Culture and the Fantasy Writer

Besides the notebooks containing my world’s history and geography/maps, there’s also one describing cultures…

When I started my novel I had some ideas and images in my head concerning culture. As I proceeded, though, I realized my world building needed societies that were defined rather then arbitrary.

Cultures produce characters. Not the other way around.

Yes, people play a part, but it requires many people over a long period. That’s history. Geography (including climate) also influences culture and for the world builder that makes a decent map a fantastic aid. Mountains and rivers are two features that can separate cultures, especially when transportation is slow and limited.

Hartise Mountain Barriers

Hartise Mountain Barriers

Physical features (mountains in blue on map) isolated Hartise the province when the Empire existed. Later, when the Empire collapsed those same mountains helped protect it. Too, isolation helped create a unique culture. That’s the macro view.

Looking closer, there are regional, religious, political, and status differences within Hartise. Elements like class, educational level, wealth, royal ties, and even magic also come into play.

In contrast, differences are sometimes created within an otherwise homogenous population when a significant separation event occurs. Such events are more than history. In a writer’s novel they’re drama begging for the opportunity to influence the plot.

Don’t waste such opportunities.

In Hartise, the religion known as the Order of Genessa split into two and the Purist’s Vision (those viewing magic as evil) was created. The split, or separation event, occurred when demon creatures swept across the country in great numbers.

Ah, but the seed that created the event was planted when the Old Empire wizards violated the law and opened the “aperture” to explore alternate worlds. They then compounded their mistake and brought Berkaphis through the aperture.

An inviting-werewolves-as-entertainment level mistake. Ouch!

Berkaphis betrayed them, turned on the Empire, and helped bring about its downfall. When geography and climate helped Hartise repulse his military assaults, Berkaphis secretly drove all the demons he could find across its borders.

Separations are never as simple as they may seem.

Hob Populations

Hob Populations

An aside: What two cultures view as a physical division between them (a mountain range or desert, for instance) may possess a population that possesses its own culture. The mountain-dwelling hobs are a good example (highlighted areas on map). Not only do hobs live in what humans believe are less-hospitable regions that represent barriers to travel, they manage to maintain cultural ties over great distances.

I started with talking about characters emerging from the culture you created (how much cultural detail you provide is up to you) and now will share a caution: If a character is significantly different from the culture she is raised in that’s a backstory needing explaining. It’s also more rich material for the character and the plot.

Truly, history, geography, and culture, along with their various sub parts, help add depth to a fantasy world. Too, they help create plot lines you might not have otherwise devised. Like a stew, they all enrich the broth, yet continue to maintain their separate identities.

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About Ontyre Passages

Alive and well in the Rocky Mountains. I'm a fantasy writer who also dabbles in poetry, short stories, and map making. My Ontyre tales are an alternative fantasy experience, the stories rich in mystery, adventure, and romance. Alternative fantasy? Not quite steampunk. Not quite gothic. In truth, the real magic is in those who discover what's within.
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6 Responses to Culture and the Fantasy Writer

  1. Excellent points. I agree with every word. And I love this: “Cultures produce characters. Not the other way around.” Particularly true of epic fantasy, but I think all characters are a product of their environment and their past. Very wise of you to have done so much of your cultural exploration on the front end of the project. Great post, Christina!

    • Thank you, Vaughn. I am glad I did a lot at the front end. At the same time, I’m always refining and adding. The ideas gave way to essays and they gave way to new ideas that included celebrated holidays, traditions, and unique expressions.

  2. This post made me rethink my imagined world. I tend to leave cultures to one- or two-word blanket statements (i.e. xenophobic, patriarchal) because otherwise I get so deep in culture that I wind up lost. But maybe it’s worth it to develop a culture more fully, for the good of my stories…

    • Thanks for the comment. For me, your key words were “more fully,” for developing them totally is an ongoing, never-ending task. I thought to myself, “Okay, their culture is patriarchal…how did that manifest itself?” Then I wrote an essay about it, drawing from my own culture and others, mixing and matching according to my vision. It was an approach that worked for me and didn’t take much time. You may find a better approach that I’d love to hear about. What’s most important is showing that a culture is, for instance, patriarchal.

      Early in my story my protagonist meets with a young Keeper (rebel) who tries to recruit her for a greater leadership role. Though she laments repressed women, she also talks herself out of helping, for the culture is engrained even in her. Though he seems enlightened on the issue initially, she later notes that his concern is for the “cause” and not for women. Also, when she’s giving her reasons NOT to help, she dismissively tells him, “If you seek an aggressive woman then you should visit the ora’ean.” The statement contrasts the two cultures, helping to educate about both.

  3. I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme.
    Did you create this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it
    for you? Plz answer back as I’m looking to create my own blog and would like to find out where u got this from. many thanks

    • It’s a free WordPress theme called Book Lite. All I did was add the painting for the Header and the background. The background is a granite pattern repeated. When I started my blog I chose the theme and then plugged in the pictures. It really was very easy to do. The hardest part was deciding on the pictures. Thank you so much for the compliment and I hope this helps.

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