Fantasy Worldbuilding: The Benefits of a Source Culture
October 28, 2019
Hi writers! I hope this past week has been amazing! Indigo Typewriter was on vacation last week since I was on a cruise (🛳 🌴☀️🎉)! Jared and I had so.much.fun! I’ll miss vacation life, but I’m so happy to be back on the blog! Today’s post is specifically for my fantasy writers out there, so come on in and let’s talk about fantasy worldbuilding.
The Importance of a Source Culture
Y’all. Fantasy worldbuilding is a project. Even if your world doesn’t include magic, you still have to think about culture, government, language, currency, politics, religions, races, prejudices and stereotypes, history, naming systems, rites of passage . . . the list goes on. And that’s just for one nation. If, like me, you’re building a world where multiple nations are relevant to the story, you have to do everything at least twice.
Fantasy worldbuilding is a never-ending process. Seriously. You’re creating an entire world from scratch. You’ll never be fully done. So, first of all, be okay with that.
Remember this post, where I talked about how my dad thought my story was set in a desert because there was no description? One of my (many) excuses for avoiding descriptive writing was that I didn’t actually know what the culture in my setting was like. I never took the time to explore the world.
When I did try to explore the world later, I had trouble envisioning it. Nothing felt cohesive. It all seemed thrown together and inauthentic.
But then I started looking for source cultures.
It took me a few tries. The culture had to fit the geographic setting, but I also put a lot of weight on the language. I’m terrible at naming things without a jumping off point, so I needed a language that used the Roman alphabet, not symbols I can’t read, much less pronounce.
Finally, I landed on Icelandic for the culture of the story’s main setting. My worldbuilding took off. I found source cultures for the other nations in the story, and before I knew it, I had a firm grasp on what the world as a whole was like. These are the top benefits of having a source culture for fantasy worldbuilding.
Benefit #1 – Language and Names in Fantasy Worldbuilding
I mentioned that I put a lot of emphasis on the language of my source culture. The main reason for this is that I don’t possess J.R.R. Tolkien’s gift of producing names and languages from thin air. I wish I did. It would make writing fantasy a lot easier.
Instead, I found a source language.
I chose Icelandic for my story’s main setting in part because of its language. It has a lot of the classic fantasy-sounding names but easily veers off into something that, to my American ears, sounds both familiar and foreign, down-to-earth yet tingling with magic.
I’m glad I put so much emphasis on the language. Every time I need a throwaway name for a character, I simply determine their most basic personality trait or their function in the story and translate that word from English to Icelandic. Change the spelling, mix up the word, or use only part of it, and boom, I’ve got a character name. I also use baby name sites and filter by the source culture.
Having a source language makes fantasy worldbuilding so much easier. Instead of spending hours mixing up letters and sounds until you stumble upon a word that’s pronounceable, fits the story’s setting, and matches the character’s personality, you can spend a few minutes on the internet and find a name that fits all three criteria and means something.
And names aren’t just for characters. A source language opens up geographic names like cities and lakes, group names like classes, government divisions, and societies, object names like weapons, plants, and food, and magic names like spells, runes, and different types of magic.
Below are my top five resources for naming once you’ve figured out your source language:
BehindtheName (gives a lot of info about the meaning and origin of names)
As for language-building . . . I’ve never attempted that, and my current projects don’t require it. They might in the future, but for now I’ll leave that subject to the experts!
However, I do use my source language to create individual words. The main culture in my WIP speaks two languages, a universal popularized by trade and a less-used traditional language. Occasionally, a character can’t think of an equivalent word in the universal language and uses the word in the traditional language. These words come from my source culture’s language using the same altering tricks as the naming technique above.
If you’re interested in building a conlang (constructed language), check out this and this for some quick starting points.
Benefit #2 – Geography and Architecture in Fantasy Worldbuilding
Sometimes, visuals for cities, landscapes, and buildings are hard to come up with. But visuals are so important to establishing a feel for your setting. Once again, having a source culture can really boost this aspect of fantasy worldbuilding.
Geography and Way of Life
Most of my work-in-progress takes place in one city. It might seem like geography is unimportant. For some novels, that’s true. But you still have to consider a few things, like whether or not the ground is flat or hilly, if the streets are a grid or a tangled web, how tall the buildings are, and climate.
Surrounding geography and available technology determines most of this. If the society is technologically advanced, its members can probably change most aspects of the geography. If not, they’ll have to build around the existing landscape.
And if you’re creating a world that’s larger than a single city, you definitely need to think through the natural aspects of the land. Many of us in first world countries don’t consider the effect of geography on way of life, but it’s quite impactful.
For example, two of the most prominent cultures in my WIP have vastly different geographies.
The main setting is full of rolling green hills, with mild weather and a wide, glittering river that stretches across the country. The way of life there is relatively advanced, with conveniences and easily accessible comforts.
But my female protagonist’s home nation has vastly different geography. It’s an icy, coastal wasteland where little can grow and life expectancy is short. Resources are scarce, resulting in a long history of violent, tribal factions and little formal government.
Purely because of their respective geography, these two nations are marked by different needs: the first desires comfort, while the second focuses only on survival.
What about architecture? Usually, geography affects it. The materials you’re using to create your world’s houses and buildings need to be readily available in the existing geography. If they aren’t, there should be a reason for that––importing materials is expensive and inconvenient.
How to Use a Source Culture When Building Geography
When I need inspiration for geography or architecture in my WIP, I hit up the internet. Go to Google Images, search your source culture, and scroll through what pops up. I do this frequently when fantasy worldbuilding. You can also search things like “[source culture] houses” and “[source culture] architecture” if you need architecture-specific results.
You may notice that the two nations I described above both have roots in Icelandic geography. One is inspired by the lush greens, the other by the icy beaches. Are they exact replicas? No. I didn’t want them to be, nor do I think they should be. The point of a source culture is inspiration, not duplication.
On that note, you don’t have to take every aspect of your fantasy culture from your source culture. You can have a second source culture to draw on.
Better yet––think about how the nations surrounding your main nation have affected it. Are there old wounds? Alliances? Trade? What’s their history together? Have they borrowed words from each other? Using multiple fantasy nations (each with their own source culture) to influence each other is a great way not only to avoid replicating real-world cultures, but also to make the world as a whole more realistic.
Benefit #3 – Culture, Beliefs, and Systems in Fantasy Worldbuilding
A source culture can also be a great inspiration for the more operational aspects of your society. Fantasy nations shouldn’t look exactly like the one you’re from. Even if you aim to do a little subtle (or not so subtle) comparison or critique, the whole culture doesn’t need to be replicated.
Consider prejudices and stereotypes. How do the races in your story view one another? What about views on sexual orientation and gender identity? Are there sexist practices or beliefs? (And don’t just think of the word “sexist” as meaning anti-women; for the purposes of story building, it can also mean anti-men.) How does the society treat people with disabilities?
These can be positive or negative answers. I always consider a fantasy nation’s history when thinking through these ideas, as well as its proximity to other nations with different or similar views. But one of the resources you can draw on is your source culture. What is that real nation’s history with these subjects? What are their current values?
Religions and beliefs are also important. This is one of the spaces where it’s easiest to break away from your main source culture. In fact, having a source religion that’s different from the dominant religion in your source culture can produce a fascinating new fantasy culture.
Study the Source
To make your fantasy culture richer and more realistic, I recommend spending some time really studying your source culture––you never know what gems you’ll find.
For example, as I was researching Icelandic culture, I found pictures of turf houses. These eventually inspired a cultural decorating quirk in my fantasy culture. I also discovered that the Icelandic naming system is different from the one I’m used to––last names are comprised of one parent’s first name followed by “-dóttir” (“daughter”) or “-son.” I didn’t copy this naming mechanism in my fantasy culture, but I did switch up naming systems for other nations in my story.
Final Thoughts on Fantasy Worldbuilding
Give some thought to the culture you’re creating. Usually, just researching a source culture you’re interested in gets your creative juices flowing. Before you know it, you’ll have written a whole treatise on your fantasy culture without even thinking.
We’ll be talking about setting again when Planning for Pansters returns, so make sure to drop by and see just how useful settings can be for plotting!