Race and culture have a vital role in shaping society and human identity, so in turn they deserve careful shaping when world-building for a fantasy WIP. In today’s Playing God post, I explore the definitions and significance of race and culture, some important considerations, and give a sneak peak at these concepts in my own fantasy world! →
👍 Introduction | 💡 Creation | 🌟 Cosmology | ☯ Religion | 🔮 Magic | 🌍 Geography | 🌦 Climate & Weather | ⏳ History | 🎭 Race & Culture | 💬 Language | 🎵 Music, Art & Writing | 🏠 Infrastructure | 🤴 Government | 📜 Laws | 💰 Economy
Hello, and welcome back to my Playing God series of posts, where I explore all things world-building for the fantasy genre. It feels like AGES since I last wrote about this topic—and it has indeed been a good seven months—and today I would like to discuss the intricacies of developing the concepts of race and culture within your WIP’s world. But first, here are some definitions to keep in mind!
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (see here), the term “race” can be defined as the following, among other things:
- a family, tribe, people or nation belonging to the same stock
- a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
- a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits
I’m not going to consider one definition of “race” to be more valid than other. When I conduct world-building for a fantasy WIP, I think of it as a term that describes distinct groupings of people (be they human or non-human) based on shared physical, social or other cultural qualities.
Once again, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (see here), the term “culture” can be defined as the following, among other things:
- the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
- the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
- the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterises an institution or organisation
- the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic
I see culture as a very broad term, and one that is sometimes difficult to define. However, when world-building for a fantasy project, I think of it as something that encompasses the behaviour, norms, knowledge, beliefs, arts, customs, and habits of a particular group of people.
What is the significance of race and culture, and why is it important to consider them when developing your fantasy world? Both play a vital role in shaping society and human identity in our own world, so it makes sense that the same would hold for the worlds we create. Here are a few things to think about:
Unless there is a specific plot-related or historical reason otherwise, chances are that not everyone in your world belongs to the same race or has the same culture. Keep in mind: cultural differences can develop even in very small geographic areas, and groups of people who live in different climates or environments are likely to adapt over time by developing different physical traits.
👩🏽🤝🧑🏼 Diversity & richness
It would be boring if everyone was the same, right? When race and culture are conceptualised well, they lend such richness not only to your world, but to the story itself. Readers appreciate diversity because it keeps them interested and engaged, and given your audience WILL be multicultural, it enables more readers to see themselves reflected in your work. If your world’s society is relatively uniform, then it is important to make sure its culture is well-developed!
Race and culture are also closely tied to history. If there are significant historical events that have occurred in your world, consider what impact these are likely to have had on the culture of each given society. Depending on how deep you want to take your world-building, it is also worth thinking about how the concept of “race” came to be, and when / how each group of people became distinct from each other. This all feeds back into realism.
Close to 100% of the time, something about your world’s culture(s) will tie into the plot. Whether this is some kind of conflict, a practice or belief your characters adhere to that lead to an important decision, or something else entirely, it is a reality that can’t be ignored. Your MC’s race (or perhaps species, if your world involves non-humans) will also influence their identity, so should be considered to ensure they are properly fleshed-out.
There are many directions in which you can take this aspect of world-building, and many decisions that need to be made. Everyone will go about doing this differently, and will explore race and culture to varying degrees. Here are some of the key considerations that I think are important:
Readers will always wonder what your characters look like. Your characters are likely to take note of what other characters look like on more than one occasion. It’s therefore likely you’ll need to consider the appearance of people in your world, and to what extent race and appearance are linked. But BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT THE LANGUAGE YOU USE to describe the appearance of different racial groups. Certain language is hurtful to real people in our world—and could therefore be hurtful to your readers. When in doubt, use a sensitivity reader to help you.
🤝🏼 Norms and traditions
At the very heart of culture lies a set of defining norms and traditions. What defines the different cultures within your WIP’s world? There are a number of things to consider here, from accepted standards of behaviour, belief systems that may be religious or secular, to a traditions that can be as simple or complex as you like. Does “marriage” exist in your world, for example? Are there specific holidays or celebrations? What are the values that the people think are important? The options are endless!
🎨 Language, art, music & writing
There are a number of other cultural elements that I find are often undeveloped in the fantasy genre. Things that aren’t necessarily vital to the story, but can take the world-building to the next level. These include concepts such as language, and the “cultural universals” that are found in all societies (e.g. art, music and literature). Don’t underestimate the significance of the role these play in your characters’ lives. I will explore them in more detail in future posts, but they’re definitely something to consider!
One of the biggest decisions you will have to make when shaping race and culture is the degree to which racial and cultural differences generate tension and conflict. Maybe there are inter-species conflicts you need to account for as well. Consider where the conflict comes from, why it has developed, and the impacts this has on both the characters and the plot. Also BE VERY AWARE OF ANY PARALLELS TO OUR WORLD, because these need to be approached with sensitivity to ensure you are not harming or alienating certain groups among your readers.
As I have mentioned on a few occasions above, if you are ever concerned about the way you’ve represented race and culture in your WIP, seek out feedback from a sensitivity reader. Actually, even if you aren’t concerned it’s still a good idea to have someone from a different background to you run their eyes over your work. You never know what things they might pick up that you weren’t aware of, and, ultimately, it’s the responsible thing to do!
I found that developing the concepts of race and culture within my WIP fantasy series Graceborn was simultaneously one of the most exciting and most terrifying aspects of world-building! I’m always on the lookout for ways to include more diversity in my work, but I’m also always worried about doing it in an appropriate and sensitive manner. Some of the key concepts to note are:
Species: Aside from humans (and other animals), there are four non-human species known as the Ancient Races. Two are humanoid, but have their own unique physical characteristics, and their cultural norms and values often differ vastly as well. The other two Ancients are all but gone from the world.
Races: There are around 6-8 different racial groups amongst the humans, depending on how you classify them. The way each group developed is almost entirely connected to their geographic distribution, which resulted from migration after the species first evolved. And the supernatural may have been involved once or twice…
Traditions: Each different culture has a variety of their own traditions, especially when it comes to music and dance, but there are just as many unifying traditions as well. There is only one religion, which has two subsets (the First Faith and the New Faith), and each nation follows a set of high-level laws set out in the Treaty of Volund.
Conflict: Racial and cultural conflict is not a significant part of my world. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, and certain nations’ governance structures lead to discrimination more than others. But because of the Graceborn, who work to keep the peace, racial or cultural suppression haven’t really been a thing in ~1300 years!
Sensitivity: The first book in the Graceborn series is currently with beta readers, and I’m fortunate enough to have an honest and diverse group. They’ve already helped immensely in pointing out a few things for me to take another look at on this topic, and I’m very grateful for that!