Many writers study writing. I studied history, archaeology, politics and religion in my Bachelor of Arts, to inform my world-building. I don’t just want to build worlds that mirror eras of ours, in the past or present. Or to write only speculative fantasy that challenges flaws of the present. I want to write alternate worlds that differ from ours. To develop culture and elements like Tarlahn attitudes in my Ruarnon Trilogy, where the term ‘gender diversity’ doesn’t exist, because the male, female and midlun genders have always been. So before you begin borrowing societal and cultural inspiration for your fantasy or SciFi world wholesale from ours, take a speculative lens to things. Think about aspects of society and culture you want to write alternate realities of.
Consider a Bronze Age matriarchy. A queer-positive iron age. Different races who interact not with racism, slavery or colonisation, but perceive each other as equals, in war or peace. Don’t import patriarchy, monarchy, democracy, monotheism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, liberalism or capitalism just because they thrive in our world. I challenge you to begin considering every aspect of society in your fictional world from ground zero (this being my personal goal in future series).
I began world building Umarinaris (in my Ruarnon Trilogy) by considering the progress of western history and tweaking it. The first humans arrived from Earth during the Bronze Age. Umarinaris’ combines bronze and iron age technology and it has sailing ships like those of the western colonial era and monarchy and sexism. But feminism is on the rise, and nonbinary people are established. Multiple gods are worshipped, as are ancestors. There are deists (who believe the gods created the world but had no further impact upon it) and atheists. I’ve cherry picked features from different eras of western history, and written nonbinary people’s status in society speculatively. I invite you to cherry pick for or alternate your SFF world similarly, as we unpack many features of society below.
Is it written? Do cave paintings, frescoes or statues with engravings recount major events?
Do bards recite poems or songs of legends and myth?
Is history written by the winners (winning throne or religious leader claimant/ conquerers/ winning political ideology etc)? What lies does any group’s history tell? Will these be exposed in your novel?
You might not think of fantasy civilisations having pure fiction, as opposed to recalling myths and legends. But by the early second millennium BCE, hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt morphed into a linear script and stories, like fanciful tales of adventure to the mystical land of Punt (an actual trade location near the Red Sea) were written. So when your characters make references to people they admire, abhor or whose actions they are inspired by, are these references mythical, historical or fictional?
Do roaming bards sing of the past, or bands of musicians travel? Or do the rich act as patrons to orchestras or bands? Will we find musicians serenading a feast scene, or are their marching bands in your world’s parades?
Do painters and sculptors have patrons who supply their materials? And perhaps provide them with board and meals, in exchange for favourable art of their patrons? (Like in Rome?) Or are the arts valued and paid for as civic entertainment by a republic or oligarchy, like in ancient Greece? Or can only the ruling class afford to employ artisans to build monuments, paint frescoes and proclaim their patrons beauty and great deeds to the world? (As was the case in ancient Egypt, where the arts differed in style and some critics would say degenerated in skill when the kingdom wasn’t united under a single ruler).
Will we see actors in your world? Are they travellers moving from inn to inn, or from one wealthy home to another to perform?
Do the arts portray and reinforce the values, ideals, myths and heroes of your cultures or their rulers?
The meaning of the word ‘Science’ may vary a lot in your civilisations, depending on which era of scientific understanding or Dark Age superstition they parallel. But there are two areas of science I think very relevant to world-building —medicine/ anatomy, and natural science.
Human knowledge of what various internal organs are for, how the body works and how to treat wounds may depend on religious beliefs in your world. The belief in ancient Egypt that a physical body was required to house the spirit of the deceased meant important organs required to sustain life needed preservation after death. Dissection and mummification taught the Egyptians that the heart causes blood to circulate through the body and the basic functions of the lungs and kidneys. But they believed the heart was the body’s centre of emotional feeling and the seat of the mind, lacking an understanding of the brain.
So if your culture practices mummification or permits autopsies, does your world have at least a rudimentary understanding of most organs? Does it know that losing too much blood is fatal?
If you have a Dark Age civilisation where study of the human body is banned, you might have absurd notions like those of medieval Europe/ Roman hangovers. For example, that the four humours –blood, bile and white and black phlegm must be equally balanced for good health. Or that getting leaches to feed on the blood of a sick person will ‘purify’ their blood and ‘make them stronger’ (as oppose to weaken them from blood loss). If it suits your plot for people to die of medical complications/ suddenly, ignorant, superstitious beliefs and traditions about the body could be a handy plot device/ killer.
Medicine & Medical Procedures
Again, depending on how enlightened your civilisation is, some medical conditions may not plague characters as much as you think. For example, in ancient Sumer (a civilisation that began around six thousand years ago in modern day Iraq), physicians could remove cataracts. They had the knowledge, tools and skill (but alas not the anaesthetics). Your civilisation may be able to perform simple operations on people. But medical procedures may require a blow to the head or strong alcohol, if the opium poppy or its equivalent isn’t known/ doesn’t exist as an anaesthetic.
Whether soldiers survive battle wounds may depend less on medical procedures (stitches etc), and more on knowledge of hygiene. If, like medieval Europe your culture lacks Rome’s custom of bathing (or worse thinks water makes you vulnerable to sin), doesn’t keep wounds clean, or use alcohol for sterilising them, infections may be the biggest killer of soldiers after wars or of injured workers.
Medicines & Herbs
I mentioned opium already. It might be worth researching real-world herbs used for poultices, healing teas etc. Do women or ‘witches’ administer herbal remedies? Or is there an educated, enlightened society that trusts nature and researches it, studying anatomy and reads books to obtain medical knowledge?
You may have other plants which are useful too. As an Australian, I’m aware that the eucalyptus gum when crushed and inhaled can make it easier to breathe with asthma, or a cold. I was surprised to find eucalypts growing in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese use its oil for all sorts of things, including insect repellent. What medicinal or other uses can people put plants to in your world?
Another thing to consider is medical treatments that are the only known cure for an illness, but have disastrous side effects. Mercury is effective in treating syphilis, but not only can it kill you because it’s poison, it can also trigger hallucinations and delusions. Meanwhile, many plants are effective cures in small doses, but poisonous and even fatal in large doses, another plot device for accidental deaths or murder.
Religion & Culture
The first thing I’d consider about religion in a fantasy world is the role it plays. Is religion just collection of creation myths no one pays much attention to? (Like one civilisation in my Ruarnon Trilogy). Do people give offerings to the gods of the house, inanimate objects and abstract principles, and pray to them for guidance (as in pagan Rome). Will people try to divine the future from the stars, flights of birds or goat’s entrails? Does religion otherwise have little impact on daily life?
Do people in your world believe divinities, demons or magic are responsible for scientific occurrences they do not understand? Eg. pestilence, natural disasters, crop failure, human sicknesses? Is religion in your world an attempt to explain gaps in human knowledge?
Does religion mean ancestor worship? Or worship of the spirits believed to inhabit all natural things or of a pantheon of gods? Is any civilisation arrogant enough to proclaim they worship the ‘one true god’? Is anyone disaffected and atheist? Or do they accept that gods creating the world is a likely enough explanation, but see no divine impact in the world ever since (deist)?
Are differing religious identities a cause of war in your world? Or is it like the pagan world, in which each culture excepts that the others have different names for the sun god? And have different traditions and stories about the sun god, but everyone accepts that there IS a sun god? And he doesn’t have a dogma so no-one kills anyone in the name of dogma?
What is religion’s relationship with morality?
Does it have one?
If you have a pagan civilisation, ‘good religious practice’ may mean making offerings to the spirits as you trespass through their forest/ stream etc. In the western world, it wasn’t really until the last two thousand years BCE that personal religions, saviour gods and the idea a god had moral standards they expected you to adhere to personally A, existed, and B became popular. So while we may see religion and morality as inextricably linked today, they weren’t always, and they may not be in your world.
Does religion in your world have doctrines, and dogma?
Can people be shamed and publicly shunned for their ‘sins’? Can they be stoned to death or burnt at the stake as a heretic? Do people live their lives in fear of the judgement of a jealous, angry god who may send them to hell? Or do they have spells or means of tricking the gods who judge them, to avoid a second death and enter the afterlife (as they did in ancient Egypt)? Does religion prescribe what role people will play in life by gender or social caste? Does it suppress certain sexualities? Is it used to oppose racism or bolster it? Does it oppose slavery or legalise it?
Or do people have loose moral beliefs associated with their gods?
Do people try to live up to these beliefs to get closer to their god, and hope that will unite them with their god at death? (Like the mystery religions of western antiquity which often involved saviour gods, resurrection etc.)
Religion and the State?
What is religion’s relationship with the government? Do you have priest-kings, like the earliest civilisations of the ancient Near East? Or a Pope-like figure vying with medieval kings and queens to dominate hearts and minds and govern the life of a continent? A theocracy? Do priests/ diviners/ fortune tellers advise the rulers of your world?
Christianity dominated the west utterly for centuries, but at times South-East-Asia had Hindu rulers, a Buddhist empire and now it’s largely Muslim. A transition between religions may be a fascinating time to set your story. And like South-East-Asia, you could have two or more prominent major religions in one region, at the same time.
What is Religion’s Relationship With Science?
In ancient Greece, religion was fairly liberal. Worship of an entire pantheon of gods flourished alongside the birth of scientific study and theorising. The first theory of the atom was produced and the first rudimentary steam engine invented, though never utilised, because slave labour left no need for it. But even the ancient Greeks had a notion that the gods only wanted humanity to know so much. It tended to be philosophers who, when they questioned too deeply about the gods, were charged with ‘corrupting the youth’ (like Seneca) and censured by the state.
Christianity was more extreme, early Christians burning the greatest collection of literature in antiquity (the Library of Alexandria in Egypt). Even the bible was written in only Latin for centuries and only ranking members of the church were permitted to read it. (Yes, I blame Christianity and its mindset for the European Dark Ages as much as the fall of Rome). To what extent does religion ignore science, contradict or smother it or sponsor an intellectual dark age in your world?
Or do your gods intend for humanity to learn and develop? (Which is considered the path of salvation in my Timbalen Empire). If you have a pantheon, is for example, study of botany considered a form of respect, even communion with Mother Earth? Do learning and respect for divinities go hand in hand in your world?
History & Religion?
What does history say after your world’s religious creation myths? Does religion agree with history, or re-write it to conceal a rival religion/ sorcerous power/ a sect dismissed as heretics? Or did someone use religious texts to calculate that the world was 4000 years old and argue history that disagreed should be discarded?
If your world has more of an ancient leaning, its culture may not have a clear distinction between history and myth or between science, religion and magic.
The Culture of death
Is there an afterlife? If so, how is the body prepared? Is there mummification? Do mortuary practices return the body to the embrace of a mother goddess via burial? To the sky gods via exposure? Or carry its embers to the sky gods with smoke from cremation?
If there is mummification, is it common to visit the site with offerings to nurture relatives in the afterlife? If cremation (or mummification because this did happen in Egypt in Late Antiquity) is the urn or mummy kept in or near the house so the deceased can partake in or witness family activities?
Or does the spirit of the deceased (as in Tarlah in my Ruarnon Trilogy) transfer to an image of the deceased by a ritual performed by a priest?
After death, can the deceased be prayed to for guidance? Or for the comfort of the mourners?
What’s the Afterlife Like?
If the deceased go to an afterlife, is it heaven? Hell? Or will the spirits of those judged by the gods as unworthy suffer a second, eternal death and be fed to a monster, as in ancient Egyptian mythology?
Do they ascend to the Pole stars like the Egyptian pharaohs (in one tradition)? Or join Re on his celestial journey through the sky to light the world by day, and through the underworld by night? Do warriors go to an eternal feast with the war god, as the Celts believed? Or can you envision your own afterlife inspired by any or none of these?
Does the deceased (as many ancient cultures seem to have believed), have the same social standing in the afterlife as in life? Or is their equality in the afterlife?
Is the deceased united with their deceased loved ones and a god or gods in the afterlife?
This is the last of my blog series on Worldbuilding. I hope it’s been helpful! If you missed any, they’re linked below.
Further World Building Reading
Power & Conflict considers types of government, religious, technological or advisory powers, rebels and the ways any of the above could contribute to conflict in your world.
Geography considers how geography may influence everything from general and defensive architecture, to water supply, heating, farming and how geography may connect to religious beliefs, sacred spaces and magic.
Humanoid Life offers suggestions on physical things like clothing, food, work, pastimes, family life, legal status and opportunities may differ among social classes and offers food for thought on sexual and gender diversity.