The way I build worlds is by collecting cool stuff from the history, myth and people around me. I blend these details with my own imagination, and create my own cultures. Culture is a vital part to realistic worldbuilding.
Normally there are a few particular cultures that interest me at a given time. I read whatever I can find about them, their environment, their traditions and their myths. The interesting details filter into the new world I’m creating (example: at one time, Venetian widows could only remarry on the stroke of midnight).
In the long term, there is nothing more inspiring and challenging than visiting foreign cultures yourself (especially if you can get far beyond your comfort zone to do it). This is the truest way to experience culture, and I really believe it shows in your writing.
But reading (non-fiction, myth/legend/fairytales, as well as the classics like Dune and Lord of the Rings) and watching documentaries/films can get you a long way toward filling up on your inspiration tank.
It’s important to remember: Culture in fiction isn’t a rod to get a point across. At its best, it is something beautiful, otherworldly, amusing, and sobering. The more layers and contradictions your culture has, the more real it will be.
Some questions you might ask yourself are:
- What is the most important ideal to this culture as a whole? What would other countries say is the stereotype? (Brutally simplistic examples: America = freedom, French = romance) BONUS: How is this ideal positive, and how is it negative?
- What is the setting of the culture? (History, myth and geographical location are huge huge huge players in the formation of culture.)
- How did this culture come into being? How has it changed between then and the start of the novel?
- How does the culture influence my protagonist? In what ways is the culture antagonistic? In what ways is it beautiful?
- What are three detailed, specific things about this culture that I love? What are three that I hate?
- What are exterior influences on the culture? Who’s living next door? What are relationships like between nations?
- What does your culture look like to a native, and what does it look like to an outsider? (Place a native from your novel in an intensely cultural part of your world (for instance, a market place). Describe the scene. Then place a foreign character in the same setting, and describe it again.)
- What is one yearly ceremony or celebration that is important to the culture (and your main character)?
- What is one specific action/ritual/habit this culture has (and why)? How would they react to someone who breaks it? (Example: The Pashtun don’t throw away bread crumbs, they put them outside so the birds can eat them. If you brush off your shirt over a trashcan, they will take the trashcan and try to sweep the crumbs onto the ground outside.)
- What things are you passionate about? (Example: books, dancing, music.) What things do you not understand, or wish you understood? (Example: child marriages, rednecks, monasteries, the “brotherhood of soldiers” trope.) Writing about these things will help fuel your diligence, but will also force you into a sort of seeking—and when you’re seeking, your culture will become more vivid.
- What is this culture’s religion, and how does it effect daily life?
- How does this culture treat its vulnerable–the children and the elderly? Are they burdens, are they honored, or something in-between?
- What is the height of honor in this culture? (Examples: Giving one’s life to protect others, committing suicide rather than surrendering.) What is the height of dishonor?
- How does courtship work in this culture? Who approaches who? How involved are parents?
- How do fathers treat their daughters?