Creating a Fictional Culture: Step by Step

Creating a fictional culture is something that almost all fiction and fantasy writers will have to do at some point. Whether you need a culture for a society of humans in an alternate world or the future, or you need to bring your fictional species to life with a vibrant culture of their own, you’re going to need to make sure you are thorough. Making a culture for humans might be easier, because you can draw on real history for inspiration. However, nothing is more gratifying than putting the final touches on your own alien or fantasy creatures by creating their entirely unique way of life. 

For tips on creating your own fictional species from scratch, check out this article first: The Ultimate Guide to Creating a Fictional Species.

Society and Family in the Fictional Culture

The first place you should start when creating a fictional culture is with family and relationships. How an individual in a society interacts with those around them is a huge indicator of how the societal norms evolve over time. After all, families are important communities, and they form the building blocks of the society as a whole.

The Structure of Family Relationships in the Fictional Society

Most human societies are (or were) based on a patriarchal family structure. Families consisted of a father, a mother, and their direct (or adopted) offspring. The father was the head of the household, and made all or most of the financial decisions. You may have heard this referred to as the “Nuclear Family.” However, changing viewpoints and the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage has expanded that definition to include families with two fathers or two mothers. 

If you only think about the nuclear family structure, that way of thinking doesn’t account for the many other possible family structures that you could apply to your society. Your society doesn’t have to follow that formula. It doesn’t have to be even close to it. Here are some examples of different family structures for you to consider:

  • A matriarchal structure (the mother rules the household instead of the father)
  • Tribes or clans of multiple biological families living together
  • More than two parents present in the family
  • Extended family such as cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews are included
  • Single-parent households
  • Children are left alone to fend for themselves (really only works if the society isn’t human, and the species’ biology allows for this)
  • Children are sent to one place to be raised together by adults who aren’t their parents
  • Only the first child is raised by the parents; subsequent children are passed down to their older siblings to be raised
  • Children are handed off to grandparents to be raised so the younger and more able-bodied parents can do more work for society

There are many more options for family dynamics and structures available than just what you see around you. Think about the possible options, and try them out for size. See which ones work for your species and story. In the end, you may still settle on a nuclear structure, and that’s fine—as long as you don’t see it as the only option.

How Advanced is the Society?

Another thing to consider is how advanced this particular society is. This includes things such as tools, technology, knowledge, medicine, and much more. Are they comparatively more or less advanced than the other societies around them? Do they specialize in one thing, such as technology, but have a lesser understanding of medicine? Are they particularly skilled in the arts? Architecture? Mathematics? How have they evolved over time, and what do they still need to learn?

This question is usually quite important if your story takes place in an intergalactic setting. Has this species progressed to the point where space exploration is possible for them, or are they lagging behind the rest of the galaxy? 

Design the Society’s Cultural Clothing and Accessories

Clothing is a huge part of expressing one’s culture. The colors, patterns, and styles of clothing across cultures are vastly unique, and it is a great opportunity to further set your society apart. What is considered normal dress for individuals in the society? Is the expectation different for males and females? What about children? Does the society subscribe to notions of modesty? These are all questions you should keep in mind while designing the culture’s apparel. 

Here are some additional questions to help you generate ideas:

  • What is considered an acceptable length for skirts/pants/kilts/etc?
  • Are there distinct patterns unique to the culture?
  • Do they wear jewelry? Piercings? Do they have a preferred type of metal for this jewelry?
  • Do they have cultural tattoos or scars? Or are those things nonexistent, or forms of personal expression?
  • Is it customary for them to have specific haircuts or styles?
  • Are there laws restricting what can and cannot be worn? What about religious restrictions?
  • Are any colors significant to the culture?
  • Do they have a preferred type of fabric, such as sheer, thick, soft, leather, or fur?
  • How does their environment and climate impact what they can and cannot wear?
  • Do they have any traditional headpieces or hats? 
  • Do they have more than one distinct style of clothing?
  • How do rich individuals dress in comparison to poor individuals? What accessories are considered luxurious or prized?

Designing outfits is clearly much easier if you can draw, but don’t feel discouraged if you aren’t comfortable doing that. If you can envision what it looks like, simply write it out in as much detail as possible and reference back to that whenever you need to. Remember to keep separate notes for different styles to keep things organized.

What does Cultural Music Sound Like in the Fictional Society?

Music is another important part of culture, and it can have purposes ranging from religious ceremonies to entertainment, and more. 

The first step in deciding what music they would make is to decide what instruments they actually have. Are they stringed instruments, or woodwinds? Do they mostly use percussion instruments? What do these instruments look like, and do they bear any resemblance to instruments your readers would be familiar with? Once you know the objects your society uses to make sound, you can use that to determine what their music would sound like.

Of course, there’s a lot more to music than just the instruments used to make it. You should also consider things such as tempo, minor vs major keys, vocals, and overall genre. Try to come up with a good description that sets your society’s music apart from other cultures. 

What do People in the Society do for Fun?

Recreation is a pretty big deal for most intelligent species. However, the way an individual chooses to spend their free time can depend a lot on the culture they were raised in. Some cultures focus on the arts, while others could spend more free time dueling or beating the snot out of each other. The options for recreation depend on the general temperament of the society, but in general, they include things such as games, sports, and shows.  

What a society chooses to entertain themselves with depends on other aspects of their culture. Medieval knights subscribed to a code of chivalry that encouraged fighting for glory and their kings, so it was only natural that one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the violent (and often quite gory) practice of jousting. Gladiator battles in Ancient Rome is another example of a rather violent form of entertainment. Alternatively, plays, poems, and music were all the rage in Shakespearean times. In modern times, people are more interested in video games, movies, and professional sports, instead of live performances. 

You don’t have to pick only one form of entertainment, but there are usually one or two major forms that define an era, culture, or group. Try to find that iconic game, sport, or show that is representative of the culture, and have some fun with making it really unique. 

The Religion and History of the Culture

Once you have some of the basic information down, you can move on to the deeper and more complex aspects of the culture. These are going to be bigger topics, such as history, religion, traditions, and the likes. By fleshing out these topics, you will be able to create a rich and exciting culture that makes the society unique and interesting to your readers. 

Write their Cultural History

History is a hugely important determining factor for the development of a culture. The outcomes of wars, dynasties, eras, kingdoms, tragedies, migrations, and thousands of other historical factors each leave a significant mark in the identity of a society. For example, think of any of the wars throughout human history. How would society have changed and culture been altered if the outcome had been different? 

Writing out the history of an entirely fictional society or species (or an entire planet) could definitely seem overwhelming. But don’t give up so soon—you don’t need to write out every single notable event throughout the entirety of their history. That would be ridiculous! 

You should, however, have a pretty good idea of some of the most important things to have happened. There could have been a huge war or famine that forever changed the way people had to live their lives. Alternatively, a good trade deal with another society, nation, or planet could have provided the financial stability to pull the society out of a recession. Whatever you decide is important, you should put enough thought into it to be able to string together a coherent timeline of events. This will help you with plot and storytelling, and can add depth to the struggles the society could be facing at the time of the story. 

Once you have a decent history pieced together, take some time to think about the impact each event would have on the culture. Have wars left them jaded and distrusting of other cultures? Have they established a reputation for being a specific way? Did they host a celebration after a notable event, that has become a tradition to repeat every year on the same day? Think about the ways in which humans in different cultures mourn or celebrate events from history, and draw inspiration from that.

Create a Fictional Religion for the Culture

A society’s beliefs can have a huge impact on how individuals interact, how laws are constructed, and how social norms are established. However, creating an entire religion from scratch can be a big undertaking. There’s so much to think about, from ceremonies, customs, deities, forms of worship, and much more. So where do you get started?

Well, the first thing you need to decide is the structure of the religion. Is it based around a single god or many? Are they benevolent or vengeful gods? Is the concept of a god even applicable? Does the society have faith in nature, space, or their own souls instead? Figuring out what you want to base the religion around is the first step. If you don’t know what is being worshipped, then you don’t know what the religion is about. 

Once you’ve settled on what the religion is based on, you need to develop some main ideas. All religions have beliefs and expectations for every person following the religion. Those expectations should be commonly taught in sermons and enforced by older peers. Expectations could be to do things such as: 

  • Pray a certain number of times a day
  • Fast periodically
  • Attend religious gatherings
  • Ritually sacrifice animals or individuals
  • Dress a certain way
  • Abstain from certain behaviors
  • Embark on spiritual journeys or missions
  • Dispose of the dead in a specific way
  • Do things that ordinarily would be avoided
  • Help and care for others
  • Use ceremonial intoxicants
  • Sing regularly 
  • Or any other behavior that the religion dictates 

You should also decide how widespread the faith is. Is it universal, or even synonymous to the culture? Or is it falling out of favor with younger generations? Is it merely part of their legacy, and not even practiced anymore except by a select few who still cling to the old beliefs? Is there a rift between believers and nonbelievers? How does each side formulate their arguments against the other?

Now that you have established the basis of their beliefs and the prevalence of it in the society, there’s only one thing left to do. You need to explain how the religion got started. For some religions, a prophet claimed to have received a divine message, and the religion was built around that. Alternatively, it could be the result of a totalitarian dictatorship that manipulated people into believing something. Religion, after all, can be used to enforce moral conduct and control behavior with the promise of rewards and punishments. 

However, there are a ton of other ways a system of beliefs could spawn, from catastrophic events to unbelievable occurrences. Historically, religion has been a way for people to explain the unexplainable. Ancient humans would use religion to explain everything from the weather, the changing of the seasons, the rising of the sun, life, and death. Gods were believed to change tides, bring rain, and work miracles. Or, just maybe, the religion of the culture is based around a real deity in their world. 

For a more in-depth explanation of how to create a fictional religion for your culture, take a look at my article: Creating a Fictional Religion.

Decide on Cultural Traditions

Traditions are another thing that could influence the behavior of a culture as a whole. These traditions could be religious, such as holidays, or they can be used to celebrate a landmark in an individual or couple’s life, such as coming of age, getting married, and having a child. They can be ceremonies, festivals, celebrations, rituals, and any other event that the society, as a collective, has decided to participate in regularly or predictably.

Traditions do not always need to make sense, nor should they always benefit a society’s survival. Traditions tend to be symbolic, superstitious, or religious, and they can often end up being something that individuals do not really look forward to. For example, not every culture is going to celebrate something as lighthearted as birthdays, or winter solstice. A tradition for a society could be to hold a sacrifice for their god, to go on a difficult journey, or commit to a life-changing decision. 

Some examples of cultural traditions are:

  • Celebrating birth, birthdays, and coming of age
  • Symbolic scarring, tattooing, or piercing
  • Festivals, parades, and parties
  • Annually celebrating something significant, such as religious holidays 
  • Sacrificing a person or animal in the wake of a natural disaster
  • Serving specific types of foods at specific times of day or year

One instance in which traditions are particularly important is with regard to the deceased. Dealing with death is historically difficult for most cultures to come to terms with, so it is highly likely that your culture has determined a respectful way to deal with the dead. For some, that could mean burial. For others, it could mean mummification. For others, that could mean sending them out to sea, burning the bodies, or even shooting them into space. Whatever you decide, having a way to justify why they do things that way could help keep that believable element to your story. 

Cultural Taboos and Superstitions

Similar to traditions, taboos and superstitions are related to religion and history. Some things could be considered bad luck or rude manners, even if there is no real bearing to support those claims. 

Superstitions are a powerful thing that can result in a large amount of fear directed towards a relatively harmless idea or thing. People could believe that it is unlucky to write someone’s name in red ink, to spill salt, to stay single after a certain age, or to deviate from a path if a certain type of flower is present. In addition to those superstitions, some numbers, words, colors, symbols, or items can be considered unlucky—or even evil—to use, look at, or speak aloud. These things are usually no different from other numbers, colors, and so forth, but they are believed to be unlucky as a result of historical beliefs, religious connotations, or correlations to terrible things. 

Taboos are a little different from superstitions, but still related. Taboos are typically behaviors that break social norms or deviate from what is traditionally accepted in the society. For some societies, it could be taboo to have a specific kind of family, such as one with two mothers or a single father. Other taboos could be types of relationships, diets, topics, problems, or behaviors. Of course, in order to deviate from social norms, you have to know what those are too. Take the time to make notes on what is acceptable in a society, what is unacceptable, and what falls into the gray area in between. 

The Politics and Economy of the Culture

Once a culture has achieved a level of structure and intelligence, politics and economics are never far behind. A culture typically has a large influence on the type of government that evolves, but other factors such as war, powerful individuals, natural disasters, and international/intergalactic relations can have an influence as well. An established government is also likely to influence the culture that created it, especially if it is a particularly controlling one. 

Creating a governmental structure for your society is the next step in making a believable and realistic culture with structure and consistency. 

Create a Structure of Government for the Fictional Society

There are countless ways to structure the government of your society. However, to draw inspiration from real history, you should understand some basic terms to describe different governments. That way, you can not only understand what type of government you want to employ, but you can know what to call it and how to describe it. 

  • Monarchy: Society is ruled by a single leader from a royal family. The actual power of the monarch could be absolute or symbolic, or something in the middle.
  • Republic: Leaders are elected by the people being governed, and laws are also often passed in a similar manner. Nothing becomes law unless the public votes for it.
  • Oligarchy: Society is ruled by a class of people that are considered to be superior. This could mean the rich, the smart, the creative, the religious, or the skilled. 
  • Anarchy: There is no publicly enforced government, authority, or hierarchy. Society operates on groups of individuals who volunteer to help those in need. It encourages cooperation to achieve anything, and no individual or group is seen as superior over another. 
  • Aristocracy: This is a type of oligarchy in which society is ruled by nobility that claim to be of higher birth than the rest of society. This claim of superiority could have religious connotations, but it is usually a result of being born into a family of a high social or political class. 
  • Theocracy: This is a type of oligarchy in which society is ruled by the religious elite, such as priests, prophets, and other religious leaders. Church and state are seen as a singular entity. 
  • Democracy: Representatives are elected to represent the masses, and can often represent a number of different political parties. These representatives then elect government leaders based on the political party that gains the most leverage. Sometimes, autocracies and oligarchies pretend to be democracies to trick their populations into believing their vote can make a difference. 
  • Autocracy: Society is governed by a single individual or group with absolute power over laws and legal decisions.
  • Junta: This is a type of autocracy in which society is governed by a military group that seized control by force. 
  • Dictatorship: This is a type of autocracy in which society is governed by one individual with absolute control over the military and population. 
  • Confederacy: Society is made up of a collection of individual states that work together to pool resources and manage larger societal problems that lone states would have difficulty managing.
  • Federation: Society is made up of a collection of individual states that work together like with a confederacy, but the individual states retain some rights and government control outside of the federal government. 
  • Socialism: Also known as “Social Democracy.” Individuals in society are entitled to rights through government intervention, such as medical care, public transportation, and education. 
  • Communism: This is a type of socialist society in which all resources and means of production are collectively owned. Individuals work according to their abilities and get paid according to their needs. 
  • Capitalism: Resources and means of production are owned by private companies, and society operates on a for-profit basis. Corporations generally get to keep whatever capital they make, so long as they pay their employees for labor. 
  • Tribalism: A small group of individuals is governed by a single chief, who may have varying degrees of power. This type of government is typically decentralized and characterized by extreme loyalty to one’s own tribe. Different tribes may exist in the same space, but would have distinct cultures.  

There are, of course, plenty of other options for political organization and government structure. In fact, you do not even need to select one of the options above; you could make up a structure, or use a type of government from other fictional stories. Some examples of fictional governments are hive minds, wizard councils, and rule by a higher power. Whatever you choose, make sure you understand it completely before you implement it into your story, otherwise, it could be difficult for your readers to understand. 

Creating Laws for a Fictional Society

Laws and regulations and natural consequences of trying to govern a population. Usually, laws emerge to protect civilians, protect government secrets, and keep society operating in a way that is sustainable, safe, and fair. Laws can also be a result of religious beliefs and taboos, control of the masses, government ideology, or public protest. 

When thinking about making laws for the culture, don’t just think about what is illegal. Try to think about what pushed the society or leaders to make that act illegal. Religious societies may outlaw practicing a different religion. Orderly societies may have serious penalties for distubing the peace. Dictatorships could outlaw anyone with negative sentiment towards their leader.

 You don’t need to think up of a huge list of laws, but you should come up with a few solid ones to add some restrictions to the things individuals can get away with. 

Creating a Fictional Currency

Currency is usually a pretty quick and easy element of society to figure out. Obviously, if your story is based on reality, then you can stick with dollars, credit, and bitcoins. However, if your society is vastly different from reality, or if it is based on a custom species, then you should come up with a different type of currency to accommodate the different culture. 

Some societies operate with a bartering system, in which goods and services are exchanged for other goods and services. An individual may go to a market and buy a jar of honey with a dozen eggs, or they could get a drink at a pub for cleaning tables for an hour. This type of currency is usually associated with less-sophisticated societies, but I think it could be interesting to apply it to a developed society. 

Other times, the common currency is just a system of coins, usually made of semi-precious metals, but of no objectively true value. Usually, there are different values of coins that can be traded up for more valuable coins. For example, ten bronze coins could get you a silver coin, while ten silver coins could get you a gold coin. This is how most currencies develop after a society has stopped using a bartering system. 

The next step in the currency process is with credit and borrowed money. Computers count arbitrary numbers up and down to determine an individual’s wealth, which can be used to buy goods and services in place of physical money. You could also utilize a credit system as a way of rewarding good citizens with currency to buy extra goods and services, which could be an interesting twist to an otherwise entirely communist society. 

Really, the currency in your culture doesn’t even need to be money or products. The only real requirements are that it has value, either socially or objectively, and that it can be traded. So really, knowledge could be the currency. Magical energy could be currency. Even physical affection could qualify. As long as you can justify it in the context of the culture, then anything is fair game. 

For a more in-depth explanation about making a currency for your world, check out my other article: Tips for Creating a Fictional Currency.

Creating Weapons and Tools for the Fictional Society

This section is arguably not as important as some of the others, but I thought it should be included nonetheless. Some species or societies, namely in fantasy, often have iconic tools and weapons that their people specialize in. Dwarves are traditionally seen as skilled smelters and weaponsmiths, while elves are almost always depicted with a bow and arrows. These tools and specialties are often a result of the overarching culture, but they could also result from physical advantages, such as a dwarf’s stature or an elf’s vision. 

Consider your society, and species, if that is applicable. If they could collectively specialize in or be recognized for one skill, what would it be? Do they use unique tools to accomplish different goals? How does their anatomy and biology influence the tools that they use and design? Do these tools or weapons become symbolic of the culture as a whole? 

What are the Social Problems in the Fictional Society?

No society is perfect. If you want to create a realistic culture, then you need to add some social problems to spice it up a bit. To make it believable, however, you need to base the problems on the other things that you would have decided above, such as the religion, history, type of government, and economic situation. 

Some examples of problems that could arise in a society are:

  • Civil war
  • Rebellion
  • Inequality on the basis of inherent biological factors
  • Economic inequality
  • Prejudice and discrimination
  • Abuse of political power
  • Unjust laws
  • Homelessness
  • Slavery
  • Drug abuse
  • Starvation
  • Violence and crime
  • Pollution

The problems in the society could be minor inconveniences for most individuals, or they could be huge issues that disrupt normal life for everyone. The degree to which you decide to take the society’s flaws will depend on the story you are writing and the temperament of the people in the society. 

How is this Fictional Culture Stereotyped?

Finally, it is important to consider an outside perspective looking into the culture you have created. What kind of reputation does this culture have with other cultures in their world? How would other cultures or species stereotype them based on their beliefs, history, attitudes, or traditions? Are they regarded highly, or often mocked? If other cultures were to describe them, what would they say about them first? What negatives and positives would they point out? What really stands out about the culture?

By assuming the position of a fictional third-party, you could also end up getting some insight into how your actual readers might perceive them. Use this to your advantage to make any adjustments as needed before you solidify the concept. 

A Parting Word of Advice for Creating a Fictional Culture

Before we come to a close, I just wanted to make a suggestion. If you are drawing from personal experience or other real cultures to create your fictional society, you could end up creating something that is not only stale but potentially offensive. The last thing you want is to create a society that seems to be an imitation of a real culture. This can be done well, of course, but tread carefully if you choose that path.

If you go against expectations and really get creative, you’re going to end up with a culture that feels unique and interesting. You could end up creating something so fascinating and memorable that your readers will think about it long after they finish your story. If you really want to immerse your readers, you need to put in the extra work to make the culture stand out as something truly unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

Go out there and create something incredible. I know you can do it.