Fantasy world building is a staple of the genre. Arguably, our fantasy settings are what defines our genre. Many professionals will argue, though, that the setting is the least important part of any story. The plot is what drives the story itself, and it’s the characters that connect the reader to the plot, and are therefore the most important facet of any story, despite the genre. What I hope to accomplish here is a brief overview of how you can use concepts of cultural anthropology to tie your characters to your setting, thereby establishing the glue that will bind the people of your fantasy world to the world itself.
There are many aspects of world building that can be tied to our characters. Creating a believable society in which they live can help to not only enrich the setting, but also provide a more genuine backstory for all of our characters. Instead of just having a farmboy who dreams of the stars, we can have one that lives in a harsh desert and has spent his entire life farming water and trying to get along with the colorful locals. Now, we understand why he dreams of the stars.
Religion and cosmology is the cornerstone for many world building projects. One of the first questions we ask ourselves is “How was the world created?” This is an entirely different subject, but there are many ways in which our cosmology will affect our cultures. How do the deities interact with the culture? Do different cultures have different pantheons? We should also establish a feeling of how organized the religion is, how involved it is in the government, and how commonplace their structures of worship are. Is there a temple in every town, or just one in the major cities? Also, what role does the clergy have in every day life? There may be legions of warrior priests, or just a simple village wise-woman.
The form of the deities themselves will affect the culture. Is there a raging god of war, inspiring berserk warriors to earn glory in single combat? Alternatively, there may be a deity that practices control and wisdom in war, inspiring the use of careful tactics and battlefield formations. This is but one example of how you can alter the mood of a culture based on their pantheon, and can apply to other spheres of influence. Do not forget, as well, that there may be cultures that are not polytheistic. Nomadic tribes that worship the ancestor spirits and pre-agricultural societies that revere nature itself are but two examples of alternative systems.
The ecology of our worlds is another topic that could take up volumes, but we’re going to look at how it affects our sociology, specifically what can we witness about our own cultural history based on geography, climate, and natural resources? We should have established early on what terrain is around, what the climate is, and what flora and fauna are available as resources. The weather may affect a lot of things, such as having highly peaked roofs due to heavy snowfall, or loose fitting clothing due to the eternal heat.
The land itself will determine a lot about our people. Are they a seafaring folk living on the coast, or accomplished woodsmen on the edge of a massive forest? They might even live under a mountain, in dark tunnels and caves. The terrain will also affect how closely bunched together buildings are in a city or town, especially in rugged mountain terrain. Or, if the land is clear and open, maybe there is ample space between homes for fields of crops and grazing pastures.
What kind of livestock can we raise here? With a lot of land, cattle is an ideal resource. When space is limited, though, pigs and goats are more likely to be favored. On the coast? Fish! Also, think of how natural cycles may affect the culture itself. If there are drastic seasonal changes, they are more likely to have seasonal festivals, harvest times, and rebirth traditions. Or, we can look to ancient Egypt, where the cycle of life was dependent on the cycle of the Nile River’s floodplains.
Now, we have our land and we have our cosmology, we need to be able to exchange goods and services. That’s right, it’s time for economics! No, don’t fall asleep yet! It won’t be that bad, I promise. There’s really three major systems that we can look at which are the most common, and basic, breakdowns of economy. We are focusing, remember, on how this affects the culture of the society. The three systems we are going to look at is the vassalage, socialism, and free market capitalism.
First, any student of medieval history should be familiar with the vassalage. Also, if you’ve read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series or watched the television show based on it, you’ll hear talk of “calling the banners.” This is a good example of how a vassalage works. Basically, let’s say there’s a king, and he divides the land and lesser lords promise to serve him in exchange for control over that land, and they divide their land further to lower lords, and so on until you get to Bob, who just has a shovel. Now, bob grows potatoes, but only gets to keep enough to feed himself, the rest go to his lord. That lord keeps a share and has to pay the rest up the chain, and so forth. Coin gets involved to, not just potatoes. The flip side is that when there’s a battle, the lower lords are required to bring soldiers to join the army of their superior. The cultural results of this are a strict hierarchy of sworn allegiances. The common people work the land or at their crafts, but at the end of the day they still are servants of their lord and have little to no freedom at all.
Socialism! This will be a bit simpler. Take for example a small independent village. Everybody works to grow food, make tools, gather resources, and other thing necessary for survival. Then, they all share what they produce with everybody else. Nobody has to produce everything they need to survive, as long as the one thing they produce is enough for everybody else. In a small village, this works great. In a larger society, it can get rather complicated and often you end up with a very controlling government with lots of rules and a massive bureaucracy to manage the logistics of the whole thing. Sometimes, you even get some military heavy-handedness in enforcing the rules, like the U.S.S.R. did. Still, in an isolated community with a low population, this can be an ideal arrangement.
Finally, we have free market capitalism. Everybody should be familiar with this, because we all have to use money to feed ourselves, pay rent, buy a car, and so forth. This can work in a fantasy society, and you’re going to end up with a very familiar setting. Everybody has a purse with coins in it, hopefully more than less. And if they want something, they have to go where it is and exchange those coins for it. Markets, shops, stalls, travelling merchants, etc. This is probably the most common thing that we see in fantasy, especially anything inspired by role-playing-games, because why go try to kill the dragon if there’s no pile of gold?
We can definitely mix these systems together in different ways. There can be layers, such as a free market society where there are some small villages that are autonomous. Even in a vassalage society, isolated areas might not even interact with their overlords. An example of this would be the Two Rivers region and its relationship to the kingdom of Andor in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series.
Speaking of government, somebody has to keep things organized around here, don’t they? While we are on the subject of economy, how does each economic situation define our government? The vassalage, this time, is the easy one. The economy and the government are closely tied together, and it’s all based on the higher rank lord managing a set of subordinates. Socialism can vary a lot, and depends a lot on the size of the culture. You may have a village with a mayor or a council of elders. In larger societies, there might be an emperor, or a council of nobles, or a senate? There’s a lot of ways to do this one, but my feeling is that a socialist government is going to be either very benign or terribly malignant, depending on how you want to develop it. Finally, we have capitalism. This could be a monarchy, republic, democracy, or even totalitarian. The key thing here is that money is going to run the show, so no matter what you call it, it’s really going to be an oligarchy.
We must also establish how involve the government is in day to day lives. What kind of laws are there? Are there beliefs and practices that are required or banned? We may never seen a government official or soldier in our lifetime, or there could be a watchtower in every village with a garrison and a tax collector.
Now, to digress, we must return to religion. How do religion and government interact? There are a lot of ways to do this, ranging from complete separation to a theocracy. How does this affect the government and how it enforces its laws? That watchtower might still have a garrison, but is it lead by a warrior priest instead of a tax collector?
Finally, how do people look upon the government? Are they benevolent protectors serving the people, malign overlords, or something in-between? There could be rebellion brewing with cells of malcontents, creating a rich environment of internal conflict. Or, if you’d rather focus on the more traditional good versus evil, maybe the kingdom is looked upon favorably and threatened by an outside society that is all sorts of nasty.
Speaking of how governments treat their people, let’s talk about civil liberties. A lot of our systems of government define the amount of civil liberty. Vassalages will have the least, socialist societies can span the spectrum, and capitalist societies tend to have the most individual liberty. Much of this, though, might also depend on religious involvement. There may be mandatory attendance at services, or just certain things that are taboo for reasons that are not simply secular. There are a lot of big picture things to look at here, as well. Are people allowed to come and go as they please, claim or buy land, or even emigrate from the society to another? Also, is immigration allowed?
On that note, how well does our culture integrate with other cultures? This may be based on historical conflicts and alliances. Maybe the Kingdom of Goodberry doesn’t like the Duchy of Goldfish because they were at war a hundred years ago. Also, how tolerant are the people of non-human races? We’re bound to have elves, dwarfs, or some other sort of fantastic creature (not as a rule, but it’ll happen a lot). How do the people of our society view them? Or, if our society is non-human, how do they view humans? Maybe it’s a melting pot, and everybody lives together happily. Or, it’s a melting pot, but certain factions are looked down upon and restrained to ghettos in the cities. Worse, one race might be enslaved by another.
Finally, let’s look at how people view magic. You may, or may not, include magic in your story. If you do, you have probably already decided if it’s going to be all over the place or something that is rare. Also, is the system for it academic or mysterious? Finally, is it practiced openly or in secret? There is a sliding scale of how you can have the common people react to magic. At one end of the scale is fear, and at the other is amazed wonder. As you go up the scale you transition from fear to mistrust, mistrust to apathy, apathy to curiosity, and from curiosity to amazement. You can fill in a few dozen other emotions, to be sure, but this gives you an idea of how it works.
So, let’s say we have a mysterious magic force that is not understood, practiced by few, and shrouded in secrecy. Then our sorcerer lets loose a gout of flame from his hand and drives off the goblin army! The people he saved are still going to be scared of him.
On the other hand, there is a realm where magic is treated as an academic pursuit, practiced in the open, learned and taught by establishments working within the society, and fairly common to see. The same high wizard drives off the goblin army with thunderous lightning, balls of fire, and a conjured earthquake. The common folk will just be glad the goblins are gone, and probably be annoyed by all the commotion.
Cultural Anthropology in itself is a very complicated subject, as is anything that deals with human behavior. There are no black and white answers to how a society will affect the people who live there. There are some commonalities, though. Fleshing out these details will give our characters rich backstory and an environment to interact with that is alive in its own right. Instead of having Joe with a sword who needs to kill the orcs; we can have Joe who is economically repressed, who never thought he could leave his station in life, suddenly be thrust into a situation outside of his comfort zone, trying to fulfill a religious obligation to save the priestess from the orcs, who he really really hates because they attack his village all the time; and they attack because the village has ample supplies of fish because they have to pay taxes to Baron Von Absent who never shows up to protect them.