Podcast Episode 27.2 – Creating Cultures

Episode 27.2: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture. This includes how the body is part of culture, from clothing to hairstyles, body modifications, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to create cultural body modifications, hair styles, tattoos, body language, clothing, accessories, and more

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Episode 27.2 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven, part two. Today’s topic is about how to create cultures. This includes how the body is part of culture, from clothing to hairstyles, body modifications, and more. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from 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.

Cultural Appropriation

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Now that we’ve discussed the ideas that lead to culture, it’s time for the fun part, and that is actually inventing customs. There are so many options that we could create that we’re going to try to focus on the things that are most useful to world builders. So, neither this episode or the corresponding chapter of Cultures and Beyond is going to cover everything. However, the things we’re going to do are going to get you the most bang for your buck, and the basic idea of what we’re going to do is something that we can apply to other items that I don’t cover here.

As we get started, I want to mention a term you’ve probably heard, and that is cultural appropriation. I talk a lot about using Earth analogues, so the question is, are we going to be accused of borrowing something from Earth and having that be cultural appropriation if we show it in our fictional world?

First, let’s talk about what cultural appropriation means. What we’re talking about is an element of a culture that is taken outside of its context and used by someone who’s not from that culture, but it’s done in a way that can be considered insulting or devaluing that, especially if it’s done in a shallow way.

For example, something like wearing a hairstyle from another culture could be considered that because it’s just your hair. An example of this would be white people with dreadlocks. Do world builders need to worry about this sort of thing? Well, I don’t really think so. One reason is that there is a limited expectation that world builders are going to invent a very detailed and thorough culture, and the reason for that is it simply takes a massive amount of time.

One way to avoid it seeming like we’re just doing it in a shallow way is to tie that cultural element we’ve borrowed back to the cultural vision of the culture that we are inventing. That will make it seem like it springs from a value, a moral or a belief. An audience member on Earth who comes from that culture may then see this as a kind of homage and actually be pleased that it has been included that way. In the end, it comes down to respect. I’ll also remind you of my Rule of Three. Make at least three significant changes to anything that we borrow.

This has a caveat with culture. If we want to borrow a culture wholesale, then yes, we need to make at least three changes — probably a lot more. But if we’re going to just take a single element, like the dreadlocks, for example, well, there’s not too much you can change about just that one thing. It’s really the combination of multiple things if they’re all coming from the same culture. As an example, when I watched the Avatar movie, as much as I liked it, I couldn’t help thinking — and I still think this every time I see it — that James Cameron basically took Native American culture wholesale and just transplanted it to a fictional world.

Japanese culture is another one that tends to get stolen wholesale, and there are very few changes from it, so you recognize it when you see it. And this is always bad partly because it breaks the willing suspension of disbelief that the audience has. It reminds them of something back here when they’re supposed to think this is another planet — and one that has no relation to us. And yet, there’s the same culture from Japan. One way to get around this is to divide things up. So, let’s say we like the Japanese culture around dining and we use that with a few minor changes. Well, don’t also take the way they dress or the way their bedrooms are laid out. Don’t take everything. Just take one section of it. The result will be that we may remind people of that culture, but we don’t look like we just took the whole thing.

Body Culture

Let’s get started with some manifestations. We’ll start with the body. This is going to include body language, things like hairstyle, body modification like jewelry, gestures, clothing, and, of course, accessories. Now, we may not cover all of that in this episode, but it is all in the book.

At first glance, the body may not seem like a cultural item, but it is. An example would be ageism, which does exist today, where we may not respect our elders. And then, a long time ago, larger women were actually considered more attractive because they were considered better bearers of children and that they would survive childbirth better. But today, of course, we expect everyone to be thin. So, this is a cultural idea.

This desire to be thin can result in eating disorders, and even models who are already fit are having their photos photoshopped for magazines covers. Whether they’re the one behind it or the magazine is doing it, it doesn’t really matter. From a cultural standpoint, there’s still this enormous pressure to be thin. While those are specific examples, there’s also the general appearance of someone in culture because, in business, we make ourselves look really presentable, but then if someone is dressed in a very casual way but they show up at a job interview, that is considered a negative. Unless, of course, the culture of that company is fine with people walking around in shorts and flip flops. When I worked at NASA, we had a running joke that anyone wearing flip flops, shorts and a Hawaiian shirt was probably one of the scientists because they could get away with anything. Could I have shown up like that? I don’t know. I never tried, but I certainly wore casual clothes to work. That was the culture there.

Let’s talk about body language. The way we walk, sit and stand are all influenced by our culture. Many of us have probably heard of that idea of someone being trained to walk by balancing a book on their head because this is supposedly going to make their posture upright. The desire for that erect bearing is a cultural idea. How many of us have been told not to slouch? The way we would use this is mostly to characterize an entire culture as having an erect, proud bearing, or most of them being very causal. That erect bearing may originate from a cultural vision of looking like you have your act together, and where appearances are important. Dignity might also lead to this.

The culture could be strict. An oppressive culture, because of the government, might have people walking around with their backs hunched. Walking tall in that culture might be something that gets you into trouble. The authorities could read into it that you need to have your spirit broken.

Another body language issue that’s very important is eye contact. How often have you been told, as a child, not to stare at someone, especially if they look different? Doing so is considered rude, but looking away in other circumstances might be considered weakness. If we make contact, are we expected to acknowledge the other person in some way? Such as an actual greeting or just nodding our head? The way we would use something like this in a scene is to have two characters make eye contact, and then have one of them look away, and maybe think to themselves that they did so too soon, for example.

The concept of personal space is another one that comes up in any culture. We don’t really need to define this, such as saying two feet is fine and less is too close. We can just have one character think to themselves that someone is standing too close for their comfort. That said, perhaps this person is creepy and that’s why this is happening, or the person who feels that the other is too close has some sort of issue that makes them feel that way about a lot of people. In other words, if we have the character think this, we may also have them think to themselves that there’s something about that person that makes them feel that way, or they’re like this about everyone. Basically, we can characterize one of the two people while getting across a cultural expectation.

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Let’s touch on hairstyles. This is something that will definitely apply to social groups. For example, in the 1950s, in the United States, men were expected to have fairly closely cropped hair, but in the 60s and 70s, many of them grew it out long as a sign of rebellion. Hairstyles are a very good way to characterize a social group as opposed to the entire country, for example. But we can do it on that level. What if wearing your hair a certain way is done during a holiday season, or some religious event, and it means something to people? Maybe women usually wear their hair up in a tidy fashion, but then they wear it long and in a more flowing fashion at certain times of the year. A difference like that is probably going to come from a belief, and it may be religious in nature.

Something to bear in mind is that hairstyles change relatively frequently, so what was fashionable a decade ago might no longer be today. The main reason to care about this is only if we want to comment on someone wearing an old hairstyle. If it’s a tradition, it could last a lot longer because it’s going to go back maybe 100 years or more.

And then there’s the wig. Most of us have seen period films where men are wearing these really long, white wigs that have some sort of powder on them. This was definitely a cultural phenomenon. This got started in France by Louis VIII on accident because he was covering his baldness. Other people, of course, associated him and the wig with power because he was a king, and it spread to other countries and it just became the thing. This actually led to a taxation on the powder that they used on those wigs, and that is part of what led to the cultural change where that stopped happening. Another reason behind it, incidentally, was that it was easier to control things like lice by just shaving your hair and using these wigs.

On the subject of hair color, we often associate Asians as having black hair and Nordic types having blond hair, but this is not actually a cultural issue. This is obviously just something about the body and this naturally happens. But, that said, of course, for whatever reason, we talk about the prized blond hair and blue eyes. Some people really desire this, and as a result, they dye their hair that way. If we have elves that are known to have golden hair, and people are aspiring to be like them, then maybe humans are going around dying their hair that way. That could be considered appropriate for human royalty, but maybe not for a peasant. This is one way we can use this sort of thing.

And for men, facial hair can symbolize things like strength and manliness. Some guys will wear one for that reason, and maybe an entire culture is doing so. We typically see this with fantasy where all of the dwarves have a beard.

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Body Modification

There are many ways that we may choose to modify our bodies, and these can be part of a cultural group. Sometimes these take place during some sort of rite of passage or a ceremony. This could result in a celebration if it has been done, and maybe some shame on somebody if they haven’t done it when they are expected to have already experienced this. For example, let’s say that you’re supposed to get your nose pierced when you turn 18, but it’s done by your family, but you were a runaway or an orphan and it didn’t happen. As a result, you’re now in your 20’s and everyone can tell you never had this happen.

Of course, you could get someone to do it, but maybe it’s part of the society where they don’t let you have that happen if it wasn’t done under the right circumstances. Therefore, no one will do it for you. Maybe you try to do it yourself and botch the job, and that leaves a scar that is visible. These are all ways that we can work this into our characterizations. We can decide that these happen at any sort of milestone, like a wedding or a childbirth, or just turning a certain age. We don’t necessarily need to explain it because it could just be an expected tradition. But, of course, explanations often help us characterize things.

The source of this expectation, instead of just being a cultural vision, could be that maybe someone important in the past had this body modification, and this was esteemed, the same way that Louis VIII had that wig and people associated that with power. Well, maybe this body modification is similar. All we really need is some reason for it to be desirable, and it’s always wise to make those explanations as short as a single sentence.

One thing to note about body modifications is that it often causes a judgment, and many of those are negative if that judgment is coming from someone who is outside the social group that is making those modifications. Those who don’t have a tattoo may be negative about those who do, especially if someone has a lot of them. Of course, doing so is shallow, but people are.

Let’s talk tattoos. While there are individual tattoos that anyone can have, sometimes a social group will have a specific tattoo that everyone is expected to get, whether that’s the tattoo itself or even just its location. These tattoos will always mean something to the group, and it will come from their vision.

Some tattoos are not permanent, like henna, and these may only be done during certain kinds of ceremonies where they’re expected to be washed off in the day or two afterward. We can decide that women have more feminine ones than men. We can make them be multicolored or primarily one color. A quick Google search on this will turn up various traditional tattoos that are done by one group or another. Some of these are hard to describe and a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Piercings are another area where we do have individual style, but, again, this could be expected by a social group. While just about anything can be pierced, here on Earth the ears and nose are the most widespread. They also go back the farthest, to ancient times. Stretched earlobes and lips are another kind of piercing that we often associate with Africa. The number of piercings, the material, the size of them and even the style can all be expected and represent some sort of value, and they might be something that is more expected of, say, nobility for their wealth. Someone could also wear a piercing to identify themselves in some way, the way that gay men used to wear only one earring to indicate their orientation.

There was actually a belief and a superstition in the Middle Ages that if you had a specific piercing, that would improve your long-distance sight. The origins of such a thing might be someone having great eyesight and having that piercing, and they become associated with each other and other people start doing that piercing, hoping that they will also have that sight even though these have nothing to do with each other. This is one reason why it can be fun to invent these.

Another body modification is branding, though on Earth this is really frowned upon because it’s too much associated with slavery. A brand not only marks property, but it can be used to humiliate someone. One way to do that is to put it in a very visible location. But there’s no reason this has to be a negative. We might have a religion that considers it an honor to have the god’s symbol branded into their flesh. Since that is very permanent, that could be considered a great sign of devotion.

Sometimes branding is done for punishment, such as for a military person who commits an offense like deserting. Basically, if the culture feels like anyone should know that this person has committed a specific crime, they might be branded for it. Today, child molesters have to register on a sex offender website, but what if they were branded so we didn’t need such a technology?

Lastly, let’s talk about implants, which is something that’s definitely going to be a big option with science fiction. We can make technology be part of the body. This can be done either to enhance an ability, a sense, or just to replace a lost or damaged area. It could be tradition that we receive a certain type of implant when we reach a certain milestone. Those with that implant would probably have an advantage of some kind. But it could be a negative. What if people are considered more likely to commit crimes once they reach a certain age, and therefore they get this implant to track their whereabouts? Such a scenario could certainly lead to a lot of cultural changes, such as people really valuing their freedom before they reach that milestone.


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Gestures are another area of the body that is part of culture. While many gestures are part of something like a greeting (and will be discussed later when we get to that), some of them stand alone. There is one gesture that, for many of us, immediately comes to mind, and that is the raising of the middle finger. This is done to show displeasure, and it’s important to think of that when we’re trying to create an alternate version. How did this come to represent that? Well, it’s supposed to be representing the penis. The remaining knuckles that are bent are supposed to represent the testicles. This is why it means “fuck you.”

As it turns out, on Earth, there are cultures that do variations on this, such as having two fingers representing two penises. But it depends on which way the hand is facing, whether it’s considered rude or not. There’s another hand gesture that is supposed to represent a woman’s privates. I’m not going to go through all of these, but I did cover them in a little more detail in the book. There are times when a gesture is considered fine in one country and is considered rude in another, and this is something we actually run into here on Earth. For example, the “OK” symbol in the United States has the tip of the index finger and the thumb touching each other with the other fingers fanned out, but that gesture is considered to represent the anus in some countries, and therefore it is rude.

The devil horns gesture can essentially be an accusation that someone’s wife is having an affair with a man who is more virile like a bull. Even something as simple as shaking your head for “no” and nodding for “yes” is not universal and can lead to misunderstandings. Crossing your arms can be considered standoffish in some countries, but in others it’s considered arrogant. Shaking two fists at someone in Austria is supposed to be for good luck, but in other countries it could be considered a threat. The foot can be considered unclean, therefore showing the bottom to others is considered highly offensive.

Another interesting aspect of gestures is that sometimes it’s only offensive because of our location when we make that gesture. For example, doing that while you’re standing over the threshold of a doorway can be considered good or bad. The doorway is considered a transition, therefore a gesture that normally means peace could be seen as rude, as in you wish that something bad happens to that person. What we need to do this ourselves is just think about what a location means and how we can spin a normal gesture that is done somewhere else into having a different meaning there. Generally, we have a lot of leeway to invent gestures and what they mean, so this is an area where we can have a lot of fun.


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Let’s talk about clothing and accessories. By itself, clothing is a subject that we could spend way too much time on, so we’re only going to cover the basic ideas and how these can be applied to other areas of clothing that we are not going to talk about. What we’re after is a general sense of style. Sometimes this is impacted by technology. For example, we all take the button for granted today, but while it was invented a long time ago, it wasn’t until the 1300s that buttons were used to fasten two pieces of clothing together, like the two halves of a jacket. Before that, they were just decorative.

How did this affect culture and dress? Well, people wore looser and baggier clothing, and if it was tightened it would’ve been with something like a string of some kind. A cloth being just draped around you like a toga was also a style. Once buttons were used to fasten clothing, then tighter clothing was also introduced. Imagine the affect of suddenly more form-fitting clothing having on people’s impressions. This could lead to resistance to that because it might challenge an idea of modesty.

So, one decision we can make is whether buttons exist for tightening clothes in one society or another, and how that affects dress. Just because it existed in one sovereign power doesn’t mean it exists in another, even if people from these sovereign powers mix a little bit, because we might have this cultural resistance to the button and the resulting styles of clothing. This is a good way to distinguish two cultures from each other.

We might think that only a barbaric society may not have buttons that are used this way, but even the Romans didn’t and they were smart enough to have aqueducts and dams. And, of course, they had the Roman Empire where they conquered so many lands, and yet they still didn’t use a button to fasten their clothes. It seems incongruous, but it happens. But even though that happens in the real world, we may get flack from an audience who does not understand that kind of thing.

Clothing can be used to indicate your status, your gender, your rank and your social class. It can also be used to indicate what you are doing at this particular moment. If I’m wearing a suit and tie, I’m probably not lounging around at home in that. Unless I just got home or I’m about to leave, we associate that with work. There’s no reason we can’t make up certain types of wearing our hair or styles of clothing that are only done when people are doing a specific activity. What we often see in science fiction works is someone wearing the exact clothing in every single scene. In books, this may happen because authors haven’t thought about it, but it also might be because it’s considered a waste of exposition to keep talking about what someone is wearing — and there is some truth to that.

In science fiction, anytime someone’s part of a crew, like a starship, they’re usually wearing their uniform everywhere, and therefore we can get away with it. But, in many cases, we really should pay more attention to this. More adornment on our clothing tends to be associated with finer people, or those who are rich. For example, in Ancient Rome, the tunics often had colored band, and the width, number and color of these indicated your social standing. We can pretty much make up any version of this that we want for ourselves. Naturally finer fabrics suggest more wealth, while coarser ones are for the poor. We can do the same thing with colors where richer colors are considered for the wealthy, and the plainer colors, like a drab green, is for the poor.

The more important an indication of status is to the culture, the more likely these visual elements of it will exist. Think about our modern world where many of us don’t really care about status, and therefore you could have people who are on the same experience, like a boating trip, and some of them could be making twenty thousand dollars and some of them could be a millionaire. You won’t necessarily be able to tell, by looking at them, based on their clothing.

Clothing can also reflect what is important to the society, a group or individuals. For example, if hard work is considered admirable, then maybe the clothing is kind of dependable, simple, and very coarse, and it’s mostly unadorned. On the other hand, the rich don’t need to work, so maybe they’re always dressed in finery. Modesty is another element that we need to pay attention to because women might not be allowed to show something like cleavage or a side boob. Maybe they can’t show the ankles, the knees or the thighs. How low must a dress go? Are they required to wear a dress or can they wear trousers? Pants were considered masculine for a long time, and therefore a woman wearing them was frowned upon because she was thought to be trying to act like men. We can leverage this idea and show how people are being judged for defying a cultural expectation regarding clothing.


Let’s finish up by talking a little bit about accessories. This includes things like bags, eyewear, footwear, gloves, any headgear like a hat, jewelry and things like a watch. In both fantasy and sci-fi, we might have weapon holders, and in sci-fi we might have wearable devices. With any of these, we can have expectations about when it is okay to wear them and when they should be removed. Sometimes this is practical like the bottom of shoes getting dirty, and therefore you’re supposed to take them off when you enter someone’s house. Certain types of hats can be worn at some locations, and sometimes it’s unacceptable to wear the wrong kind of hat to the wrong thing.

One interesting tidbit is that a woman’s hat is often considered part of her ensemble, and therefore it doesn’t need to be removed. But a man’s is expected to be based on where he is going. Some cultures think it’s rude for a man to wear a hat indoors. Most of us don’t even know why, but we expect people to remove them. We might even be the person telling someone, “You have to remove your hat.” And if they question us, we may not have an explanation for why. This is funny because we can enforce cultural expectations without even knowing why we are doing them.

I’ll use wedding bands as another example. This is traditionally worn on the left ring finger in the United States and some countries. The reason for this is that the Romans believed that the vein in that finger led directly to the heart. Even though we know better today, the tradition remains. But it’s not universal. Other countries where the ring in different places, and for similar reasons where there is some sort of association with that body part.

Some accessories might result from a function. For example, maybe we have a winged species that is often used as messengers, and they carry the messages in scrolls. That scroll case might become an accessory that they are typically seen with. How do we use this for culture? Well, maybe there are times when they want to indicate that they are not working, and therefore they leave it at home. Perhaps wearing it gives the impression they are willing to take a message from someone, and therefore if they walk into a church with that, they’re considered to be trying to work and that could be frowned upon. Therefore, maybe it’s expected that they take it off at the door, just the same way that people remove shoes in some cultures.

This is the kind of thinking we want to do when we are inventing any sort of cultural item that has something to do with the body, or anything else, as we’re going to discuss in upcoming episodes. I ended up talking a lot more about the body, so we’re going to end up talking about other things in subsequent episodes about culture.


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