World-Building: the Fundamentals of a Civilization

I'm not a teen, but I still follow Go Teen Writers because they frequently have articles hosted that I find personally helpful.  One recent post was so enlightening that I am going to credit it and then unabashedly steal it.

Shallee McArthur (science fiction author of The Unhappening of Genesis Lee), was featured on the topic of world-building and creating the culture of your story.  She referenced her opportunity to travel to Ghana, a culture which everyone told her would be inconceivably different from our own western United States.  Like anyone charged with the optimism of youth, she thought she appreciated this information and went buoyantly onward, unaware of the shock that was awaiting her once she touched African soil.
'Eventually I realized my biggest problem with culture shock was that I couldn't forgive Ghana and its culture for not being MY culture. I didn't understand the values behind the behavior, so I couldn't accept it. Once I was able to learn from the people around me, and to look at things and say, "this is the way it is because of this reason," I was able to love it.'
Her experience with a very foreign country has helped her get to the root of world-building.  It isn't different dress or language or even customs which make a culture so new to us, it's values.  Good, bad, mixed up or misplaced, values are the core of a culture.  This is something which I understood intuitively, but until she put it down in words and diagrams, I had not really looked the matter in the face.  As humans, we are (as much as we may try not to be) eminently logical creatures.  Purpose and reason define our functions.  We do not eat our food, put on our wardrobe, or order our days, without reference to some set of values which, to us, make sense.

The same applies to world-building in fiction.  Without values, anything we invent for our worlds has no foundation, no purpose or reason, and feels detached.  It runs the risk of lacking a certain depth which every writer covets for his writing.  But these values are at the core of a civilization.  How do you weave them into your novel when they lie beneath the surface of the visible attributes of your world?

A lot of people have mentioned to me that the main character of Plenilune does not ask some glaringly obvious questions when confronted with the brave new world of the novel.  Well, first of all, the main character doesn't have the sort of personality to immediately ask those pat questions we've come to expect of characters encountering new cultures.  Secondly, I don't feel like patronizing the reader and giving the fatal "info-dump."  These unspoken questions continue throughout Plenilune, and are subtly answered along the way as the main character begins to learn and appreciate the value-system of the culture she is experiencing.  As the reader and the main character begin to understand the value system of these strangers, and learn what they consider important, their moral sine qua non, their treasured beliefs, the structure of their civilization and their actions make sense.
what are the values of your world?

7 ripostes:

  1. I think one of the temptations when world building is to make the new culture either far superior or inferior to ones own, whether one is conscious of it or not. That is certainly one of the issues I am having to balance at present with Winterkiln, where the main character is a different (and in ways more advanced) race than the humans that surround her. I need her to be, in essence, an angel, but avoid any superiority complex. I'll be honest, it's enough to make my eyes cross sometimes.

    In my other story, horses are the culture. Just saying that makes it lose a lot of credibility, no? Like a 12 y/old's pony-dream. The best way I've found to return that credibility is to show the negative side of, as you put it, its values. For example, horses are revered to such an extent that there are tomes full of laws to prevent mistreatment, poor trading practices, and neglect. On the flip side, there are practically none to protect or provide for their destitute human counterparts.

    I am also trying to avoid the infamous 'info-dump', but am struggling to get in all the pertinent information needed. Any tips?

  2. First of all, Winterkiln = awesome title. I'm in love with that name.

    My hugest tip is my own callous mentality that the reader will "Keep up, Watson." I tend to assume that the reader is going to have his brains about him, and will be able to connect hidden pieces so that I don't have to spell things out for him. That's just my over-all tone. As far as the horseshoes meeting the dirt track, values belong to our cores, and we look on them as outsiders until we experience them coming out of us to interpret and define a situation. This helps someone like my character in Plenilune, who is a stranger to the culture. In terms of your novel (which I'm going to assume does not involve someone experiencing a foreign culture), you have to place the reader in the position of that character. The reader is a ghost character, as present as the characters you have invented. As you weave the reader's emotions within the plot, you must somehow subtly engender in him the same values as are exhibited in your culture. Once you have done that, you have turned the reader into your own character and hooked him within your world.

    Exactly HOW to do that will probably differ from novel to novel and world to world.

  3. I love this post! You are so right. What makes a culture is the values and beliefs behind what they do. A character's actions are influenced by his motives. So a culture's color is influenced by its values.

    I have a lot of different kingdoms in the world of my book so there are a lot of different cultures and they each value something different. Its a lot fun. I think world building is one of my favorite parts to writing fantasy. I think the runt of run into recently is that I still don't know the values of my protagonist. . . I'll work that out.

  4. Sure thing, getting to know the personal values of a character can be hard. My mental faculties tend to err on the side of the abstract rather than the concrete, so I'm the one reading and appreciating a post like Shallee McArthur's rather than the one drawing the diagram and giving it to the world as a "new thing." I don't "world-build" as such, with strict categories and diagrams and brain-storming about people groups. If I were to take a culture like Hazel Marie's horse-based people, I would instantly and subconsciously extrapolate what their values and life-style would be, which would then take on a certain shape when distilled into the individual personality of a character. The values of the character's culture are fundamental, underpinning his thoughts and subsequently his actions, but these will naturally be filtered through his personality, making him unique.

  5. In my NaNo novel, the two main characters travel to the world of Rizkaland (which happens to be the world that I've put the most time and effort into the building of). Rizkaland is a highly God-centered world, and most aspects of their culture springs from their worship of him. They have a strict code of morals, (though I haven't quite looked into their punishment methods for those who err ... hasn't come up ...) They consider Jeptha (Which is their name for Jesus, and I'm not sure where the name came from. I was twelve when I chose it, and it's now too ingrained for me to change it, though I have changed his appearance a few times) the supreme ruler over all, and as such, observe a strict system of checks and balances among their leadership. No one is supreme, but the Bookholder, who is kinda a prophet/priest figure, probably holds the most sway. Wedding customs are fun, since they take it very seriously. Engagements, or tyings as they call it, are a huge affair, always done in the sight of Jeptha, though the marriage itself is considered a private matter. The next chapter involves a tying ceremony (also a coronation/knighting ceremony as well.) I'm looking forward to it.

    I try to avoid infodumps, but sometimes I'll have to backpeddle and remember - oh! that's right! This world has water in each color of the rainbow, and each has its own use, better inform my readers of this, since my reader wasn't there when the MC learned it. The guy MC, being a scientist's kid, asks more questions. It's interesting.

  6. Interesting perspective. I read that same post on GTW myself and it was a really good one. ^ ^ I think one example of good non-dumping for a storyworld is in Josh Whedon's Firefly. You're thrown into a totally new world with no prologue or explanation so you have to figure it out as you go. No telling. You just have to get used to the world--and it's values. :)

    Stori Tori's Blog

  7. I love any article that has to do with world-building. I especially loved your post because it echoes a lot of what I learned when I took Anthropology classes. Values are so incredibly important as a foundation for a culture. And when building a culture you have to be able to see it from their worldview. What values shaped how they were raised? What stories were they told at night? What does hospitality mean to them? I remember one amazon culture that valued lying above everything else. If you were able to decieve your enemy you were considered a hero. Values permeate everything and it's so important to remember when building your own fictional world. Great post!