Besides the notebooks containing my world’s history and geography/maps, there’s also one describing cultures…
When I started my novel I had some ideas and images in my head concerning culture. As I proceeded, though, I realized my world building needed societies that were defined rather then arbitrary.
Cultures produce characters. Not the other way around.
Yes, people play a part, but it requires many people over a long period. That’s history. Geography (including climate) also influences culture and for the world builder that makes a decent map a fantastic aid. Mountains and rivers are two features that can separate cultures, especially when transportation is slow and limited.
Physical features (mountains in blue on map) isolated Hartise the province when the Empire existed. Later, when the Empire collapsed those same mountains helped protect it. Too, isolation helped create a unique culture. That’s the macro view.
Looking closer, there are regional, religious, political, and status differences within Hartise. Elements like class, educational level, wealth, royal ties, and even magic also come into play.
In contrast, differences are sometimes created within an otherwise homogenous population when a significant separation event occurs. Such events are more than history. In a writer’s novel they’re drama begging for the opportunity to influence the plot.
Don’t waste such opportunities.
In Hartise, the religion known as the Order of Genessa split into two and the Purist’s Vision (those viewing magic as evil) was created. The split, or separation event, occurred when demon creatures swept across the country in great numbers.
Ah, but the seed that created the event was planted when the Old Empire wizards violated the law and opened the “aperture” to explore alternate worlds. They then compounded their mistake and brought Berkaphis through the aperture.
An inviting-werewolves-as-entertainment level mistake. Ouch!
Berkaphis betrayed them, turned on the Empire, and helped bring about its downfall. When geography and climate helped Hartise repulse his military assaults, Berkaphis secretly drove all the demons he could find across its borders.
Separations are never as simple as they may seem.
An aside: What two cultures view as a physical division between them (a mountain range or desert, for instance) may possess a population that possesses its own culture. The mountain-dwelling hobs are a good example (highlighted areas on map). Not only do hobs live in what humans believe are less-hospitable regions that represent barriers to travel, they manage to maintain cultural ties over great distances.
I started with talking about characters emerging from the culture you created (how much cultural detail you provide is up to you) and now will share a caution: If a character is significantly different from the culture she is raised in that’s a backstory needing explaining. It’s also more rich material for the character and the plot.
Truly, history, geography, and culture, along with their various sub parts, help add depth to a fantasy world. Too, they help create plot lines you might not have otherwise devised. Like a stew, they all enrich the broth, yet continue to maintain their separate identities.