• Use real life objects to generate new fictional names, cultures, countries, and nations.
• A single fruit can generate enough ideas for an entire country.
• Have a playlist of ideas to consider when world building. Use at least some of them.
Creating fantasy worlds generally means creating entire fictional worlds, which requires A LOT of content generation: unique names, distinct cultures, belief systems, countries, political systems, etc. And that’s all before considering the plot! I’ve found that all this is much easier using things in our own world and translating (or mutating) them into fantasy settings.
My first knowledgeable experience of seeing this happen was Dragon Ball Z (DBZ). I loved the show and thought the names of the characters were very original and innovative. Come to find out, many of the names were based on mutations of vegetable names:
Vegeta comes from vegetable;
Kakarot comes from carrot;
Raditz comes from radish;
Cabba comes from cabbage.
And the list goes. Different cultures in DBZ universe follow different themes: Saiyans use vegetables; the Namekians’ use musical instruments; Majins use magic words; and Frieza’s people use mutations and puns on words associated with cold.
Doing this helps keep cohesive themes to peoples, cultures, and magic systems. Often, authors will pick a language (such as Gaelic or Sanskrit) and use mutations of it for names associated with a single group of people. Dan Wells (of I’m Not a Serial Killer fame) told a SLC Comicon audience that he often takes inspiration from objects around his office, meaning someone’s name was derived from a stapler.
World Building With Fruit
Taking inspiration from something and applying it to an entire country can also work. I first started this when I needed to generate a bunch of countries for a world I was building. Using the lessons I learned from DBZ, I settled on the theme of exotic fruit. What kind of a country would a kiwi be (besides New Zealand)? What political system would resemble the inside fruit? What would their religion(s) be? Their music, their art, their military, their socio-economic structure? I found myself having a lot of fun with this exercise, using playlist questions on each fruit and coming up with new ideas.
Here’s an example of the process using a coconut (I’m a visual person, so I like using objects that have a lot of character and color).
Names associated with coconut (taken from Wikipedia) are Eocene (when they first appeared in our timeline), Plantae (the kingdom), Monocot, Commelinidis, Arecales (Order), Arecaceae (Family), Cocoeae (Tribe). I like Arecales. I might even get away with just using that as the country’s name but I’ll mutate it a bit: Arcelon, Arekale, Arekine, Arecanis, Aroc, etc. (I could use other parts of the word too, such as cales to Calis, recal to Recat). I’ll settle on Arekale, because I like how that sounds.
I see the Arekale people (Arekites?) as having a tough outer shell. Maybe they’re known for building thick/powerful walls. With the coloration of the coconut, perhaps they use mudbrick. The hard shell also tells me how the Arekale fight: they mostly use defensive tactics, fighting in close-knit groups with shields (like Greek hoplites, or Roman phalanxes). I see the Arekale having hooked weapons, like something that could cut out the meat of a coconut, but elongated to kill people. I see them using bludgeoning weapons as well, and favoring slings (throwing rocks is like throwing small coconuts). Children are taught early on to use the sling and they have other similar weapons that use rocks. Other countries hate fighting the Arekale because it’s like fighting a stone (that could be a saying about the Arekites). But maybe they don’t have horses, so outside their fortresses they’re easily routed by faster troops.
Water is extremely important to the Arekale (the inside of the coconut). Maybe they live in a desert, or up in the mountains. Maybe they have an extensive culture surrounding water. Their wells are famous throughout the world. Well technicians are considered aristocrats or perhaps the Arekites have a religion where priests are water technicians. Maybe they have a massive well that’s drilled down into an aquafer. They could have an extensive cave system in their mountains where they store water. The storage of water could be culturally unique to them, including how they purify water to keep it potable. Maybe they have water-finders who go out to find new locations for wells, and these specialized technicians are sometimes hired out by other countries.
They have a unique fruit that resembles a coconut but is hardier. I don’t see anything politically inspiring from the coconut so I’d just say they’re ruled over by a council of elders and maybe a king. Maybe they wear brown when traveling, but inside the walls, they always wear white and it’s culturally important to keep their white clothing clean.
I’m already well on my way to creating a unique culture and country based on a picture of a coconut and asking myself some playlist questions.
For another fruit (lychee), I see things completely different things. I see more emphasis on art, music, cuisine, maybe some sort of magic system that emphasizes beauty. I see these people wearing elegant silk robes with vibrant and impassioned colors. I see them as traders, as using archers more than foot soldiers, or having religions that have a high degree of mysticism. I see them having a large royal court (the seed in the middle) that has a huge etiquette system.
The same thing can work for characters, although this exercise generally only works for me in building countries. Any theme can work: fruits, vegetables, sports, religions, diseases, job functions, car models, etc. Just make sure you mutate it enough to be unnoticeable.
Beyond the Fruit Going over the right topics
You don’t have to develop everything in a new culture or character but you have to develop some things. This is a list of cultural items to consider, compiled by my writers’ group, Flaming Bacon Boar:
Relationship to magic/superstition
Architecture/Building materials/city planning
Birth/relationship to babies and newborns (Spartans bathed infants in wine)
Heroes/Villains/Founders/Religious and political figures
Relationship with death/burial/mourning/disease
Relationship with women and men
You can add these to your own playlist of ideas to consider or start thinking about what makes a culture/country unique in your eyes. What’s important to you locally, nationally, internationally? What’s important to other people at those same levels? What are people disagreeing about today? What are we scared about as a society? Where do we clash? Answering any, or all, of those questions will help build more vibrant worlds.
So what’s helped you with creating new cultures? Leave your comments below.