World Building – Culture & Society

In order to build the world of a novel, authors must consider the culture and society of their story. According to one definition, a culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. 19th century British anthropologist Edward Tylor defines culture with respect to society:

Culture…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

In the fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is an ultra-parochial regime where women are essentially powerless and yet gather together to celebrate the birthing process or to witness the sexual union of a handmaid with their husbands or to stone a handmaid who is convicted of wrong doing. In that culture, women are obsessed with childbirth, piety and submissiveness. In that society, a handmaid is not known by her name but by the name of her commander. If she fails to reproduce after three attempts, she is banished to the colonies, a radioactive wasteland of endless toil.

Source: https://luciennediver.net/2013/08/14/worldbuilding-workshop-part-i/

The first question to consider is who has power? What is the form of government? Who is privileged? How do gender, religion, race and other factors influence power? Who is struggling against that power structure? Who benefits from maintaining the status quo?

How does government work? Is it a monarchy? A dictatorship? A democracy? What rights do people have? Do those rights vary by some accident of birth or by gender or by wealth? What laws do you need to explain in order for readers to appreciate the difference between that time and today?

Religion is another important factor in society. What role does religion play? What ethics does religion preach? What conflicts sit at the heart of the religion of the day? How do people worship?

Arts and entertainment are also relevant. What types of art influence society? How do people of the time entertain themselves? Are artists–painters, musicians, sculptors, writers–valued or not? How do the arts affect everyday life in different socio-economic spheres? What about sports? Are sports revered? Are leading sports figures influential?

After you’ve considered power, government, religion, arts & entertainment, explore the relations between the dominant society & culture of your story and that of neighbouring societies. Are they at war? Do they trade? Are they suspicious of one another? And remember that there are cultures within cultures – the women’s culture of a harem for example or the culture of the military within broader society.

Look at other elements in the interlocking circles above. They too will add to the richness of the fictional world of history.

According to Lucienne Divers Drivel – the blog of the writer who built the diagram: “Conflict often comes when an individual or group is at odds with or fighting against what are considered the norms of a society or when cultures clash against each other over ideology (religion), control of resources (ecology) or whatever.” That notion offers a seque into another of the seven elements of historical fiction – but more on that later.

The society and culture of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is totally different from that of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Robert Harris’s Pompeii. That’s one of the things readers love about historical fiction.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

5 thoughts on “World Building – Culture & Society”

  1. One of your best posts, Mary. As both a primer for aspiring new historical novelists and an excellent refresher for we older ones. Skilled building is essential to the verisimilitude that lulls are readers into that elusive “fictive dream.”

  2. Thanks for this, Mary. One of the reasons that it’s so important for writers of historical fiction to depict the culture correctly is that so many readers learn about other cultures through fiction. I’m always dismayed when I read a historical novel that has the characters expressing modern attitudes. Part of the challenge of writing historical fiction is to balance the truth of the past with acceptability to modern readers. We don’t want readers putting down the books because they are revolted by what people believed in the past, but we also have to educate truthfully while we tell a good story.

  3. Good post, Mary!

    With my current series, I have the added challenge of showing characters who are not of our species (i.e., Neanderthals). But there’s still Culture!

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