Way With Worlds: Culture And Civilization

Culture and Civilization - the first founds the second

[Way With Worlds appears at Seventh Sanctum at at MuseHack]

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.

Culture And Civilization – What Are We Talking About here

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:

  • First of all, they are things that we’d expect intelligent life to have. Admittedly as of this writing the only intelligent life we humans have to compare any world building to is us, but still you go with what you know.
  • Culture, obviously, affects how your characters see the world and how they’ll interact with it.  It gives perspective.
  • Because Culture is how intelligent life (well, again, humans) gets perspective, its part of how each character is a Lens on your world. Knowing your setting’s culture or cultures is not just good world building, it’s indispensable for storytelling. If a culture is hard to comprehend that may require some delicate writing, game design, etc. – and may produce an epic tale of a truly unique world that sucks people in.
  • Culture and Civilization are huge parts of the stories you’ll tell in your world, and in some ways are the stories. They are the reasons people do what they do, the reason things happen, the reasons for certain implications. A simple look over any story, book, novel, etc. will show how much motivation and happenings are because of the structure of a culture and/or the civilization it built.
  • We expect them. Because they are something we’re so used to their very lack will sit ill with an audience – unless that lack is, again, part of the setting and you engage in drawing people into that setting.

So with this said, let’s get to building.

Crafting Culture

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:

  1. What are the values of the traditions, languages, etc. In short, why did they develop or were they developed?
  2. How is culture passed on and why is it passed on – how are its elements seen as valuable?
  3. How does the culture deal with disruptions – or with parts of it wearing out?  Does it have the ability to adapt?
  4. What keeps the culture functioning – if it doesn’t have it’s own safeguards, it could malfunction, which of course would be an interesting tale.
  5. How does it reflect the beings that have the culture – how is it “part” of them. How did their traits affect it?
  6. How is it “prosthetic” – how does it make up for any limits the sentient beings who are part of the culture have?

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 – Going Big

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.

  • Civilization is culture solidified. You’ll want to know at what point (if any) a culture started putting down the roots, policies, buildings, and so forth that turned it into a civilization.
  • * Civilizations are about stability.  They may fail at it, but in general they seem to involve having stability.
  • * Civilization changes the environment. Farms require irrigation, buildings require quarried stone, industries pollute the air, and so forth. Civilization has impact – and impacts not often expected. Kinda messes with that whole stability thing, but there you go.
  • * Civilization extends Culture. A Civilization can wield more cultural influence, and indeed is usually larger than any independent Culture.
  • * Civilizations are much more complex than Culture. It’s safe to say few people in aCcivilization know how it works. So you’re going to need a gods’ eye view as well as understanding individual perspectives. You also need to make sure a civilization is believably complex in your world building.
  • * Civilizations are linked to technology – they require technology to be established, and of course help evolve it.

Big Job, Big Perspective

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