Fictional cultures. If you are a speculative fiction writer of any kind, you know it well. You’ve probably created several. And your culture can involve anything from an entire nation in a fantasy world to a pack of werewolves in an alternate version of our world.
But what kinds of mistakes do writers make when building a culture from scratch? Well, that’s the thing. We never really build anything in our writing from scratch. Chances are, when you are creating something, you are taking inspiration from something else—race and culture included.
So how do we create in-depth, interesting fictional cultures, customs, and races that don’t involve stereotyping existing ones? These are just a few things to consider as you build your world and the beautiful noodles living within it.
(Update: You can’t have noodles without spice! I mean, you can, but it can still be spicy, I guess.
A reader brought something to my attention that I feel I should emphasize: race is not real. As I reference it in this article, I mean “race” as far as it’s perceived in the real world today, as there’s no denying that how you are treated based on your “race” affects how you interact with the world. I am saying that race is not who you are, but the impact the social construction of race has on you does become part of our culture (in addition to countless other things: location, resources, relationships, traditions, etc, etc). I am not referring to any kind of mental/physical distinction between races. That’s some eugenics shit.
Ultimately, my intention with this article is to emphasize that, hey, since race isn’t real, maybe we shouldn’t have racial stereotypes in fiction that become so commonplace that we just assume it’s natural that people will behave and live a certain way solely because of their “race.” It just makes race seem more “real” to us, not less.
Going deeper into deconstructing race and how we understand it is an article for another day. A day of a lot more research and preparation. But the commenter did make me realize that I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence by not emphasizing that race is only a social construct. A very deep-seated one, but a social construct nonetheless.)
Culture and Race Aren’t The Same
You know that tendency of some people to blame systemic racism in America on ‘Black culture?’ Yeah, nah. Culture can mean a lot of different things, and those things don’t have to be connected to the person’s “race.” Some alternative systems in D&D, as mentioned in this article by Wired, treat culture as something “broader…includ[ing] languages, skill training, and education.”
Yes, how you are treated based on your “race” can be part of your culture, but it’s not all that shapes you. What you learn, who you learn from, what you value, and where you come from are some other major contributors to your culture and the kind of person you might become. And while a village might have a culture that values certain things and teaches their young a certain way, that does not mean that the race of said villagers magically made them that way. Things like region, socioeconomic status, resources (or lack thereof), religion, and even climate can all play a role as well.
Think of it this way: would a village of elves living in a freezing cold region and no connection at all to other elves living in a hot region think and behave entirely the same way? What about a filthy rich elven empire compared to a tiny elven village that stays isolated within nature? Would they all value and prioritize the same things because they’re all elves? How about an elf who grew up in a human kingdom somewhere far away from other elves? Would they be exactly the same? No, probably not. Sure, the fact that they’re elves might mean they have some things in common, but their being elves is not what shapes their entire culture and behavior. Do not mistake culture for what we understand as race.
Don’t Make a Race Where Everyone’s Main Trait is Being Evil, Violent, Greedy, Selfish, etc, etc
Hey…it kind of feels like you’re implying something here?
If you take inspiration from real people when developing your fictional culture—and you probably will because that kind of inspiration is everywhere—one of the worst things you can do is paint them all as some kind of collectively terrible group of people. You know the type: all goblins and orcs like to kill people and burn and loot villages, all drow like to stab each other in the back to climb the social hierarchy, all giants are absolute chaos that like to throw boulders at hapless travelers and eat people, etc, etc.
You can say that any real-life inspiration you took from actual cultures was purely incidental, but the thing is that readers may not see it that way. You can control how you intend the writing to be interpreted, but you can’t control how readers actually interpret it. And when it comes to marginalized groups in particular, there’s already an abundance of stereotypes and caricatures that they have to contend with. Your writing should not be adding to it.
Don’t Validate Bigotry
Sort of a continuation of the last point, and a bit of clarification: If stereotypes exist in your world, that’s one thing. It’s another thing entirely if you decide you want your writing to prove those stereotypes right. If you write about drow, for example, maybe they have a reputation for being cunning, powerful, and downright evil worshipers of an evil goddess, but maybe those stereotypes are patently untrue. Maybe a lot of the most powerful drow from a particular city behave that way (it’s a common trait among the ruling class no matter where you come from), but most drow just like hanging out underground, practicing cool magic and stuff.
I don’t know, man. It’s your world. You can make it a big bummer, but you don’t have to validate stereotypes that affect real people to do it. And if you do make it so that certain stereotypes are accurate, don’t imply that it’s because that’s how that particular group of people naturally behaves.
Don’t Gloss Over (or Glorify) Colonialism and Its Impact
The reality is that in any world where colonialism is a thing (which it is, in many fictional worlds), the characters will be just as indoctrinated into a colonialist mindset as we are, and will see it as a positive. So having characters who downplay genocide, slavery, forced sterilization, and the expropriation of native land is not surprising, and characters behaving that way in your writing isn’t the problem—the problem is you justifying it.
Are your characters totally down with treating certain groups of people like they’re savages who deserve to be driven out or slaughtered because of who/what they are? Do they have any kind of reconciliation with the fact that they’re a genocidal dick? No? Turns out colonizing a land that didn’t belong to them was actually a great idea because the people they drove out were all real shitty and totes deserved it? Were they a bunch of sniveling goblins who have no sense of hygiene, no intelligence whatsoever, and no drive to do anything but steal things and poop everywhere? Are your characters heroes for driving them out because, gross, right? Story ends happily ever after with the evil native “race” all gone and the new, more advanced, more civilized “race” moving in? I hope you see the problem here.
Simply put, don’t imply in your writing that an entire group of people who were there first deserved to be “conquered” because “we’re way better than them.” Maybe you don’t intend it to come across that way, and maybe you think it’s harmless because it’s fiction, but that doesn’t change that fantasy and science fiction are unfortunately rife with many stereotypes that you only add to by portraying people as a monolith of savages deserving of losing their lives and land.
Don’t Claim You Can Do It Better
I’m tired, man.
Like I mentioned in my post on representation in publishing, it might seem like a kind of Catch-22 to have calls for representation, but also calls for white/cis/straight people to avoid writing about the struggles of the community they’re representing in their writing. But I want to clarify again: the ideal representation is the kind where people who have lived that experience get to tell their own stories. There’s nothing wrong with writing a Black character if you aren’t Black, but are you the right person to tell a story about the horrors of slavery or the experience of growing up near a sundown town? Moreover, are you the right person to be profiting off of those kinds of stories?
Does that mean you’re not a good writer? Of course not. It just means that, hey, maybe some stories aren’t yours to tell, and that’s okay. It means that the problem isn’t just marginalized people not appearing in stories enough, but the industry failing to acknowledge the authors who can and should be the ones to tell these stories.
There’s a lot of discourse lately about BIPOC authors taking over the industry and having a much better chance of being published than white authors, but as this great 2019 survey by Lee & Low Books shows, nothing could be further from the truth. The industry is and always has been overwhelmingly white at every point in the publishing process: from the authors to the agents to the editors to the publicists, and every point in between.
So if your fictional culture takes heavy inspiration from another, actual culture, don’t claim it’s because you can do the representation thing better. And understand that using the stereotypes you know of to create an exaggerated caricature in your world does not equal ‘doing it better.’ All you are doing is harming a group of people who already get very little accurate representation in media as it is, and very few chances to set the record straight themselves.
Tell Us What Makes This Culture Unique
I realized that this article became a lot of “avoid this, avoid that.” I did say this would be a spicy one.
That being said, there are plenty of things to embrace when you’re building your very own culture in the world you built all on your own.
Give us cool customs! What is important to someone from a particular village who grew up with certain traditions? What is frowned upon? Who is highly respected, and why? What languages do people from certain countries speak? How are children from one region educated, and how might it be different from a region on the other side of the world? How do people celebrate? How do they mourn? What kind of resources are available near them? Are resources scarce or abundant? Are most people wealthy or in poverty? What do people tend to believe in? What problems or dangers do people face and how does it shape how people are taught or raised?
Keeping in mind even the smallest aspects of a culture can help make it memorable and unique. What kind of music can you find in one village/town/city versus another? Where is the best place to get certain foods (for example, we know Chicago and New York as being the spots to get great pizza)? What kind of art is most appreciated? What gods do most people from certain locations worship (if any)?
Of course, not every little thing that you think of will necessarily appear in your actual writing. But keeping all of these things in mind is a great way to really make the cultures you built come alive.
How Does Your World’s Environment Impact The Culture?
As mentioned in a previous point, the environment plays a big role in culture. In fact, the study of culture based on geographical location is known as, well…cultural geography. Crazy, right?
But that’s how big an impact physical location has on the behavior of those who live there. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? You must adapt to your location and the challenges that it brings, so of course you would develop customs, habits, and behaviors accordingly. It starts out as a survival mechanism and evolves over time into super complex traditions, many of which might even remain long after technology is developed to overcome whatever obstacle made it a tradition in the first place. Sometimes we may not even remember where a tradition came from, yet still we follow it.
So when you’re building a culture, keep location in mind. And that goes for all locations. Maybe your story takes place in a village that was built on the back of a giant sea turtle. So maybe the villagers from there worship the sea turtle as a kind of god. Maybe it’s a coming-of-age tradition to climb atop the head of the sea turtle when one reaches a certain age. Maybe, living on the back of this sea turtle, people from this village are known for being skilled fishermen who can make a real good salmon. Maybe the most valuable things you can trade here are not things from the island, but from the mainland since the turtle is constantly moving and it’s hard to stop at the mainland without—oh no! Sea turtle village left me behind! Waaaaait!
So yeah. Cultural geography, my friends!
Cultures Can Be Flawed…Because They All Are
Clarification. It’s important.
We’re human. Humans are flawed. And even if the fictional “race” you’re creating isn’t human, they will more than likely still have flaws because when you put a group of people together who have different personalities, goals, ideas, and philosophies, you are bound to run into problems. So I just want to emphasize that I am not telling you to make anyone flawless by any means. There may be bad things done by some people. There may be mistakes made by important people, or even downright shitty people within a country, city, town, village, religious sect, family, community, what have you. There may even be a whole town in your world that is known for drawing in thieves or murderers or cannibals or baby snatchers because that is the culture there regardless of the race of the inhabitants. There will be flaws.
That is not the problem. The problem is when you turn an entire group of people into a racial monolith of thieves, murderers, warmongers, backstabbers, and so on. How we interact with the world based on the conception of race is part of the huge umbrella of things that impact “culture.” But unless you’re dealing with some kind of hive mind, curse, or spell, that will not make everyone behave the exact same way with no outliers. Maybe in your world, orcs from some cities enjoy fighting, but that doesn’t mean every single orc character that appears in your story wants to throw hands at all times. Maybe a lot of orc villages developed a culture that values strength and honor. Doesn’t mean all orcs fight honorably, or like to fight at all, or love working out and getting swole, or can’t enjoy things like baking and practicing magic and having a tiny puppy named Cinnamon.
Stop With The Exaggerated Accents or Dialogue For Joke Characters
I shouldn’t even have to include this one.
Just because someone’s culture may seem unfamiliar to you does not mean they make a good punchline in your story. Stop it. Don’t do that. Not everyone talks the way you do.
Understand Why It Matters
You might be reading all this and thinking, “This is a lot, look at all this WOKE LIBERAL BULLSH*T.” First of all, I’m not a liberal, shut up. Second of all, while we may be talking about creating fictional cultures, the consequences are very real. Words have power. And while you might think one book with some stereotypes isn’t a big deal, that kind of thinking builds up. We see a lot of stereotypes in both fantasy and sci-fi today because we’re just…well, used to them.
We build up an unconscious bias through all of the media we consume, including books, and yes, including fiction. For example, you might have read my point about stereotyping entire fantasy races and thought, “What’s the big deal? Goblins are sniveling, gross monsters. Drow are evil, dark-magic-using backstabbers. Orcs are savage warmongers. I like it when the evil orc army gets defeated in fantasy.”
But we don’t really consider the implications of that kind of thinking; that reading stories like that might drill into us this narrative that colonization is okay if the people we colonize are “savages” or “monsters.” That we deserve to take things from others because 1. we’re the good guys, 2. we won because we’re better and therefore deserve to conquer, 3. cultures and customs that are different from ours are probably evil and terrible, and even 4. the people we colonized look different from us and are therefore ugly, and therefore deserving of their fate.
It doesn’t matter if you are writing the most outlandish, unrealistic sh*t imaginable. Readers are like sponges—they absorb quite a lot. So if we want to help build a more equitable world as speculative fiction writers, a world where the construction of race that has created a racial hegemony—and diverted our attention from the class struggle—no longer exists, we can start by embracing culture in our writing without also embracing the stereotypes that have a very real impact on real people.
There’s a long way to go, but it’s a start!