World Building from Scratch: Cultures

Blogger note: I’m away from my computer this week, so I can’t quickly release comments from moderation or answer questions. I apologize for any delays.

So, what sort of society would your world have? What sort of economy is needed to support your interstellar empire? Or your fantasy world? Does your character believe in a higher power? If so, what sort? If not, is there a reason*?

Keep in mind, I’m lazy and prefer to borrow stuff that seems cool from history or archaeology and then run wild with it. If you are writing sci-fi or fantasy scenarios that have nothing at all human-like, say, sapient shark-like predators on a world that is 80% water with a very high CO2 atmosphere, their society is going to be very, very different from what most readers tend to default to. Or if you create a fantasy full of bird-like people who communicate with complex musical vocalizations and body language and live in colony groups for safety-in-numbers. Biology will be your friend there, looking at books and videos of bird behavior and avian intelligence.

When I designed the society of the Azdhagi, I looked at feudal systems. I wanted a merit based-society, sort of, where size matters. But not the standard European system, since that seems to be a default. Instead I read up on the Chinese system before the end of the Tang Dynasty**, and the Japanese system. Both of those had elements that fit what I wanted, and so I borrowed all over the place.

The top of the social ladder is the King-Emperor. The King title is older, and relates to his role as the biggest (often literally), meanest (or most devious and cunning and ruthless), and most intelligent (not always) male in a pack-based society of predators. Because the Azdhagi developed from carnivorous, sentient, packs-society reptiles. The pack still exists, but in a way that readers and the PoV character don’t see until several books into the series. The king-emperor is physically large because he hast to dominate the other males, he is supposed to be intelligent, and must have perfect control over his body and emotions. One sign of rank is the ability to control body language. Tiny gestures have lots and lots of meaning among the nobles – a slight lift of one talon, a little twitch of the neck spines, the tail-tip shifting one centimeter to the right. Those scream “Someone’s about to die!” if you know the culture. After all, reptiles don’t have many facial muscles for emotional expression, so body language plays a greater role.

Below the king-emperor are the nobles. Their ranks vary with age of lineage, pedigree, military and intellectual abilities, and assigned tasks. Everyone has certain duties to those above and below them on the totem pole. The lone mammal in this system, Rada Ni Drako, is a mid-ranked noble by skill and job. Twice she has actually risen far higher, but she prefers not to the the lightning rod. She is legally male, since female Azdhagi “can’t do that.” Rada had to prove herself again to each new generation of ambitious young males. That’s partly how the nobles determine rank among themselves – fighting in controlled and less-than-controlled matches. But they are also supposed to be civilized and to appreciate and participate in the arts, music, fine dining, and so on.

This probably sounds familiar. As I said, I steal shamelessly. Females are smaller than males, and are inferior. However, any male who tries to take an unwilling female discovers the hard way that Azdhagi females fight back. Hard. Some learn how to use a sort of naginata, or pole arm, to protect their juniors (children). Even the biggest Azdhagi male thinks twice about messing with kids when there are females around. He runs a serious risk of becoming formerly-male, assuming the females don’t kill him. Rape is very, very, very rare. Some farm tasks are done only by females because it is easier for them to move around on their hind legs, since they are lighter and longer than the males.

The Azdhagi have an after life and practice modified ancestor worship. They had a different faith before the Great Disaster that led to the abandonment of the entire southern half of the planet. Veneration of the people who got them out of that mess became worship. Some especially notable real people became deities, including Rada Ni Drako’s first employer, King-Emperor Shi-Dan. She is somewhat amused by this. She is not amused by stories that twice he has returned from the dead to assist her. Living or dead, he was a handful and a half, and she prefers him to stay deceased and far away. She eventually becomes a Christian – High Church Anglican – something that is Not Discussed among the Azdhagi. She also keeps it very, very quiet that she doesn’t have Ancestors to aid her.

Since the Azdhagi are preferentially four-footed, they tend to build long, low structures with ramps instead of stairs. They prefer heat to cool, and take enormous pains to warm buildings and themselves if they have to live in cold places. Their vehicles are also long and low, with forefoot and hind-foot controls. Those are the sort of details that make your culture and world come alive, and add to the “not like us” sense for your readers.

Image by Parker_West from Pixabay

*Anne McCaffrey explained later why religion is absent from Pern and the other worlds she created – in her future, a terrible war shattered faith in higher powers, and so the closest anyone came to religion was a sort of transcendental meditation sort of philosophy (that later had a vegan component, but that was very late.) Even so, she gave a semi-plausible reason for why religion was absent.

**I used the abrupt termination of both the Tang and the feudal nobles as the basis of a different fantasy story, Daughter of the Pearl.

12 thoughts on “World Building from Scratch: Cultures

  1. Remember that the odder your society is, the more central its oddity should be when building the world. Because there are Chekhov’s guns in world building.

  2. Lots of local color comes from the social forms and religious backgrounds — taboos, politeness, behaviors, risks, and (some of my favorites) swearing — you have to have something worth using when a character is cussing someone out or hoping to avoid a nasty and imminent fate..

  3. I HIGHLY recommend the book “Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders” as a guide and series of questions to think about. You don’t have to know all the answers, but it’s got lots of areas that could help spark stories and answer questions.

    A Trevena also has some good books in this arena.

    I’ve found, as a pantser/discovery writer that reading books like these tends to help when I have come to a stop point where I need to figure something out about the world and how it works to continue the story. I don’t necessarily use them as a checklist for pre-planning, but it does help me build some scaffolding to keep the questions and possible answers in mind.

  4. She also keeps it very, very quiet that she doesn’t have Ancestors to aid her.


    Not the way you’re going with this, but I thought of something I can use– the saints and angels are basically Ancestors….

    I have an orphan who can *definitely* use that!

  5. Anne McCaffrey explained later why religion is absent from Pern and the other worlds she created – in her future, a terrible war shattered faith in higher powers

    Interesting. I do remember noting in Dragonsdawn that no one seemed to have any sort of religion, though I didn’t get the reason why. I don’t know how much sense that makes for Dragonflight-era Pern, though, where they’ve completely forgotten that there are other worlds beyond Pern. I’m not sure that their thinking would still be shaped by that war they wouldn’t understand even if it were explained to them. On the other hand, though, I got the impression that the Pernese basically worshipped the dragons, and the riders to a lesser extent. I guess I could buy the dragons filling in the headspace where religion is supposed to be, meaning the Pernese didn’t need to develop anything else.

    1. McCaffrey had a very bad experience with organized religion at some point, and didn’t include it in her work until very late. Even then, it was retconned to explain the absence.

  6. One of my WIPs is built in a world inhabited wholly by satyrs of various races: tribal distinctives like horn size/shape (anything from simple goats’ or rams’ horns to most any antelope’s or even oxen), skin & hair/pelt colors, different builds and body types, make for some fun character portraits.

    Of course as an American, I need to go back and make sure they’re not a “Melting Pot” of physical types such as we’re accustomed to seeing: intercontinental commerce isn’t really a thing in this world yet.

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