Recently I sat down with the very wonderful Joanna Penn on her podcast, The Creative Penn. Her podcast has more than 500 episodes on just about everything you can think of when it comes to writing and she’s also a very well published author. Definitely check out her podcast and her books.
On September 10th 2021, I was fortunate enough to be selected to do a Ted Talk. You can watch it at the video below.
I am so incredibly happy to announce that as of this morning, our new book, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers and Filmmakers is now available for purchase on Amazon. Next week the first paperback copies will also come available.
This book is a product of a solid year of work with my amazing co-author Kyra Wellstrom. While my specialty is cultural anthropology, hers is biological anthropology giving the book a well rounded approach from both directions of the field. In many ways this book is an introduction to anthropology that you might take in a college course, but with a twist, it contains tips and ideas for building fictional world and lots of references to other pieces of fiction. We created this book to be a tool kit for creatives so that they can seriously consider real world cultural systems as they construct the world of their imagination.
In many ways this book was inspired by my several posts on Worldbuilding. This book is a much more expansive treatise on elements of real world and cultures. I hope those of you out there looking for a deep dive into cultures to improve your own work find this volume useful. Best of luck on all your projects!
On May 3rd 2021 Kyra and I did a Livestream reading of this chapter followed by a 35 minute Q&A on Worldbuilding. You can find that here.
In February of 2021 I wrapped up a book project with a fellow Anthropologist by the name of Kyra Wellstrom. The book is called, Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. You can find it at that link. The purpose of the book is to use real anthropology to help people create better worlds and more authentic characters based on the actual science and data on culture. What follows here is one of the final chapters of the book (which is now in Beta Testing) and will be out this fall.
Monsters, Aliens, and Evil Androids an Exploration of Fear and Anxiety
What is a monster?
It has been stated by numerous philosophers and ethnographers that monsters are simply the embodiment of cultural fears; our anxieties made flesh and blood. We see these reflections and patterns across cultures and over again and for good reason. The monsters a culture believes in often shed light on the things they fear most, and monsters that emigrate to new cultures often change their form in their new surroundings. Monsters represent a fascinating blend of the familiar and the foreign; easily recognized but alien enough to terrify. Many monsters possess elements of humanity and exemplify the very worst elements of culture as a form of hyperbole. Their faces are what changes most easily. It is the bones, the marrow of the spirit of what a monster is, and the fears that they embody, that reflect the heart of what it means to be human.
Like our anxieties about death, monsters often follow patterns that reflect our collective fears as a species. Just like we see in every horror movie, monsters attack in lonely places, in the dark, and in our sleep. They reflect the anxieties we have about our natural environment and they come from the water or caves or the night sky. Demons and spirits come for us when we are weakened by illness, childbirth, or impending death. They target the isolated, the frail, and the young. They can often appear human to gain our trust, only to reveal their true forms when it’s too late to escape them. They can lure or entrap us through promises of food, or comfort, or money; playing upon our moral weakness and greed.
Think of how often a monster’s teeth are discussed. Monsters often feed off humans, either in a spiritual or a literal sense. Vampires suck blood, zombies eat brains, dragons and sea monsters devour virgins. Even in modern monster movies, monsters nearly always eat defenseless humans. Giant animals like sharks or snakes, aliens that feed us to their young, or giant kaiju that eat us like popcorn. They are discussed with terms like “fangs”, “razor-sharp teeth”, “drooling”, “sucking”, and “crunching”. Hell, even killer clowns from outer space cocoon us for later consumption.
When you consider our species, these fears appear logical. Imagine early humans, alone on the African plains, surrounded by frightening animals that lurked around every corner. These monsters were very much real, but this did nothing to lessen their terrors. We were small, between three and four feet tall, we had terrible night vision and no claws or fangs to help defend us. We were prey to birds and leopards that could drop from above. Snakes grabbed us from holes in the ground and lashed out with sharp poisonous fangs. Lions and hyenas slunk through the darkness just beyond the edge of vision, shadows out of the corner of our eyes, and crocodiles and hippos lurked in rivers and lakes making people disappear beneath the surface. Our only protection from the creatures that wanted to consume us lay in the light of day and our campfires, in our culture and its defenses, and in each other. The darkness, the water, and isolation became a natural reservoir for our terror.
Most of the world now lives apart from these real monsters. The megafauna that hunted us like any other prey are gone and the remaining large predators are dwindling in number and range. The vast majority of humanity has nothing to fear from large beasts. However, our fears remain. A tremendous number of monsters are described as being “prehistoric” or pre large scale human civilization.. We find these descriptions from as far back as we have writing. Many monsters that haunt religions are described as being from the time before their deities created peace and order in the world or before the world was civilized. Writers of weird fiction and cosmic horror like H.P. Lovecraft write of “antediluvian terrors” and “prehistoric nightmares”. It’s as though we as a species have some lingering genetic terror of the time when we were small and vulnerable. Coupled with our gifts as a species to spin tales and exaggerate for the purpose of entertainment, many of these creatures became larger than life when they filled our nightmares.
Many monsters also reflect the fears we still face in the modern world, despite our cultural advances in the last 3 million years. We can still all too easily be carried off by disease or poison, by other people, or, worst of all, by unknown causes. These very real and very human fears are interpreted through a cultural lens. Numerous cultures speak of spirits that will steal a woman’s life away during childbirth if attracted by her cries. This is particularly common in foraging cultures where the margins for survival are slim and medical care is an at-home affair. Cultures with a focus on purity (Catholicism and Malaysia are good examples of this) have demons that possess the body and cause their vessel to break the laws of the society, causing bouts of violence, sin, and general bad behavior. Industrialized nations tend to have human monsters, serial killers, zombies, or criminals, that reflect the unease we feel when surrounded by strangers, as well as anxiety about dark crowded spaces.
To die, to sleep…
Sleep is one of the reservoirs of fear for humans. Sleep makes us vulnerable as we lay unawares in darkness for hours on end. Sleep also exposes us to the world of dreams, which are as likely to be horrifying as they are to be pleasant. Many cultures have tales of beings that can drain the life from a person while they sleep, often while the person is awake but trapped in a horrifying state of sleep paralysis. People’s sleep paralysis nightmares almost always follow patterns; in the US, sleep paralysis monsters have passed through different phases. In the 1990s, when the cultural zeitgeist had become fascinated with aliens, sufferers often reported little gray men with giant eyes performing tests on them. In the early 2000s, when there was a spate of demon-child films, people began to report nightmarish children crawling on to their beds as they slept. Suffers from southeast Asia tell stories of a horrible old hag with white skin who sits on their chest and slowly chokes the life out of the sleeping person while they lie awake and unable to move or cry out.
This monster, the dab tsog in the Hmong language, became widely known in the 1970s and 80s when there was a rash of deaths attributed to it in the United States and Thailand. More than 100 Hmong refugees in the U.S., almost exclusively men in their 30s, died in their sleep from unknown causes. Some men reported nightmares about the dab tsog at the time. Men became terrified of sleep and would try desperately to stay awake. The story so intrigued director Wes Craven that he went on to write A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. Instead of the white-skinned hag, however, Craven changed the face of the monster to that of a disfigured homeless man who had chased him as a child and changed him from an evil spirit to the ghost of a murderer.
Stories of night hags may be so common in southeast Asia because of a very real genetic condition. Brugada syndrome causes electrical abnormalities in the heart that can lead to Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). This syndrome is found most commonly in Southeast Asia, particularly Laos and Thailand, and predominantly affects men, with most deaths occurring between 30 and 40 years of age. A monster that kills men in their sleep is a much more palatable explanation, especially before the era of electrocardiograms, and no explanation at all. A night hag may be terrifying, but not nearly so terrifying as the unknown.
Sometimes monsters are used to explain myriad, nebulous fears; things we could hardly put into words. The wendigo is a perfect example of this. Territorially, the wendigo is one of the most widespread monsters in the world; it’s spoken of in the mythology of a collective of First Nations groups all across subarctic Canada, stretching from the Rockies to the Atlantic coast and down into the northern United States. While there are slight variations in the story between the various groups, the stories all agree on the main features of the monster. The wendigo is a fascinating monster because it is a curious mix of a physical creature, a possessing spirit, and a culture bound syndrome (see chapter 10). The physical body of the wendigo is towering and lanky, with enormous clawed hind feet and paw-like hands. Its breath starts off howling, icy winds that blow with such force that they can blow down trees and even start tornados. Its heart, and sometimes its other organs too, are made of solid ice. Its most distinctive feature is its insatiable desire for human flesh; so strong that it eats off its own lips in its hunger, baring its pointed teeth.
Wendigos were once human. Once the wendigo gets hold of you it changes you into a monster like itself. This is where the wendigo begins to shift its mythological form. I can get hold of you in a number of ways: through dreams, visions, possession, physical force, or even through your own thoughts. If it catches you physically, it does so while you’re out hunting. Those who venture off into the forests in winter and never return are thought to have been taken by the creature. It captures you and transforms you into a monster like itself. If it catches you though your thoughts or dreams, it has worked its way into your head through your hunger and cold. When a person dreams of a wendigo, they begin to have cannibalistic desires towards their own family. Most cultures believe that a person in the early stages of wendigo madness can be stopped and cured, although often the cures are horrifying enough, but if the person actually consumes any part of another human being, they are done for. There’s no hope for a person who has gone wendigo and the only course of action is to kill them for the safety of the group. There are numerous recorded cases of wendigo killings in tribal and legal records throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. The diagnosis of “wendigo madness” is found in psychological papers throughout this time as well as a way to explain a temporary psychosis with a focus on cannibalism.
Look at the main features of the wendigo story: a monster of cold that lives in the wild spaces and feeds off hunger. It drives people to cannibalize their family and turns them into cold-hearted monsters. It will ultimately separate you forever from the people and civilization you love and strip you of your humanity, leaving you to wander alone in the freezing wilderness. These fears are easy enough to imagine in subarctic Canada, where temperatures that go well below freezing and isolation caused by snow and weather can lead to starvation and madness over the long winters. It’s the same set of vague fears that drive Stephen King’s The Shining or John W. Campbell Jr.s Who Goes There?. The wendigo is a single, corporeal manifestation of these fears. It groups them all into one grotesque form and gives them shape.
Fears of domination, experimentation, and colonization
In the pantheon of monsters, aliens are relatively new. In some ways, they are just a new face on the same stories people have been telling for millennia. Space, after all, is just a combination of those things we fear. It’s cold, dark, isolated, far older than our little planet, and almost completely unexplored. Aliens are often just monsters from this final frontier rather than our own backyard. Many aliens fit the mold of grotesque, slobbering, man-eaters, or shape-shifting deceivers. Even stories of alien abductions, lost time, and mysterious lights are nearly identical to stories that people have been telling for centuries about fairies, will-o-the-wisps, and the little people of the hills, all of which can lead you away and trap you in another world.
But aliens can embody fears that other monsters cannot. These fears, like all others, are reflections of the time and culture in which people live. Aliens as colonizers, as invaders, and as dispassionate scientists are all reflections of the fears that stalk people in the industrial age. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1895-97) was written after the author and his brother discussed the terrible disaster the Tasmanians suffered after their invasion by the British. Wells was musing about what would happen if someone did to the British what they had done to the Tasmanians. In fact, there were many “invasion” stories written at that time, although Wells was the only one to use aliens as his aggressors. Britons were worried that their military might was waning and the increasing armament of Germany and France stoked anxieties that the British would face the same treatment they had given their colonies.
Throughout the Cold War, science fiction featured alien invaders, either working secretly or in open displays of aggression, trying to take over the Western World. Endless troupes of aliens landing on the White House lawn fill the fiction of the 1950s and 60s. Change “aliens” to “Russians” and you have a nearly exact mirror of what Americans feared happening at the time. Many aliens are often a gestalt consciousness, a shared mind, or can manifest as a kind of extreme conformity and the end of the individual as seen in the famous Star Trek villains, The Borg. We can also look at the protagonists in these films and see the kinds of qualities they embody and how they reflect the morals and values of our society like a modern myth or morality play.
Many science fiction stories from that time also reveal an uneasiness about the level of violence and aggression the world was experiencing. In the 1950s the 20th century was only half over and had already seen two world wars, half a dozen genocides, and the invention of weapons that could unleash destruction on a level we had never dreamt of. Many films in the 1940s and 50’s, perhaps most recognizably exemplified by The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), feature aliens as advanced beings, capable of great destruction but also of nearly miraculous feats of science and medicine, who come to Earth to warn us away from a path of violence. Klaatu, the alien emissary, warns all of Earth’s leaders that “Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” People around the world, after decades of violence, nationalism, and xenophobia, were afraid. They feared that the ever-mounting aggression would eventually lead to a conflict that no nation could win.
“I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen…”
The famous words of HAL 9000, the evil artificial intelligence that coldly murders it’s crew in the sci-fi book and film 2001, demonstrate another one of our fears made manifest, our fear of the dangers of technology.
On August 6th, 1945 the world entered a new age, an atomic age. After the first atomic bomb was used on a population in Hiroshima, our relationship with technology changed forever, and with it, came the rise of a new kind of monster, one of our own making. To be sure, humans have always had anxieties about new technology, and with the industrial revolution came literature about automatons (what we now call robots) and other technological wonders that sometimes turned against their masters. One of the earliest examples of modern science fiction, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, explored the potential and dangers, as well as the deep philosophical questions surrounding electricity. Shelly set off a wave of stories, that even to this day still discuss the idea of our technological creations getting the best of us.
As Anthropologist Willie Lempert explains in his article, Navajo’s on Mars  humans have developed countless films, like The Matrix, 2001, and Terminator, to highlight our fear of technology. Even the new Star Trek Series: Picard features a plotline surrounding evil ‘synths’ and questions about the humanity of artificial intelligence and it’s compatibility with organic life. Part of this has to do with our religious worldview, the idea that in most of western European based culture, there is only one kind of intelligence, humans. As we talked about in the religion chapter, other cultures have multiple kinds of intelligence. Further, our fear of AI may stem from the idea that only the Judeo/Christian God has the true power of creation. Ultimately though, fear of AI stems from the fear of what we do, to what we consider to be inferior species.
As we entered the 1980s and 90s, aliens changed slightly. No longer were they brazen colonists landing on our shores, they were shadowy and subversive, often entwined with the murkier branches of government. Aliens and the government branches that studied them would abduct people and experiment on them. They would implant people with tracking devices, create alien/human hybrids, and mutilate cattle in their ruthless quest for data. They were cold, unfeeling scientists that existed outside of human empathy or compassion. The declassification of wartime documents about Nazi scientists, exposure of government experiments like MK-Ultra, and a number of dubious psychological research projects like the Stanford Prison Experiment were increasingly making people uneasy about science and scientists. The perpetrators of the experiments seemed, to regular people, just like the inhuman aliens from another planet. Add this to a growing dissatisfaction with the government nearly everywhere in the world and the X-Files style alien/government conspiracy became not just a popular element in fiction, but also an integral part of the mythology of the time period.
When you are creating memorable monsters or antagonists in your world, it’s important to consider the core values of your fictional culture. Remember the chapter on Imagined Past, Myth and Cultural Purity? The core lessons of that chapter are essential to creating a creature that challenges the core values of your characters, and readers, world view.
Things to consider when creating monstrous beings in your world:
– What are the most significant fears and anxieties of the culture?
- What are some memorable features of your creature? What keeps people up at night?
- How does your creature tie into the myth structure of your world? Sense of purity?
- Is your monster/creature sentient? How are it’s goals similar or different to your main character?
- What arenas of your culture does the monster most impact?
- What’s at stake if your protagonist fails to subdue the creature?
 Monsters David Gilmore – University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc. – 2009
 What The War Of the Worlds Means Now Philip Ball – https://www.newstatesman.com/2018/07/war-of-the-worlds-2018-bbc-hg-wells
 Navajo’s On Mars William Lempert https://medium.com/space-anthropology/navajos-on-mars-4c336175d945
Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!
Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.
But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.
Note: You may want to check out Worldbuilding parts 1-3 over here
1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledge a culture uses to interpret reality.
Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.
Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.
When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.
2. Myths structure our idea of purity
Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.
Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.
Myths may or may not include the following
- What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
- What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
- Marriage patterns
- Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
- Important dates
- Important people
- How we mark or think about time
- What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
- How many genders are there? Which one is in charge or are they equal? Are there more than two genders (recall part 2’s conversation about the Native American Two-Spirited system with up to five genders)
- How was the world created?
- Will it be destroyed? When? How?
- What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
- How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
- Is there free will?
- How many lives do we have?
- What words are sacred/dangerous?
- Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
- What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?
You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.
3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power
Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)
Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.
4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality
Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.
In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…
5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity
Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.
And one final thing…
6. Myths are not monolithic
If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.
If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.
Oh and Also, if you like sci-fi check out my books!
This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last six years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.
I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.
1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.
2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.
3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.
4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.
5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.
6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.
7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.
8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.
9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.
10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.
11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.
12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.
13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.
14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).
15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.
16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.
17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.
I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.
Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!
Worldbuilding is a big thing, I mean, you are building a world right? There is a lot to a world, and in this second entry on Anthropology and Worldbuilding, we are going to look at 10 core elements of a world. If you take an introductory anthropology course, one of the things you’ll encounter is a survey of what makes up a culture. Now, this won’t be a complete list of things to consider, but it will go over some of the major interconnected parts of culture you may want to think about as you craft your world.
Those categories are as follows: Language, Environment, Political Systems, Economics, Gender, Class, Race, Religion, Kinship, and Change
There are other important elements too to consider, like education, media/art, health, sanitation, fashion, etc. but in this entry, we are going to focus on the ones above (It’s gonna be long enough as it is).
In reality, you could spend years crafting a world, as Tolkien did, mapping out every little piece down to what kind of grass is present in the village your character grew up in. But unless that’s a key plot point, who cares?!?! Often times, when you are writing, knowing these things as the writer, is useful, but it may not really advance the story, so keep notes. Sketch things out when you need but don’t take the time to insert everything.
****A quick disclaimer **** here before I get into the categories. I have a saying in my college courses, you don’t have to like this stuff, but you do have to understand it. Some of the following may challenge your ideas about the world, or maybe you already know this stuff. Either way, this stuff is well studied and researched. There is data/evidence behind all of this. If you want more sources ask in the comment and I am happy to share. But I will not tolerate trolls. They belong under a bridge and out of site.
1. Language is Culture and Culture is Language
Warning, I am about to get crazy philosophical on you here, but that’s for a reason. There is no culture without language and no language without culture. If you want to go far down this rabbit hole check out this episode of radiolab called words
There is a lot of debate on just how much your language impacts your culture and the way you perceive things, but perception and language have at least some connection. I also did a YouTube episode on this and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
So how does this apply to your fiction? Well, Different languages are going to have different ways of experiencing the world. If you have multiple languages you need to think about how those languages are structured in terms of Race, Class, Gender, Emotion, Religion, etc. So each language is going to participate in the world a little differently. Is it a fishing culture? You are going to have a lot of words and phrases and idioms surrounding fishing. Is it a warrior culture with a unique form of martial arts? How does that ripple in the way they communicate? Language can act as a lens of experience. The focus of the culture is going to change based on their economic structure, their family organization and so on. So the language should reflect that.
What if it’s our world, but in the future? Try tweaking a few words or phrases that might have changed as the result of new technology or experiences. You could also come up with a specific saying that many characters use for your specific universe. Think of the term muggles for example, in Harry Potter or Long Days and Pleasant Nights in the Dark Tower series. A few words and phrases can give your world a little more color.
2. Environmental Interaction and Knowledge
There is this complete bullshit notion out there that indigenous people are just dumb passive individuals who never manage their land. The reality is quite different. Every human being in history has managed and altered their environment. In fact, we know that agriculture wouldn’t have been possible without centuries of human-directed alteration to the plants and animals in their region. Buffalo herds didn’t magically grow to their massive size on the North American continent. The indigenous tribes of the great plains spent generations doing things like controlled burns and both direct and indirect land management to increase the size of the herds. If you want to get academic on this topic check out this article on something anthropologists sometimes call Traditional Ecological Knowledge
So, how does this apply to your story? Well, different cultures in your worlds will have different kinds of environmental knowledge and solutions to problems that come with that environment. If for example they live underground, and there are a luminescent species of mole with fur lit up like a Christmas tree, perhaps your characters will integrate that into their clothing so they don’t always have to carry a light around. Or perhaps, they like the Kayapo tribe of the Amazon, set up informal stations (Anthropologist Daryl Posey called these mobile grocery stores) where certain kinds of fruits, berries, and nuts grow along a several thousand mile trail so they don’t have to worry about food on long journies. If you have a jungle culture, what things in the jungle do they take advantage of? Avoid? How is their particular kind of knowledge relevant to your character? Is that character from one of these locations? Are they passing through? Consider all this as you craft a world.
3. Economic Systems
No, not all economic systems are about money and not all of it has to do with capitalism, communism, or socialism. Those are only modern western economic systems. If you want to build a strange world that operates in ways we can’t imagine, you might want to ditch your economics textbook and consider the following section.
Also, money is not inevitable and barter doesn’t lead to money. That is completely inaccurate. Check out this Crash Course episode on debt and the origins of money.
At its core, economics is about survival. If you don’t have food, you starve and die. If you starve and die there is no worldbuilding, no culture.
Economics in Anthropology terms has three main components: Production, Distribution, and Consumption. These are three major areas that anthropologists investigate in exploring another culture.
1. Production: The means of taking raw material and transforming it for human use. This can be as simple as hunting and killing an animal and then cook the meat or as complex as the production of the device you are reading this on now.
Production comes in different flavors:
Foraging: This is use what you find. You go out into the woods/desert/tundra/wherever and hunt or gather the resources you need. This allows (and sometimes requires) nomadic societies. Populations must be low or resources will run out quickly
Horticulture: This is small-scale informal planting. People start to settle down a bit in these societies or at least begin to control specific regions. Think of gardens in your backyard
Pastoralism: This is animal husbandry. You raise animals and use their products. This could be things like milk or meat. Pastoralists are either nomadic or travel across large pieces of land to make sure their animals are fed.
Agriculture: This is large-scale farming. It includes tools and technology that allow for mass production of food. The key to agriculture is that it provides the surplus required for the establishment of cities. You cannot have cities without agriculture.
Market Economies/Industrialization: (Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism are basically different philosophies in this category) Agriculture is still a part of this but this is also where you get mass production of other goods and services. Often you have things like markets or trade outposts set up to exchange of goods
These different kinds of systems may overlap. Pastoralists sometimes forage and Agriculturalists sometimes raise animals. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories. People use whatever strategy they can to adapt and survive in their environments.
2. Distribution: The handing out of the results of the production cycle. This is as simple as passing out meat around a campfire or as complex as distributing smartphones all around the world for purchase.
Distribution comes in a few flavors as well
Reciprocity: This is like buying your friend coffee at Starbucks. You know that later (hopefully) that will reciprocate and buy you coffee. This sets up systems of obligations and informal debt. In a foraging society, I may kill a deer this week and then share it with you, with the expectation that if I don’t kill one next week but you do, you will share with me. Friendship and social bonds are formed through reciprocity as well as ensuring social and physical survival.
Redistribution: Put stuff in the community pot and everyone gets someone back. Potlucks are a form of redistribution. Everyone brings a dish to share and everyone gets a variety of tasty food. Taxes are also an example of redistribution. You pay taxes to maintain roads, bridges, government, police, courts, fire crews and so on. In a Native American example in some tribes of the Pacific Northwest, they had something called a Potlatch, where wealth was marked by who could give the most away.
Market Exchange: This is things like grocery stores and the stock market. Once a society has sufficient surpluss an exchange of goods is set up.
3. Consumption: This is the consumption of the product. Again, this could be as simple as eating food or as complex as purchasing a gadget and then using it. Purchasing is a point of consumption but consumption doesn’t end until the object is gone or considered waste and disposed of.
In the study of consumption anthropologists often consider a few important things:
- Who Acquires what goods and services?
- Who creates the items for consumption
- How and why are products presented (marketing)
- How are goods consumed in ritual contexts (like holidays or special events)
- Are different products used by different groups in society and what are the limitations to this consumption?
- Who is allowed to consume together and who is not (think segregation but also how does wealth divide people?)
- How is consumption a reflection of wider social relationships?
How does this apply to your story? Well, different economic systems are going to have different impacts on your world. If you are talking about an entire planet different groups are going to behave in different economic ways. For example, indigenous people are technically part of many countries, yet some of them, in particularly remote regions for example, still live as foragers while still occasionally participating in market economies. Often you will find that some indigenous people adopt some pieces of technology/economy and disregard what they don’t think is useful.
If your world has elves that specialize in the production of a specific kind of bow, what kind of implications does that economic practice have on the rest of the world? If you have a plant-based alien species that need only the sun and water to survive, how do the deal with traveling through the vacuum of space? Remember Economics is about survival.
Okay, now that you have your economic systems down, what about Class? How are people organized based on the economic principles? Are there groups of hunters? Warriors? Religious Specialists? Merchants? What kinds of social organization/specialization exists in your world and how rigid are those assignments?
In books like Brave New World, genetic engineering allowed for certain groups to be placed at birth into a rigid class system. So, one thing you want to consider with your worldbuilding is social mobility. Basically, can someone move out of the station they were born into?
In anthropology, we examine things like the Hindu Caste System, which, traditionally at least, kept people who were born in their station, in their station. The Caste System included (in order of the most powerful in their society) Priests, Warriors, Merchants, Servants and then below them were the Untouchables who were considered so poor and unclean that they didn’t have a caste. We consider how these systems allow people to move in their culture and their lives, how this impacts language, kinship, gender and so on.
Does one particular class require a lifetime of training? Can anyone enter the priesthood? Does access to technology or weapons matter? Are there gender restrictions on certain classes?
In my particular series, The Chronicles of the Great Migration, humans live in walking cities because climate change has ravaged the earth. In the city of Manhatsten, there are five major classes of people. On top you have the Uppers, who live in the tops of the skyscrapers and have unlimited access to life extension technology and wealth. Below them, you have the Mids, who live in the middle level of the sky scrappers (floors 10-40) and have some access to life extension and some education and wealth. Then you have the lowers who live on the ground level to the 10th floor of buildings. They are the majority of the population and have minimal access to life extension (but even they live to be around 200 years of age). Below them are two groups, the homeless, who live on the street and Runners. Runners are convincted criminals who are required to go on dangerous missions outside of the city to ensure that the walking cities have the resources they need to persist.
So how does this apply to your story? Well in mine, different characters come from different class backgrounds. Thus they will have different experiences, story arcs and dilemmas they must face. For example, one of my main characters is homeless and another is a Runner. Their backstory based on their class and their upbringing significantly impacts how they react to the things that happen to them during the course of the series.
Consider how the class of your character (including job skills) impact their interaction with the world.
5. Political Systems and Governance
All cultures have to keep track of stuff and manage people. Even a small hippy commune of twenty people still have to work together and govern in some way to survive.
All Political systems do the following at least minimally:
- Decision Making (Who makes the rules?)
- Norm/rule/law creation (Not all laws are written)
- Dispute Resolution
- Norm/rule/law enforcement
- Deviance punishment
- Social integration
- Defense of the community and society
- Aggression/offense against other communities and societies
Political systems come in four major flavors (Though a closer examination shows it’s a lot more complex than four simple categories). Those are Band, Tribe, Chiefdom, and State. Here is a quick summary on this at YouTube
One last important piece on political systems is the level of political integration. The Size of the society means you need a much larger government entity controlling the infrastructure.
Consider, for example, a small band with 40 people. In this example food is mostly shared, the economic system is foraging, they build mud huts that require low maintenance and for sanitation, they simply wander off in the woods. Now contrast that with a state and more specifically a city. It is a capitalistic based economy with several million people. Their infrastructure requires public transit, roads, bridges, power, a sewer system (after food sanitation is one of the most important components to prevent disease) grocery stores, and so on. Whereas those 40 people could mostly live by consensus, the city dwellers of several million require a large scale government to ensure that all those things are running on a daily basis.
So how does this apply to your world? Well, first off, what kind of social organization does your world use? Then, how does the political structure function in the categories above? How are people punished? How is the community defended (from both internal and external threats) and so on.
Social control is what a political entity does. It can be as simple as public shaming and gossip (gossip is a form of social control that seeks to enforce norms and values and regulate individual and group behavior) or as complex as the state apparatus in the famed dystopian novel 1984. Surveillance and social control also has a lot of academic theory behind it, check out this video on one of the more famous philosophies, Panopticism
6. Gender vs Sex
Oh boy, here it comes, I can feel some of you cringing already. Even the mere mention of gender makes some people retreat in terror these days. But, take a moment and hear me out, because, in your world, you might not even be dealing with humans. But, even if you are, it might be useful to consider all this stuff for the sake of your characters.
Sex: The physical traits/characteristics of reproduction you are born with.
Gender: The cultural interpretation of the physical apparatus
Need more on this? Watch this short YouTube Video
Here’s where it get’s complicated, even on a physical, biological level there are not simply two sexes. Intersex is a biological phenomenon that has at least 36 different forms (as of this writing). Meaning that biologically it is not simply male vs female. More on this at this video
Okay, well what about gender? Well, I often tell my students that gender is kind of cultural performance. Think about it this way, every day you wake up and if you are male in American society, you shave and groom (performance) you put on masculine clothes (performance) you walk out the door and carry your physical body in a way that displays your gender (performance) and you engage in gender appropriate activities and roles throughout the day (performance). Almost everything you do with your gender identity is a big game, a serious game, but a game none the less. This applies to any gender. Think of all the performing women or trans individuals must do throughout the day and how much money we all spend on these performances.
Further, this performance has changed over time. High heels, the color pink, and other elements we would now consider feminine were once signs of masculinity.
Then, it get’s really interesting when we look outside of European/Western based culture. Native Americans have had up to 5 genders for thousands of years. (Check out this link for more. )
We also have the Guevedoces out of the Dominican Republic, who have a genetic difference and appear to be girls until age 12, when suddenly they grow a penis. They are a concentration of intersex which also have their own gender identity (More here)
So why does this all matter for your characters and your world? Well for example in Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic sci-fi novel ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ The aliens can be either sex/gender but most of the time they are neither. More on that from a Tor article here Another example of this Anne Leckie’s new book Provenance where gender uses only one pronoun for all the characters. (An interview with Anne Leckie here).
Basically, exploring gender and sex in your world can have no bounds. You could have an alien species with 17 genders, each with different occupations and pronouns if you wanted to. It’s your world, you can imagine it how you want and if you want it to be gender binary only, that’s cool too. But just make sure your gender norms are connected to the rest of your world and consider that language and gender have a strong relationship. We don’t usually call a woman handsome and a man beautiful in our culture, consider how that ripples around the rest of society.
7. Race and Ethnicity
You still here? Oh good, time for another controversial topic, Race.
First of all, Race isn’t real. It is a social construct used to disenfranchize one group of people for the benefit of another. See this article White People Didn’t exist until 1681
We also need to make a quick distinction between Race and Ethnicity
Race: Difference marked based solely on physical appearance
Ethnicity: Sometimes marks difference based on physical appearance but also includes things like language, history, religion, social status and other elements. Basically, ethnicity is much more complex and you can also sometimes become a member of an ethnicity during your lifetime.
I have actually created several YouTube Videos on this topic already so I am going to defer you there for the anthropological knowledge behind all this stuff so I can jump right into how this relates to storytelling.
I recommend the following videos
So what about your world? Well, Race isn’t real, but it does have real consequences. People with different external appearances can often experience discrimination. What if, for example, like in the Dragon Age Video Game Series, elves encountered discrimination because they were considered an inferior race? Race and Ethnicity have real consequences and will impact your character’s experiences.
Also, if you write a world where there is no difference in ethnicity… well sorry, but that’s just lazy writing. The only way you could get away with this is if your world had just a small village of a few hundred people and that was it. But if you are talking large scale fantasy worlds, interstellar travel or even whole planets, if you don’t include ethnicity and consider the different points of views, it’s lazy and unrealistic. Difference is good, it is what makes the world so wonderful. We should celebrate our differences rather than shrink away from them. Different points of view means that we have different answers to different problems.
Also, if you want to avoid problems and a lot of grief, be wary of representing another culture inaccurately. Everyone has bias and blind spots in their knowledge. That doesn’t make you less than anyone else, we are all ignorant in some way. So, accept that, suck it up and when at all possible consult someone from the background you are writing about, or at the very least read fiction from their point of view. There are things like Afrofuturism (Black Panther being a key example) and Indigenous Science Fiction.
One important thing to consider in ethnicity and race in your worlds is that there will inevitably be power dynamics between groups. Which ethnicities have power? Which ones don’t? Why? How does that impact the characters?
8. Religion and Spiritual Traditions
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but no, not all religions are the same. This idea that all religions are the same is some weird concept that came out of the 60s. But it’s not true. That doesn’t mean that one religion is inherently better or worse than some other, but as a friend of mine once said to me, just because something has wheels doesn’t automatically make it a car. Some things that have wheels include roller skates, bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, skateboards, shopping carts and so on. But those things are definitely not cars and serve different functions. Religions, like things with wheels, have particular functions for particular cultures. Like I wrote before, difference is good. There is nothing wrong with different kinds of religion or the lack thereof.
For more on how Anthropologists try to understand religions check out this YouTube Video, I made on the topic. Which includes a description of important things that all religions do, that you might want to consider in your world building.
Things not all religions have:
- Belief/Faith (Yes not all religions require belief or Faith)
There are many more things that not all religions share and there are something like 6000 religions out in the world. Probably when you think of religion you think of world religions, but those are only a fraction of the possibilities.
Here’s the thing about world religions, they don’t exist before we have empire and agriculture. World religions also require writing to preserve and pass on their teachings. Ever play the game telephone as a kid? Imagine trying to spread your religion without a text to another culture with another language, how badly would that game of telephone go. Translation from one language to another is already tough enough and you always lose something in the translation (and not all world religions are truly universal and applicable to every language in culture) so if you don’t have a written text at all, you won’t really be able to spread very far and keep the teachings somewhat accurate.
So how does this stuff apply to your worldbuilding?
If you are writing about war and invasion, you may consider how the different religious ideologies of the groups clash. One thing empires do is bring their ideology with them, forcing it on the locals. Those ideologies include religion but aren’t limited to them. We certainly force capitalism and money on people just as readily as we do Christianity when we colonize.
Different cultures have different spiritual systems. The goal is not always the improvement or betterment of individuals. In fact, sometimes, spiritual practice is about things like spellcasting or affliction (spiritual attack). Further, consider how your alien species with seventeen genders from earlier might create myths about their origins.
Gender/Religion/Myth are heavily tied together as Anthropologist Walter Williams talks about in this famous article on the Berdache Tradition. If you read this, note how mythology restructures the way society is organized.
A quick note, before you get all Joseph Campbell on me about myth. Not all cultures have a hero’s journey or the same myths, Yes, some do, but not all. Not every story, is a story of transformation, in fact, some stories are so good because despite everything the character stays the same. Unique worldbuilding would have different values tied up in different mythology. Relying entirely on the heroes journey limits your ability to explore different kinds of worldbuilding.
How families organize varies across cultures and thus could vary across your fictional worlds. It seems to me that most fiction I have read is obsessed with monogamy and western styles of family organization. I myself am a serial monogamist so I understand the appeal, but that doesn’t mean that your fictional world has to follow that pattern.
But here I am going to shed a little light on a few kinds of kinship for you to consider in your worldbuilding.
First, blood relatives aren’t always what is designated as a family. Kinship really just means strong bonds and cooperative ties.
I am willing to bet that most of you have heard the following idiom somewhere.
“Blood is Thicker than Water”.
And probably you think, oh yes, it means family ties are stronger than friendship. If that is what you think, you would be wrong. The actual idiom is
“The Blood of the Covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.”
Basically, it means the exact opposite of what you have been told. It means that the covenants that we create in life are much stronger than the ones that we are given at birth. And that is, largely true if you look around at families in cultures across the world. People don’t necessarily define family as who came from who. In fact, in some culture the idiom ‘it takes a village’ is literally true. Just because a woman gives birth to a child, doesn’t mean she is the only mother. In small-scale cultures, it is often the case that everyone acts as that child’s parents and many of these individuals are considered relatives. Hell, in some cultures in societies certain plants, animals, or inanimate objects are considered relatives and very much a part of the family.
Some types of family organization:
Monogamy: Two people in a relationship. This often yields a small family but Monogamy can include just the children of the union or the larger extended family so you can have big families in Monogamy but not nearly as large as Polygyny.
Polygyny: One man with numerous wives. This could be two wives or ten. These wives are sometimes known as sister wives and the children are often, but not always raised in a collective fashion. This is really good way to increase your population quickly if that is of interest to your 17 gendered alien culture.
Polyandry: One woman many men. There aren’t many cases of this around anymore but in some places in the Himlayas, you find examples of this. Family organizations are that the men all pitch in and raise the few children. Polyandry sometimes acts as a form of birth control and population control and is used in instances where population explosions would be devastating.
Walking Marriage? You also have cases like in the Mosou in China where marriage isn’t considered more than a temporary thing. Women rule in this particular culture.
Marriage doesn’t exist in all cultures. One of the main purposes of marriage is to establish who has rights of inheritance and who owns what land. If you live in a small-scale communal society there may be no need for marriage. Marriage is a social institution like anything else, and is used for very specific purposes. Marriage is very useful in large-scale societies that require a clear lineage and has a strong concept of ownership.
Other things to consider in family in world building:
- Incest Taboo: Every Culture has one, how that is defined differs
- Rights of inheritance/
- Are families large or small, is there extended family
- How often do people have children? Or can they (maybe that’s a plot point)
- How many children can be born at once? Perhaps in an alien species, they have liters instead of one or two at a time.
- How does the family structure persist over time?
- How do families form alliances?
- How do the families provide for emotional and social needs (or maybe they don’t and that’s part of it)
- How does child rearing happen? Are parents hands-on in your world? Hands off? Is a child born and then left to their own devices or do they spend eighteen years learning the culture before becoming an adult?
- How is adulthood marked? Is there a ceremony or ritual? Or is a number of years?
- Speaking of which, do they care about years? Not all human cultures mark age or have birthdays
If you want anyone to actually give a damn about your world, then you need to show how it’s changing. In the real world all the above elements we discussed changed every single day. Some of those things change quickly, and other’s change slowly. A good story, one that sucks you in and keeps you reading until 4am when you have to be at work at 6, is about a world that is either undergoing massive change or is on the verge of it.
In a good story, something in the culture has been disrupted or is at threat of being disrupted. Of course, there are also stories where a character is discovering a new world, but, even in those stories change is coming, sometimes brought on by the characters themselves.
A few examples:
- In American Gods, The Old Gods are Disappearing to be replaced by new ones
- In Harry Potter, The Dark Lord is trying to come back
- In Lord of the Rings, Sauron is returning
- In Ready Player One, A corporation is trying to take over the OASIS
- In the Dark Tower, The world has moved on, and the universe is coming to an end
- In Game of Thornes, well, everything is constantly changing for all of the characters
- In my series, the Chronicles of the Great Migration, resources are running out and the cities won’t be able to migrate for much longer and a terrorist organization wants to destroy the cities (I doubled up on the change).
Change is compelling but I want you to think about this for a moment like an anthropologist. I mentioned in the last article on Worldbuilding that cultures are holistic and that when you change one thing it changes everything.
So think about that. What kind of impact does each change in these stories (or your favorites) have? How does the change ripple around your fictional universe?
Here is an example from anthropological literature. In an article titled ‘The Production of Possession Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia, Anthropologist Aiwa Ong looked at what happened when women found themselves working in a factory for the first time. These women faced long hours, stressful working condition, a radical change of their gender roles and everyday experiences. The result? Several of the factories had to be shut down as the result of spirit possession. These women appeared to be possessed by spirits and behaved in strange ways sometimes damaging equipment in the factory. The change in the cultural experience caused massive psycho-social stress. Whether they were actually possessed or not, isn’t the question, but an example of stress and change. In bringing in a local medicine man and changing some of the working conditions they were able to calm the women down but this is an example of how a massive change can disrupt everything. Another example is from an episode of RadioLab on an epidemic of laughter
Stress makes people do crazy things and can even make people physically ill. So if there is a massive change going on in your fictional world, you are going to have to account for how this will impact every one of the major areas of society we have talked about. On a character level, maybe it causes one of your characters to lose their mind or behave in a way they otherwise wouldn’t.
Change is your friend in worldbuilding, and maybe the most important one.
Alright, that’s enough. If you made it this far through the article good for you. If you didn’t well, maybe you will get to the end one day. I know this was kind of long, but that’s because examining culture and creating a world is a big undertaking. I hope that some of this was helpful to your writing process and as always, if you are interested, check out my series, the Chronicles of the Great Migration.
Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!
There are many blogs and books out there on world building. I thought maybe injecting a little anthropology in this process might help you with some of your writing process. After all, anthropology is about studying culture. But if you really want to know more about anthropology I have a page for that. I also sometimes answer questions on a variety of topics on Quora on anthropology and culture.
In particular, though, check out the episodes from Anthropology in 10 minutes or Less on ‘What the F*** is Anthropology’ and Understanding Culture. in order to get a picture of some of the basic elements of understanding cultures and how we study it.
Before I get into anything though, It is definitely possible to overthink things when you are writing. This is not stuff for your first draft, but rather it’s stuff for you to have stewing in the back of your brain while you are writing and for that second draft… or seventeenth draft… You might be useful to think a little about how worlds actually hang together.
Personally, I don’t plan anything. I am a pantser. Once in a while, a note occurs to me, but I can’t even be bothered to write stuff in order. Right now, in fact, I am writing parts of the 5th book of my series before book 4 is even done.
That being said, if you are one of those writers who wants to outline a world, this blog, and some future ones I have planned, might be helpful for you. Even if you don’t write science fiction or fantasy, it might be helpful to understand how cultures function for your writing process.
1. Worlds/Cultures are Integrated, Holistic and Ever Changing.
We hear that term Holistic thrown around all the time. But when it comes to understanding how a culture is structured, it means this: Everything about a culture is connected. That means, Politics, History, Art, Language, Economics, Religion, Family, Technology, Gender, Education and every other element interacts with one another constantly. No one single part of culture isolated.
It’s like the butterfly effect. You change one thing, you change everything.
Look around you. You can see examples everywhere. One right now is the thing you are reading this on. It could be a tablet, or a phone or a computer. It doesn’t matter which. How much has this technology changed the world? Consider how it’s influenced family relationships. Social media, for example, allows us to annoy the crap out of relatives with our political posts all the time right? Businesses, elections, religious organizations and so much more all use these technologies and are impacted by them.
If you are world-building, and something in that world changes, remember that everything is going to change. If for example, some kind of new magic is introduced, or some new technology comes around, you have to account for how that impacts the entire culture, not just one part of it.
Further, if your story takes place on a trade outpost in deep space, recognize that multiple cultures are going to influence other and cause culture change. Language and terminology will also change. Things like Pigeon Languages Appear. Religious practices change. Catholicism in Central America is different than Catholicism in Australia. Why? Because the local cultures influence even the most powerful of institutions and cause change.
2. Cultures/Worlds are not Monolithic
Think about your neighbor. How alike are you? How different are you? Now think about your siblings, your friends, your parents, your coworkers, or whoever is around you. Do you all have the same ideas? Do you all share the same political views? Religion? Sexual Preferences? Are they a cat person? Dog Person? Do they eat Sushi?
No culture/religion/political group/gender/race/class of people are all the same. People are variable. That’s because people have different experiences and preferences. So if your universe has a group of cultist nutjobs who want to blow everything up, remember that amongst that group there will be people who have different opinions and ideas. Some of those followers might question what the leadership is doing. Some might be more devout than others. Hell, maybe this causes a major rift in the organization, opening the way for your hero to swoop in and pit two sides against one another or gain some valuable intelligence.
Trust me when I say this, with a history of doing research with people in the field, I know that getting people to agree on any one topic is difficult. Getting people to collaborate on a project, even when they actually do agree is difficult. There’s infighting, different political agendas, different expectations and perceptions as well as different communication styles. And that’s just within a single unified group. Throw in some diversity and you get lots of misunderstandings.
At the same time, people can only know and understand what they experience. So, even though individuals aren’t monolithic, neither are they free from cultural context. People are influenced by the history they are taught growing up, their religion, ideas of gender norms, class expectations, and so much more. I grew up Catholic and then left the Catholic church as an adult. That doesn’t mean that some of my thinking and experiences weren’t heavily influenced by the upbringing but it also doesn’t entirely limit my ability to make choices. It does, however, provide a frame of reference for how I understand the world. Certain characters of yours may have the ability to be critical of their past and their cultural context and enact changes, but not all of them will be able to do that.
Lastly, there is no such thing a monolithic evil group of people. Even within the Nazi regime, people tried to assassinate Hitler. Some worked to hide Jews or spied for the Allies. In the death camps, some of the administrators smuggled people out and resisted in other ways, Think Schindler’s List.
Which leads me to my next point…
3. Power and Resistance are really important
When we think of power, we have a tendency to think big. But power and resistance operate every single moment of every day. Yes, this can happen in big, overarching, world-shattering ways. Or it can be as simple as an argument over who pays for a check at the end of a date.
In fact, in the classroom when we discuss power relationships, I ask the students to brainstorm the power dynamics involved on a first date. At first, students might have a tough time understanding what I mean, but the moment they realize that there are power dynamics in just about everything you do during that date, (Who pays? Who drives? Who orders? Who decides where you are going? Will there be a second date? ect.) hilarity ensues and the students inevitably bring up funny personal examples.
Within a culture, two things are constantly happening. People and systems are trying to either keep things as they are, or change them. An overly simplistic way of looking at this is Conservatives vs Progressives (I say overly simplistic because no one is 100% conservative or 100% progressive and people have complicated views on a variety of issues). At the very least, you should have forces in your world that are trying to maintain the established way of doing things, and forces that are trying to change them. So, in building your world, what are those things? And remember our lesson from #2, those forces are not monolithic.
But the forces of conservation vs change brings up another really important point…
4. Cultures spend a lot of time concerning themselves with ‘Purity’.
If you think about it, you’ll realize that most things you do are wrapped up in some kind of concept of purity. Take off your shoes before you go into the house? Purity. Wash your hands after using the bathroom? Purity. Resisting eating that donut I found in the dumpster? Purity. On a more serious note, things like Immigration, Crime, Religion, Traditions and so much more are all debates about purity.
In fact, Law is a form of purity. It is the idea that in order to maintain society, we must have certain laws in place to protect ourselves. Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote a book on this back in the 1960s called Purity and Danger. It looked at just how cultures construct and maintain these ideas. She analyzed the Book of Leviticus and the Hindu Vedas for her insights. You don’t have to read the entire book, in fact, the core concepts are in this nice brief video Summary of Anthropologist Mary Douglas Danger and Purity
5. Pacing your World
Be wary the info dumping. It’s really easy to do. Introduce your concepts and ideas slowly throughout your dialogue and through your character’s experiences. Take your time in introducing your world. A field researcher doesn’t see the entire country in one go, they travel across the landscape trying to make sense of how things are connected and why people do the things they do. If you overload your reader, they will, like a field researcher, go into culture shock and run away screaming.
One key thing I have noticed in worlds that are built well is that they start small and work their way out. For example, in Harry Potter, you are first introduced to Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. Each subsequent book introduces you to more of the Wizarding World so that by the time you get to the final book you know there is an entire planet full of Wizards, political organizations protecting Wizard Identity, Schools in other Countries and so on. If you’re writing a series, consider starting small, in one or two locations and then working your way out. This allows you to build slowly focusing on character and plot development rather than getting bogged down by World Building.
Alright, for now, this is enough but one last thing. Study worlds that work! (Read Read Read) I cannot stress this enough. Why does the world of Harry Potter work so well? Think of the concepts above. How about the World of the Dark Tower? The Hyperion Cantos? Hunger Games? Dune? (Can you tell my genre yet?) All of these worlds incorporate these particular kinds of ideas. Go back and really think about how these things are implemented in some of those famous stories. Then take a critical look at your draft version #566 and see how each of the four above concepts function.
I am going to write a bit more on Worldbuilding in the coming weeks but for now, here are a few links to some videos and articles on Worldbuilding that I have found helpful.
Also, if you like this blog, maybe, just possibly, check out my own unique world, about Giant Walking Cities.
Episode 2 of Anthropology in 10 or Less: Understanding Culture is now up on YouTube.
Some of you here know that I am an anthropologist and that I teach at a University. Some of you also know that I do freelance video production and photography. Last yeah, in search for material for my courses, I realized that there were a lack of educational videos on Anthropology on YouTube, or at least ones that were short and accessible. So as of today I launched my first episode, Anthropology in 10 or Less in an effort to explore concepts in Anthropology in a short and accessible form.
Check out Episode 1: What the F*** is Anthropology