Now that you’ve determined the geography of your fantasy world and developed its history, it’s time to create the cultures that exist therein. “Cultures” really means people, and includes factors such as races, religions, forms of government, and social mores that define who they are. These topics all shape how the inhabitants of your fantasy world behave–in a general sense–and can help set up the personal conflicts that make for powerful inter-character relationships.
My early attempts at world-building for the Chronicles of Jord were heavily influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. I had subterranean, metalsmithing dwarves; tree-hugging, long-lived elves; and pseudo-European humans for the good races. Orcs and goblins represented the evil races–all pulled straight from the Monster Manual. Even my implementation of dragons followed the entries for chromatics.
Fantasy fiction writers sell themselves short if they borrow wholesale the races and cultures established by other creators. This facet of world-building, beyond all others, helps differentiate your story from others and hooks the reader.
Changing the names of your races isn’t enough. (I tried it.) You really need to examine why you are including the races your are. There’s certainly valid reasons for sticking with the dwarf-elf-orc cliche, but more often than not, it’s just laziness. Take the characteristics that facilitate your story and add your own twist to create something unique.
I touched a little upon this subject in my post on religion in fantasy fiction. Religion is one of those pillar institutions in any culture, and your world will be that much dimmer if you fail to include it. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be central to your plot, or that one or more of your characters is a devotee of a particular religion. Its presence in the world is enough to create ample opportunities for conflict, both internal and external.
It’s unfortunate that fantasy fiction is so closely associated with feudal monarchies. Some forms of government provide more stability than others, but there is always room for intrigue in any body politic. Using different types of governments is yet another way to distinguish the various cultures within your world, whether your story takes place on a national or more local level. I’ve always been surprised that, with the generally left leanings of the artistic community, fantasy worlds didn’t include more socialist governments.
Every culture has its own values, customs, and taboos. Fantasy fiction gives a writer the freedom to assign and explore social mores outside of the context of our reality. This is not a license to preach, however. One of my biggest complaints against Stranger in a Strange Land was Heinlein’s obvious proselytizing for humanism. Readers are quick to discern when a social agenda is being pushed.
Social mores are another way to set up conflict between characters, and to show growth within a character. What one group considers acceptable will not be tolerated by another. Take some time to establish what behaviors are considered the norm, which are deviant, and why. Then be consistent in presenting reactions based on those mores.
Race, religion, government and social mores are all facets that need to be developed when creating cultures for your fantasy world. They each deserve articles of their own, and perhaps I’ll tackle them individually another time. Until then, why don’t you help me fill in any important points I missed. I look forward to your comments.