Building a Culture, pt 1

For the next several posts, we’re going to take a step back from writing and talk about planning. Specifically, this series of posts is about creating a back story for a fictional culture--be it science fiction or fantasy. Too often writers pick pre-existing Earth civilizations, change the names, plop in some magic, elves, spaceships, or ray guns, and just sort of hope for the best. In this series, I’m going to try and help you avoid culture cloning by sharing the fundamental building blocks of cultural theory.

Ok, let’s start by discussing what the point of culture is in the first place. If you’re an American like I am, or are familiar with our culture, you might know we are obsessed with freedom and prestige. We are a consumption based society and our culture reinforces the need to keep people spending. Every Anthropologist eventually sets upon the task of defining the word culture. Here is mine--a social construct created to solve problems unique to the geographic environment of the society. America is a land rich in resources. We need a culture that inspires production and consumption. Ok, before I get into too much trouble here, let’s move on to the very basics in human cultural development.

At first in our social evolutionary journey, humans scavenged. We hid up in trees to keep away from possibly lion-like predators at night. During the day, we used rocks to smash open the long bones of discarded carcasses to suck out protein rich marrow. We lacked the fangs, claws, tusks, speed, etc, of the other animals. Instead, we used our big brains to make us efficient hiders and scavengers. This is an important point because a brain is extremely inefficient. It takes an enormous amount of energy and protein to maintain. That means humans have to eat a lot of high protein meat without having the means to kill. In designing your Sci Fi alien people with claws, fangs, and all the other things that would have made having a large brain unnecessary for survival, consider that.

After hundreds of thousands of years of alternating between scavenging and being lunch, humans did learn to make weapons to kill and hunt and thus our place on the food chain shifted upward. This is where we start to see how our adaptation of having a big brain is starting to pay off. Hunting with spears and clubs is not very efficient, however. It takes a high level of luck and skill. There aren’t always animals around. Many of them run really, really fast and aren’t nice enough to hold still for you while you throw your spear at them. This is the point where humans(or alien / fantasy sentient beings) are going to seek ways to control that luck. How, might you ask? Through superstition and magic. A prime example, let’s look at modern day hockey players who use magic.

Like most athletes, hockey players on winning streaks might do things like eat the same foods, wear the same everyday clothes to the game, refuse to shower or wash their uniforms, refuse to shave during the playoffs, etc. Some players may tap their goalie’s pads with their sticks, refuse to touch the Stanley Cup unless they’ve previously won it, uh, what else? On and on the list goes. Through today’s rationale, we call this silly superstition. But this is ritualized practice of magic. It’s no different from a shaman consulting spirits to gain information about herd migrations, which holistic medicine to give the sick, influence of the weather, or other highly unpredictable events of which have high stakes. Whether it’s million dollar sports endorsements or survival, humans will turn towards the supernatural to influence their outcome. Now, hockey players live in a complex society like the rest of us, so they have multiple levels of social constructs. That’s because hockey players, though under a lot of pressure to play well, are not also under pressure to find food and shelter. So they have different levels of needs, and thus different layers of social constructions to solve these problems. But if you’re living in a cave or mud hut and your primary source of food is hunting and what you can gather as you migrate, then you have no reason to develop any higher level of social construction than animism and shamanism.

Ok, so at what point will a society advance to polytheism? Let’s say you want to build a society like the ancient Greeks and you want a God of the Sun, Hunt, Music, War, and all that good stuff. That’s where we’ll start for next week.


  1. Hey, Brian!

    This looks like it's going to be a good series. Many of us can always use improvement in culture/world building. I'm looking forward to the next part. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Steven. It's always nice to know others are listening and I'm not just here talking to myself--I tend to do that enough outside of the internet.