World-building 106: The Gifts Of The Gods

Posted on Monday, October 27th, 2014 at 15:25

If you have been following my world-building series and have built along you have created a new world, populated it with a balanced population of creatures and are ready to think about the people that live there. This big, meandering (and slightly under illustrated – sorry about that) post is about those people, their cultures and how they fit together into a whole.

The Mighty Memeplex

Cultures are those parts of a society that haven’t been established by genetics, it’s all the stuff that we think of as being human. Technology is an expression of culture, so is art, social structures like politics and democracy are part of our culture (like it or not), but so are some less than obvious components of the world we live in. The language we speak is an expression of our culture, but it is also helping to form our culture. Cultures are more than a collection of things that we do, they are huge complex interactions of memes that we have been exposed to.

Period table of Internet memes

Okay, not these sort of Memes exactly, but—wait where’s the Picard one?

When scientists talk about evolution and adaption they talk about mutation and genes, when they talk about emergent societal trends and technologies they talk about Memes. A meme is simply an idea, that you pick up and pass on to other people, not necessarily an image with some text on it that you found on the Interwebs. That bit of gossip you heard this morning, that was a meme, but so is every word you are reading now, and the whole article turns into a complex meme, a memeplex.

Some scientists (usually ones with negative points to make about religion for some reason) will tell you that unlike genes memes do not have to be true to replicate (genes don’t have to be either, but never mind). This is in fact true, many memes exist regardless of the fact that they aren’t true, but those same scientists have failed to realise something that societies always understand: Truth and Usefulness are not at all related. There is no literal truth to the existence of memes, they exist solely as a useful model for information evolution and spread. Memes that are useful to a society (or an individual) are preserved and passed on, those not useful, will die off (or those who hold those beliefs will anyway).

Memeplexes grow with time, and each of us is walking around with a single huge memeplex that represents everything we know, but science is about noticing and recording patterns, and anthropologists have long noticed that people who live in close proximity tend to have similar ideas about how the world works, and what they should be doing in it, they share most of the same Memes from each others Memeplexes. When talking about Memeplexes you will often see that they are broken down into smaller components, that are also Memplexes, so you see Technology Memeplexes like Internet Use, separated from religious Memeplexes like Christianity. This is because these Memeplexes can be said to replicate independently (not every Christian uses the Internet), but in the individual they are essentially combined into one, not that the individual cannot spread separate Memes or Memeplexes as they talk with others.

For us world-builders this concept of Memeplexes can be very useful. We can break down societies into a collection of Memeplexes that we can examine and map (you can literally map where and when Memes migrate and spread).

Modeling Societies

Human societies are complex and obtuse things, actually scrap that, human beings are complex and obtuse things, putting lots of them together is worse — which probably goes some way towards explaining why the Social Sciences can appear a little hit and miss. A society is nothing more than a group of individuals, they will generally share some values (memes) that act to unify the group. These go beyond simply coming from the same area, and there will be certainly be at least one group “shared” meme that any given individual will disagree with (but this one rejected meme will vary from person to person).

The social sciences tend to take a statistical approach towards representing groups, where anything that is true for 80% of a population is considered true for the general population. In our world building we use this statistical approach to always remember that there will always be 20% (or there abouts) who do not confirm to a given aspect of our created societies, and any individual will only agree with about 80% of the societal memes. Any meme that we state exists in our society will have its non-believers who may be struggling to change that aspect of their society. Of course, these rules only apply to human beings in their natural mental states, Aliens may not have the same psychology as us at all, and speculative presumptions such as Psionics, Magic or Genetic (and Memetic) engineering could create extreme conformity or diversity within a society.

Societies are made up then from the components that are available, and we can examine these to breakdown and model our historical societies or create new ones. Each of these topics is deserving of a post (if not a series) in their own right.

  • Language:
    Language crafters and the languages they made

    Notice none of these are the actual writers… Tolkein is pretty unique.

    The language that we speak controls the concepts that we are exposed to, this in turn restricts and influences the thoughts that we think. Although there is some debate as to how much control linguistics can exert over our thoughts, it is true that our perception of colour is tied to our words, we don’t see much difference between light blue and dark blue, calling both blue, but red and pink are rarely confused. Russians who have two separate words for those blues can distinguish between them more easily. Since Tolkein, every fantasy author wants to write their own (usually Elvish) language; unfortunately, not holding advanced degrees in comparative linguistics, they usually fall short. In role-playing games (and a lot of fantasy, the player characters almost always speak Common, the lingua Franca of the game, which may have been the language of a long forgotten Empire, like Latin was in Europe, and incidentally, almost always sounds a lot like English.

  • Art: art is almost a language of its own, certainly artistic styles vary immensely in time and from area to area, as too do the subject matter of the art, the media used and the symbolism that surrounds the art. In our history, art seems to have largely stagnated; the art of ancient Egyptian tombs, and temples, changed little of the style of painting until the Renaissance, with the invention of perspective, foreshortening, chiaroscuro modelling, and sfumato techniques. However, the subjects of the art changed radically during that style stagnation, as did the symbolism that accompanied it. Although the Romans painted in a similar style to the Egyptians, and each painted their own gods and people (similar subjects), they record differences between the Egyptian culture and the Roman one.
  • Technology: We tend to see technology as a progression, from the old stone-age when we first cracked how to sharpen rocks and light fires to the modern world of well, you know, everything. It is easy to look back on history and note when technologies were invented and, for the most part, how they have been improved upon since. We can draw imaginary lines in history and say this Era is the Bronze Age, that is the Iron Age, but those lines are drawn at different times in different places. Britain came to Iron a lot later than the Middle-East, but the Americas seem to have skipped the Bronze Age all together, going straight from stone to iron. In fact technologies are just like any meme, they replicate and spread, successful technologies are preserved, and unsuccessful technologies are abandoned. Occasionally we can point to sections of history where whole swathes of technology were abandoned.
  • Politics: How a society orders itself (or is ordered in the case of vassal states) is always an interesting way to turn brothers against brothers, and ruin a dinner party. For Fantasy authors the usual model is the Feudal Society with a fortified elite who rule over a farming serf class, (or some similar arrangement that results in a ruling nobility). Democracy when it appears in Fantasy tends to be a Guild system, that traditionally offers concessions to a rich middle class, while subjugating the serfs (and apprentices) even more. Science-fiction can get much more speculative about methods of government, and it can be argued that Plato’s “Republic” is an early example of science-fiction. Politics also governs how one culture gets on with another, who are they able to trade with and who they are at war with.
  • Religion:
    Stock photo image of religious symbols

    Religions have a habit of generating symbols.

    If you think politics is a good way to start an argument that can’t be won, you have obviously never talked religion. Religions have got themselves a bad press recently, always being blamed for wars, bombings, and social repression of all kinds. In Fantasy the religions are usually presented as a Pantheon of gods, where the worship of each God is considered a separate religion, with its own priests and temples, often the priests/flamen/clerics of the ‘King of the Gods’ will have enhanced positions over other priests, and the followers of one god often are at war with another. In reality, such pantheons were rarely so stable, each city state of the Greeks had a patron god or goddess who had a main temple dedicated to them, with smaller shrines for the locally less important gods. The Roman Empire was noted for the religious tolerance that existed between citizens, at least until the Jews and Christians ruined everything with their insistence on monotheism (as anyone who isn’t a monotheist must be wrong by definition), and their lack of tolerance of the divine status of the Emperor. Religion is usually thought of as proscriptive, making things taboos, or defining curse words, but they also create holidays and festivals.

  • Cuisine: You are what you eat, as the cliche goes. When you read the words, French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Moroccan, Greek, German, or Japanese, one of the images that jumps to mind is almost certainly of food. The environment a culture evolves in defines the food they can eat, their encounters with other cultures let foods travel and evolve, Chinese noodles travel west, the recipe changes to reflect the available flour and pasta is born. Trade networks bring spices from one end of the world to another, flavouring food as they go. Regional recipes grow up, and so do national dishes.
  • Fashion: These days we see the world starting to dress alike, but that’s a result of globalisation, a few decades ago it wasn’t at all true. The animals and plants available to a region govern the clothing originally available to it, the dyes and fabrics, the tools that can work those materials too. Trade brings in new materials, and as individuals travel they are exposed to other styles and incorporate them into their own national dress. Successful cultures spread their style as people around them adopt aspects, which is how the business world all started wearing ties.
  • Architecture: How people build their homes depends on where they live, how often it rains, floods, earthquakes, what building materials are available, the artistic temperament of the workmen, craftsmen or architects, as well as the density of the population, and the physical constraints of the land. What other buildings are required by a culture varies through time, but you’ll often need barns, warehouses, factories, shops, offices, theatres, sporting arenas, and temples.
  • Trade: A culture’s attitude to trade is an interesting aspect, these days globalisation has brought us to a point where we are all buying things from faraway, but that hasn’t always been the way. Empires exist to promote trade, moving goods from the ends of the Empire to the Capitol, but sometimes Empires refuse to trade with their neighbours. Trade governs what materials that aren’t locally available people still have. It also effects the wealth of a culture and how easily that wealth moves around the culture.
  • History: Some cultures are defined by their history; others, having no history, define themselves by their destiny instead. If your culture is old then it is going to have a rich and varied history, filled with ancient trade-links and alliances, old enmities, holdovers from old religions, older cultures that have since been subsumed into newer ones and failed sub-cultures have been reabsorbed back.
  • Law: Laws govern the people in the culture, and often how one culture interacts with another. Laws arise from trade, politics, religion, and so on and may be enforced by separate parts of society (religious laws may be enforced by priests, common law by the guard, civil law by police, etc). Legal systems may there to protect the status quo, or an aspect of the culture, they may be holdovers from a historical event, some laws are proscriptive, telling citizens what not to do (don’t murder, steal, lie, wear white after Labor Day, etc), and some tell citizens what they must do (such as paying taxes). Some laws become so ingrained in a culture that they become taboos, places the people don’t even think about going, or potential foods that people are repulsed by, Brythonic people worshipped horses as gods, this made horseflesh taboo, centuries later and most of the English do not eat horse still (at least not knowingly and get quite irate when they are sold it as beef). Most westerners are repulsed by the thought of eating insects. Yet neither is actually enshrined in civil law in England.
  • Warfare:

    You can tell a lot about a society from how well the nobles dress for battle

    Does the culture value warriors, perhaps they are part of the ruling elite? Or are the guards nothing more than civil servants. What is the technology of warfare, how advanced are the techniques of battle. Does the culture encourage a martial art or style, such as Kung-fu, boxing, wrestling, or fencing?

  • Sexuality and Gender: For human beings we have two identified genders and at least four different sexualities, alien species may add further complications to these issues. Humans seem to have developed Patriarchal societies around the same time as we started living in cities (and possibly when men realised because of animal husbandry, that women did not reproduce pathogenically), but human cultures have shown great flexibility in this area, ranging from the Greek and Romans with their unique attitudes to the Victorian attitudes.

Hopefully you’ve already noticed that these aspects of a culture are interconnected. Each aspect has a knock on effect to other aspects, and they are entwined; wrapping back around each other through time. So you can see that designing a culture is a complex question that gets more complicated as you add in the neighbours and they start to interact, and then their neighbours. It’s no wonder that in Science-Fiction writers tend to smear cultures across whole planets and star-systems, just to keep things simple. If we ever find an another planet with sentient life, there’s a good chance their cultures will be just as diverse and chaotic as our own, only with the added complication that we won’t have similar brains, or sensory systems, to observe their culture properly.

So Culture building is complicated, very complicated, how then do we do it well? Well, a lot of authors, not having advanced degrees in history, economics, linguistics, and anthropological social studies, well honestly, tend to cheat.

Cultural Appropriation

Okay, those two words can be a bit of a red flag next to each other like that, but we are not talking about how an individual in our globalised society might latch onto something from another culture that they like, and celebrate it by duplicating themselves, like the way white people are accused of wearing dreadlocks, and stealing them from African culture (in fact Celts wore the same hairstyle and called them just locks or elf-locks, and considered it very bad luck to unpick what the elves had knotted in their hair). No, that’s not what we talking about, but done badly is just as bad.

What you can do, is decide to model your culture after one from the real world (if you’re feeling adventurous you might combine two or three together). In fantasy it’s easy to look back across history and pick a culture that lived in a similar environment and use them as the basis for your new culture.

In this way the Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar are a blend of Polynesian and Native American cultures, with Stone-Age technology, and an added neurological ability to communicate with animals. Their religion is a fairly standard Earth-mother type (that just happens to have a scientific basis, and not be Earth).


All the Freman have all blue eyes, including Morgan Freman.

The Freman in the Dune series borrow aspects from Earth’s desert cultures, most obviously the Arabian culture, and some aspects of Australian and Namibian cultures, (although on Arrakis everything is turned up to 11, and the Freman have a more extreme relationship with water, and spices, than even those cultures, and the Dune universe is built on the idea of syncretic religions anyway from the Zensunni wanderers to the Bene Gesserit).

This sort of Cultural Appropriation can work, and certainly can act as a guide to world-building, as similar problems require similar solutions. Changes to the Fundamentals of the world should be reflected in the people and their cultures too. The extreme aridity of Arrakis, the Spice, the presence of the Bene Gesserit, and the history of the Third Islamic movement all acts modifies the Fremen culture away from a carbon copy of Saudi Arabian culture (for example, although the trade aspects of Spice versus Oil, and the themes of colonial rule, are obviously similar to the point of satire).

If you don’t want to (or it’s not actually appropriate to) use a ready made human culture, then there is another option.

Tolkien’s Timeline

When Tolkein started to create Middle-earth he started out with a broad knowledge of Welsh, Finnish, Anglo-Saxon, Greek and Latin (amongst others), both the languages and the folk-tales, myths, and legends of those people, and decided that the English speaking world needed a similar mythology. He started by imagining the world and then began populating it, exactly how a myth cycle might.


The Interwebs get plagued by Elf Memes from time to time

He created the Elves, as a first race, and created a language that those Elves spoke. Then he added in the other races, deciding what each of them spoke and how they interacted with the Elves. He thought about how their cultures, and languages, altered with these meetings, wars, interactions and changes. He thought about their culture heroes, what happened in their adventures, what titles or names they were given by other cultures. Then he wound time on a bit, added more history, another race arrived, more interactions, another round of wars, and then an evil, uniting these people, before shattering them apart. On and on he went, taking years. At some point his novels just, sort of, fell out of his world-building.

You can take the same route, build your world from its mythology, and give your races different languages, and try to blend them together to create interesting sounding place-names and people. Or you can take a historical view, think about the people as humans.

Our own prehistory is a thing of gaps and mysteries, but archaeology has started to put together our past. Although there are still big gaps in timeline, we can see trends that occurred and can model our fictional people in the same way.

The Ladder Of Civilisation

Cultures slowly move down the ladder as time goes on, although occasionally they may take a step back up for one reason or another.

  • Territorial Hunter-Gatherer: How we began, probably. We lived in family groups, which weren’t yet tribes, but were troops.
  • Nomadic Hunter-Gatherer: For reasons we don’t fully understand most of humanity begin moving. It could be a desire for new territory, or an environmental pressure, but we changed to a nomadic existence. This phase has repeatedly spread humanity across the globe. We began to follow the coasts, probably learning to swim, fish, and building the first boats. Tribes are established that extend familial life.
  • Settled/Semi-nomadic Hunter-Gatherer: Some areas we found were rich with life, with plentiful food. Those areas are claimed by certain tribes. Tribal leaders may assume legendary status because of their deeds, and later be called kings (although there is no difference in status at this time) or even gods. May involve some living in caves. Some job specialisation begins with the creation of Shaman/Witch-doctor/Wise-man/Priest or similar role to act as a counter to the Tribal Leader.
  • Farmers: We learned to cultivate plants and store seeds and food against the future. Bountiful food leads to job specialisation, the Tribe becomes a city-state (although they are towns by modern standards) as the craftsmen begin to appear, alongside the farmers, who specialise in tool making, weaving, hunting, etc. First true nobility arise, those who claim direct descendants of previous leaders are considered leaders of the next generation.
  • Civilisation: True cities begin to appear, surrounded by smaller allied villages and semi-nomadic tribes, true trade begins (along with first taxation), writing develops as method of record keeping. Job specialisation continues, as new trades and new technologies are invented. Some cities experiment with alternative methods of leadership than kings.
  • Nation: The moment two cities are trading, or one conquers the other, a nation is born. Villages grow up between them along the new roads that are built. Older villages swell to towns and cities expand swallowing the former outlying villages into their walls. Nations expand by sharing cultures with neighbours, forming alliances, or as a result of conquest. Job specialization causes formation of guilds, churches, schools, or similar institutions to maintain the knowledge of a craft.
  • Empire/Commonwealth: A Nation that establishes colonies, whether for trade purposes or as an act of aggression, that are far beyond its borders, has reached the status of Empire. Empires grow, encompassing new territories and assuming aspects of their cultures as they do so. When nations ally themselves politically based on societial ties, or similarities (including a common enemy) they form a Union or Commonwealth. These super-powers often advance all aspects of their culture due to economic, religious, military, or technological dominance.
  • Former Power: Eventually super-powers are superseded, perhaps wars take their toll, a social revolution destroys the ruling class, an empire may be divided by heirs, or shattered by lack of suitable heir, or perhaps they just fall apart because of idealistic differences. Some times an Empire will fall apart leaving a scattering of new Nations and one Former Power, and occasionally that Former Power will finally vanish. Former Powers usually have advanced aspects to their culture, but rarely have the full set.

At any point after Civilization you can bring in the concepts of bureaucracy, dissatisfaction, stagnation, debt, and all manner of dystopian concepts. Bureaucracy begins simply to enable the Civilization to flourish, paperwork allows Nations to arise, but it can also slow development. When bureaucracy gets out of control, it widens the gap between leaders and people, creates dissatisfaction, stagnation and debt, history tells us that revolution is soon to follow. Some political systems display cycles of building, stagnation, collapse and revolution, over and over again. It is perhaps central to parliamentary politics in Britain, constantly altering the political landscape, but still remaining parliament. Allowing this cycle to take place without a complete societal collapse.

You can move your cultures up and down as they hamper each other, or as environmental catastrophes wreak havoc to low-lying coastal cities, or high plains, but these events should be recorded in the history of those people, not just in their history books, but in their legends and stories, in their place-names and their idioms.

Synthetic Worlds

The very best worlds use all these techniques together, they draw on real history, mythology and the imagination of the author to combine the whole thing into a coherent whole. George RR Martin seems to use this technique. He creates a unique world (in the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire the world has erratic summers and winters, perhaps due to a variable sun, or unstable orbit) takes cues from European history (Hadrian’s wall, the war of the roses, Hundred Years’ War, and so on), creates a new mythology that modifies it, then runs it through time to create a unique history, full of believable characters (who have names that are similar enough to real names, like Eddard for Edward, to not cause Fantasy name dyslexia — the syndrome where ridiculous unpronounceable names make characters indistinguishable, or where characters have to have unique first letters, so the reader doesn’t get confused). Of course then he starts bumping them off, even before the book gets started…


Not many authors kill the characters in order of popularity

Using this model, the people that live far from where the players or protagonists are based can be carbon-copies of real peoples (at least originally — fantasy series have a tendency to grow and spread, causing the author to rework those parts they skimped on in later volumes) they speak the same languages, have the same sort of namese use the same weapons, build to the same architecture as in our history (GoT’s Wildings are close to the Scotti and Picts that also lived North of another wall, his horsemen are similar to the Hun and Mongol hoardes); but those races that live closer to the action are created by thinking about their history and their mythology. It is important to remember that history and mythology do not always match up, but hints at the truth should always lurk in the shadows.

By using all of these techniques you can create entirely original worlds that feel familiar, or at least believable. The cultures, and people, their traditions and everything begin to spill out of what you know of the world. All of which makes your characters’ idioms, taboos, and hang-ups, more detailed and unique, which makes them more interesting people, and let’s you tell more interesting stories.

Well, that post got big and very complicated quickly, hope it’s not too much to digest. Next time I’ll talk about some rules for Imaginary Historians, how the history should be structured, and how all this world-building we’ve been doing should be used in your writing or game scenario.

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