Podcast Episode 27.1 – Creating Cultures


Episode 27.1: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture, defining what culture is and is not, how to develop a cultural vision, and the types of cultural depictions we’ll likely need.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Where culture originates
  • The difference between culture and custom
  • The difference between customs and traditions
  • Why you should develop a cultural vision and how to apply it
  • Why we need to avoid “race as culture”
  • How much culture to invent
  • The different cultural depictions

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Episode 27.1 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part 1. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes defining what culture is and is not, how to develop a cultural vision, and the types of cultural depictions we’ll likely need. This material and more is discussed in chapter one of Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at artofworldbuilding.com.

Defining Culture

Before we get started, I want to mention that you can buy transcripts of every episode from this podcast. In fact, you can actually buy the podcast episodes themselves as audiobooks. You can just go to artofworldbuilding.com or Amazon and search for that title.

To get started with culture, we should have a good idea of what culture is. Most of us have some idea, but, at the same time, we’re also kind of vague about that. So, let’s get specific.

One way of looking at culture is that it is the lifestyle for a social group, and that social group could be anything. On Earth it could be Christians, another religion, metal heads, punk rockers, nerds, jocks or pretty much anything. Each one of these groups has its own culture. At the same time, they belong to a larger culture. So, we could have all of the groups I just mentioned living in the United States, which has a sort of broader culture that encompasses all of those. You can think of this as a culture scope. And when we are trying to invent culture, we should figure out what scope are we inventing it for. Am I just creating something for a little group like the metal heads, or am I creating a culture for a region or a country?

Culture is also a set of expectations about how people are supposed to behave. Anytime we have a culture clash between one character and others, what’s usually happening is those expectations are not being met. Anytime an expectation is not met, that usually causes a negative reaction. That negative reaction causes some emotions, and it also causes judgment about the person who is not meeting our expectations — whether those judgments are fair or not. A simple example would be that if you’re driving a car in the United States, you’re on the highway and you’re going to turn off, you’re supposed to use your turn signal. That’s what our expectation is. That’s part of our culture. So, if someone doesn’t do it, you’re behind them and you don’t understand why they’re slowing down, and then, at the last second, they suddenly turn off the road, sometimes we get angry that they were rude to us by not letting us know what they were planning to do. At its simplest level, this is basically what culture is.

Culture Origins

The next question, then, becomes, “Where do these expectations come from?” The answer is basically values, beliefs and morals. These are what we might call the origins of culture, and they manifest in specific ideas. For example, if the value is being polite to people, then in the example about the car driver, they weren’t being polite to us, or they weren’t being courteous. And if courteousness is a value, then they have offended that value. The important point here is that we’ve got the points of origin, which are these values, beliefs and morals, and then we have the manifestations. To some extent, they really do come in that order, and that’s the order that we’re going to talk about them today.

In other words, when we are trying to invent a culture, we should start with those beliefs, values and morals, and then work on how they manifest. That’s not to say that we can’t think of specific issues that are happening, the specific manifestations, but we always need to have some idea of what the original source is, otherwise we might be creating cultural aspects that conflict with each other. I think of that as cultural vision, and we’ll talk more about that in a few minutes.

So, let’s take a look at the points of origin for a culture. As we get started here, I want you to think about a kind of hierarchy where culture might exist at the sovereign power level, such as a kingdom, and then at the regional level within that kingdom, and then the settlements within that, and then within there you would have different social groups. That said, those social groups can exist across different settlements and regions. One reason we want to think of it this way is that there is a kind of inheritance from the larger picture, like the sovereign power level, all the way down to that small social group.

One reason to think of it this way is that we may want to focus first on the government type that this place has. Why does this matter? Well, a democracy is going to have a very different set of ideas that are being promoted by that government versus a totalitarian dictatorship. In Episode 14, which was actually three different episodes (14.1, 14.2, 14.3), we discussed in some detail the different types of sovereign powers. So, I’m not going to rehash those details, but I want you to pay attention to that hierarchy when you are starting to create a culture.

The Influence of Morals and Values

Let’s talk about morals and values. What’s the difference? Well, an individual’s values come from within and they can change in time. By contrast, morals are taught by society and are usually kind of deep-seated, and they’re slow to change if they ever do. Morals are like a guideline for how to live rightly.

Now, despite these differences, we can actually treat them as the same when we are trying to invent a culture. In the book, I have a list of traits that we might want to consider. And I’m not going to go through the whole list, which isn’t comprehensive anyway, but I’m just going to mention a few to get your head in the game here. So, we have acceptance, compassion, courage, fairness, honesty, integrity, justice is a big one, politeness, respect, self-control, and tolerance. A more high-minded society will value different traits than a barbaric one. So, which one of those would you think prizes dignity, equality, politeness and tolerance? Which one of them is going to maybe focus on things like self-reliance, courage, respect and integrity?

This is one way that we can start approaching the grouping of these values. A more democratic society, or one that has more freedom, is going to value many of these traits that I’ve listed, but a more oppressive one, like a dictatorship, might have a different set of things that they are concerned about. For example, that oppressive society might tell its citizens that they need to be obedient, humble and sacrifice themselves. It’s worth pointing out that the government will be pushing that as the culture, but individuals within that culture might have a very different set of traits that they value. For example, perseverance in those harsh conditions. All of this is why we want to consider the government type.

The Influence of Beliefs

Another source of culture is beliefs. Many of these originate from religions. When we are inventing a religion, which was covered in the previous episode, we can take some of those ideas and make them more cultural. A good example would be Christmas. This is obviously supposed to be about Jesus Christ, but, in our culture in the United States, at least, this has been turned into something that’s much more materialistic with all the presents and general celebrating of family, even if you are not a Christian. This has become such a big deal that the entire holiday season from Thanksgiving through the end of the year is considered an actual season of holidays as opposed to just Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s. This is a cultural phenomenon and it’s one that has taken over much of the United States during the last five or six weeks of the year.

There are other concepts from Christianity in particular that really permeate life in the United States, and that includes heaven, hell, the devil and many of our common swears, which I’m not going to repeat here in order to avoid offending any of you. But let’s take a look at heaven and hell. A basic idea here is that if you behave well and live a good life, you end up in heaven, and if you’re bad, you go to hell. This is a basic value idea that is part of a belief, and also, then, part of culture. In fact, this is actually part of the psychology and philosophical outlook of many people in the country. This is true even if you are not a Christian or you don’t believe in the stuff. You still like the basic idea of bad people get punished when they die and good people get rewarded. You’re one of the good people, and some jerk who just made you mad is going to get what’s coming to them sooner or later. Right?

One way that this can affect culture is that there may be a day of the week, for example, that is reserved for religious observances. So, for example, in the United States, for many of us, that is Sunday. For other people, it is Saturday. This depends on the religion. I know that many places might be closed early on a Sunday because many people are supposedly in church. Why does this matter? Well, if I want to go to the grocery store, I know that a lot of people are going to be at that grocery store on Sunday afternoon. So, maybe I want to go in the morning instead when there’s hardly anyone there. This is exactly the kind of thinking that characters of ours are going to do in their world.

So, even if we don’t intend on using religion, for example, in a major way in our storyline, part of the world is still going to be impacting the decisions people make and when they choose to do something. It’s also a really good way to slip in some world building into the storyline where a character basically says, “Well, I don’t want to go tomorrow morning to do so-and-so because it’s going to be so crowded. Maybe I’ll wait until people are observing this or that religion.”

Of course, what I’m talking about here is using an Earth analogue, or taking something that happens on Earth and we’re modifying it for our fictional world. If we do this in an intelligent way, it’s going to resonate with the audience and seem like our world is more believable. In this scenario, I would be thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I would do. I’m going to go to the grocery store Sunday morning instead of in the afternoon. I totally get this character, and they’re practical like me.” But if I’m religious, I might be thinking, “Well, this person should be going to church at that time.”


There are beliefs that are not religious in nature. They may be based on something like a superstition. For example, walking under a ladder is considered bad luck, as is breaking a mirror, stepping on a crack, or a black cat crossing your path. If we want to use an animal that we’ve invented the same way, then all we really need to do is something like give it a trait that is ominous, such as having a poisonous tail, and then making this animal somewhat rare in the location where this superstition has originated. For example, a black cat crossing your path is not going to be scary if that happens every day because there are thousands of black cats living in your area. On the other hand, if a black cat is rare, okay, now you can assign something strange to this.

Sometimes understanding the origin of a superstition can help us invent some of our own. Passing under a ladder is a good example because that’s basically unsafe for not only you, but the person who’s on the ladder. The black cat idea may have come from the association with witches. We can create these same kinds of associations ourselves. Bear in mind we don’t necessarily have to explain these to the audience because it’s actually better if we don’t. A little bit of mystery goes a long way. But when we’re trying to invent these, we can make a note of these associations in our file so that at least we have some sort of rationalization for what we are doing. And it’s not because we need to explain it, but because it helps us think of something in the first place.

If I have a world where wizards are considered dangerous, and wizards tend to have black cats, for example, well then, there you go. I can just decide the black cat is considered bad. Now, obviously, that’s too similar to Earth, but you get the idea. This is one of many ways we can leverage world building we have already done to create more world building. I’m not going to go over all of these, but there are other ideas in the book where I discussed some of the origins, such as Friday the 13th or the breaking of a mirror, and these can give us more ideas on how to go about this.

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Customs vs. Culture

Another area we should touch on is the difference between culture and customs. This one is simple. Customs are part of the culture. One way of looking at it is that a custom is one way in which culture manifests. For example, in some places it is customary to remove your shoes when you are going inside. When we talk about inventing culture, it’s almost easier to talk about inventing customs because most of us have a better grasp of what that means. To some extent, the two words are interchangeable and that is how I’m going to use them throughout the rest of this episode.

Two other words that are sometimes used interchangeable are custom and tradition. So, what’s the difference? It’s mostly the length of time that they are practiced. Customs are newer, but a tradition is something that is passed down from generation to generation. If we are inventing something that’s only been going on for 20 years, that’s probably a custom, but if it’s been going on for 200 years, that’s a tradition. Does it really matter? Not really. The one area that it might is that since a tradition is longer standing, it may cause greater offense if we defy the expectations that are embodied by that tradition. But this is mostly mentioned for clarity. We don’t really need to worry about this when we are inventing a culture.

Cultural Vision

Earlier I mentioned a term of mine, and that is “cultural vision.” That’s what I want to talk about now. The basic idea is that we should have a common element or vision from which we create things like greetings, dining and clothing expectations, because if we don’t, then we might create these manifestations of culture that seemingly contradict each other. For example, what if the culture has very formal greetings where there are multiple bows, gestures and elaborate phrases? And then we have a dining scene where we might expect similar fine manners, but instead we show people just shoving unwashed hands into food bowls, or licking their fingers and finally shoving that hand back into the food again. These two extremes contradict each other.

So, before we get too far into inventing cultural elements, we should determine a vision that seems appropriate, and these are always tied back to values, beliefs and morals. I’m going to give some examples here. We could have a cultural vision that prizes being refined, cordial, dignified, formal, high-minded and having controlled emotions. Or we could have one where the vision is hardy, boisterous, unrestrained, very familiar with each other and informal, maybe even crude and very open emotions. The first of those would maybe be appropriate for royalty, while the second might be something that barbarians exemplify.

Another cultural vision would be formal, overly apologetic, not being a bother to other people, being polite to a fault and maybe very restrained in affections. Where am I getting that from? Well, there are several movies that I watched in the 80s that depicted British culture to be that way.

Another vision might be people feeling entitled, or being very demanding and bold, proud, self-righteous and self-absorbed. As it turns out, that is what some other countries think of Americans. As with many things, we can borrow these examples from Earth and use them in our invented world. With analogues, I usually talk about my Rule of Three, meaning to make at least three significant changes. But we don’t necessarily have to do that with cultural vision because we don’t typically show the vision; we show it through manifestations as customs. It is those customs that should have a certain amount of them being different between Earth and our invented world.

What that means is we can steal a culture vision wholesale from Earth and just use it without changing it. This might even be considered wise because it’s difficult to create a culture. Nobody does this except for world builders. In the real world, a cultural vision kind of springs up by itself or is at least promoted from those in power of government. Even then, it’s going to be scores of people who are pushing something, not a single person who has to get it right. Well, I shouldn’t even talk about getting it right because that’s kind of a bad concept in world building. We don’t really need to get something perfect, especially something like culture because no one from our fictional world is going to show up and say, “Hey, you got it wrong.”

Race as Culture

Something else we should be aware of, especially if we have invented fictional species or races, is the concept of a race as culture. What do I mean by this? Let’s say we’re the ones who invented elves and we take a lot of time to invent a culture for elves. That’s great, but is it realistic that all elves are going to have the same customs? The answer is of course not, unless there’s such a small population of them that they’re all part of the same culture. But if we have elves living in one forest, and then 100 miles away there’s another group of elves in that forest, and 500 miles away from both of them there’s a third group, each one of them is going to have a different culture.

But one of the things we often see in both fantasy and science fiction is that a race is presented as having this kind of mono-culture that is exactly the same regardless of where anyone lives. This is not realistic and some people have pointed out that this is a flaw in world building, and it’s one that we should try to avoid. But there’s a problem with avoiding this. That might mean that we have to invent, in that example, three different cultures. Well, that’s a lot. Even inventing one culture is difficult. Now we have to create three or more? Well, I don’t think this is actually as hard as it seems. What I would suggest is that we create a culture for all elves, and then remember that hierarchy idea I was talking about before? We had sovereign powers, and then within that we had regions, within that we had settlements, like cities and towns, and then within those we had social groups.

Well, we should create a culture for all elves, but then what we’re going to want to do is create some variations between different regions, and then different cities, and then within different social groups. However, we only need to go so far with this because if we’re not going to use one of those other groups of elves, for example, then we don’t really need to worry about it. And when it comes to inventing those variations, well, world building, like a lot of writing, is the act of making decisions. It’s just decision after decision we have to make all the time. So, any time we can’t really decide between two choices for our custom or a culture, well, do both of them. Keep one of them for one group of elves, and make the other cultural decision for the other group. The more we do this, we end up with one overall culture for elves, but then if we have, say, wood elves in one forest, and high elves in another forest, whatever the names people use sometimes, we’ve got slightly different cultures for each one.

One way we can use that is if our characters are used to one group of elves, dealing with them, understanding their culture and how not to offend those elves, and then they’ve traveled 1,000 miles away and now they’re running into another group of elves somewhere else, they might try to give something like a greeting in a way that they think is not going to offend those elves, but it actually offends them anyway because the culture is slightly different. This is how we can use that. Again, we don’t have to go overboard with this kind of thing. A few touches will just get across the idea that not everywhere is the same.

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How Much Culture to Invent

One of the questions we always wonder about is, “How much culture should I invent?” So, let’s take a look at that. If we aren’t careful, we could spend the rest of our lives inventing a culture, which is also true of world building in general. So, let’s try to avoid that.

Asking why we are inventing culture can help us decide what to focus on. One of the reasons is that we are trying to portray a more engaging and realistic world. The more different it is from Earth, the more people become curious. And if we add enough details that are consistent with a cultural vision, then it can seem more realistic. Another reason is to make our story appear like it’s taking place somewhere other than the familiar. In other words, not on Earth. Lazy world building is all over science fiction and fantasy, and one of the easiest ways to spot it is when the culture is no different from anything on Earth, or from what we imagine medieval or renaissance periods were like here on Earth.

Another reason to invent culture is to cause a culture clash in the form of tension that happens from expectations and misunderstandings. In other words, if we need something to go wrong when our characters are traveling, culture is a great way to do that. We don’t need our characters to commit a crime to get themselves into trouble when they arrive in a new settlement or sovereign power. They can just do something minor that offends somebody, and maybe that person is too aggressive, picks a fight, and the next thing you know, people are getting arrested and we’ve got a story problem.

We can almost divide up these into minor offenses that might make two characters dislike each other and cause some difficulties, to more serious breaches of etiquette that can lead to ruined agreements, like a treaty, and then imprisonment or even death. All of those can alter the trajectory of our story, and this can be a great reason to invent culture.

All of this can help us decide how much culture to invent for any location, and then how much those cultures need to differ, and on what subjects they differ. One way to approach all of this is that when we are outlining a story, we can just make a note that we need some sort of culture clash to happen prior to a given scene, or right at the beginning of it, in order for it to cause the resulting calamity. We don’t necessarily have to have worked out the culture when we are planning this plot moment. It’s almost like writing “fight scene” into a fight. Instead of working out exactly what happens, we can just write in there, “Culture clash.” Then, later, when we do some more world building around our story, we can figure out exactly what cultural clash seems most appropriate for this story and for what we need to happen.

Another reason we might need culture is if our characters are traveling across a landscape and passing through many sovereign powers like they do in The Lord of the Rings, then each one of these is going to have some cultural differences, and if we treat them all the same, well, it’s not believable. But when we create a culture for each of those sovereign powers, we don’t necessarily need to go into every conceivable detail. What do we need? Well, in the next episode, we’re going to go into details about some of those items.


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Cultural Depictions

Another concept to cover is cultural depictions. What do I mean? Well, when we show culture, there are going to be items that are only seen, ones that are only heard, and then there are ones that are performed. I only mention this way of dividing things up for clarity as we look into what to invent and what to bypass. Some of this will also depend on our medium. If we are an author, the visual aspect doesn’t come up very often, but if we are a gamer or in the film industry, the visual aspects do come up. In those mediums, things like architecture, clothing, hairstyles and body language can be taken in with a glance. But for authors, a lot of that would have to be described, and that can often be considered too much exposition.

That actually gives us a good excuse to skip some of that if we are an author. We’re going to talk about all of that in more detail in the next episode. Rather than skipping visual depictions altogether if we’re an author, we may want to mention the impression that something or someone creates. That can be more important for the audience than a listing of, say, all the details of what their clothing looks like. We can sometimes combine both of these by talking about how those details gave an impression to other people or the character who’s observing them. When it comes to both clothing and something like architecture, we may want to avoid using terms for everything because a lot of people aren’t going to understand what those terms actually mean.

When it comes to audible depictions of culture, the words our characters say are most of what we need. Sometimes culture actually dictates that we not say anything, or it may dictate that we say them in a certain way. Some of this is, once again, easier to depict in gaming or film because the characters will actually be saying these things, but authors have to use adjectives to describe how someone speaks. This can mean that something like tone is something we comment on once in a while, but not all the time. Instead, we might want to focus our world building efforts on the actual words and phrases people use.

There’s also this idea that it’s sometimes not what we say and do, but what we don’t that is revealing of ourselves. For example, if someone gives us a compliment and says we’ve done really good with something, we’re not supposed to go, “Oh yeah. I know.” That can be considered a rude response to a compliment. It can also be considered egotistical, and we prize humility, so therefore you don’t react that way. Instead, the expected response might be just to nod at the other person, or politely say thank you and then change the subject.

There are other versions of audible depictions, such as the desire to be quiet in a library, or muting your phone when you are attending a meeting. Loud music in a bar is expected, and the result is that we often have to shout in someone’s ear in order to be heard. As a result, we are getting much closer to people than we are normally allowed to do in our culture. Even our voices or the way we speak can be part of our culture. Some languages are considered to be very flowing, while others are considered to be kind of grating and harsh. This style can be reflective of values.

Lastly, there are the cultural depictions that are performed. For example, eye contact. In some situations, we are expected to maintain it, and in others we are expected to avert it. Attitudes about respect, deference and domination all influence what we are supposed to do. There are also expectations about what side of the street people are supposed to walk on or drive on. Perhaps we are expected to remove a hat or shoes when entering certain places. Whether a cultural depiction is visible, audible or performed, many of them are combined into kind of hybrids that we’ll talk about more in the next episode.


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Where to Start

Even though there’s another episode about creating culture, I want to talk about where to start now. The order in which we create a culture isn’t that important, with one major exception. We really want to decide on the ideas and beliefs, and then come up with a unified cultural viion before we get too far into those manifestations. We will get the most mileage from the culture ideas that we’re going to talk about in the next lesson, including things like greetings, farewells, habits and other daily life ideas.

Despite what I just said, we don’t have to start with a cultural vision. We can think of a few examples of culture and custom that we want to have in our story, and then kind of work backwards from there and see if we can figure out what value, belief or moral seems to be behind that, and the use that to start creating other manifestations.


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