Thanks to heavy worldbuilding you’ve got your setting, and in that setting you’ve got intelligent life (probably). Now that you’ve got sentient species in your universe,it’s time to work on their Culture and probably Civilization. I’m capitalizing deliberately, by the way for when I’m getting abstract.
Culture and Civilization are something we talk for granted because we’re used to living in them all the time. But they’re also huge elements of world building because of what they are – and taking them seriously is important because they are massive definers of intelligent life.
So once again we get into just what’s under discussion. I’ll go and give some quick summaries, but of course we’re talking about concepts people have debated for ages. So these are viewpoints towards applying these concepts to worldbuiilding, not to answering age-old questions.
Culture – Culture are those things sentient life learns and passes on amongst its members so they function, work, relate, interpret, and so on together. Simply, it’s the acquired knowledge, language, communications, and so forth that let intelligent life function and function with each other.
Civilization – Civilization is when you really kick things into high gear Culture-wise. You start building things, establishing centers, and writing your culture deep into your physical environment – and usually writing in general. I’d say that you need a culture to have a civilization, but then again there’s some pretty interesting world building to be had by violating that rule . . .
Metaphor-wise I think of Culture is the operating system and programs that run in a sentient being’s mind. When we start seriously connecting cultured people together and modifying the environment, establishing things that last over time, then you’ve got a giant interlinked system like a manufacturing system, computer network – that’s Civlilization. Yes computer metaphors are a bit cold for discussing such things, but i find they’re effective – and distant enough that I’m not using metaphors for culture and civilization that are too close to those actual things.
You can also see why they’re vitally important in writing:
So with this said, let’s get to building.
Creating the culture or cultures in your worlds is probably something you’re doing automatically. But I find it helps to have an idea of what we’re doing to keep us inspired, focused, and not loosing track of what we’re doing.
Culture is that which intelligent life creates, relates with, and passes on. It is language, rules, ideas, symbols, relations, and so forth, those things that let us function and function together. Think of it as a kind of “improved genetics” where intelligent life has the power to change and grow itself, and pass those changes on. These changes alter and improve not by generations, but by interactions between individuals and the environment.
(I’d even go so far to say truly intelligent life has to have Culture for it to do much. Having seen how we humans create culture almost instinctively, I think our limited sample set here makes an impressive example).
So this gives us a starting point for designing Culture – it’s how people (be they human or not) work together in the present and the future and communicate and store information. Yes, it’s a cold metaphor, but effective.
When building a culture you’ll want to focus on:
You can also drill down into the specifics of culture, like religion, language, and so forth. We’ll see about doing that later, but for now this should get you thinking.
Next, let’s think of what happens when you extend culture into something more permanent, civilization.
Civilization is when Culture settles down and really gets going. In a lot of cases literally – Cvilization is when people put down roots, build things, and make a more solidified place to “be.” It’s what happens when Culture gets physical in the forms of cities, temples, written language, and more.
It’s hard to extract Civilization from Culture, but in general Civilization seems to be associated with intense physical infrastructure. So for the purposes of this essay, I’ll consider Civilization to be when Culture becomes more established both physically and intellectually.
Not all your intelligent life in your setting will have Civilization. Culture exists before Civilization, and one doesn’t need organization, centralization, or much of a physical infrastructure to have Culture. In fact, the first question you have to ask about any intelligent life you design is how far are they into Civilization from just having Culture. A population of nomads or wanderers may have Culture but not what we’d recognize as Civlization.
So you might be able to stop here. But just in case . . .
When Culture gets solid, then you have Civilization. Civilization in your settings brings in so many other issues that, like culture, one could write hundreds of thousands of words on the subject. But as a handy guide to save you from that, here’s a quick checklist for designing your civilization.
So when it comes to designing Culture and Civilization you’ve got quite a job cut out for you. So beyond all the other advice, here’s what I recommend.
Read about real cultures and real civilizations.
Reading about other cultures than your own, about civilizations that have come and gone, that are and on their way up or out, gives you an intuitive grasp of how people and their social structures work. At some point you’ll probably get a good enough grasp to build your world or get out of a case of world builder’s block. But read.
Besides, it’ll broaden you as a writer and a person.
Culture and Civilizations are inevitable in your world when you’re building your setting’s intelligent life. They’re part of being an intelligent species, and you not only can’t avoid them in most cases, you really don’t want to as they drive the plot.
It’s challenging, but with work and good study, you’ll be up for it. My guess is if you’re doing any world building you already started it.
– Steven Savage