Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions: Daily Life

By Patricia C. Wrede

  1. General

    • How do ordinary people feel about foreigners? Non-humans? How ready are they to accept different ideas? How cosmopolitan are they?
    • How much social mobility is there? Is it easy or hard for a person born a peasant to advance to the middle class, or a middle class person to the upper class or nobility? How much resistance would there be? Would such a person ever be accepted socially?
    • What items or foods or materials are luxuries — chocolate, coffee, silk, spices, flush toilets? Why?
    • What do people generally look like? Would a blonde (redhead, brunette) stand out in a crowd? Someone 5′ 10″ tall? Do non-humans stand out in a crowd, or are there enough of them around that they’re considered ordinary?
    • What are accepted norms of personal hygiene? Do most people bathe regularly, or is bathing considered a health hazard?
    • How is garbage and other waste material disposed of?
    • What is furniture like — big and blocky, delicate, simple, elaborately carved, painted? What is it mostly made of — cloth, wood, stone? Are certain things (like chairs with arms) reserved for high-status individuals?
    • In what ways does furniture design reflect the customs and lifestyle of the people (example: beds with bed-curtains for privacy in medieval homes where servants wandered through rooms without warning; futons that can be rolled up and put away instead of beds in a country with little house-space)?
    • What are the plumbing and sanitary systems like? Who builds and maintains them? How reliable are they, and who do you call when the drains back up? How do they differ from city to farm?
    • How do people cope with various disasters — fire, floods, tornadoes or hurricanes, blizzards, plague, etc.? How common are such disasters?
    • How early do people get up in the morning in the city? Country? Are clocks common, or do people tell time by the sun or by listening for church bells?
  2. Fashion and Dress

    • What do people wear? How expensive is it? Can the material be produced locally, or must some or all of it be imported?
    • Are weapons a standard part of dress for any/all segments of society?
    • Are certain clothes customary for certain occupations — e.g., military uniforms, judges robes/wigs, sports teams uniforms, etc.? How much variation is allowed — could a scholar wear a day-glow green robe as long as the cut is right, or would that be too much? Is it color or style that is most important?
    • Are the dyes for certain colors — purple, indigo, etc. — rare, making cloth of that color more expensive and/or reserved for nobility or other high-status people?
    • Are there sumptuary laws, defining who can wear what? What are the penalties? Who decides when changes are needed? How often are they adjusted?
    • Are there fashions/fads in things besides clothes — styles of carriages, furniture, etc.?
    • Are there fashions/fads in magic — are herbal spells “in” this year and ritual spells “out,” or vice versa?
    • How many changes of clothes can a normal person afford? A noble person? A peasant?
    • What is the current fashion in clothes? Hats? Jewelry? Shoes? Do such fashions differ for humans/non-humans? Between city and country?
    • What materials are appropriate to the climate? What materials must be imported, and are therefore for expensive upper-class clothes only?
    • What things are considered tacky and vulgar, and what things are stylish?
    • What types of decorations and accessories are common? What colors and combinations of colors are thought to look well or to clash? Do opinions on this vary from race to race?
    • What physical types and characteristics are currently fashionable — tan vs. pale skin, the “consumptive look” vs. robust good health, fat vs. thin, blonde vs. brunette, muscles vs. “dead poet”, etc.?
    • How do non-human fashions reflect their physiology? Do dragons dress for dinner? Do mermaids have a nudity taboo?
  3. Manners

    • What distinguishes a formal, high-court dinner from an ordinary meal besides quantity and variety of food? How do high-court manners differ from everyday ones?
    • What are the rules of precedence — who gets to go through doors first? Who gets introduced first?
    • Is there a distinction between “formal” or high court good manners and informal, everyday good manners? When and where are people supposed to be on their best behavior?
    • How important are “good manners” in this society? What constitutes everyday good manners? How do “good manners” differ from race to race? How do people/dwarves/elves/dragons react when someone has just been, by their standards, unspeakably rude?
    • When a guest arrives, is food or drink offered immediately, after an interval, or only on request? Is there a particular food or drink that is customary to offer a newly arrived guest?
  4. Diet

    • What dishes are considered holiday food? What foods/drinks are associated with particular holidays, events (e.g., funerals, weddings) or times of the year?
    • What distinguishes a formal, high-court dinner from an ordinary meal, besides quantity and variety of food? How do high-court manners differ from everyday ones?
    • When a guest arrives, is food or drink offered immediately, after an interval, or only on request? Is there a particular food or drink that is customary to offer a newly arrived guest? A guest who is just departing (stirrup cup)?
    • Is sanitation good enough for untreated water to be safe to drink? If not, what do people drink instead?
    • What things, while edible, are never eaten (what’s not kosher)? Why? Are some common human foods poisonous to dwarves or elves (or vice versa)?
    • Given the magical/technological level of this society, what is an appropriate ration of farmers or food producers to urban residents? If farm production is based on magic, how many urban residents are going to starve if the spells supporting farming (weather, land fertility, etc.) fail suddenly?
    • How many meals are considered normal in a day? When are they served? Which are substantial and which are smaller? Are certain foods (e.g., eggs and bacon) reserved mainly for a particular meal?
    • What dishes or seasonings would be considered typical of this area? What wines or beers?
    • What foods are considered peasant food? What foods are staples, commonly eaten every day? What foods are rare? What foods are normally eaten cooked/raw?
    • What is the food like? What herbs and spices are readily available, and what must be imported? How common/expensive are imported foods and spices?
    • What spices and herbs are produced locally, and which are rare and expensive? Which are most commonly used? Do people tend to like highly spiced food or not?
    • How is food preserved for use during the off-season — smoking, canning, salting, drying, etc.? How reliable are the methods used — how often does “preserved” food spoil?
    • When food is in limited supply, who gets first crack? The laborers and farmers who have to work to produce more, or the children who are the next generation, or the wise and revered elders, or the nobility?
    • What foods and seasonings do non-humans like, and how do these differ from those favored by humans? Are some foods poisonous or distasteful to one species that are delicacies or necessary to another?
    • Are there times when people are expected to fast (e.g., before solstice, after the birth of a child, during Lent or Ramadan, after the death of a ruler, etc.)?
    • Given the state of roads and transportation, how much food is it possible to ship to a given location before it spoils? (This limits the size of cities.)
  5. Education

    • How much does it cost to get various levels of education?
    • Is there an organized system of education? If so, who provides it: government, churches, private persons? How is it supported? Is magic considered part of the general college curriculum, or do you have to study it privately?
    • What sort of education is available, and where? Are there schoolhouses in every town, or do ordinary people have to travel if they want to be educated? Are there universities? Private tutors?
    • What is the level of literacy in the general population? Is literacy considered a useful/necessary skill for nobility, or something only scribes/clerks/wimps/bourgeoisie need? How common are books? How are they produced?
    • Who are the teachers? How are they trained? Who pays them?
    • How much education is considered usual at each of the various levels or classes of society? What things are considered absolutely necessary for a gentleman/noble to know? A tradesman?
    • What things are considered absolutely necessary knowledge for a courtier (poetry, languages, skill at arms, etc.)? Which are nice but not necessary? Which would be highly embarrassing if anybody found out about them (a passion for comic books, etc.)?
    • How respected are teachers and scholars? Who supports them?
    • If magic requires study, where do you go to learn about it? How do people fund their training? Is there an apprenticeship system, or are there wizard schools, or is it one-on-one tutoring/mentoring? Is an untrained wizard dangerous, or just an ordinary person?
    • Do wizards have a special language that is used for magic? If so, where do they learn it? Is it safe to chat in this language, or is everything said in it automatically a spell? If so, how can it safely be taught to new students?
  6. Calendar

    • Is there a single, generally accepted calendar (including time measurements), or do different countries or peoples or races have different ones?
    • How is the day divided into smaller time units? What are they (Hour of the Lark, Sunrise Bell, Nones, etc.)? Are the names relevant to anything? Is the length of an hour fixed, or does it vary depending on changes in the length of the day as the seasons change?
    • What are the names of months, and how many days in each? How many days in a week? Months in a year? Are there leap years? If so, who keeps track?
    • Which days are general holidays or festival times? What do they celebrate? Are there any that are only celebrated in particular countries, cities, or regions?
    • What event(s) do people use to date years? Do they use a single event (the creation of the world, the end of the Great War, the invention of atomic power, etc.) or are events dated based on recurring things (the 12th year of Tiberius’ reign, the 301st year of the Han Dynasty)?
    • How do people tell what time it is? Are there clocks, watches, sundials, etc., or do people have to just listen for bells from the castle or church, or just eyeball the sun?
    • Are there any days that are considered “outside the year,” like Mardi Gras or the Feast of Fools? How are these days customarily observed? How did they originate?

Copyright © 1996 Patricia C. Wrede. Reproduction and distribution specifically prohibited. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.