10 Ways to Add Depth to Your World Building
World building is a daunting task and creating a culture for your fantasy or science fiction world can be complicated. Many culture traits are out in the open and easy to see, such as religion, fashion, and language. But there are many facets to culture and most of them are so ingrained that we don’t even realize they are there. If you can find subtle ways to incorporate these elements into your story, your world will feel more like a real place filled with real people. The trick is to make it seem natural not forced or listed. I discussed this problem with relation to Character Development as well. Combining those prompts with the ones below would make your characters even more real and well rounded.
Below I have expounded, hopefully not too much, upon 10 examples of background cultural traits you can add to your story. I give examples and ask questions that will hopefully inspire you and help you make decisions that will easily fit into your story and enhance the world you have imagined.
1) Family Structure and Roles
Think about your main character’s family, if he has one. (If he doesn’t, go to the next character who does have a family. Even if the family never shows up in the story.) Who lives together? The typical American family consists of two parents and their children but many cultures included grandparents, the children’s spouses and even aunts and uncles.
What is each family members’ role in the household? Does the father work outside while the mother keeps the household affairs in order? Is it reversed? Do both parents contribute to the income of the family while grandparents tend the children and make meals?
Who raised your main character? Was he raised by the family member that his society usually assigns to that role? How does that shape his personality and attitudes toward family and gender? Who was responsible for monetary stability? Did your main character’s family conform with or divert from tradition?
The answers to these questions could shape his interactions with the people he encounters. If he was financially supported by his mother in a society that thinks women should not work outside the home, then he may have more respect for women’s independence and capabilities than other people in his society. This could lead him to overestimate or over-rely on women who are more typical of their culture. Or he could give a woman a chance who had previously been denied by everyone else.
Conversely, if his father was forced to support and raise him without the help of a mother, he may have negative attitudes toward women and fail to benefit from those women who are capable of helping him.
These attitudes and preconceptions change if it is a woman raised in either of these two scenarios. And it gets even more interesting if your main character has a different gender identity and then is raised in a family that differs from societal norms.
Another subset of this is family values related to monogamy, polygamy, marriage vs open relationships, tribe-parenting, and much more. Some of these values have a large impact on how your character interacts with everyone around him.
2) Body Language
Body language accounts for a significant portion of human communication. This may seem like a difficult thing to include in a book but simple comments by the narrator or characters can speak volumes about the culture and the characters in it.
Examples of body language include, but are not limited to, personal space, impassive vs expressive facial gestures, crossed arms, touching of other characters during normal interactions, certain hand gestures – either rude or to signal affirmative/negative, facing toward or away from other people, and eye contact.
American’s tend to prefer more personal space than, say, Europeans. We don’t like people to get within a certain radius of us during conversations and we don’t touch strangers. If someone begins breaking those social rules, s/he may face a range of reactions from making his/her companion uncomfortable, to eliciting anger.
Depending on the disposition of your character someone getting too close could make her feel distrustful or she could assume the space invader is comfortable around her and reciprocate. There are myriad ways to incorporate this into character development and give nuance to the interactions between two characters. Also consider what it would be like in a society where people often get close and touch each other, just a brush on the arm or clasp of a shoulder while making an important point. How would someone conditioned to that society react to someone who wants more space?
3) Beauty Ideals/Body Image
This one can be fun as well as a great way to add spice to your world. You can decide what the people in your story find attractive in others and themselves. This is largely a random, or at the very least fluctuating, aspect of culture so it’s not particularly important what you choose. Dark hair, light hair, skin tone, eye shape, height, body fat, all of these come and go from beauty standards and differ by culture in a single time.
Place your character on the beauty continuum. Certain interactions and opportunities are open to people at either end of that continuum. If a beautiful person is shy, people tend to assume s/he is aloof and feel superior even though this may not be the case at all. Ugly people are often underestimated, being deemed stupid or incapable despite no evidence to support the claims. Think of the videos of talents like American Idol where the crowd gasps and cheers when an ugly person is good at singing. Your character could face such injustices or even pass such judgments on others and change the course of his journey based on how he treats or is treated by others.
The way he feels about himself can have a significant impact on his interactions with the world. If he thinks he is more or less beautiful than he really is, he could under- or overestimate himself in other ways as well. If society tells him a certain attribute he has is unfavorable, he could become self-conscious about it or feel unique and learn to be more self-assured. These are great ways to add depth to your characters and to the world in general.
While we are talking about bodies, let’s bring up modesty. There is often a range of opinions within a single culture and the setting often plays a large part. This topic can cover anything from how much skin is appropriate for men and women to show in public, to whether members of the same or opposite sex ever see each other nude, to the importance of women (or men) keeping their head/hair covered. The answers can vary based on social class, occupation (*wink wink*), or even age.
Children have more freedom when it comes to lack of clothing. The age at which children are expected to always be covered varies by culture. Lower social classes have often been given more leeway also since the aristocrats hold themselves to a “higher standard” which often is equated to more modesty. A man working out in the field may take off his shirt in the heat of the day, but a man working in an office never would. (And you thought I’d use an example of a particular, primarily female occupation.) In some societies it is common for people of the same sex to use bathing facilities that expose them to each other but in other places only one’s romantic partner sees them naked. And in yet others, nudity is no big deal and considered quite natural and comfortable.
You could use modesty to hinder your character in some way. Perhaps she must strip down for a ritual but is resistant. (The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennen deals with this topic a few times. It is hilarious and gives a lot of depth to the character and her world.) Or maybe she goes through some ordeal and loses a large portion of her clothing and now has a hard time convincing anyone to take her in and help her. The populace could assume she is immoral or even savage and dangerous. Or they could think she deserves to be in trouble for being so loose in the first place. There are many stories about women who need to exchange skirts for pants in order to accomplish their goals more easily and they are heavily mocked and scorned for it. There are also certain styles men refuse to wear for fear of looking too feminine. Kilts are often mocked for this reason.
Modesty is one of those aspects of culture that is pretty heavily ingrained in us and our opinions about it tend to be quite strong. How often are people judging others at the supermarket for wearing something too scandalous. “Gosh, are you leaving anything to the imagination?” Or even too formal. “Jeez what a prude.” Including this in a story makes it feel more natural since getting dressed is part of everyday life and we are implementing these values whether we recognize it or not. Including this in your world building makes it feel incredibly realistic without hitting anyone in the face with the fact that you are world building.
5) Work Ethic
When speaking of work ethic, the question isn’t only about lazy versus productive, it’s also about the kind of work being done. For example, in Midwest America, physical work is valued more than intellectual work. (I speak in generalities of course.) The football team gets more funding and prestige than Quizbowl, Mathletes, or the arts. The biggest industries are farming and manufacturing. Universities are often a bubble of intellectual and liberal culture inside a landscape of practical and conservative thinking.
Does your character come from a culture of valuing physical labor over intellectual pursuits? The answer could influence the kind of aid she seeks on her quest. If physical labor is valued higher, she may try to solve her problems with force, armies, building fortifications, and other physical means. If she values intellect she may try to trick her opponents, research past experiences of people like her, or consult magic/technology.
Ideas about work ethic will also determine how society at large views your character and her chosen method of solving her problems. They may be more or less willing to help if your character doesn’t use the preferred work ethic. If she seeks magical aid but it is a physical culture, they may fear or or even hinder her. Even if she defeats a great evil they may be so distracted by her means that they don’t appreciate the ends.
Humor is a very important part of any culture and is a creative way to add depth to your world building. You can sum up a lot of views with a couple of well-done jokes. You can also distinguish multiple cultures from one another depending on how a person from one culture views the jokes of another. The Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan use humor in this way to great effect. For a wonderful guide to humor around the world I recommend this article on Medium.com. It is bound to give you ideas on how to form the basis for humor for a particular culture.
Some examples of different kinds of humor include: slapstick, wordplay, dark/cynical, satire, situational, sarcasm, and self-deprecating. Different cultures view jokes about different topics in a variety of ways. You can joke about politics, religion, ethnic/racial differences (either in a lighthearted or more critical way), personal traits, family members, history, and pretty much anything else. Some cultures put certain topics off-limits, either in general or only for outsiders. The line between humor and insult is often very fine and the culture of joke teller vs listener can determine which side it falls on.
To quickly establish a culture’s attitude toward a certain political situation, societal norm or other intricacy, have your character tell or hear a joke about it. How he or his audience reacts to it will say a lot about the individual and culture. Perhaps the audience doesn’t understand the joke at all. Perhaps you character takes offense, not realizing it was a joke. Perhaps a connection could be made between two characters because they find the same situation funny.
Table manners, treatment of elders, respect for higher social classes, all these things can inform the reader about the society and characters in your story. Does the political leader demand reverence? Do elders get treated with respect or are they discarded when they lose their usefulness? Is it preferred to use a person’s first name or last name when addressing them? Even simple things like “please” and “thank you” can impact how characters interact with each other. Manners can also extend beyond words to gestures. Most cultures have a hand gesture the is considered rude. There are also practices such as bowing before royalty etc.
A character can garner respect by showing respect, and just as easily lose it by failing to show it properly. A character can make assumptions about another based on her perceived crudeness. Perhaps someone is loud in inappropriate places and takes what they want. Your character may decide she doesn’t want his help or can’t rely on that person because he doesn’t conform to the simplest of societal norms. Alternately, you character could misplace her trust in someone who seems polite and honest when they are actually scheming against her.
You can also show what is important to your culture based on certain choices in manners. For instance, does your character use foul language in holy places, around elders or royalty? If so how does everyone around her react? Is your character more polite to a duke than a butcher? If her manners change according to her company you can learn what her specific opinions are about class etc. and learn about society by the reactions.
8) Concept of Justice
A society’s concept of justice can be complicated. Is there a rigid view of the proper way to dispense justice? Is the system balanced, with judge, jury and executioner (when permitted) all being separate entities with checks and balances? Or is it more relaxed with an arbiter making the decisions for a group. There could even be social justice, taken to an extreme in an episode of the show The Orville where people take to social media to vote on whether a person deserves to be punished or not. Does mercy play a role or are the laws followed to the letter, as per the Merchant of Venice?
You also end up with situations like vigilantes, who come in a variety of forms. There’s the wild west type who kills all the bad guys because it’s them or us. There is Batman who cleans up the streets without killing anyone. Vigilantes tend to confuse a society’s sense of justice, especially when the system is known to have flaws.
Where does your character fit in the justice system? If they go outside of it to achieve their goals will they risk punishment or is there some leeway for heroes who accomplish something great? If your character must kill someone to keep him/her from doing something terrible, with the populace see him as just as bad as the person he killed or as a savior? Will he be served up to face charges or will the crowds help him escape notice of the authorities? Answers to questions like these will help you determine how sneaky or open your main character has to be about reaching their goals and interacting with the established justice system.
9) Individual vs Group
The concept of Individual vs Group is a strong motivator. People may abandon their personal hopes and dreams in order to obey their parents or take care of their parents. Some societies expect the individuals to always make choices based on the good of the group while other societies expect people to make decisions that are best for themselves (and then hope that the collection of happy and successful individuals leads to a happy and successful group.) In an individualistic culture, people in a bad situation are often blames, or at the very least not pitied, for being in trouble.
This is another aspect of culture that can impact how much help your character gets from others. If they are in a society based on group decisions, they may be more willing to help. Unless, of course, the group has deemed the character’s goals or motives as being out of line with that of the group. Your character could have to work her way up the hierarchy to a place where she is allowed to make decisions for the group before she can make any progress toward her goal. Your character could also face an internal dilemma. Perhaps she can’t decide if she is being selfish in her wishes to act as she is. She may doubt whether she truly has the group’s best interests in mind. This would add an excellent layer to your character and story.
These attitudes also have an impact on the concept of pride, submissiveness, success, failure, and competitiveness, among others. If your character is too prideful in a group culture she will face ridicule. If she succeeds in her goal but the group doesn’t benefit as they believe they should have it will be deemed a failure. And so on.
This is a very wide category and it encompasses most of the things I’ve already covered. If a society leans in one direction, they tend to have a bias for it and against the other. But a society and character can have biases for and against pretty much anything. There are dog and cat people, there are morning birds and night owls, there are health nuts and junk foodies. A person from either side of these dichotomies could feel a bias toward the other. It may not be the case every time, it is perfectly reasonable, and preferred, for a person not to care whether another has the same opinion on house pets as them. But, on the other hand, I’ve heard people say they don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like dogs. I am a night owl, I get more motivated and feel more active at night. This of course means I would need to sleep late in the morning to make up for it. I have faced bias from those who equate early risers with more productive and happy people.
What it often comes down to is whether someone can empathize with another person. In the night owl case, the people who assume I am unproductive and lazy, are assuming that their view of the world applies to everyone. They are not productive at night so no one else is. There is a fundamental misconception taking place about the nature of individual experience. (And one which I should probably avoid getting into in this article. Quite the rabbit hole that would be.)
When your character makes a decision or expresses a preference for one thing/action/person over another, decide if he cares about people who prefer the opposite. Would he treat someone differently for liking cats over dogs? What characters would treat him differently for the same? Could someone’s bias impede the story and give your character one more hurdle to jump before reaching their final goal? Even simple things could add some flavor and depth to your story, characters and general world building.
I hope these prompts were helpful. I realize it might be a little overwhelming. You obviously don’t need to go add all of these to your story at once. And there may not be room for it all. (Unless you want to end up with a massive epic a la Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books.) But remember, the more you are able to include, the more compelling and real your world will feel. This is particularly helpful when writing a series and you want the readers to come back for each volume. In any case, remember to have fun!
Is there a particular bit of culture you enjoy including in your world building? Share it in the comments.