Podcast Episode 27.4 – Creating Cultures


Episode 27.4: Learn How to Create Cultures

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create a culture, including rituals, pastimes, daily life considerations, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to invent dining etiquette and meals
  • How to decide on bathing routines
  • What to consider for sleeping schedules
  • How to create transportation considerations
  • What rituals might exist and be useful
  • What sort of schedules to consider for anyone who works for a living and why this matters

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Episode 27.4 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-seven. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create cultures. This includes rituals, pastimes, daily life considerations, 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.

Daily Life

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Daily life is one of the basics we should obviously pay attention to when building a world, but it seems like it gets overlooked a lot. One of the reasons for this might be that our characters are often off on some adventure somewhere and they aren’t really dealing with daily life. Even if that is the case for our characters, everyone they run into is going about their normal lives, for the most part. They are going to run into other adventurers, for lack of a better word, so those people are also not going about their daily life. But unless there is a major war going on where daily life has stopped for everyone, this is still something we should pay attention to.


But even those characters who are traveling around are going to deal with certain things. For example, dining. Everyone’s got to eat. Sooner or later, these characters are going to end up in a more formal setting, such as a tavern or eating with royalty rather than always eating at a campfire. There’s going to be an etiquette to these things, whether that is followed or not.

Certain parts of this are easy to come up with if we have our cultural vision. For example, to be stereotypical about it, a barbaric race is probably going to be a little more hearty about things, where they’re just very boisterous, loud and they dig right into food with their bare hands. On the other hand, we usually picture elves as being really refined and having these great manners. These might be the kind of people that have two forks — one for the salad and one for the main dish. Maybe even other ones for other things like dessert.

These are some of the easiest things to quickly decide on because one of them is going to strike us as the appropriate one for the culture we want to invent. The details are where it starts to get more fun. Let’s take a deeper look at this barbaric choice. What I really mean is a very hearty and boisterous culture. They may have meals at any time rather than at some sort of set time of the day, and they might even eat standing up or right after an animal was killed. They may not clean up beforehand, and will show up wearing whatever they happen to be wearing. There may be no table and no silverware. Dirty hands and mouths will just be wiped on whatever they happen to be wearing. If they want to let other people know that a meal is being had, maybe they aren’t saying anything at all because it’s on you to figure this out, or maybe they just give a holler once and that’s it. They’re not going to track you down. Belching, loud songs and stories might be common. If they need to relieve themselves, they may not have a bathroom and they may not go very far to do this. They may eat too much and they may not leave anything else for someone else to have if they’re not around.

None of this is particularly original. We have all probably seen this kind of depiction if we have watch fantasy shows. But let’s contrast this to the more refined approach that you might see with elves. Meals may be had at a specific time of the day, and if they change a little bit, maybe it’s by just a half an hour. People are probably told about these things in advance, and usually politely. If there’s going to be a guest, then we ask those people if they would like to join. It might be that no one is allowed to start eating until every guest has joined the table. The host might also provide choices for people. This could include deserts, side dishes or what to drink. The food may be presented well, and the people themselves will be presented well, having cleaned up. Naturally, there’s going to be all sorts of ornate silverware, china, crystal goblets and that sort of thing. If anyone belches, it’s by accident and they excuse themselves. Maybe no one ever takes the last of anything so that there’s always a little bit left over for someone else.

In between these two extremes are what we would typically experience in a modern culture like the ones that we live in. I don’t need to spell that out for most of you, but just to be clear, meals are roughly at the same time, but they’re casually announced. People are expected to wash up, but we often don’t. And we may show up wearing whatever clothes we were already wearing. And if it’s dirty, maybe we get a reaction, and maybe we don’t. There’s only one knife and fork per person, and you grab anything that you want yourself. People get up and leave when they need to.

These are three of the basic scenarios that we have. The more barbaric one, the refined one and then the in-between one.

A younger society is probably going to be a little rowdier, while an older one may be more refined. That’s a generalization, but that’s one way that you can make your decision. The point is that customs tend to build up and multiply in time rather than decrease, so things get more complicated and more refined. However, that is not to say that a very old and boisterous culture is going to be have a really refined dining etiquette or anything else. They could still be the same way after 10,000 years.

When we’re trying to come up with some dining etiquette, there are some questions we can ask ourselves. If you’re trying to invent a culture right now, think about what the answer to this would be for the culture you have in mind because it’s going to strike you as yes or no.

For example, can people invite themselves to dinner? Are impromptu guests accepted? Is there any expected attire, and what is it? When it comes to seating, does someone sit down first? Are the seats assigned or is it kind of random? Are the tables reserved? Does anyone do something before everyone starts to dine, like say a prayer? When it comes to serving, do people just help themselves or is there a certain person who gets served first or last? And is that based on gender, seniority or something like the guests? Maybe the host is served first. Is it okay to bring weapons to the table or is that forbidden?

Another area to think about is how many meals are typically consumed in a day. I remember watching The Lord of the Rings and one of the characters was complaining that they weren’t having second breakfast. On that note, you may have noticed that this is only mentioned once. The filmmakers did not repeatedly point this out. Is that an oversight or not? I would say that in a film it is not an oversight because if you keep reminding the audience, they’re going to wonder why you keep doing this. After all, a film is relatively short. However, in books, we may want to mention this again, or that the character is at least planning around it by grabbing extra food to take with them because they’re not going to get their second breakfast if they don’t.

Even if our readers don’t care about this, the fact is that the characters do and they’re going to be planning their day around this kind of stuff. When I take my kids out for a really long outing, I certainly bring snacks for them because I know I’m going to hear about it. Sometimes I buy lunch for myself and for them and bring it along with me so I don’t have to buy a really expensive lunch wherever we happen to be. We all do this kind of thing, but for some reason, fictional characters don’t. So, this can be an oversight. I just don’t think it is with films. With TV, yeah, it still can be an oversight because you have so many episodes where you can drop this kind of detail in everywhere. One smooth way to do that is to have your characters interrupt someone having their second breakfast, to use the Lord of the Rings example.

We may want to decide what sorts of foods are typically consumed at each meal. If you think about breakfast, lunch and dinner here, there are certain foods that come to mind. You really just need to decide on something similar for your setting. Cultural vision won’t help us here as much as the local setting of where this place actually is. In one place, it might be very different from another, based on the plants and animals that are traditionally available. This is a good way to distinguish different locations within your culture if that culture is very broad, such as an entire sovereign power that covers a wide geographic area.

Here in the United States, a simple example that immediately comes to mind is that certain types of foods are associated with Louisiana — specifically New Orleans. We can easily go overboard with this kind of thing, so just try to think of one or two dishes, or a style of dish, that is typical of local cuisine. This may be useful if we have a character who is from there and is craving that kind of thing when they are elsewhere. We don’t really have to make up these foods, either, because we can use anything from Earth and just give it a different name and no one’s going to know that we’re really talking about spaghetti and meatballs, for example. Well, that may not be a good example because it’s so basic. Swap out the noodles with a different kind, or maybe switch the meatballs to something else and there you go. Maybe change the sauce and say that it’s always a spicy dish because spaghetti and meatballs can be, but it is not always. This is starting to make me hungry. Maybe I shouldn’t be recording this around lunchtime.

Another thing to consider is that sometimes a big family dinner, or other meal, is associated with certain cultures. Naturally, a cultural vision where a lot of importance is placed on family togetherness is more likely to have this. Decide which meal of the day it is and whether this is every day or just certain days, like our Sunday. One way to decide is just to decide their viewpoint on these different meals and the days. Is starting breakfast on the beginning of the week important because it starts off the week on a good note? Or do people want to catch up at dinner every night to find out what happened during the day?

We may also want to consider how food is presented. Many of us have eaten at a Japanese restaurant where it is presented in a kind of minimal and very formal way. What I mean by minimal is that there’s not that much food on the plate. Other cultures may pile so much food on there that you wonder how you’re going to eat all of that. In movies, we often see Italians having their mothers, or someone else’s mother, insisting that they take extra food with them. What influences that may be a time in the history where food was not so plentiful. Or it could be a situation where larger women are considered very attractive, and therefore, that’s the kind of thing that people are pushing on you.

Lastly, we should also consider that there may be specific foods that are consumed at certain times, such as our Thanksgiving in the United States. When I looked into this, I was a little surprised that since the early 1970s, KFC is a traditional Christmas food in Japan. Why that is escapes me at the moment, but I certainly wasn’t expecting that. If we have invented plants and animals, we can decide that one of them, or several of them, are prepared a certain way, and this is a traditional meal that happens on important holidays. Once again, this doesn’t really take that long to invent, and we can almost do it arbitrarily and then just put this detail into a scene.

On that note, if we have not worked out our calendar and come up with some holidays, then we’re not going to know when our characters are traveling right through one, but our characters would if they were real and living in a real world. Have you ever traveled between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States and not realized that you were doing so? Probably not because the traffic is crazy and pretty much everyone plans around that.

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Another daily life subject is bathing and how often this is done. This is definitely something that we notice if we encounter someone from a culture where the bathing is noticeably different from ours, especially if it’s far more infrequent. If we ever get transported back in time, this is one of the first things that we’re going to notice. I might fare better than most of you because, for whatever reason, I do not have a pronounced sense of smell.

In a modest society, bathing is in private, but some cultures have people bathing together, whether this is coed or not. Now, when I say “bathing,” we typically mean using soap, but there are things like the Korean bathhouse where people are mostly soaking in water of various temperatures. We should decide how often the average person bathes. A society’s understanding of hygiene will impact this.

In science fiction, people usually have a better understanding, so they might bathe more often than our fantasy characters. Technology probably also makes this easier. And in fantasy, it’s more likely to be a bath than a shower, again due to technology. If people don’t wash up regularly, then something like perfumes might be all the rage because of the smell, of course. It’s also worth noting that wealthier people have more opportunities to bathe, and this is one thing that can help them be set off from other characters.

We should also consider that parents typically bathe their children, but we should decide at what age this typically stops. If self-reliance is important, this probably happens sooner. If having children is somewhat rare in this society, for whatever reason, then parents may treasure those children more, and dote on them more, and this might result in them bathing those children when they’re still older. Does one parent assume responsibility, and which one? Or do both of them do it? Does the parent join the child in the bath? Bath water is often shared, as well, even if people are taking a bath one at a time. So, someone gets to go first and have the hot water. Who is it? Is it the children? Is it the man? Is it the woman? Who takes precedence?

One of the ways we can use this kind of information in our storytelling is having our character react to a situation. Maybe they never got to have the hot bath, and now they do. Maybe they have always bathed alone since they were very young, and as a result, they are very modest and shy. This could not only affect that character, but all of the characters in this culture. Many of them might be like this. We may also decide what time of day do people bathe. Morning or night? It’s usually not during the midday, but if the climate is unusually hot there during the midday, maybe that is when people are bathing and visiting something like a Korean bathhouse. If the climate is always cold, then maybe people warm up with a hot bath first thing in the morning because the fire has died down overnight and they’ve gotten a little cold. On the other hand, maybe there’s something about the culture that has people outside after dinner very often, and as a result they get cold and take a hot bath before going to bed to warm up.


Speaking of sleep, that’s another subject we should figure out. Every culture could be known for something about their sleep habits. A race that needs little sleep might have an active nightlife. We can certainly invent a species that is nocturnal, so that they are up at night and sleeping during the day. This would have a pretty significant impact on their culture. We should consider whether married people sleep in the same bed or not. This is a custom in many places, but not everywhere. As with everything, this can lead to judgment. If you are from a place where a married couple shares the same bed, and you find out that another couple is sleeping in adjacent beds, or even in different rooms, you might assume that there is trouble in the marriage when there isn’t.

Do children sleep with their parents, and is that in the same room, the same bed or not? At what age do they stop doing this? Is it considered weird for a child to still be sleeping with their parents at a certain age? Some cultures associate the bed with sex, and as a result, children are not allowed to sleep with their parents past a certain age. If we have a culture that is kind of sex-obsessed like that, then this is something we may want to duplicate. Or is our society more forgiving and non-judgmental? Some cultures also have a siesta, which is basically a nap around midday, and this typically happens in cultures where it is very hot at that time of the day. The siesta could be preceded or followed by a bath. That brings up the idea of employment, which we will talk about next.

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Most people need a job, and our characters still need money even if they are no longer working because they’re out living the adventuring life. So, part of what this means is that they used to have a job, most likely, and they are no longer doing that. Despite this, they will still be well aware of the workweek that used to dominate their lives, and is probably still dominating the life of every character that they run across, except for other adventuring types. For example, in the United States, if you want to go to the bank in person, you’re going to have to do that during the week, between certain hours, and maybe on Saturday, but not on Sunday. Do we plan around that? Well, no. Not anymore, thanks to the ATM, but sometimes we still need to.

This is one of the many ways employment is still going to be affecting our characters and the stories we tell, even if they are unemployed. So, one of the things we should think about is how many hours in a day is typical? Here in the United States, most people work five days a week, eight hours at a time, for a total of forty hours. Naturally, some people have more than one job, but that’s not the point. There is still a standard, full-time workweek. However, there are lots of variations to this. Some people might get their forty hours by working four ten-hour days. We can really drive ourselves crazy with that, so what we really want to do is just figure out what is the basic for most people.

Maybe our culture has people working every day of the week for eight hours a day. This reminds me of the cruise industry where that is basically what’s happening, but it’s actually more than eight hours a day. But then they get something like three months off where they don’t work at all. What if an entire culture was like that? Now, it’s probably not going to happen on a regional level, or even bigger than that, or even at a city level because everything’s going to stop functioning. So, this may not be realistic.

We also need to consider that in a fantasy world, that kind of regimented schedule wasn’t necessarily something that came up. People did work as it was needed. Sometimes they got overworked and sometimes they didn’t have much to do. Naturally, that’s going to depend on what type of work someone is doing, so we really don’t want to go down into the weeds and figure this out for everybody. However, coming up with something like that siesta, that is a very good use for things because people might realize, “I can’t go to the store between, say, 11 and 1 o’clock because they’re all closed because everyone’s either taking a nap or they’re at the bath.”

We should also decide if people are starting their workday late or starting it early. And are they staying late or ending their workday early? Again, we’re not looking at individuals, but the culture. Do they prize being done with work by something like our 4 p.m. so that they have the rest of the night to relax? Or are they really driven to succeed, and therefore they get to work early because they just want to get moving?

In our modern time, we have a lot of laws about whether children are allowed to work or even be brought in to work, so this is something else we should decide on. We may think that we don’t need this, and maybe we don’t, but what if our characters go into a store and the store owner has their child there? Will our character be surprised or not? Is the child just there playing, or are they helping?


Another daily life subject is transportation. This may not seem like a cultural element, but it is. There are cities like Los Angeles that are known for cars. It’s also known for some of the worst traffic in the United States. Venice is known for gondola boats. Another place might be known for motorcycles. In science fiction, we might have certain types of craft that are known to be in that particular area. In fantasy, this may be true when it comes to boats. In a previous episode, I talked about different kinds of ships that would exist, and some places might be known for one versus another. Cities tend to be known for things like pedestrians, bicyclists and traffic jams, not to mention very limited parking, and that’s something that people take into account when they are going to be living there or visiting.

The ease or difficulty of doing these things is something that is part of the cultural mindset. This is one way to characterize a particular settlement because it’s going to change from place to place. There are also subcultures that do all sorts of modifications to their cars. We have seen this here in the United States. Maybe in science fiction people do this to their spaceship.


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How people spend their free time is another element we should look at. This is true for the same reason that other people who are still working, versus our adventuring characters, are going to also be taking time off. Our characters may be looking for someone when they are not at work because of this. Or it’s someone’s day off and they don’t want to do what they’re being asked to do. But here, we’re really looking at what people are doing when they are not at work.

To use some stereotypes in the United States, men are typically watching a lot of sports on TV, or possibly playing them. They may be attending an event in person. Men like to say that women are always shopping, and that’s their pastime. Those who have a dog must walk the dog from time to time, or take them to a party. Som people are really big into fitness and do certain types of activities, which might be very different in our fictional world. Others like to dine out and others like to cook.

There are so many of these that we could invent that it’s yet another rabbit hole we could descend into and never emerge from. But there are certain things that are universal, such as watching events take place or participating in them. Fitness and dining events are others. All we really need to do is come up with variations that are specific to our setting, and this is especially easy if we have invented plants, animals and other species. What if instead of walking the dog, you had to fly your dragon? Maybe it occasionally needs to breathe fire on something so that it doesn’t burn down your house. Maybe instead of dog fighting, there is dragon fighting. You get the idea. Just swap out any animal that’s real for a fictional one. For exercise, we just need to think of new activities. These, once again, might be dependent upon the setting. Maybe people climb cliffs because that’s what’s there.

The great thing about a lot of these is that we can often make them up when we need them, and they don’t necessarily need to be done in advance. I would recommend creating a handful of activities for a novel-length work. These can be mentioned in passing, such as a character walking around and seeing someone walk their dog — or, in this case, walk their dragon. We can also have a character complain that they are not getting to do one of their favorite pastimes anymore. If they’re a fan of a certain sport, and their favorite team is going to win the championship, maybe they’re going to miss this. We can also have characters mock each other for their hobbies. Think about your own life and how these things come up. The fitness ones might come up for any character who simply doesn’t have the opportunity to engage in that fitness activity due to their new adventuring life. Maybe they’re getting out of shape and are not happy about it.

There is one type of pastime that people in fantasy and science fiction are particular fond of, and that is inventing some sort of game. This can be a lot of work, but can be really rewarding if done well. A smart world builder will take existing games and modify or combine them. Remember my Rule of Three. Make at least three significant changes, maybe more, so that people don’t recognize the game as easily. If we have invented fictional animals, this can really help set our game apart because we can employ them instead of something like a horse.

If we have fictional species or races, they may have unique abilities so that they are limited. For example, maybe you can only have one elf on your soccer team. Maybe a sport similar to basketball does not allow dwarves because they’re not tall enough. The advantages that these species or races bring may cause problems that result in rules, and this is another way to distinguish our game.


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Rituals, Festivals, and Ceremonies

Let’s talk about rituals, festivals and ceremonies. Do people observe and celebrate their birthday or not? We can make this more important to our characters if something happens on a specific birthday, like their 18th. Maybe they acquire more rights, just like we do in many cultures here on Earth, or maybe there’s an ability that suddenly shows up. In many cultures, the birthday is celebrated on the actual day of birth, but in some, everyone’s birthday is celebrated on the same day. We can do something like this to distinguish our book from something like the United States culture.

In an authoritarian regime, maybe they force everyone to celebrate on the same day. One reason for that is that such a regime is often trying to stamp out personal expression. Lumping everyone together is one way to achieve that. This could result in a scenario where, officially, people are celebrating their birthday on that day, but privately the family is also celebrating the actual birthday, but keeping that a secret so that they don’t get into trouble.

Holidays are another important item, partly because people will often have the day off from work. But certain holidays are more important than others because they are religious in nature. This can mean more pressure to do something specific during the holiday. If that holiday involves a pilgrimage, that obviously becomes a bigger deal, especially if it’s expensive to do that pilgrimage. This might impact that person for an entire year as they plan for this. There are some religions that have a pilgrimage that is supposed to happen at least once in your lifetime.

When it comes to inventing holidays, we sometimes want to do it for a civil rights leader who impacted the culture. Naturally, that’s less likely to happen in an authoritarian regime. There, many of the holidays might be reserved for those who are in power. By reserved, I don’t mean that they are the only ones celebrating, I mean that those holidays are designed to honor them. All we really need to do is look at our own culture for some ideas.

For example, in the United States, we have a holiday for presidents, we have some for the military, and in a fictional world we might have one for wizards. I discussed more events in The Art of World Building (#2), Creating Places. And in Cultures and Beyond, I talked a little bit more about things like ceremonies, festivals, and even architecture and how that is impacted by culture. But, at this point, I think four episodes about culture is probably plenty for you.

Hopefully, you are not overwhelmed. Culture is one of the most important and impactful things that we can invent for any story that we are creating. Especially in fantasy, many stories are presented as if they are right out of either the medieval or renaissance periods in Europe. This is so true that it’s become a cliche, and inventing a culture of our own is the best way to break free of this and make our world more believable and memorable for our audience.


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