by Amelia Wiens
One of the best parts of science fiction and fantasy is the worldbuilding. A key part of creating interesting worlds is creating diverse cultures that vary in some way from our own norms. That being said, it can be so hard to get out of our own culture’s point of view and redefine elements that we unconsciously take for granted.
I’m a professional fiction editor, and when I was in university for my English literature BA, something else that also fascinated me was psychology and sociology. Creative writing is in so many ways an examination of societies and the human mind. I thought spending some time studying those subjects would strengthen my writing and reading skills as well. So, here are some things I learned in university sociology and psychology classes that can help you create diverse fictional cultures.
All cultures are a kaleidoscope of different values and expectations. Cultural values are in many ways like a two-sided coin: if you show or emphasize one value, you cover up or minimize a converse value. That’s why cultural characteristics are often thought of as binary dimensions, this vs. that. Reality is more complex than strict binaries, but it can be a useful framework to start with. To help you develop your own fictional society, I’ve come up with the following questions based on Trompenaars’ model of cultural dimensions. They’re meant to be food for thought, so don’t feel pressure to dive deep into every question. Get inspired and use what’s useful to you.
Individualism vs. Communitarianism
- Do people in the society prefer to be unique or similar to each other?
- Does the culture value self-expression or conformity?
- Does the society value expressing personal opinions or maintaining harmony?
- Do people in the society feel so deeply connected to their loved ones that, if someone offended or hurt their loved ones, they would feel personally offended or hurt as well? Or do people feel empathy, but still maintain a very distinct sense of identity from their loved ones?
- Does the society value independent decision making and following your heart, or does the society value listening to advice and following the expectations of others?
- Does the culture value self-reliance or dependency on others?
- Does the society value making decisions out of self-interest or commitment to others?
Universalism vs. Particularism
- What are the society’s key moral principles?
- Do they apply these values consistently across contexts or does the application of these values vary depending on the situation and the relationships at hand? For instance, if you witness someone commit a crime, does your moral responsibility to report them change if the person is a stranger, your friend, or your boss?
Neutral vs. Emotional
- To what extent does the society view emotions positively or negatively?
- Do people in the society hide their emotions or express them openly?
- Is it acceptable to express certain emotions openly while others should remain hidden?
- When do people smile and what does smiling communicate in this society? Warmth and welcome in every context? Or perhaps lightheartedness and, in formal contexts, an inappropriate lack of seriousness?
Specific vs. Diffuse
- How sophisticated and complex are the society’s formal social conventions?
- How much does the society value formality in the public and professional spheres?
- What amounts of touch are socially acceptable in public? Holding hands? Hugging? Kissing?
Achievement vs. Ascription
- In this society, where does status come from: an individual’s achievements (their grades, discoveries and innovations, social activism, etc.) or the composition of their identity (their origin, age, gender, job title, etc.)?
- Does status come from a mixture of achievement and identity? What specific identities and achievements are valued in the society?
- How strongly does the culture emphasize social hierarchy? What determines a person’s place in the hierarchy?
Sequential vs. Synchronous Time
- Does the society treat time linearly and set a specific time and order for completing tasks, or does the society treat time more fluidly and multi-task?
- What does the concept “soon” mean within the society? Within an hour, day, week, month, year?
- How important is punctuality?
- What does it mean to be late in this society? Arriving one minute, five minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, or multiple hours after the specified time? At what point will others get annoyed by tardiness?
I hope these questions have spurred your imagination. If you have any other cultural dimensions you like to consider when worldbuilding, feel free to share them below!
Amelia Wiens is a professional fiction editor and lover of all things ancient and magical. She specializes in providing copy edits and manuscript critiques directly to authors and her genres of choice are fantasy, speculative, and historical fiction. She’s a member of Editors Canada and has a BA in English Literature from the Canadian Mennonite University. You can visit Amelia’s website here to learn more about her services. Though Canadian, she grew up overseas in the deserts of Qatar and is now back in the great white north and based in the prairies of Manitoba.