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
Where does Skin Color Come From?
What is the Origin of the Concept of Race?
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.