that eastern & mid-eastern cultures think one of the greatest crimes in western cultures is that we force young people to base their decision to marry each other on mutual affection and sexual attraction. In their cultures, older, wiser adults arrange the marriage on what they think would make a strong, life-long relationship. Instead, he said, Americans and Europeans leave the decision up to the two people whose minds are the most clouded by hormones. No wonder, he said, that your marriages fall apart so easily.
Several societies have tried to supplant the family. Sparta pulled young boys away from their mothers and integrated them into military barracks by age 5. That way they could ingrain their martial values into new generations. Our civilization is right on the edge of a cultural revolution as we enter the 'Genetic Age'. Cloning, artificial wombs, genetic screening and eugenics, and cultural forces like the acceptance of homosexual marriage and the accompanying ideas of polygamy and polyarmory are poised to radically re-define the family. (And biotech and cybernetics are poised to radically re-define what it means to be human.)
Since you have the benefit of creating your world from the ground up, you get to determine the structure of the family and how and where sexuality fits in with things. You could create reptilian races where the young hatch from a nest never knowing a parent. Or a species like the Cuckoo bird that lays it's egg in a different bird's nest where the chick will eventually take over the nest, killing the other chicks. You could create a species that spend part of their life cycles as males and then become female.
Social structures - priest, warrior, worker
Beyond the basic structure of the family (or whatever institution you replace it with), and the larger structure of the clan, human societies larger than a few dozen people quickly segregate into three basic categories (or castes): priest, warrior, and worker. The priest caste includes religious leaders, magic users, artisans, and intellectuals. The warrior caste is self-descriptive, and the worker caste contains the farmers, merchants, and tradesmen. Sometimes tradesmen and merchants are given their own caste. Be aware that this 'caste' breakup is an over simplification and that in reality there is usually a lot of overlap. Some societies bolster these caste division with religious doctrine, like the Hindu's caste system, or with law, like the Roman Emperor Domition's 'dominate' system (which forced all people into hereditary jobs - you dad was a blacksmith so you will become a blacksmith) that far outlasted the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages up till the time of the Industrial Revolution.
Different cultures will elevate different classes over others. For example at the core of the struggle between ancient Athens and Sparta was that Sparta idolized the warrior class while Athens idolized the intellectual class. In Feudal Japan the farmer (often the lowest social rung in many societies) was held in almost as high esteem as a warrior. But merchants were despised. They were seen as greedy, willing to make a buck at others expense, only selling things that others produced.
The downfall of the feudal system that governed Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire was not the rise of the Renaissance intellectual, but the rise of the worker caste (especially the tradesmen and merchants) into the middle class and upper classes.
Often these castes are in conflict, but it is not always the case. Hitler was able to unite the workers (by destroying all union and communist opposition), the academic class (infatuated with Darwin's idea of 'favored races' and Niche's concept of the 'superman') and the military by making Nazism the de-facto religion of Germany. In ancient Sparta the priest who worshipped Ares actively supported the total domination of their society by the warrior caste.
Another side effect of this social division is the evolution of social classes. In any society there will be those with the intelligence, cunning, resources, skill, connections, family, brutality, greed, ambition, or luck to dominate the cultural structure. What kinds of traits will different societies favor in their upper classes? What sort of traits will denigrate them to the lower classes?
In most societies, those in the power classes tend to view the traits that got them there as virtues. Thus their very success in reaching the top (or staying there) is a testament to their inherent superiority over the those in the lower classes.
Morality and Values
What's right, what's wrong, and how do your characters decided between them? What are the consequences for violating moral standards? Go back to Day Zero and think about the social and personal implications of the theology you've set up. What are the sexual morays of the culture(s) in your story? What is the value of human life? Are members of one caste or class more 'valuable' than others? According to the Code of Hammurabi (the first written legal code) a person from a higher class could murder a person of a lower class with only a minor fine. Murder of a person of the same class might result in corporal punishment and a fine. Murdering a person in a higher class was a capital offense. Keep in mind your social structure. In a society dominated by the warrior there will always be a tendency toward a 'might makes right' morality. Worker societies are more likely to be dominated by a strong work ethic, or, if the merchant is the dominant, by profit. Priestly societies will base their morality on the principles of their religion.
We've discussed this topic from the perspective of the divinities in your world. But you also need to look at it from the character's point of view. How is religion expressed culturally and personally? What temples, shrines, or churches will your characters' cultures build? What are the qualifications and cultural roles of priests? What does worship look like? Are there sacrifices, feasts, or regular worship services? What is the relationship between the religious and political structures? What is the cultural authority of the religion (how much will people follow or ignore the religious leaders)? What kinds of religious ideas will the culture reject? If people violate religious taboos what will be the consequences? Does everyone believe it, or just play lip service to it? Does it reflect the real will of any divinity or is it a social fabrication? If the religion is a fabrication, where did it come from? How have religious practices evolved over the years?
Medicine & Science
In many ancient cultures the physician was the priest. The priest, philosopher, and scientist were the same person. The human, being a unity of body, mind, and spirit, needed a physician who could cure problems of the body, mind, and spirit. Classically, philosophy referred to all academic pursuits. Even today we still give out Ph.D. (doctor of philosophy) degrees in physics, history, mathematics, and medicine. This is why I include all these in the priest caste.
But we need to look at where the rubber meets the road. How are the sick and wounded treated in your world? Are there healing potions? Are there bionic prosthetics? Will it take weeks for a character to recover from a major injury or broken bones, or are their ways to cure him in a few minutes? Are there hospitals, witch doctors, or astral healers? The field of medicine has also frequently been a field where women were allowed power even in male dominated societies.
What unique technologies are available in certain cultures? This is where you go back to Day 1 and detail the technologies used by the characters in your story. What sort of weapons does a particular culture favor: Spears, Swords, Bows, Light Sabers, Six-guns, Summoned demons? What sort of vehicles do they use: flying carpets, flying saucers, horses, powered armor suits, Harley Davidson motorcycles?
I put this here, because the primary purpose of education in most cultures is to communicate social values and religious doctrines to new generations. Sciences, math, and language are communicated in these contexts. For example, the most literate cultures historically are literate because children need to be taught to read scriptures. On the other hand, in illiterate cultures the religious leadership jealously guards the power that literacy gives them (especially if writing has anything to do with magic). There are also cultures that spurn education and ostracize scholars while placing much value on athletic or military skill. Pre-literate cultures rely on the human memory to record history. So the bard, or the local equivalent will be a person of great importance.
How have the characters and cultures in your world been taught to think? How will this affect their relationships and conflicts with characters of other countries or races? If your characters are going to buck the system, what has broken through their own prejudices?
I like making up languages for my fantasy stories. My background is in language so I tend to go the Tolkien rout of devising whole languages, verb declensions, script styles, and inflected endings. In fact, I will confess, it's something of a waste of time. I obsess over made up grammatical forms, while I neglect actually writing the story. Remember your goal. Are you trying to write a story, or make up a language? The purpose of a created language (or using a real language) is to make the world, cultures, and characters who speak the language more real, more alien.
One of the most practical uses for a made-up language is profanity. It's a way to make colorful, roguish characters and still keep the story PG. It can also be a tell to cultural values. Why is a word or phrase particularly offensive?
Using consistent language patterns in place names will help create a sense of place. In Lord of the Rings you start out in earthy, normal Hobbiton where everything has very everyday names: The Shire, The Old Forest, The Water, Buckland, Bree, Staddle, the Last Inn. But you know you're not in the Shire anymore as they near Moria and suddenly you get names like Zirak Zigil, Carathras, Nimrodel, and Lorien. As you enter Gondor every hill has the word 'Amon' in its name and cities have names like Osgiliath and Pelargir.
One other area where language will affect your characters is in your characters' names.
While developing the languages for all the aliens in Star Wars, George Lucas' standard practice was to combine two languages, borrowing the grammatical structure from one language and the vocabulary from another.
Usually you only need to develop a base vocabulary. Try to keep the culture in mind, especially if you're writing for non-human beings. Reptilian species you might want to have a lot of sibilant consonants: s, sh, t, th for them to hiss out. Feline species you might want lots of rolling r's and nasals like n and m.
Generally you can lump all cultures into two broad categories: literate or illiterate. Of course, there are varying degrees of partial literacy. Illiterate cultures rely heavily on the mnemonic power of poetry to record thoughts, history, and information. Just as partially literate cultures rely on specialized scribes to write and read, illiterate cultures rely on bards whose job is to remember and pass down the tales, songs, and records.
The power of writing profoundly impacts a society, from the simple ability to accurately keep accounting records to the permanent recording of written law. Oral tradition is easily corrupted or even destroyed by time, but written records can persist long after the culture that wrote them down is forgotten. Similarly, people are often quick to believe a story if it has been written down. Readers are prone to assume a writer has properly researched a topic.
In pre-electronic cultures, literature, poetry, and music are the primary forms of private entertainment. Before radio and TV came along, people filled those 'prime-time' hours sharing tales, songs, writing and reading letters to each other, reading stories. Watching the news was going down to the local inn and listening in on the conversations.
In societies where the priest caste is predominant the primary literature will be scriptures or spell books. In worker societies the literature will tend toward entertainment. Warrior societies will have long heroic epics that extol a warrior's strength and honor. In other words, what kind of people will your culture consider heroic? That will be what their literature is about.
How do people in your culture spend their leisure time? Generally the more advanced a culture becomes the more leisure time they have. Over human history we've come up with an endless list of ways to entertain ourselves: drama, athletics, combat, music, poetry, stories, spectacle, dance, gaming, dining, drinking, recreational drug use, of course there's always that 'oldest of professions'. Entertainment comes in two basic flavors: spectator and participatory. What kind will your culture(s) prefer? In addition there are two sub-flavors: individual and team. What kinds of entertainment will the people in your culture prefer? What do the activities your culture entertains themselves with say about that culture.
Remember that cult classic movie 'Rollerball' (not the recent re-make). The government used this brutal form of roller derby to promote a communal attitude in the populace. They wanted to denigrate individual achievement and emphasize teamwork. The conflict arises because an individual player becomes so successful that he threatens that message. So the government that secretly controls the games, tries to have him killed.
How is entertainment paid for? Are artist's self-supporting, free to charge for their products with ticket sales? Are artists sponsored by government, church, rich private, or corporate interests? Do those interests control what the artists can say, or who wins?
Art, of course, encompasses most forms of cultural expression, but I'm referring specifically here to the visual arts, painting, drawing, and sculpture. In a priest society you might see elegant stain glass windows, ubiquitous sculptures of divinities and saints. In a warrior society the sculptures would depict heroes, weapons, and memorialize great battles. Art in worker societies oddly tend to feature recreation, what people get to do when they finally get to stop working.
Architecture is primarily a function of environment and available resources, but it also reflects the technological level of a culture. Italy and Greece have relatively abundant marble, so many of their buildings use it. In Egypt where sandstone and clay are common but wood is very rare, they used sun-dried brick. Bricks in Europe had be fired or else they would dissolve in the rain so they tended to use wood since it was abundant, or stone in areas, like Scotland, where wood was less available. In China, the abundant bamboo and timber became the primary building material.
Greek and Roman architecture is open: a series of open rooms surrounding a roofless courtyard. This is because of the relatively mild Mediterranean climate. In northern Europe rooms were closed, equipped with a fireplace, and windows glassed or shuttered, because of the much cooler and wetter climate.
Building height is also a function of technology. There is a limit to how many stories tall a tower can be simply because of the limited strength of stone. Habitable buildings cannot be much more than six levels tall unless you have some sort of elevator system.
You might also want to include elements from your magic system in your buildings: floating buildings, organic buildings grown from magically manipulated trees, structural integrity fields (or their magical equivalents) that allow super strong structures that look almost unsupported, like half-arcs, spirals, or bizarre curves. Cities under constant threat of attack will have strong defensible buildings with few windows, thick city walls, and usually little aesthetic qualities. Rich, populous, and secure cities will have open buildings, an emphasis on making buildings look pretty, and any city walls will be viewed more as an obstacle than a defense.
Architecture offers visitors to strange cultures (like the readers of your book) clues to the culture's main values. If the largest, most elaborate building in the city were a temple or cathedral, what would you think is the dominant force in that culture: priest, warrior, or worker? What if the largest building is a coliseum, a fortress, or the palace of the king? What if some 300 level corporate headquarters dominates your city's skyline? In 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' the cathedral and the imposing Palace of Justice dominate the skyline. The conflict in the story is symbolized by the conflict set up between these two buildings at opposite ends of the city and the ideals they represent.
Fashion and clothes are great clues to a society and culture. How people present themselves and how they are required to be presented is an easy way to communicate to a reader important information about a new character. Clothes can instantly communicate social class, national allegiance,
Fashion will reflect
- Sexual Morals: how revealing or modest a dress can tell how prudish or wanton a culture might be
- Social Values: Warrior cultures will feature martial clothes if not outright uniforms. Worker cultures often feature earth tones, especially if you're going for a rustic look. Priestly cultures often tend toward ostentation and can be as stratified as a martial culture. What kind of culture might feature androgynous unitards?
- Social Class: finer fabrics and elaborate clothes for the rich, simpler, courser and patched fabrics for the poor
- Social Roles: jobs usually have some sort of uniform, official or unofficial: a chef's hat, a maid's apron, a lady's fan, a woodsman's hood.
- Resources and Trade: What fabrics are produced locally, what can they import? Fur, leather, cotton, wool, silk, linen, synthetics, feathers, etc., need to be available or obtainable by trade. Poor folk will usually have clothes made from local materials while richer folk will wear finer, imported fabrics.
- Environment: Cold environments need warmer clothes with less revealed skin, warm environments need less clothes usually exposing more skin. Hot environments tend to need clothes again. What kind of environment would you think a culture lives in where everyone wears acid-resistant, plastic raincoats?
- Religion: Many religions strictly dictate fashion. Usually they are in line with other social and cultural roles, but often they exist only to distinguish the 'wes' from the 'thems'. From the turbans and ceremonial knives worn by Sikhs to the rosary beads worn by nuns to the color coded shawls of the Aes Sedai.
Different cultures and races eat different foods and often view food differently. Except for Swedish Meatballs. According to Ambassador G'kar of Narn from Babylon 5 every culture has a version of Swedish Meatballs. If your food is heavy on the garlic, your probably eating Italian (especially southern Italian or Sicilian). If your food is spiced with paprika it's probably Slavic, the French tend to use onion, Scandinavians use allspice, Indian uses curry, and Mexican favors peppers. But more than just regional taste, food is often reflective of many other aspects of culture.
How is food eaten? Chopsticks? Forks? A Shared Knife (as in medieval Europe)? A multivitamin Tablet? I.V.?
Do people sit in chairs around a table, kneel at a table, or recline? Are there restaurants, inns, taverns, commissaries, messes or other public eateries?
Can men eat with women, or children eat with adults, or is that considered improper?
What are a culture's rules about hospitality? In cultures where food is scarce or hard to produce, food and sharing meals together is a big deal, even sacramental. Are certain animals or foods sacred or unclean? Are some foods poisonous? Are certain foods reserved for special times and occasions, like Chinese moon cakes, Jewish Passover matza, or roast turkey at American Thanksgiving? What foods are identified with certain societies, like the English and tea?
I know this tutorial is overwhelming (it was overwhelming to write it). The point is not that you have to include every detail, every aspect of human society in your world (as if this were an exhaustive list). I wanted to throw out a lot of different ideas so that you can pick and chose a few, maybe a few you hadn't thought of, that will help you flesh out your world and make it more real to your readers. I've put together a Civilization Worksheet that will allow you to condense all the aspects of this over-long section into a simple single reference page.
I've put together a simple Civilization Worksheet in PDF format. It's designed to summarize all the info from both parts of this tutorial onto a single at-a-glance sheet.