Worldbuilding A Fictional Culture

antique antique globe antique shop antique store

Worldbuilding isn’t just about building a physical world that your characters live in. A fantasy world, for example, might have its own physics, so things like gravity or motion work differently from ours. But that’s not the only reason a world exists when you create it. A working world also needs a working culture or society. This not only narrows down what you focus on when you world-build, but it also helps specify what your characters value too. You need to create a fictional culture for a functioning, layered world.

Keep in mind that a culture is more than just a society. A society allows a group of people to work and live together. A culture, on the other hand, represents what the people group values, celebrates, and engages in. So what do you need for a fictional culture? Start by checking out the list below!

black and gray desk globe
Photo by lil artsy on

Social Norms and Values

First of all, when building a fictional culture, decide what you want your culture to value. This could be specific activities or ideals, as well as certain belief systems, especially if religion plays a key factor. Setting this up early helps you out in the long run, as your readers immediately get a sense of what your culture is like.

Also, start establishing some social norms. These include what is considered normal in a culture that at first glance seems different than other cultures you come across. These norms can fall under any of the categories below!

Food and Clothing

Food plays a very important part in any culture, whether real or fictional. In real life, different cultures prepare their own dishes and enjoy specific flavors. You might recognize sushi from Japan or enchiladas from Mexico, to name a couple of examples.

When putting some focus on food in your culture, ask yourself questions. How might people eat? Would they use a fork and knife like in the West or tools like chopsticks from Asian cultures? What spices and flavors would they enjoy? Would the people include more spicy flavors? How might they prepare food? Take a look at cultures around the world for inspiration!

Clothing acts as another basic necessity of culture. Fashion and style stem from history, religion, or whatever specific trends happen to be popular at the time. For example, in the United States, the clothing designs of the 60s and 70s represented the countercultural movements going on, with the bright colors and styles acting as symbols of peace and happiness.

This part of culture is honestly pretty overlooked at times. In genres like fantasy and historical fiction, authors tend to assume readers know what the characters wear, especially if the time period or setting the story is based on is familiar. But clothing is just as basic as food and drink! Don’t be afraid to bring out the little details of your culture (and characters!) through this.

white and brown cooked dish on white ceramic bowls
Photo by Chan Walrus on

The Arts

A huge branch of creativity stems from different forms of art and what people build and make with it. A few major art forms include:

1) Music. Specific forms of music could be opera, jazz, and other genres. Opera, singing, and chants also factor into how music expresses itself within a culture.

2) Dance. Many cultures claim their own variations of dance, making this activity a part of their history and partly synonymous with how other cultures recognize them. Cuba, for example, is known for the salsa, while Russia is known for the ballet.

3) Art. Art specifically might include all kinds of creative things, including sculpting, painting, and sketching to name a few. Performance art and theater fall under this category too. Not only that, but various art movements throughout the world continue to shape what “art” by definition means.

4) Literature. Many cultures reclaim their ancient history from the stories they told long ago and repeat today. Fairy tales and epics, folklore and fables demonstrate what the culture values and believes in with the morals they talk about.

Ask yourself what your culture thinks is most important out of all of these, first of all. Develop that first, as it comes into play throughout the story. Then get creative, but don’t distract yourself. If a fictional culture values one specific thing, don’t bog your reader down with unnecessary details.

pain brushes inside clear plastic cups
Photo by Jadson Thomas on


Religion plays a huge part in pretty much every culture. They aren’t one and the same, but religion often influences a culture, including how people are allowed to act, dress, eat, and more. When creating a culture, first ask if you want religion to play a huge part. If it does, start thinking about how it influences that culture.

How might the characters think about specific topics or address particular situations? How does religion affect the government if religion runs it? Religion might be one of the bigger parts of a culture, so determining how it plays a part early on will be instrumental as you continue working on your story!

This might also affect social hierarchy, especially if religion plays a big part in politics within your culture. For example, the Church in your story might act as the government or otherwise play a very important part in how society functions. Priests also can act as the equivalent of government leaders, or otherwise hold a unique position within the community.

Holidays and Festivals

Celebrations throughout the year highlight a culture’s history and values in different ways. Many holidays stem from a past historic event such as Passover or Hannukah in Jewish tradition. Others might celebrate a specific, annual event, like Holi, an event in Hindu tradition that celebrates the coming of spring. Additional holidays might honor a past event or people, such as Veteran’s Day in the United States.

Festivals are similar, but they aren’t a specific day, but rather an event. These events within a community demonstrate particular aspects of what a culture values. Dia De Los Muertos, for example, emphasizes how Mexican culture views death and connection to one’s family’s ancestors.

In your own culture, what holidays and specific events might be celebrated? Keep in mind that they should:

1) Reflect your culture’s values. How does this festival/holiday reflect what your readers already know about your culture? On the other hand, how can you introduce something new that works for your culture?

2) Advance the plot. Don’t put more detail into your story if it’s not necessary! If your story focuses on a festival that’s going on, then definitely go all out. If it’s there only to interrupt the story, cut it out and save it for a better time.

photo of assorted colored lanterns
Photo by Min An on

Social Organization

A lot of different social groups make up a culture. When you think of an organization, it might be based on age, gender, class, or anything else. A few social organizations include:

1) School and college. Education reflects culture because, in real life, students learn their own language and the languages of their neighbors, as well as their own histories. Depending on your story, you might not need a school setting. But think of how your characters might learn their histories. Does someone still teach it to them? How would they teach?

2) Work. What kinds of jobs need to exist in your world? The jobs you include reflect the type of society you have. If you set your story someplace rural, for example, a lot of people might be farmers. If you have a technologically-advanced sci-fi world going on, many everyone who works is a robot. But you get the idea.

3) Politics. A major organization involves the government and justice systems. Different forms exist in both reality and fiction. For example, stories like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged contain new takes on governments to reflect the themes of the books. How is your government structured? How does it advance what your culture values?

These are broad aspects of culture as well. I only touched on larger topics such as music, art, and religion. It’s up to you to decide what you want your culture to value and what activities and beliefs your characters practice. However, when you begin worldbuilding, remember two things:

1) Don’t overdo it. Not every single aspect of culture needs to be fully developed. In fact, it’s better to only focus on a couple of major things. Sure, you need a working society, a basic economy, and social norms for the culture to work. However, a fictional culture that places value on certain activities means you don’t have to spend time developing what probably won’t be in the story. If you create a people group that places a high priority on dance, for example, why take the time to describe how they paint?

2) Be consistent. A character might go against the norm, but culture shouldn’t change its mindset halfway through. A culture acts as a pillar for your worldbuilding, so it needs to act as a solid foundation. Keep in mind, a culture might evolve but it’s not going to adapt entirely different norms suddenly.

I’m currently UPDATING my portfolio. In the meantime, check out:



The Facebook Page

My 2022 chapbook

Leave a Reply