Guest Post: How to Build Great Fictional Fantasy Cultures

I am beyond excited to turn my blog over to Kameron Hurley today! Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire (which I loved) and Empire Ascendant (out now–which I also loved) and the God’s War Trilogy (which is now in my TBR pile waiting to be loved). Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. Now she’s here to tell us about worldbuilding.


If you are tired of seeing the same pseudo-patriarchy, fake-medieval societies in your purported fantasy novels – fantasy! In which anything is possible! – then please raise your hand.

Yes? All right.

So was I. If you’re a writer who wants to build truly new and unique societies, it takes some work, I won’t lie. We’re all raised with certain expectations of how the world is and what it could be. One of the most insidious jobs of many governments is to scrub out anything from history that doesn’t support the idea that this particular government is the most natural, logical form of government and that all of our fits and starts led us here and we have reached the pinnacle of progress. Very rarely do we realize that social history is not progressive; it’s more like the Wheel of Time. Throughout history we’ve had far more progressive ideas about abortion, same-sex relationships, and a multiplicity of genders than we do today in the West. Not to mention radical ways of governing and organizing ourselves that don’t involve a few men decrying their word as law from atop a high mountain.

It’s worth mentioning this because even though we approach the writing of fantasy knowing that we can, in theory, do anything (because it’s fantasy!), we still encounter a lot of mental roadblocks on the way to making something truly unique. The voices bubble up, voices from critics, from peers, from less imaginative teachers – you can’t do that, that’s not OK, that’s not realistic, that’s silly, that’s wish-fulfillment, that’s crazy, that’s bad.

But I, for one, got into writing speculative fiction because I liked being silly, and crazy, and bad and not-OK, and I liked to fulfill wishes. I liked to push at the edges of things and see what happened.

So let’s start building something different.

Organizational Structure
When I’m building a new society I like to start very broadly with how each individual society organizes itself from the top down (if there’s a top at all), because this is going to bleed into the family structure, and then into the culture. If you have a hierarchy, who’s at the top? Priests and kings? Men? Women? Or are genderqueer folks in places of power? In fact, how many genders are there? (some Native American societies had four). In my Worldbreaker Saga, I have one country with three genders, where the relative power and authority of each gender goes: male, ataisa, and female. I have another with five genders where gender means nothing as far as power goes, but can mean something politically and influence how people organize themselves into political factions.

The reality is that humans have been around with brains like we have now for well over 100,000 years. If you think there’s a way we haven’t organized ourselves at some point, you are probably wrong; so it’s not that it’s never existed, just that we rarely see it. So hop to it.

Family Structure
How are your families constructed? Do multiple generations live under one roof? Is there

marriage? If yes, what’s the point of it all – love, cementing family alliances, politics, purely religious custom? What types of genders are allowed to get married? Is there a limit on number of spouses? How are the children raised?

One of the biggest issues I have with the creation of fantasy societies is figuring out what happens to the children in cultures where all the able-bodied folks of whatever gender are working outside the home. This is easily solved with multiple generations living under one roof – it makes sense for young and middle-aged people to go off and work in fields or join the army if there are generations at home to look after children. There is also, of course, the idea of communal childcare, which we definitely don’t see enough in fantasy. The two-parent household is a relatively recent Western invention. If you feel crazy trying to raise a child with just one other co-parent, well, you’re right to feel that way – it’s terribly unnatural and not something humans have typically done. Moving away from extended families in the rise of the industrial era has radically changed how we view what parenting looks like.

Customs and Extended Culture
This is where I see a lot of folks fall down. It’s all very well and good to create fabulous ways for people to organize, but we then have to follow that down the full length of the rabbit hole. How does the way we organize ourselves bleed out into all the other aspects of our society? I would argue that here in the United States, our emphasis on maintaining one’s position through violent patriarchal oppression carries over into all aspects of our society: gun violence, rape, brawls, abusive relationships, and more are all heavily influenced by the power structures within which they happen.

When I created a polyamorous pacifist society in my Worldbreaker Saga, I needed to explore how that would extend into how people interacted with one another. I created a consent based culture where the age of consent was 12. What that meant was that after the age of 12, it was illegal to touch a person without their consent unless they appeared to be in life-threatening distress or were harming someone else. There was no death penalty or corporeal punishment. If you did something moderately bad, you were shunned. Terribly bad and you were exiled.

These are the sorts of things we need to think about when constructing cultures. Every decision you make will impact another decision. This extends to magic, too.

Magic
I almost didn’t include this one, because to be honest, writers already spend more time constructing their magic systems than their cultures, but these things should be intertwined. How magic users are treated in each of the cultures I build depends heavily on what sort of place they come from.

So in my violent, hierarchical society where different families vie for the throne, all magic users are expected to become government assassins. Those not suited to it are still relegated to some form of government service. In my consent-based culture, they can run off and do as they like, but if they choose to do that and end up harming someone it’s exile for them, so isn’t it just easier to get training in one of the religious temples? Another society rounds up all their magic users and segregates them into camps, ensuring they are controlled in much the same way as the men in their culture are.

The Butterfly Effect
Finally, a note on the butterfly effect. You can’t change one thing about a culture and have everything else be the same as a 1950’s magazine ad. Oh, Ok, you can but it’s lazy and boring. Giving human beings magic, or putting them in a world full of sentient plants, or saying that polyamory is the law of the land, can’t be the only thing you change if you want a fully realized fictional world. If you want to create truly unique and interesting cultures, you have to follow the change throughout the inner workings of a society to its logical (or fantastic!) conclusion. Technology, childrearing, religious practices, work habits, the relationship (or not) between employees and employers – all of these should be considered when you’re building a world, and all of these things should inform and influence one another.

Because this really is what you’re doing: building a world from the ground up. And if it’s meant to be a fantastic world, shouldn’t it be at least as interesting and complex as our own?

One thought on “Guest Post: How to Build Great Fictional Fantasy Cultures

  1. Pingback: The Empire is Ascendant: EMPIRE ASCENDANT Blog Tour 2015 | Kameron Hurley

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