Worldbuilding—Nations and Cultures

Worldbuilding—the act of creating a fictional setting, usually for fantasy—is something that has always fascinated me. The possibilities are endless: your world can vary from our own, it can have its own weather patterns, geographical features, species, and nations. Worldbuilding is a creative art, and it presents no limit. However, there are certain aspects of the art that you may want to keep in mind.

Worldbuilding—Nations and Cultures is the first of a series of worldbuilding posts I plan on writing for the Goblin Opinions blog. This is not only to help other writers, but also myself as I construct my own fictional world for a series of planned books. Before starting, there’s something I feel I must mention. Though worldbuilding arguably defines the sci-fi/fantasy genres, it cannot make up for poor character or plot progression. Many writers suggest that you put worldbuilding behind both of these aspects, despite its nearly essential role. It serves as an entertaining addition to a story, and one that may keep the reader engaged—but a lack of character development can be dire in many circumstances. Characters are what we as people connect with, and they are, for many, the root of why the reader reads. Worldbuilding is a worthy addition to any tale, but only so far as it doesn’t replace said development.

Adventure, Treasure Map, Old World Map, Pirates

Nations are of particular interest to me, and are essential to constructing any fictional world. Unless you plan on writing a wild west “every person for themselves” novel, your world will have nations. Even a singular nation, like an empire, will likely have subdivisions and multiple governing bodies. Nations are expansive, complex, and varied. And they are, for many, one of the most exciting parts of building a world.

What you want to try and avoid is creating a planet of hats—basically a world in which each of your nations is identified by a singular aspect, which every person in that nation embodies. Even in the simplest of cultures, there will be many jobs that need occupying. You have to keep your people fed and watered, and you usually want to provide for them some activity of recreation. Very rarely will every person be able to protect themselves, so you’ll likely want some form of military force as well.

Say your culture is defined by its military manpower or trading prowess. Both of these have been demonstrated in real-world cultures, and herald realistic elaborations. A military nation’s inhabitants might consider the path of the soldier to be among the most honorable positions a person can achieve. The people of a trading culture might recognize sailors and merchants better than that military nation. However, neither of these nations will survive without farmers to feed the soldiers, or workers to maintain the docks. Here you can also explore the various social classes, and see how they play into local conflict.

While cultures are unique and varied, different societies don’t have to be entirely divided. It might be realistic for two neighboring nations to share some aspects, for example. Religion plays into this heavily. Christianity is considered a Western religion, but it originated in the Middle East. It spread not randomly, but to its neighbors and political allies. Aspects like gender norms and fashion function similarly. More than likely, one religion present in a set of nations defines norms in those places. In this way, though varied in what defines them, different nations can stay connected and true to your overall world design.

It’s important to note that many nations take pride in their norms. Patriotism is present in many fantastical nations; a strong sense of belonging allows inhabitants to feel as if they are better than fellow countries. This is a good source of conflict; explore your nation’s pride if running low on ways to up the stakes.

Unique aspects of culture can be derived from fantastical aspects like magic and futuristic technology, but try and have some aspect of the culture rooted in its people. It’s easy to get carried away in saying a nation is the only one in your world that can use a certain magic, but this will fall short if you try and use it to define the nation. Instead, explain how the people—its leaders and normal civilians—use or misuse the mystical abilities. How does this affect the world’s political landscape? Are opposing kings fighting for the ability to use said magic or technology? This will result in a grounded, convincing worldbuilding narrative.

There are endless possibilities when exploring fictional cultures, both fantastical and rooted in reality. The main takeaway here is to diversify your cultures; a single culture is not made up of thousands doing one job. At the same time, religion can define social norms, and a set of beliefs or customs does not have to be limited to a single culture. Themes of alliance and conflict also play heavily here—but let’s leave those for another time.

What of your own nations? Do you use fantastical races and professions when worldbuilding, or are your cultures more reality-based? Remember that there are but few rules to world design—and even the ones that exist are sometimes there to be broken.

Nai aurelya nauva mára! 

—J.

Published by J. Dan Goodberry

Writer, blogger, composer of music and fan of the genres of fantasy and historical fiction.

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