Writers in the Storm

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July 13, 2011

World Building-Part 2: Social and Cultural Aspects

by Fae Rowen 

As exciting as it is to create a physical setting, my favorite part of world building is the cultural aspect.  Out of the world's culture comes the social customs, which can really show life on the planet.  Of course, there are rules.

Rule #1:  As an author, you must know the details of the backstory for your world's culture in order to build a society that makes sense within the physical context of your setting.  This backstory should never be info-dumped on your reader.

In fact, your reader will probably never know any of the cultural backstory of how your world came to be unless one or two--no more!--small points of cultural difference are integral to your plot.

Think Harry Potter.  Over the course of the series we learned about the wizarding world, but just how many readers would have made it through the first book if, instead of action, J.K. Rowling gave us a history lesson on how Hogwart's came to be?

George Lucas got lucky with Star Wars.  He got to write the prequel, AKA backstory, when he decided to film Episodes 1, 2, and 3 after the success of the original three movies.  Save the backstory for your prequel series.

Rule #2:  Show, don't tell, the social and cultural world you've designed.

Yes, that "Show, don't tell" thing again.  Instead of telling me how hard it is to survive on the moon, show me your characters struggling with leaking air seals, glaring relentless sunlight with patches of shade, or playing with the effects of gravity that is only one-sixth that of earth.

Historical authors show their past "world" with accounts of clothing, food, and social customs.  The only difference between world building for a past setting and a future setting is that some things are fact.  The historical writer must still build the world according to the time and place of their story.  Jayne Ann Krentz , writing as Amanda Quick in Wait Until Midnight, crafts regency romance with suspense.  Her details of rooms, carriages, and butlers show her readers how the culture of the time shaped social customs.

By looking through the "lens" of your social and cultural world the reader will experience life as if she's there.  A few small sensory details is all it takes to show us important differences.  I find that when I rely too heavily on the sense of sight I begin telling. Enabling your reader to see, hear, smell, and touch  is how you show, rather than tell, about your world.

Rule #3:  Reveal the differences in the culture as if you are unrolling Cleopatra from her carpet.

You know the story of how Cleopatra rolled herself into a carpet and had herself delivered to Julius Caesar.  Imagine his surprise as the beauty of the carpet was revealed and then, he saw Cleopatra.  If you can do that for your readers, you've hooked them.

You've worked hard to fit together a cohesive society.  As you reveal the changes, it raises the stakes for your characters.  Each successive revelation should supply a necessary element of plot development in a turning point, plot twist, or character arc.

Inventions, medical breakthroughs, or your secret fantasy machine to take care of a daily chore--mine is a cap that comes out of the shower ceiling to wash and dry my hair--can all change the fabric of society.  Research can change the culture; consider the social non-acceptability of smoking nowadays because of health research.  You can get creative with new machinery, technology or research whether your story takes place in the past, present or future.

If you're a science fiction fan and haven't read C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station, I highly recommend it as a study in building a world and showing the society that grew out of that culture.  You prefer historical?  Say, the Crusades?   How about Jack Whyte's Knights of the Black and White.  He shows us the secrets of the beginnings of the Templars n the simple daily life of the small band of knights.

Rule #4: Change  no more than three things in the culture.

Cultural differences promote many societal changes. Remember, there is a cause-effect relationship between a culture and how one operates within that culture.  If you don't believe me, consider our electronic culture and its growth in the past forty years.  Think that hasn't impacted society?  Can you say, "Don't text and drive"?

Unless you're working in a totally alien world, there will be humans in your book.  And humans are, well--human.  Highlight the differences in the culture of your world by showing the societal differences to our own.  And, remember that human behavior, given certain circumstances, is fairly predictable.  Don't make mankind into an unrecognizable animal.  Your reader won't connect with your characters.

Rule #5:  Through your character's growth, show how it's possible to improve your world.

Whether it's as small as your family or as large as your planet, what reader won't sigh at the end of a well-delivered story showing there is hope--and a better future-- for us all?  You may have blown up the Earth, but your characters  managed to thrive on a new colony world.  The protagonist may have initially been inept in a new setting, but after some setbacks learned how to cope on a different world.

Sometimes this means there will be a change in your society by the end of the book.  Even bigger and better, the culture will change.  It doesn't have to be huge, like there will never again be war or conflict, but it has to be real and important.  It has to be a signal that the world is about to become different.  Better.

And what a great way to position yourself for writing that sequel!

Do you have additional rules for building a world's social and cultural aspects?  Do you have questions or comments on these rules?  Is there something you'd like clarified?  I don't have answers, but I love a good discussion!  Thanks for reading.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Elizabeth Spann Craig, aka Riley Adams, is our Sensational Summer Friday guest blogger this week. Elizabeth is one of the most giving writers we've met on our journey and we are delighted to have her!

If you get a moment, feel free to visit her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder. Be sure to look at the Writer's Knowledge Base (WKB) while you're there.

Warning: If you click on the WKB, you'll get sucked into Writer Utopia for a few hours. Don't say we didn't warn you... 🙂

0 comments on “World Building-Part 2: Social and Cultural Aspects”

  1. This post is so informative and interesting. Thanks for all the great tips. I haven't tackled world building yet, but will need to remember all these points for a historical book I'll be writing soon, so thanks again!

    1. Hi Lynn,
      It's exciting when I can "hook" non-science fiction writers on the idea of world building. Thanks so much for your support and good luck with your historical world.

  2. I'm just blown away by this series Fae! Very well done. You hit on some very interesting aspects of world-building, being a sci-fi writer I do adhere to most of the rules you list. But then, the story is king, so the occasional rule has to be bent as well.

    I do change more than three things, but in the aspect that "things grow out of things".

    Excellent post!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Gene. Yes, I bend and even break a rule when my characters demand. Heck, they're my rules and who wants to live in a static world?
      Someday I may learn to juggle more than three things!

  3. Well, I'm still learning about these techniques... have no answers. But did want to mention a love of Connie Willis -- no matter what people say about her latest 'Blackout' - about WWII, the world of the 1940's London came so beautifully to life in the pages of the book. Still trying to figure out how she did it, but she used dialog so effectively. Little slang terms, the way the girls referred to the 'Yellow Peril' as a dress that they all shared, a horrid yellow (of course) that had been taken in a million times.

    1. Hi Claudia,
      I'm still learning, too. Thanks for telling us about Connie Willis. Historical writers write the fine line of known facts and having to create their worlds within those facts. It's a real joy to be transported to a "world" of our common past in a way that makes us feel like we experienced that history.

  4. Thanks for the tips!! I write time travel, so my world is the same as the one we live in, with the exception of the rules for my time travel organization and its agents. I had a hard time not doing an "info dump" and your tips are very helpful. I especially like the Cleopatra analogy.

    1. Hi Melissa,
      When I started writing I heard authors talk about "layering" their stories. For me, it's easier to unroll the rug and see how the pattern grows and interconnects. Same idea, I think, just a different visual. I ended up cutting the first three chapters of my first book because they were the dreaded info dump. It's soooo hard not to share all the exciting things you know about your world, but--properly placed--each snippet of information has a chance to glisten and shine.
      I love time travel. Good luck with yours!

  5. Excellent advice! The culture is as important as setting. My story world actually has four different divergences of humanity who have very opposing values, and they are fun to play off of each other. But at the heart of each group some very human values remain stable, and that allows a potential Happily Ever After.

    1. My hat's off to you, Tam. I can only juggle in threes, so four societies seems like I'd need a 3D spreadsheet! I love that Happily Ever After, too.
      Thanks for your comments.

    1. Gene has a fantastic blog titled Dystopia Island. Don't let the title confuse you if you're not a sci fi freak. It's a thoughtful piece on how your book's culture can be greatly affected by the smallest thing--and more, with examples from a real-life isolated community.

  6. So informative. It's hard to make up worlds. In our own, we do it subconsciously. We have the rules and laws but if we make it up, we have to make it believable like it's our own.

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