LESSON Fantasy Worldbuilding - Cultures

Discussion in 'DEVELOPING CHARACTERS & CULTURES' started by Malkuthe Highwind, Nov 4, 2012.

  1. Modern fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy, whatever kind of fantasy you see, there are multiple kinds of cultures that you're bound to encounter. When you're worldbuilding, you definitely have to know what kinds of cultures you're going to put in your world because their characteristics will define how the history of your world is formed, how politics is shaped, who lives and who survives, what kind of myth and lore there will be, and more.

    In this workshop, I'll be running through a list of cultures that are prevalent in... well... fantasy culture.

    First off:

    <h3 id="WarSoc">Warrior Societies</h3>

    I contend that apart from <a href="http://www.iwakuroleplay.com/showthread.php?t=16422#MonSoc">monarchical societies</a> (which will be discussed later on), Warrior societies are amongst the most prevalent kinds of cultures in fantasy literature. The major qualifier for a warrior society is what gives it its name. War/battle/combat are intrinsic to this kind of society. More often than not, honor and prowess in combat are what determine a person's place in this kind of society. They can be either barbarians(which is often how monarchical societies view warrior societies) or just a group of people that are focused on fighting.

    Real-world example: Spartans. The Spartans of Ancient Greece were a force to contend with. Their lifestyle was a military one and they were legendary for their prowess. Many warrior societies take after the Spartans.

    Literary example: The Aiel of Robert Jordan's "The Wheel of Time." They are a warrior society based around the concept of ji'e'toh, a complicated system of honor(ji) and obligation(toh). Many of them are trained in the ways of combat from a very young age.

    <h3 id="MonSoc">Monarchical Societies</h3>

    Monarchical societies are perhaps the most familiar of all the cultures that I will discuss in this workshop, and they have, whether we want to admit to it or not, become a staple of fantasy literature. What makes a monarchical society monarchical? Well, a monarch, of course! Kings, queens, emperors, empresses, rulers, khans, whatever title they possess, as long as a society has a single absolute ruler that holds court, they can be considered monarchical. These kinds of societies typically live within high-walled cities and have a strong disdain for strangers.

    Real-world example: Medieval Europe, playground of famines, plagues, pestilences, kings, queens, lords, ladies and knights, the medieval era of Europe has sparked many thousands, if not much more than that, of stories.

    Literary example: Westeros of George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire." It was a land once split into seven kingdoms, but is now united into one empire(at least until the beginning of the story). It is ruled by one king from the capital of King's Landing.

    <h3 id="NomSoc">Nomadic Societies</h3>

    Nomadic societies, generally taken for granted, or used simply as a plot element to help get characters through deserts or to help characters find their way in destroying X evil, nomad societies are very common in fantasy literature. They do take a back seat to Monarchical societies though, even if they provide an excellent opportunity to worldbuild. They share certain qualities with tribal societies, but the most important factor that makes Nomadic societies is the fact that they move from place to place, either following tradition or in search of sustenance.

    Real-world example: The Arab Bedouins are the traditional, stereotypical nomad group that comes into mind when nomadic groups are mentioned. They are also desert-dwellers, another stereotypical view on nomads, when the Inuit of the Arctic are just as nomadic as the Bedouins.

    Literary example: The Shin'a'in are a plains-dwelling nomadic society who are modeled after the Bedouin. Their culture involves the worship of the goddess Kal'enel and her four aspects: Maiden, Warrior, Mother and Crone.

    <h3 id="PacSoc">Pacific Societies</h3>

    Not to be taken as societies living in the Pacific Ocean of Earth, pacific societies are societies hell-bent on maintaining peace and shunning violence at all costs. Pacifism is the one requirement for this kind of society and most elfin societies in fantasy literature are at least largely pacific. They are often present in the background of fantasy literature, however, they are rarely brought to the forefront. The only fantasy work I've read that put a pacific race in the forefront is the Tuatha'an of The Wheel of Time.

    Real-world example: Buddhists can be considered a pacific society due to the fact that they put an emphasis on non-violence and are generally laid-back.

    Literary example: The Tuatha'an are a nomadic pacific society that follow what is known in the Wheel of Time universe as the "Way of the Leaf" that demands complete and utter non-violence. They travel in search of the "Song" that no one knows the nature of.

    <h3 id="TribSoc">Tribal Societies</h3>

    Tribal societies are groups of people that generally live in small intimate communities headed by tribal chieftains. What separates a tribal society from a nomadic society is that it is not necessary that they move from place to place in search of richer game. One of the things that defines a tribal society is its traditions that are upheld and taught to its members from a young age. Additionally, tribal societies are depicted most of the time as extremely in-sync with their natural surroundings.

    Real-world example: Aboriginal First Nations in the Americas are a good example of tribal societies. Their traditions and ways of life are unique and set them apart from other groups.

    Literary example: The Tarrie-cats of Ninnyhammer in Clive Barker's "Abarat" are an excellent example of a tribal society. They are a race of antropomorphic cats led by a charismatic leader called Jimothi Tarrie.

    <h3 id="MercSoc">Mercantile Societies</h3>

    Mercantile societies pertain to people whose way of life is primarily based around trading. They can have fleets of ships or numerous caravans, but they are generally depicted as excessively wealthy and able, living in grandiose mansions and cities. They are often portrayed as neutral in the medieval warfare of many a fantasy trope.

    Real-world example: The Colonies of New France in the early days of Canadian history were almost entirely reliant on trading for their economy. The fur trade was a very profitable venture, and as such, many of the colonists were merchants as well.

    Literary example: The Atha'an Miere are, apart from being a <a href="http://www.iwakuroleplay.com/showthread.php?t=16422#SeaSoc">seafaring society</a> are also a mercantile society due to the fact that they make their living through trading and drive heavy bargains on people who wish to trade with them.

    <h3 id="MagSoc">Magical Societies</h3>

    Magical societies are, as the name suggests, centered around magic or magical people. They are generally peaceful, but it is not unheard of that some of them are malevolent. They're a staple of Fantasy literature, however rarely they are brought into the spotlight. It is the norm that every fantasy world has at least some form of magical society.

    Real-world example: Palo is a religion, denomination and society that developed among african slaves in the Caribbean. It is centered around a form of magic that involves spirits.

    Literary example: Dalaran and the Elves of the Warcraft Mythos. The human wizards and the elves of Azeroth are examples of magical societies. They rely heavily on magic (the blood elves in particular being portrayed as ever-hungry for magic) and have made it central to their lives.

    <h3 id="SeaSoc">Seafaring Societies</h3>

    Seafaring societies depend on the sea for their existence and their sustenance. Their culture is more often than not based around the boats and ships that they live on for most of their time. Often, they are depicted as despising anything to do with setting foot on land for extended periods of time and are increasingly more uncomfortable the further they are from the sea.

    Real-world example: Vikings. These Nordic explorers were a warrior society as well, but first and foremost were a seafaring society because they relied upon the seas for their sustenance.

    Literary example: The Atha'an Miere of the Wheel of Time are a society of seafarers that are typical in fantasy. They do not like the land and they do not like being away from their ships which they give extreme importance to. One thing that sets them apart from others is that they are heavy bargainers.


    These are not all the kinds of cultures that are in Fantasy. To list those would be far too extensive. However, these archetypes are often mixed in many different ways to form unique cultures that fit worlds that are constantly being created. Consider this a guide and a resource, rather than a set-in-stone set of cultures that you must conform to.