Writing and reading books in the fantasy genre is one of my favorite things to do. Maybe it’s the limitless possibilities that come with the genre, but there’s something so intrinsically cool about building a world from the ground up and thinking about how it works. Do they have giant six-legged beasts they ride to work in the morning? Do they get bouts of rain so acidic that it melts rooftops that aren’t properly insulated? Does their monetary system revolve around singing, and those who sing best are the richest?
There’s a lot that goes into creating a story, especially a high fantasy story…but maybe that’s just my bias showing. With high fantasy, you as the writer have an opportunity to toy with language, different races, jaw-dropping geography and awe-inspiring architecture. The world you build really is only limited to how much you can imagine.
During this process of thinking and building and creating, it’s important to put an emphasis on culture. That’s because a lot of the time, culture is what will impact your story and determine your character’s reactions to the events happening around them or to them.
Pondering the importance of culture in a fantasy story is a pseudo chicken-and-egg scenario. Do you mold the story after the culture you’ve created, or do you change the culture to fit the story? Which should come first?
It’s an interesting conundrum to ponder. But I would argue that the sooner you establish your world’s culture, the sooner you can work out the kinks in your story. An arc that revolves around a girl who wants to work hard and become the first female dragon rider might not make sense in a matriarchal society. Or a boy who refuses to marry might not be a good point of conflict if marriage isn’t an important cultural ceremony.
But before delving any deeper, let’s examine what comprises culture, exactly. It’s a term often thrown around by eager travelers wanting to ‘immerse themselves in the culture of the place, you know?’, but a nation or country’s culture is an intricate knot composed of different elements.
In its broad term, culture refers to a people’s religion, art, literature, beliefs, and customs. It’s the cuisine, the language, social habits, music and customs of a subset of people. It’s the essence of a nation and defines or alters their world view. In effect, it becomes the lens through which they see the world.
Culture should be the backbone of your worldbuilding. You’ll want to think deep and hard about what your world is like, and how the culture has shaped the people who live in your story.
And don’t forget – cultures often vary by region or families. So it’s helpful to think of how to incorporate different cultures, and how they may clash or align with others included in your story. Not only does it make you look good as a writer, but it also serves as fodder for plotting and story structure.
When thinking of the story I wanted to tell with the Sapeiro Chronicles, I gave a lot of thought to the region’s politics and how it influenced or affected people’s view of their leadership. I also gave great thought to how their magic – referred to as Kerai, is part of the social fabric. This made me in turn consider how to weave it into the myths and legends of Sapeiro, and think about how the relationship with this magic differs per family. Thinking of these different worldviews was instrumental in teasing out how the different conflicts would present themselves, and made for a much more engaging story.
When done well, culture can be a driving force in a story arc. It can be the initial conflict, the resolution, or even the conclusion of your story. Culture is a powerful tool to leverage in your narrative, and you should absolutely exploit it for the purposes of your story.