We have discussed how geography, languages, and religion affect world-building. In this last installment in this series, we will be discussing how culture and traditions shape world-building. The reason these two are last is that the previous topics influence culture and tradition.
the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization; the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic; the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. (Merriam- Webster)
And that was a lot. Who knew that such a small word could have such a large definition? To me, all of that means culture is basically the social conventions and social norms we adhere to every day, whether we’re consciously aware or not.
Traditions, on the other hand, are “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior; the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction; cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions.” (Merriam- Webster)
Yes, that was much shorter and much easier to handle. Not to mention, the definition seems a bit more straight-forward. It’s merely customs and beliefs that have been handed down to us through the ages, often without being written down.
What does this have to do with world-building, you may ask? Well, let me show you.
Let’s start with the holidays. Countries around the world have dozens upon dozens of holidays that they celebrate every year. Many people don’t know, or really care, why they celebrate. They have simply become tradition. Most holidays can be traced back to either a religious or historical event. For instance, Christmas and East are based upon the birth and resurrection of Jesus, respectively, while Independence Day in the United States celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
All of our holidays have been observed, moved, and combined until we ended with what we have now. In another 20 years, things will have changed again. Yet, even though many of these holidays are merely celebrated as tradition, there are smaller traditions within each one.
Take Christmas as an example. This particular holiday is celebrated around the world, but many countries celebrate it differently with different national traditions. And within each of these nations, there are family traditions in each household. Many of which have been passed down for generations, while others are being created every year.
It is interesting that when people are made to embrace traditions that interfere with their own or their traditions have to be put to the side for whatever reason, people tend to take it as an offense to what they believe in.
As creatures of habit, traditions are ingrained in us and become part of our identity. This is also true for your characters. They will have their own traditions that won’t live up with that of the other characters. Add in different countries, and you have a plethora of traditions to play with. Have the traditions conflict with each other, and the way your characters react will show great character development.
Now we’re going to move on to culture. Most of the previous topics influence this significantly, and in turn, it affects the world your characters live in. Just like a wonderous cake or an onion (who gets that reference?), culture has layers. Take Earth, for example. As a planet, Earth has a human culture, everything is designed, whether physical or not, with the human body in mind. Go down another layer and you see culture at a country layer. People have now been separated by countries. And based on the different environments, they needed to do different things to survive.
Another layer down and you have regions or states. There is often pride associated with what area you’re from on this level. Add to that drastic geography from one region or state to the next one, and you have many different cultures. In the US, the northern states have a vastly different culture than the southern states. Same with the eastern and western and all the states in between. In Australia, the culture on the coast is vastly different from the inland areas. Every country will have different cultures per region, but the bigger the country, the greater the possible differences between them all.
Down one more layer, and you have cities. Don’t believe there is that big of a cultural difference among cities? Just go drive in a few. The culture on the roads is as plain as the sun in the sky. Now some towns have similar cultures due to shared heritage and/or comparable economic growth. Though this isn’t the norm. Even suburbs right next to each other sport different cultures.
But there is yet another layer. Within cities, different sections have their own cultures and norms. This usually occurs due to the growth and expansion of the town plus new immigrants.
All of these cultures are significant, and they intertwine with each other every day. In your story, every one of your characters will be carrying with them the culture of their home. Combine those cultures together and make them interact, and you will start to have a unique and varied cast.
Thank you for joining me on this journey of world-building. Remember, this isn’t an exhaustive list, merely a starting point from which to explore. One of the best resources for world-building is the world in which you live. Go out and explore, watch, and learn about what’s around you. You won’t regret it.