Worldbuilding tools: How to handle culture and groups in your SFF novel
Updated: May 5
This post covers a range of worldbuilding tools linked to culture and how to handle groups when writing a fantasy or science fiction novel.
Culture and representation are important to consider in your worldbuilding. Some writers ignore these elements completely, while others worry about getting them wrong. And to be fair, science fiction and fantasy is littered with examples of casual racism, such as lighter-skinned benevolent elves and darker-skinned violent orcs, to the Orientalist stereotyping visible in Star Trek's Klingons and the Dothraki in Game of Thones.
This is ultimately because cultural worldbuilding – especially when left unexamined – draws heavily on real-world cultures and traditions. Tolkien’s cultural worldbuilding, for instance, borrowed heavily on ideas about nations and races that were common in the early twentieth century. Authors are always products of their times. When Tolkien was writing in the 1930s, eugenicist ideas about race were in heavy circulation all over Europe.
But despite that, authors still have agency and can imagine their storyworlds in ways that are respectful and inclusive within a given historical moment.
What's exciting here is that SFF books not only reflect but also illuminate what it means to be human amid a changing world!
With this in mind, in this blog post, I'll cover some basic principles on how you can define cultural and social groups in your SFF writing.
First things first:
Are you writing social science fiction or fantasy?
If you want to explore culture and society in your writing then you are likely writing social science fiction or fantasy. One of my favourite classics here is Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. It focuses on one idea (an ambisexual people) and examines the implications of this.
Social SFF is sometimes called soft SFF (although this term is also used to refer to accounts that favour emotionality and character relationships over scientific plausibility).
If you are not examining ideas about culture, there is a danger of simply falling back implicitly on ideas about culture that are floating around wherever you live. If you live in a Western European context this might means lots of hierarchy and discrete ‘peoples.’
If you are not tackling social or cultural topics in your novel, then a good piece of advice is to restrict mention of cultural elements to those that advance the plot. Excessive, unnecessary detail could lead to boring infodumps, as I discussed in this post on setting and worldbuilding.
Too much detail also leaves less to the reader’s imagination, and if your descriptions are based on real-existing cultural objects, practices, or ideas, you could be accused of cultural appropriation.
For this reason, I favour sparse but iconic descriptions of groups. The more details you give, the more potential there is for problematic representations. But descriptons that help the reader to conjure up a clear mental image are important too. This means a certain amount of Otherness should be sprinkled in to mark out the setting as different: if the characters are eating moss burgers and drinking slime juice, we know we are not in twenty-first century USA.
Worldbuilding tools: Focusing on culture, society, and politics
If you do focus on cultural and social themes, your approach to groups in your stories should consider:
Diversity is the ‘cultural stuff’ you draw on. This includes rituals, technology, magic, customs related to clothing, food, leisure activities, work etc. You can make a list of all the objects (props) you have in your story.
This ‘cultural stuff’ is usually ascribed to a named collective (e.g., the cave dwellers, the Romans, the Dutch). But how do people belong to these collectives? Is it through something they do (e.g., a people who farm or fish) or is it through something they are (e.g., being born into nobility)? How fuzzy are the boundaries surrounding membership?
Finally, how internally homogenous is the group? How hierarchical is it internally? Are hierarchies established with other cultural groups? What power do these hierarchies rest on, and how are they maintained?
An example: Tribes of Europa
Let’s look at the groups in the television series, Tribes of Europa. While these groups may appear strikingly different and opposed, the boundaries are not so clear as they appear at first.
Draws heavily on fascist ideas (honor, glory in death, colosseum, slave labor) and combines them with a Goth aesthetic and sex slaves
The Crimson Republic
Draws on the political idea of a European federation, uniting people from different cultural backgrounds; a militarized remnant of the EU
Based on a conservative or anarcho-primitivist rejection of technology
These different groups are not ‘peoples’ in the same way that Tolkien intricately created a whole history, language, and customs. Tolkien's understanding is close to the German Romantic concept of a Volk.
Instead, in Tribes of Europa they are not so much 'peoples' as groups with different resources and tactics struggling for survival in a post-Apocalyptic landscape. Even the Crows have a route to ‘citizenship’ for those from outside, even if it is brutal. Some, such as the Crimsons, are more like social movements.
Tribes of Europa is a good example of conceptual borrowing that in my view moves far enough away from existing cultures and traditions to avoid charges of copying or cultural appropriation.
The different groups have a clear link to Europe’s past, but are vague enough to operate as a canvas for your mind to fill in the blanks and create your own imagining.
For instance, I lived in the former Yugoslav region for years, and so I couldn’t help but think of parallels between the socialist Partisans (the Crimson Republic) and the Ustashe (the Crows); all the more so because the Crimson Republic’s outpost was filmed at a Partisan monument.
The important takeaway here is that culture, politics, and society all interlink. A group of people can be anything from a temporary political alliance to a group with shared practices, people who share a situation, or people who self-define as belonging to a tightly knit 'ethnic group'.
Your approach to 'groupness' should consider the wider backdrop of your story, and the micro-elements of your world should reflect that. Strict social hierarchies will surely have elaborate codes of address and the use of symbols with a deep social meaning (e.g. a crown). A more egalitarian society based on affinities would have looser boundaries.
If you want to learn more about groupness and get some feedback on your cultural, social, and political worldbuilding, check out my forthcoming course on this topic!
Feel free to ask a question or introduce your groups in the comments below as well!
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Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!