Playing God: Shaping race and culture in your fantasy WIP

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! โ†’


SERIES CONTENTS

๐Ÿ‘ Introduction | ๐Ÿ’ก Creation | ๐ŸŒŸ Cosmology | โ˜ฏ Religion๐Ÿ”ฎ Magic๐ŸŒ Geography๐ŸŒฆ Climate & Weatherโณ History๐ŸŽญ Race & Culture | ๐Ÿ’ฌ Language | ๐ŸŽต Music, Art & Writing | ๐Ÿ  Infrastructure | ๐Ÿคด Government | ๐Ÿ“œ Laws | ๐Ÿ’ฐ 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 topicโ€”and it has indeed been a good seven monthsโ€”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!

๐Ÿ‘ฅ Race

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.

๐ŸŽญ Culture

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:

๐ŸŒณ Realism

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.

๐Ÿ‘ฉ๐Ÿฝโ€๐Ÿคโ€๐Ÿง‘๐Ÿผ 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!

โณ History

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.

๐Ÿ“š Plot

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:

๐Ÿ˜€ Appearance

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 worldโ€”and could therefore be hurtful to your readers. When in doubt, use a sensitivity reader to help you.

๐Ÿค๐Ÿผ 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!

๐ŸŽจ 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!

โš” Conflict

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.

โš  Sensitivity

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!


Have you developed diverse race and culture for your WIP? How did you go about shaping these concepts? What do you think is important to consider?

  One thought on “Playing God: Shaping race and culture in your fantasy WIP

  1. 24/04/2020 at 3:27 PM

    This is a well written discussion for fantasy genre. You make some great points in areas for me to consider on my edits ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • 24/04/2020 at 3:31 PM

      Thanks Joe! I’m glad you’ve found it useful. I’ve found race and culture to be world-building aspects that are critical, and that need to be handled with a particular amount of thought and care! Good luck with your WIP ๐Ÿ˜Š

      Like

      • 24/04/2020 at 3:32 PM

        This certainly opened my eyes a bit more than I already had. Certainly will consider a few things, thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

  2. 24/04/2020 at 9:26 PM

    Excellent points, especially about making the world feel real when worldbuilding.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 24/04/2020 at 10:20 PM

    I love these post you make, as they show how complex can writing be – all of the paragraphs could be their own standalone topic for deeper discussion. And I enjoyed seeing some of those things through your book.

    As for my experience, I admit I haven’t thouched many of those things. While I have some background for the main species (humans, elves, dwarves, and trolls) having a common ancestor, I haven’t found a good place to reveal this in the first book. But I’ll be on the lookout for appropriate moments when working on the rest of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 25/04/2020 at 6:42 AM

      Thanks Tomas! It’s certainly an interesting topic. And you make a good point too: sometimes our different groups of “people” belong to different species as well, but many of the same principles still hold!

      Like

  4. 28/04/2020 at 5:47 AM

    Have you developed diverse race and culture for your WIP?

    My answer is no but that doesn’t mean I won’t. So far I have stuck with things I know. I was born and raised in Northern Washington and I now live in Western Oregon. Pretty much one color. One culture. But I don’t think about any of that when I write. My readers can place my characters anywhere they want. Color, culture. It doesn’t matter.

    At the same time I need to push myself. I need to put myself in a different place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 28/04/2020 at 7:54 AM

      I know that feeling! It can be daunting exploring different cultures, and especially in the fantasy genre which is dominated by European-based medieval-type settings. It’s hard to stray from what you know, and you don’t want to risk upsetting people with accidentally hurtful representation.

      But like with anything to do with writing, if it’s hard or if it worries you, it’s probably a good idea to give it a shot, right? Trying out new things is how you grow!! ๐Ÿ˜Š

      Like

  5. 28/04/2020 at 9:26 AM

    It’s a shame people are so “sensitive” nowadays, as it makes the world-building process harder. My WIP actually makes heavy use of racism for conflict. I’m not sure where to find a sensitivity reader though. Great post.

    Like

    • 28/04/2020 at 9:37 AM

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I don’t think people are more “sensitive” as much as we’re becoming more aware and less accepting of the casual racism and/or problematic representation in certain stories. Which can only be a good thing!

      As for stories that involve racism as a source of conflict, I’d imagine that’s fine so long as the story itself isn’t condoning racismโ€”but I’m not the one to ask about that.

      If it helps, I found my beta/sensitivity readers through the online writing community (Twitter, Instagram and here on my blog). There are a lot of people out there who are willing to help so long as you’re not afraid to reach out. Best of luck with your WIP!! ๐Ÿ˜Š

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ari
    30/04/2020 at 5:27 AM

    Excellent, deep and thought-provoking article – great addition to your Playing God series.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. 01/05/2020 at 12:07 AM

    Fantastic post. Youโ€™re so knowledgeable in these matters itโ€™s one of the many reasons why I love working with you as a CP. ๐Ÿ’œ๐Ÿ’œ๐Ÿ’œ

    Liked by 1 person

    • 01/05/2020 at 8:12 AM

      Aww thanks! I pretty much spent the whole of 2018 doing research and world-building for Graceborn, so I’m glad it comes across that I know SOMETHING!! ๐Ÿ˜‚ And I very much enjoy working with you too!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. 01/05/2020 at 12:11 AM

    Reblogged this on Lorraine Ambers and commented:
    Defining race and culture in your fantasy or Sci-fi novel neednโ€™t be daunting. Rebeccaโ€™s world building posts contain everything you need to know on the matter…

    Like

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