Monday, September 21, 2015

The Anthropological Approach to World Building

By: Darby Karchut

Which book was it? The book that first captured you with its world building? The book that made you look up and look around. Hoping for a glimpse of the Misty Mountains or the walls of Hogwarts. Listening for the crack of dragon wings, or the ring of a sword being drawn.

For me, it was J.R.R. Tolkien and his creation of Middle-earth. Certainly, other authors helped forge who I am, both as writer and reader: Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and later, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series. Most recently, I’ve added Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series to my list. Fine company, to be sure, and I learn something new every time I read these books.

How can I hope to match these authors and their skill in crafting such universes? One of the best ways I’ve found to approach world building in my books is to think like a cultural anthropologist.

So, here is an Anthropology 101, Introduction to Culture mini-lesson:  

*Ahem. Clicks on powerpoint*

Every culture has eight essential components or elements. No exceptions. If a group does not have all eight elements, then it is probably a social group, not a culture (as an anthropologist would define it.)

The Eight Elements of Culture
(in no particular order)




      Daily Life (Food, Clothing, Shelter, Technology)

      Social Groups

      Arts & Crafts



Depending on what the story needs, authors may focus on some elements more than others. That’s fine, as long as you give a nod to all of them.


      Answers the basic meaning about life

      Can be formal and elaborate, or informal and peripheral to your culture

      Can include science


      One of the strongest unifying forces of a culture

      Variation of a language is called a dialect (local form of a language that may have a distinct vocabulary and pronunciation)

      Idioms, sayings, and cuss words are a great way to enrich your world


      Actual as well as myths

      Shapes how a culture views itself and the world, especially stories about a people’s challenges and successes. Helps people develop cultural pride and unity

      Cultural holidays mark important events and enable people to celebrate their heritage


      Food, clothing, shelter

      Think about special foods or drinks your characters enjoy or ones they avoid

      Clothes and weapons or tools can really “mark” a culture

      Housing, including the building, furniture, gardens, technology


      People can belong to more than one social group based on age, gender, interests, and more

      The family is the most important social group

      Your characters should act differently in different social groups

      Ethnic group: a group that shares a language, history, or religion, and sometimes, physical traits


      Expresses what your characters think is beautiful and meaningful

      Can also tells stories about important figures and events in the culture


      visual arts (both two dimensional and three dimensional)


      performing arts



      Your characters need rules in order to live together without conflict

      Limited Governments (restricts the power of its leaders)

- Examples:  democracy, representative democracy, constitutional monarchy

      Unlimited Governments: (leaders are all-powerful)

- Examples: dictatorship, absolute monarchy, theocracy


      A system that determines what goods and services are produced, how to produce them, and who will receive them

      Four main types of economic systems:

     Traditional: barter and trade

     Market: capitalism

     Command: communism (written with a small c means an economic system; written with a capital C means a form of government)

     Mix: a blend of several. Many developed countries have this. For example, China has a command economy, but allows some features of a market economy

By embedding these eight elements of culture in your world building (even if your characters are non-human), you create a depth that the reader will consciously or subconsciously pick up on. And, by making each element logical to your creation, it makes your world more “real”.

Thus endeth the lesson.

About the Author: Darby Karchut is a best-selling author, dreamer, and compulsive dawn greeter. She's been known to run in blizzards and bike in lightning storms. When not dodging death by Colorado, Darby is busy writing urban fantasy for tweens, teens, and adults, and she is now dipping the toe of her running shoe into contemporary fiction. Her debut YA novel, GRIFFIN RISING, was recently optioned for film. Darby’s other books include THE HOUND AT THE GATE, THE STAG LORD, and coming in December, UNHOLY BLUE. Visit her at

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