Sure, you’ve sketched out the mountain ranges and made flow charts of the magic system, but have you thought of how the people act when in groups? Have you considered if your characters live in a society, man? If not, this podcast is here to help with advice on how to create a realistic culture. We discuss history, economics, religion, and perhaps the most important question: Are there any fun spices around?
- Historical Accuracy Isn’t a Reason to Exclude Diversity
- “Historical Accuracy” In Westeros
- Historical Fiction With Dragons In It
- The Way of Kings
- Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
- Oppressed Mages
- Does My Fantasy Setting Need a Religion?
- Children of the Light
- Buddhism and Shinto in Japan
- Interest and Christianity
- The Hail Mary Project
Generously transcribed by Clementine. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: And after almost 400 episodes, it feels like we’ve created our own culture at the Mythcreants podcast. One with cuisine consisting of sandwiches. A religion devoted to Podcastia; God of podcasts and with the legends of Wraith McBlade.
Oren: Oh, everyone loves Wraith McBlade. He is a household name around here.
Chris: Yes. With time and care, you too can create a culture so rich and realistic for your setting as we have here at the podcast.
Wes: All hail Podcastia!
Chris: Yes, we shall open the prayer. That is our prayer. Our bad jokes is our prayer to Podcastia; or sacrifice, if you will.
Wes: Each pun is a sacrifice to Podcasti.
Chris: So yeah, this time we’re gonna be talking about creating fictional cultures. Honestly, we see a lot of mistakes when it comes to culture creation, and I don’t think it’s often talked about as much as other aspects of world building are talked about. It’s good to cover some of the basics of creating a culture, and what can go wrong, and maybe some cool cultures that we have in popular stories.
Wes: Are you saying that we can’t just arbitrarily pick things for our culture and call it culture?
Chris: Well, we can call it culture. Nobody can stop you. [laughs]
Oren: Look, what’s important is that Game of Thrones is back. So we now have five more years of reminding people that Westeros isn’t a historical place.
Wes: [laughs] What?
Chris: Oh yeah. This was kind of a riot. But, also kind of sad because when we discuss the fact that people use historical accuracy as an excuse in other world fantasy for doing gross things. We’ve got a bunch of people who are like, “no, you don’t understand. It’s great because we have to have sexism and sexual assault in historical settings”. And usually we would just delete those comments. Then there’s the other half of people who are like, “what are you talking about? Ha ha ha historical accuracy. It’s fantasy. Nobody does that’. [laughs] Well, we deleted the inappropriate comments that were doing that, so it’s kind of hard to show you the fact that lots of people are doing that all the time.
Oren: Well, Game of Thrones in particular is notorious for the first defense that whenever anyone questions like, “did we really need that graphic, horrible torture rape sequence?” And someone will be like, “well, that’s what it was like back then”. And that’s the first defense. What do you mean back then? What are you talking about? Now there’s supposedly quotes from various people involved saying it’s not really historical fantasy, it’s historical fiction…with dragons. If that’s an accurate quote, I don’t even know what to do with that.
Chris: I mean, all medieval fantasy or other world fantasy could probably called it that, if we wanted to. You have dragons, spell casting, you know, some ice zombies.
Oren: Yeah. It’s all of those things. It’s fine. Whatever.
Wes: I just like the idea of—they keep adding things to the end of that list. It’s like with dragons and ice zombies and different continents… and magic.
Chris: Little Elf people. In this case though, we can clearly point the finger because George R. R. Martin has a quote where he was interviewed. He says that the reason that he included sexual assault in the originals was to make it feel historical. So, we know that this is the reason. We can’t pretend. Well, at least we have a way to keep people from pretending that that is not a justification that’s being used.
Oren: On a less gross note, I will give Song of Ice and Fire at least this much credit which is that if you’re gonna go with a standard feudal society for your fantasy setting at least do something with it. And Game of Thrones does do that. Game of Thrones is all about shifting feudal power structures, and for better or worse, that is actually something that it focuses on. So it feels like it’s actually using its setting for something as opposed to something like, The Way of Kings, which is not really doing that, at least not in the first book, but still has very standard feudalism. And at that point we could have gone with something a little more imaginative if we weren’t gonna try to go for the really immersive version.
Chris: Imaginative, or not imaginative, maybe fairer just to make sure we’re not glorifying monarchy. If you’re not gonna use it anyway, the story doesn’t need it.
Wes: Regime change, I think is a really good thing to explore for your fictional culture, because talk about ultimate conflict. About this is the way we live and somebody’s saying, well, I hate that we should change it up. And then you get all kinds of conflicting values. And I think it just offers the rich opportunity to put maybe more for your culture out there in the world. What type of ruler do you have? How long have they been around? How well off are the general people? Why are they rebelling? You know, all of these kinds of things I think are pretty solid ways to flesh out a culture.
Chris: Let’s loop back on some mistakes. We talked about the first one a little bit, which is the idea that culture is arbitrary. The culture could be anything or do anything. Cultures do sometimes do weird things, but there’s always a reason, even if it looks very weird. Even memes have a cultural purpose, which is to make people feel like part of an in-group, because they’re all references that you have to understand. Their exclusivity is a big part of their social appeal.
Oren: If you don’t have a compelling reason to do otherwise. My advice here is always to look to your environment and the rest of your world as a source of why the culture is the way it is just because that is so easy to understand. And that’s not the only reason culture happens. Culture’s complicated. It’s often difficult to track down the exact origin of why a certain thing is the way it is. You can get into some weird arguments about—this makes sense. It’s like, no, it doesn’t for this reason or that reason. And you can just head that off at the past.
If you use tangible environmental reasons to produce your culture, The Broken Earth is my go to example. I love the world building of The Broken Earth, except the oppressed mages, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. I love how the setting is super focused on small communities because it has constant apocalypses and the first thing that breaks down in an apocalypse is central authority. I love how there’s a huge focus on everyone having a well-rounded set of skills. Because again, when an apocalypse happens, specialties break down. You can no longer be assured of having the right number of specialists so everyone has to be able to do a little bit of everything. That’s just super cool.
And it’s so easy to explain, as opposed to like Way of Kings where it’s, “why are women’s left hands considered erotic?” Well, ‘cause 500 years ago, some lady wrote a book and then cultural trends happen. That’s much harder to explain and it’s not anywhere in the book for me to see, you have to go find an interview with Sanderson to find that, compared to the tangible reality of the Broken Earth. It feels like nothing.
Chris: If you wanna know why would my culture be a certain way you can first start with just survival tips. So for instance, if you have a body of water, that’s really stagnant and people often get dysentery, like you’re in the Oregon trail by drinking it. You could have a religion that includes the idea that stagnant water is unclean or unholy, and you should not drink it for that reason, but it has an actual survival purpose behind it.
You can orient beauty standards to reflect whatever ailments people are struggling with so the people who don’t have whatever sickness, those are the people who are gorgeous. You can start with survival, that’s one thing that you can do. People’s daily habits and experiences often are important or become symbolic after a while. A really interesting thing I think is honestly the Grim Reaper—imagine death having a scythe, which is just a farming implement, it’s used for harvesting, but now it has this other deeper cultural meaning.
Oren: It’s mostly so we could collect corn subsidies. [laughs]
Chris: We’ve got important historical events that can become stories or sayings. I think people sometimes put a little bit too much talk on historical events where they’re like, “oh, but you see in history, this one bad thing happened. And so now emotion is outlawed”. No, that’s—those things are not in proportion.
Oren: It’s like how we still live in cities. Despite the fact that at multiple points in history, we have had plague outbreaks that have been very bad in cities. The Black Death, for example, was really bad in cities, but we still live in cities. Various attempts to destroy our cities did not stop that from happening,
Chris: But we still have neat little things like “Mary Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” Which is again, based on a historical event and other cultural knowledge and sayings. Then of course, there’s etiquette, which also matters. There’s some etiquette that’s really elaborate that might just be for fostering or showing off. But there’s also standards for courtesy that just help people know what to expect of each other; tell people what they are supposed to do in social situations and help people get along—that have kind of a practical function.
That’s just something to keep in mind is that those cultural rules often come from self-interest and experience; survival, that kind of thing. But the important thing, and this goes back to what Oren was saying, it protects people’s interests but not equally because another really important thing is that culture is largely shaped by the most powerful people. Not equally by everyone which goes back to our oppressed mages.
Oren: In general, if there is some kind of cultural rule that inconvenience is powerful people, there’s a good chance it’s gonna go away. The idea that computer programming was for women was a thing for quite some time, but then computer programming got way more profitable and you could demand higher wages and then suddenly guys wanted it.
And now programming is seen as mainly a male dominated thing, and we have to make special drives to create opportunities for women to get into programming. That’s just one single example, but you can see that in a lot of places when something shifts and powerful people want to do a thing that culturally they’re not supposed to, that cultural taboo tends to go away.
Chris: It’s hard to imagine now, but back in Renaissance Europe, people—not only do they believe in the divine right of Kings—but they believed that every person was intended by God to be of a specific class. In England, they had rules about what each group was allowed to wear as far as clothes. Everybody thought that that was what God wanted. And again, this is obviously to benefit the upper classes. Those are the people in power. That’s a lot of times why there’s a link between the monarchy and the church is because if you are so powerful that you have absolute power over a kingdom, you’re gonna make yourself a church to then cement your power and make you look legit.
Oren: And if the church won’t let you get divorced, then you find a new church. [laughter]
Wes: Adding churches at religion to flesh out your culture does just seem a little heavy handed to me. But I mean, it makes sense. It’s heavy handed in reality, too, I guess. You were saying this one thing happens so we don’t do that anymore. Well, the church said, so we don’t do that anymore. Feels similar, but do we just accept that because it’s from a powerful organization, it has staying power.
Oren: Well, if it’s in the church’s interest and the church is a powerful faction in your setting, then probably. The church doesn’t necessarily have to be that powerful. If you’re in a Western country, your model is the Catholic church. There are many other models of how religion can function, even organized religion and it is not always that dominant. I had a question from someone a while back about does my fantasy setting need a religion and my conclusion, after I thought about it for a while, was probably not.
Depending on the setting, you could probably get by without one or having a generic one that doesn’t play that big a role in the story. As long as you’re not trying to do the Wheel of Time thing—where there isn’t an organized religion because everyone just knows the creator is real, but there’s also the Children of Light who operate like the military arm of a church that doesn’t exist. Very weird.
Chris: There’s also more possible than you might think for multiple belief systems to coexist. For instance, Buddhism and Shinto got along very well in Japan, but they also tend to fill different niches. They’re not directly competing with each other. Whereas what happens when a big powerful religion splits and has two different denominations is they tend to fight a lot more than two different belief systems that just fill different places in a person’s life.
Oren: There’s different kinds of belief systems. Some of them are more totallist than others. Some are like, “yeah, whatever, all your gods, who cares”. And others are like, “no, only my specific set of gods” or only this one God, plus a bunch of archangels, which are basically also gods. But you know, we’re gonna be semantic about it.
Wes: A lot of cultural elements need strong factions or people sustaining them.
Oren: Can you think about whose interest is this in and why is it happening that.
Chris: And it’s also important that if it’s onerous or burdensome, that is in proportion with the interest and the power of the person with that interest. So if you have, let’s say a powerful church or a powerful monarch that is making everybody do something that’s really hard for them. It has to both really be in that monarch’s interest. And that monarch really has to have the power to enforce. So if you have them on a whim, do it an incredibly onerous requirement and their grip as a monarch is not doing too well. You have to think about how much power they wheeled. Is there a way that people would start trying to get around it to get what they want? That kind of thing.
Oren: Although that is a good place to start your revolution or regime change type story because it is not uncommon for leaders to let their reach exceed their grasp and try to push further than the people that they rule are willing to go.
Chris: That also leads me to another mistake that we commonly see, which is just believing that culture is more powerful than it is. Or, that societal taboos will really make people do things that are not in their interest. This happens a lot because writers try to use cultural problems and cultural rules to create plot books and plot devices. Like, “oh, in our culture, everybody has to either wear blue, red, or green and adhere to the blue, red or green faction and nobody can mix—ever” or “we don’t have guns because our culture doesn’t believe in using guns” would be a big one. But if there is a big economic incentive or a survival incentive, anything like that, it’s just more powerful than any kind of cultural taboo. And so culture is never gonna trump economics. If people can make money, that’s gonna be more important even if it’s a religious belief. Now you can have change.
For instance, going back to the idea that there’s some stagnant water that makes people sick and then there’s like a religious rule about that water being unclean, and you’re not supposed to drink it ‘cause it will, you know, taint your spirit or would have. Then somebody’s like, “hey, guess what? We could boil this water.” Then I can sell this water. People need water if there’s a drought, for instance. It will hold people back for a time, but people will start to drink the water because it’s really in their interest. Then more and more people will drink the boiled water that’s considered religiously unclean until pretty soon only conservatives, better traditionalists are against drinking it and it goes away. That can only happen for a limited time period. And then people’s self-interest is just gonna trump, whatever the cultural rule was.
Oren: A good example of this historically is charging interest on loans because there was a period where the Christian church in Europe was very against that and you were not supposed to charge interest on loans. That was not something you did. If you were a Christian that worked for a while, because there wasn’t really a large incentive to do so. Then as more money became available and there was more of an incentive to start charging interest on loans. Various Christians found ways around it. They found ways to disguise it, or they made Jews do it. That was a popular thing for a while. And then eventually that just went away and they were just like, yeah whatever. We just all charge interest on loans. Now, although it should be noted that that practice is still generally not common among Muslim majority cultures, they have their own ways of doing things, which I’m not an expert on. So I’m not gonna try to explain that.
Chris: Another thing that is good to keep in mind that relates to this is there are a lot of restrictions on women that only actually apply to upper class women. Because if you think about a culture where, and again, it’s gonna vary from culture to culture. There may be some cultures where even women of average class, mostly staying indoors, but there’s plenty of cultures where we have this idea of a woman never going outside without being escorted. But that’s upper class women because lower class women need to work to feed their families so they just cannot afford to have a woman locked indoor all day. She’s gotta work. Granted, families that adhered to that rule of keeping women inside that would’ve been a sign of higher class. So that would make them look classier and make them look better. But again, how much that rule was followed would stick to what people can afford to do and what they can’t.
Oren: You can tell that Sanderson was trying to do that with his weird-ass erotic, left hand thing, because there’s some stuff in there about how like it’s mostly the upper class women who keep their hand hidden in a special sleeve because the lower class women, they have to work in the fields and it’s like, okay, well, what do the upper class women do? And it’s like, “oh, well they all have jobs as painters and scribes and engineers”. Hang on. Hang on. What? And they don’t need a left hand for that.
Wes: Apparently not.
Oren: What kinda weird-ass painting have you been doing?
Chris: The Way of Kings is of course gets the whole power dynamic wrong where men are more powerful, but only women are allowed to write, which is not something that’s in men’s interest. So it’s not something that would have ever happened.
Oren: I explained this in my article, where when you look at separations of labor, you have the tasks that are considered unmasculine like cooking and childcare that’s because it is advantageous for a man. If a woman is doing those things for him, whereas reading is something you have to be there for regardless, having a woman read to you is much more onerous than just reading something yourself. It doesn’t save you any time and so there’s no way you’re gonna get that kind of tradition in a patriarchal society,
Chris: Especially since we might believe that a king has a scribe to do writing and reading for him so whatever that might make it easier for him. But that also applies to the merchant classes and the crafts people classes, and all the other mid-upper classes where men are still more powerful and there’s no way they would just be like, “no, we can’t write because women do that”. They’d be like, “no, I want that for myself. Women that’s too manly for you to do”.
Oren: Yep. That is exactly what would happen.
Wes: So we should talk about food.
Chris: Yeah! Food.
Wes: Food’s a big part of culture.
Oren: It’s also delicious.
Wes: Yeah. We like food.
Oren: You can ask questions like what kind of food is available in your area? What kind of food is traded for? What kind of foods can you even trade for? Some food doesn’t travel well.
Chris: Also what food is easy to farm in that climate because, for instance, the potato was not originally in Ireland, it was traded for from the Americas. It was like having bread ready to bake instead of wheat that you had to make into flour and then make into bread.
Oren: And I should just to be clear that it wasn’t just in Ireland that was a huge thing across Europe—the potato. It enabled a lot of stuff. And then of course the British were like “Ireland you’re only growing potatoes ‘cause you’re here to economically benefit us and not yourselves”. So that worked out not.
Chris: It became a really big problem too because even though potatoes are easy to eat, the crops can be very sensitive. We had potato famine, which was a huge tragedy.
Oren: You can also think about spices, of course, various seasonings. That matters a lot to what kind of culture you have. If those are rare, then they will only be brought out for special occasions, which is often the case, depending on where you live.
Chris: Oh, is that why White people can’t tolerate spicy food is because we didn’t have spices in Europe.
Oren: I mean, it’s not like White people are genetically intolerant of spices, but yes, our food is less spicy than other parts of the world because there are fewer spices that grow in Europe than other places.
Chris: It all makes sense. It all connects together.
Wes: It is fascinating though. A culture’s food is just so connected to a place. I think that is the chief complaint of globalism. The speed of communication is you start eating what’s expedient.
Chris: But it is also surprising how many foods were not originally in a place and became associated with it. Again, potatoes, tomatoes—come from the Americas.
Wes: When I learned that tomatoes came to Italy, I was like, wait, what? They didn’t have them. They didn’t have them for that long.
Chris: We associated so strongly with Italy, but they didn’t have tomatoes, peanuts. Again, a lot of those new world foods that are now something that we are used to seeing in cuisine around the world. It was not originally there.
Wes: I think if you’re going to have a culture that is vegetarian and/or vegan, having scarce food animals seems contrived, but that’s probably getting back to a religious element. Then what else would get people to not eat meat?
Chris: I think if plant food was really plentiful and it was just unnecessary because it actually takes a lot more effort for fewer calories often to get meat depending on the location.
Wes: And depending on the technology of your culture because food production is just off the charts these days, to what extent they’ve industrialized their meat production, greatly affects how plentiful that is.
Chris: But there’s also some places for instance, in the Pacific Northwest, where it was actually a very plentiful place to live. We think of hunter-gatherers, always living, barely getting by but that’s not necessarily the case. I think you could definitely construct a scenario where the culture has all they need easily from plant materials, and it just doesn’t usually make sense for them to go to the great effort that comes with hunting animals at that point.
Oren: Plus, if you have lots of weird fantasy creatures, maybe humans can’t eat those. I was always kind of surprised in Way of Kings that humans can just eat all the big land crabs. I was like, are those—are those safe for human consumption? I dunno, maybe they’re just like ocean crabs, but they seemed a little more monstrously.
Chris: The last thing I wanna just mention is, I just wanna see more stories that make an effort to show a different culture than the one we have. Because that’s the most disappointing for me when we do, for instance a far future space setting or an other world fantasy setting, and it’s just like it is on earth without many changes, without rethinking things. And again, I think it’s easy to think about what creatures are in your world and whether there’s magic and technology, what the landforms are and just to make culture very default and that’s always a little disappointing. A great example I wanna share, from a story, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, there’s an alien named Rocky and he has some cultural details that are really nice that come from his unique biology. For one, he hates sleeping alone because his species, when they sleep they’re not like humans where they can easily be disturbed and wake up. It’s like they’re dead so they have a culture that includes watching each other while they sleep for protection. And even though he’s safe in the story, he doesn’t need somebody to watch him, he always wants somebody to watch him while he sleeps. He also thinks eating is a gross thing that is taboo to watch because they use the same orifice for eating and waste. So watching somebody eat for him is like watching somebody go to the bathroom. And even though Andy Weir uses he/him, he also does specify that they do not have gender.
Oren: Yeah. Someone needs to teach the astronaut in that story about gender neutral pronouns.
Chris: So again, that’s an example of how you can take some of that—those differences if you have aliens especially and just make a different culture based on biology.
Oren: All right. Well, I think with that we are going to call this podcast to a close as is our cultural tradition.
Chris: It’s not in our interest. It’s just culture. We gotta do it ‘cause those dogmatic cultural rules. In any case, Mythcreants now has a discord server. Those of you who would like to chat with us, you can join us if you become a patron, just go to patreon.com/Mythcreants.
Oren: Then I want to thank a few of our existing patrons. First, we have Callie Macleod, then Kathy Ferguson—professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next there’s Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
This has been the Mythcreants podcast, opening-closing theme, The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?