Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations

Table of Contents

Remember, civilization requires specialists.

While it might be tempting to create a culture whose members all specialize in one thing (EG, perhaps a culture of fierce and awesome warriors), the reality is that any functioning civilization requires people who specialize in many different jobs. There would need to be people to design and build structures, people to procure food, people to make personal items, weapons, clothes, etc. If they do any sort of business they'd need merchants, accountants, and so forth.

"But maybe they could do these things, and train to be fierce and awesome warriors?" some of you might be asking. What you'd mainly end up with is a bunch people who are not remarkably good at anything because by having divide their time maintaining multiple unrelated skills and disciplines, they'd never be able to get as good at any of them as they would if they spent their time focusing on one. Then, they could easily find themselves up against an enemy army made up of people who made combat their full-time careers, armed with weapons developed by people who devoted their entire lives to creating superior weapons technology. In such a case, it would very likely not end so well for them, as they'd be facing superior soldiers armed with superior weapons.

Make sure your economies look viable.

It isn't always necessary to figure out a culture's economy in complete detail (especially if it's not going to be that important to the story), but it's a good idea to see to it that what the audience will see looks fairly plausible.

First, supply and demand should be taken into consideration. Now, supply is simple - it's about how much of something is available, nothing more. Demand is a little more complicated - sometimes it's about the actual necessity or usefulness of a product, but sometimes it's about symbolic value (EG, being a status or loyalty symbol), or about being perceived as something that someone needs in order to fit in or keep up with everyone else.

Products that are rare and highly desired will be the most expensive. (And depending on what it is, the product may become a status symbol, which can make the product become even more expensive for as demand goes up for it.) However, the rarity of a product may be ended by the very people looking to profit from it, as new methods of production or procurement might allow them to create or distribute the product in such large quantity that they can sell it at a much lower price and still make a profit. A good example of this kind of thing is aluminum in the 19th century - because refining aluminum was difficult, the metal was available in very limited quantities. Because of its scarcity and attractive appearance, it was considered to be even more precious than gold. But after more effective methods of procuring aluminum were developed in the late 1880s, the metal ultimately became so commonplace that it became cheap enough to make single-use products such as soda cans and foil from.

Sly businesspeople may also deliberately manipulate public perception of a product and/or limit its market quantity in order to keep prices from deflating. Perhaps there's no more audacious example of this than the De Beers manipulation of the diamond industry in the late 19th and 20th century.

First, the De Beers company itself was formed when British investors realized that large amounts of diamonds coming out of newly-discovered diamond deposits in South Africa would cause the price of diamonds to drop, and so bought up the mining companies in order to take control of the diamond supply and prevent too many diamonds from reaching the market. When diamond sales later dropped during the Great Depression, De Beers went to the N. W. Ayer advertising agency for a solution. The agency came up with a plan aiming to make diamonds a symbol of romance and glamour, and to make them seem not a luxury, but a necessity. The methods they used were brilliant, if insidious. Among other things, the agency contacted Hollywood and convinced filmmakers to include scenes with movie stars receiving or wearing diamond jewelry and put out advertisements that played diamonds up as the paramount symbol of love and devotion. Their methods worked so well that even to this day diamonds are perceived as valuable and precious even though they're not actually rare, and the ultimate symbol of love even though there's nothing that makes them especially superior to any other gem.

Then, there's the matter of how the government gets it funding. While it might be tempting to create a utopia where nobody has to pay taxes, remember: governments have to be able to pay for their projects and pay their employees somehow; they can't simply pull money out of nowhere - not without wrecking the economy, anyway. (When the Weimar Republic began printing more paper notes to try and boost its failing economy after WWI, the only thing they really ended up accomplishing was devaluing Germany's currency and causing hyperinflation to the point where a newspaper that cost one mark in May of 1922 cost seventy million marks by November of 1923. The German mark became so worthless that people literally papered their walls with it.) So odds are good that for your civilizations, taxes would be a necessary evil.

Something else to consider is that any time there are restrictions on goods of any kind, or where customs or taxation might present an inconvenience, there will be a black market. You can count on people from all social stratas to take advantage of it, both in buying and selling.

Include cultural variance and blending.

People are constantly coming up with new ideas and re-evaluating and modifying old ones, be they political, religious, artistic, etc. which means that in a single culture, you're going to see at least some variation in what people think, do, and believe - especially so if it's large and/or spread out. So while most members of a culture might celebrate one particular holiday, there might be regional differences in the traditions that go along with it, and some families might have their own personal traditions.

Different words and expression may catch on in different places - such as how in the US, some regions use "pop" to describe the fizzy drink, whereas others use "soda." Song lyrics, rhymes, or expressions might be altered by people who mishear them or adjust them to make more sense or to be more amusing in their perspectives. (The many, many variations of "Oh Little Playmate, Come Out And Play With Me" is a good real life example of how this can work out.)

Variation and change might come out of necessity, too - a recipe prepared one way in one area might be difficult to replicate in another area because a major ingredient can't easily be found there, requiring that the ingredient is omitted or substituted. Differences in climate might necessitate differences in clothing and building styles.

Furthermore, two cultures that make prolonged contact with each other will inevitably end up swapping and borrowing ideas from each other - particularly ones that are perceived as useful, fun, aesthetically pleasing; or are perceived as something that high class, sexy, or 'cool,' people do. Aside from some sort of draconian culture policing going on, you'd never see two cultures living side-by-side for any length of time that haven't swapped ideas to a noticeable degree. Likewise, two groups who make prolonged contact with each other will inevitably end up with individuals getting together and having children and families. Basically, any time two groups come into contact with each other, both memes and genes are going to spread and mix. So if, for example, you had an area where dwarves, elves, and humans frequently came into contact and interacted with each other (and there was no biological reason why they couldn't produce offspring with each other) you'd likely end up with a culture comprised of people with ancestors among all three races with a blend of traditions from each.

Aim for plausible levels of knowledge.

When you try to figure out what your cultures or people from those cultures would and wouldn't know about, use some logic. Do they really have any way to know about X? Is it really that likely that they'd be clueless about Y?

As an example of the first, it'd be a bit strange to see a culture of humanlike aliens with a technological level similar to Neolithic humans who know for absolute certain that some of the lights in the sky are planets much like their own, as there's no way to tell with the naked eye that the planets are a different type of object than the stars. People with technology comparable to what was available in the Middle Age could easily understand concepts like heredity and dominant traits, but they'd have no idea what DNA was, let alone what cells were.

As an example of the latter, it often happens that when people try to picture someone who is naive about Earth and Earth culture, they default to their mental images of young children. Thus, many aliens or people from fantastic worlds are depicted as being blithely innocent about sex, courtship, etc. However, as these same characters are typically humanoid, adult, and haven't exactly been living under rocks back where they came from, this just raises a lot of questions: Have they never had any friends, relatives, peers, etc. who fell in love, got married, had children, and so forth? Have their own parents never talked about how they met? Did they never encounter a single love story in their lives? Did nobody ever give them "the talk?" How the heck has their species not already gone extinct if they're all so clueless? Basically, the basic facts of life is something every humanlike culture would know.

Come up with some holidays (and put some effort into them).

Holidays are a great way to flesh out a fictional civilization. Not only do they let us know what at least some of the people do some of the time, but they can be a great way to convey information about their beliefs, values, and history. Also, they can make your world seem more fun and exciting, which will help keep your audience interested in it.

Barring some kind of totalitarian government decreeing otherwise, the holidays should be about a variety of things. If all of your holidays commemorate, say, historical people and events, or if they're all about atonement/spiritual purification/getting closer to the gods, something's pretty off.

Your world's holidays should also be diverse and varied in how they're carried out. There might be some holidays that are rather solemn, but others that are more lighthearted. Some holidays might be quite sacred, while others have little to no religious significance at all. Some might be fairly simple, celebrated with little more than a special dinner and family gathering (think Labor Day), while others might be lavish and extravagant (think Christmas or Halloween). Some might be celebrated largely at home, while others might be public affairs, or have public events connected to them (pageant plays, public festivals, etc).

Also, there are a few things you should be cautious of, lest you end up with holidays that feel lackluster or artificial:

The Major Holiday of Generic Parties: Where the celebrations of what's supposed to be a major holiday are indistinguishable from any other party or social gathering - unless you were actually told it was a holiday, you'd never guess that's what it was. If the holiday is supposed to be a big deal, make sure you spice it up with something special that you wouldn't do or see at any regular party.

The Christmas Clone: Where the holiday is essentially (commercial) Christmas with a sci-fi/fantasy paintjob slapped on. It's not necessarily bad to borrow some elements of the holiday, but if you've got a winter holiday where friends and family gather and exchange presents, and a magical/higher being is supposed to deliver gifts and/or people decorate trees, you should probably dial it back a few notches. (Note that the same principles apply to any Earth holiday - avoid copying any of them willy-nilly.)

The Solemn Holiday of Stoic Austerity: Where the entire holiday is super-serious from start to finish and there's not a whit of levity or fun to be found anywhere. This is not to say that all of your holidays must be all fun and games, of course. Some holidays might be largely serious and solemn in nature, but then finished off or followed up with something more lighthearted.

If you're having some trouble thinking up holidays or holiday traditions, check out the random holiday generator.

Give your cultures their own idioms and figures of speech.

When people are trying to make their fantasy and sci-fi cultures markedly different from Earth culture somehow, they often default to making people who are completely literal-minded - so much so that if someone says "well, the cat's out of the bag," they'll all immediately start looking around for the escaped feline and/or demand to know why the cat was bagged up in the first place.

But here's the thing: idioms and figures of speech are universal in every language. So rather than simply erasing them from your civilization's culture and putting them entirely beyond their comprehension, give them some of their own.

Sure, in some cases you could handwave a lack of idioms and figures of speech by saying that your civilization's species simply cannot comprehend non-literal speech at all. However, it's still really lazy worldbuilding, and you can only play up the "alien gets confused by Earth speech patterns" gag so many times before it gets old. Play it too long and with too many members, and people might start to wonder how these people got as far as they did without at least coming to the understanding that people from other cultures sometimes say weird things that don't actually mean what they sound like, and that instead of making assumptions you should just ask them for clarification.

And on the flip side of the coin, you should watch out for any Earth idioms that have no business being used by your fantasy/sci-fi culture. For example, nobody should be saying "newsflash!" in a world where newsflashes (short news reports on TV or radio) never existed in the first place.

Don't rename the wheel.

Some authors try to make their cultures and civilizations feel more exotic by using new or obscure names for things that don't really need it. For example, instead of calling it a "birthday," the author might call it a "life anniversary." Instead of calling it a "horse," the author might call it a "hoofrunner." And so on and so forth.

It's all right to rename things if it's going to provide an important insight as to the cultural perspectives, values, or history of the people using the term. But if not, just use terms your audience will already be familiar with. Throwing unfamiliar terms at people out of left field can be jarring enough to break their immersion in your story, which is something you always want to minimize.

And the bottom line...

Also check out:

Deity-Development Questions
Basic Tips To Create More Believable Sci-Fi & Fantasy Religions & Belief Systems
Country & Culture-Development Questions
Things Your Fantasy Or Science Fiction Story Needs
Things You Need To Do In Your Science Fiction Or Fantasy Story
How To Write People On Large Scales

External Links & Resources

Horror Stories of Hyperinflation: Germany in 1920s
Aluminum: It Used To Be More Precious Than Gold
The Engagement Ring Story: How De Beers Created a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry From the Ground Up
The Incredible Story Of How De Beers Created And Lost The Most Powerful Monopoly Ever

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