Apologies for the late post! It’s been a bit of busy day.
Alright, let’s just go ahead and jump right into it: culture’s hard. It’s got so many different components to it that it seems almost a pointless endeavor to think hard about any book’s culture – whether it’s your book or your favorite author’s.
But I’m going to attempt to hit all the major points without making an obscenely long post. And I’ll do that by focusing on the three major elements: political, social, economical. The whole shebang.
When we think of a fantasy world’s politics, we think of kingdoms. And it makes sense. Gondor and Rohan in Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien; most of the kingdoms in Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, if memory serves (it’s been awhile); Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire by Martin. Other books, too, like the Empire in Eragon by Christopher Paolini; Adarlan in Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas; Nander, Sunder, Estill, Wester, and the Middluns, etc. in Graceling by Kristin Cashore. All have kings and kingdoms in it. It’s just considered the norm. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but I don’t recall reading any books that had a different type of political system. If you, my fellow readers, have read such books, feel free to put them in the comments below.
Anyway, politics don’t just have to do with government systems. As we can find out just by looking at the real world, it also deals with laws and taxes and foreign policy. In Graceling, Katsa notes how the four outer kingdoms (Nander, Sunder, Estill, and Wester) often switch alliances at the blink of an eye, coming together with their once-enemy to fight against their new, shared enemy, only to break apart a little while later and pound each other. The Middluns, situated in the middle of it all, takes a neutral stance, opting to stay out of it. In Throne of Glass, Adarlan has a foreign policy that can basically be reduced to “Conquer everyone.” In The Lord of the Rings, the Shire’s foreign policy is to have no foreign policy. They stay in their region, and everyone else is kind enough to keep away.
A final big question to consider when thinking about the politics of your world is this: what important laws are there? And if those laws are broken, how are they punished? Killing someone usually results in a pretty hefty punishment. But is that a lifelong sentence in jail? Or is it a death sentence? In Adarlan, most crimes seem to be punishable by either getting tortured or by being sent to work in the salt mines or by being killed. In A Song of Ice and Fire, treason results in decapitation (which isn’t all that surprising, I suppose). Many other crimes seem to result in a choice: get something cut off (a hand for theft, something else for rape, etc.) or go to the Wall and live out the rest of your short life there.
Economics tend to play a small part in fantasy novels. It’s a side component used to show how the kingdom (or country, etc) is able to support itself, mostly to give the world its realistic flavor. In A Song of Ice and Fire, you’ve got the Lannisters, who mine gold. The Tyrells specialize in agriculture. So on and so forth. In Lord of the Rings, the Shire produced agriculture and pipe weed. The dwarves mined mithril. Rohan specialized in horses. Gondor, I believe, used to be a place of learning, but is now just a place that generates warriors to fight back the dark hoards of Sauron.
It’s always interesting to note how labor is divided. What jobs are considered only “for men?” What of jobs only “for women?” Of course, these types of stereotype-questions are really only made to break trends. In Rohan, the fighting was supposed to be a male-only occupation. It’s a good thing that Eowen didn’t care about that. I believe that the elves of Lord of the Rings didn’t really have a gender hierarchy (as in, one is higher/better than the other) but the males do seem to have a prevalent role. The exception? Definitely Arwen.
A big question to ask, also, is knowledge. A lot of novels vary in just how far their kingdoms are industrialized. In Fire by Kristin Cashore, they are advanced in medicines because of a particular king and his adviser, who practiced the art of Science. In Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, the kingdom of Terrasen had been a place of knowledge, until the king of Adarlan burned their libraries to the ground. In Lord of the Rings and in Wheel of Time, knowledge varies by kingdom. It really depends on whether or not the kingdoms have universities, and how well the economy is doing in general.
And, finally, the question of the monetary system. Do they barter or do they use weighted coins or do they use a combination of paper money and coins? Jordan’s Wheel of Time series used weighted coins. While the actual worth of money isn’t often brought up in novels, I’ve discovered that it still helps to know the system. If they use coins, what are they made out of? Do they all weigh the same amount, or do they weigh differently (which changes their value)? What is their equivalence to Earth money? (Really, that last question is just for you, so you can calculate how much things might cost. This is nowhere near accurate, but say a horse on Earth costs $100. Well, situated for inflation and whatnot, Kingdom X’s gold dollar is worth maybe $4. So a person would need to earn 20 gold coins. But how much is that? How much does a farmer earn? A knight? A lord?)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a big portion of a region’s culture. Just some things to consider: I already mentioned universities as an engine of economical growth. Well, I guess art is the engine of social growth. Art usually means that there is personal freedom of expression, and in a medieval-type world it generally also means either being poor (because it didn’t pay very much) or being wealthy as-is so that you can make art without really having to worry about the finances. Because medieval-type worlds don’t usually have printers or cheap paintbrushes and canvases, it isn’t all that surprising that art is not something that is found, except by the occasional bard or musician or dancer… things that can be heard or seen rather than read.
Also part of the social construct is family size, their values and morals, how they view people who are different from them – elderly, people of the opposite gender, people of the opposite race, even – as well as how they treat people who are like them. It’s also important to note that these sorts of views vary from generation to generation. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Steward of Gondor was a very proud man who didn’t really want help from anyone. He most certainly didn’t want to bow before Aragorn, the true king. Of course, this didn’t mean that all were like that. Boromir was honorable, and he most certainly wasn’t proud. He did his duty, and did his best to keep Gondor safe. Faramir disliked his father’s ways, as well, but really only wanted to please his father, to make him proud as Boromir did.
And, finally, there’s the whole idea of religion. George Martin is well-known for his many religions – the Old Gods of the North, the New Gods of the South (the Seven – Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Stranger, Smith, Warrior), the Drowned Gods of the Iron Islands, the Red God from across the Narrow Sea. In an age where it was difficult to explain things (scientific and magical things both), people came up with the idea of religion. While religion is not necessary for books (Kristin Cashore’s Graceling had no religion), it is always an interesting aspect of culture-building.