I’m in a good mood. More than half my writing is done for the day (3700 words down, 2500 to go), I have Stephen King’s Song of Susannah to read, and, best of all, I have no freshman English papers to grade this weekend.
So here’s another post.

1) What are the most powerful stories in your created culture?

You could probably name some of the ones in Western culture, if pressed. True love, or love at first sight. Good defeating evil. Blood sacrifice, or self-sacrifice. The “happily ever after” idea (involving love or not). In more recent times, the idea that all teenagers rebel against their parents. They’re very basic ideas, but powerful enough that people can structure their lives and expectations around them, expect to see them in entertainment, and get disappointed if they don’t encounter them, either in literature or in real life.
You should come up with stories that make sense for your culture. A culture that has fought wars since its beginnings and exists mainly as mercenaries would look really odd having the typical golden streets-pearly gates-motionless rest afterlife, unless it was explained as a reward for fighting well. A culture with marriages of convenience made mostly for gain would look odd having the “love is the only reason for marriage” story. (Romeo and Juliet is an exception, not the rule; one of my Shakespeare professors described them as “a nineteenth-century couple in a sixteenth-century play.”) And if all the characters in your book act and behave a certain way except your protagonist, and your protagonist wasn’t raised as part of a different culture, something is dreadfully wrong. I’m tired of reading books about characters who behave like twenty-first-century people in a medieval society. How did they get that way? Who gave them the ideas? Why do they believe that these things are right, and have such deep and elaborate justifications for them, when everybody else believes a different set of stories? Chiding the other characters for acting more in accordance with their created world, and exalting the odd person out, is silly.
And no, you don’t have to imitate our culture at all. Suicide can be noble. Running away to marry someone whom you met only once can be seen as the height of folly, if the roads are dangerous and the culture is full of stories about young people dying on them. Meditating next to a dead body can be seen as worthwhile, especially if the culture’s in a climate where the body doesn’t decay quickly. Try to come up with your own justifications, instead of transplanting the stories we grow to a world where they should wither and die.

2) Where did these stories come from?

Unless you have an incredibly stable, non-nomadic, xenophobic culture living in a place that other people can’t easily reach, it’s unlikely that all their stories only come from themselves. Contact between wildly different parts of the world without our level of technology happened—perhaps not frequently, but it did happen. As long as your people are curious, or greedy, or motivated enough to explore, then cultures will come into contact, and can easily influence each other.
There are other ways of doing it, too. Perhaps your culture was nomadic, and for a while they lived among a people who had tales of vampires. Then your culture could carry along tales of vampires as well, though they may have left that other people behind so long ago that no record of their contact remains. Perhaps one person managed to invent a new story type, and it worked so well that it spawned an entire imitative genre. (This happened with various figures in our world, including Milton, Dickens, H. Rider Haggard, and Tolkien, as well as, most likely, any number of ancient storytellers. Variations may be communal; the stories themselves are unlikely to always be). Perhaps the cultures spread out from a certain point, and two peoples on opposite sides of the world today tell stories similar at bottom because they were once one nation. Perhaps your current culture had to contend with a powerful existing one, and so absorbed it, changing the stories just enough to make them palatable; Christianity did this by transforming tons of pagan gods into saints. There are lots of ways of doing this.
This kind of culture-building can be useful to creating your world’s history as well. I know that I get bored reading timeliness that seem to be nothing more than, “And in this year this king was crowned, and in this year the Viking-like people invaded, and in this year the kingdom fell…” So approach it the other way around- history through culture, not culture through history. Did that king turn into an Arthur-like figure? What stories did the Viking-like people bring with them? How is the fall of the kingdom remembered a hundred, eight hundred, a thousand, eight thousand years later? The myths and stories can get layered on top of each other, and if you find that you have several different kinds combining, you may have found a need for those invasions and conflicts and nomadic travels, rather than just as boring facts to interject into the timeline.

3) What form do those stories take, and why?

Reading our world’s older fairy tales is a real education. One of the original versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” has the wolf eating the grandmother, Little Red Riding Hood disrobing and climbing into bed, and then the wolf eating her. The woodcutter, the grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood living, even Little Red Riding Hood’s clothes staying on, were all later additions. They were changed into stories suitable for children, but their background was as dark and bloody tales that could entertain adults during long winters.
Perhaps your people carve jaguars on the walls. Why carvings? Do they live in a place where other monuments would decay more quickly? (For example, jungles can swallow cleared areas pretty easily, and ornaments of cloth and leather and paper don’t last nearly as long as stone). Why jaguars? Is there a story about intelligent jaguars of the woods who save little children? What was it before it was that? Perhaps these tales are the last lingering remnants of an encounter with werejaguars. It’s okay to have your culture remember them in completely distorted fashion, too. Perhaps the werejaguars were not nearly as friendly as the stories say, but since the humans defeated them, they find it all right to tell gentler fantasies about them. You can have a lot of fun with “The winner writes the fairy tales.”
Perhaps your culture’s storytelling is entirely oral. Do they worry about keeping every line perfectly intact, or do the tellers vary them if they want and add in exciting new happenings that might suit their audience? A tale that traditionally ends with the death of a king might not be the wisest idea when the storyteller is sitting in the king’s hall. So he adds in ideas about the king almost dying, but then bathing in the blood of a dragon and recovering his life. Other storytellers could decide they liked that ending better, and so the tale changes.
Pay attention to the structure of the tales, too. Just because stories from our world use things like repetition and talking animals and unicorns doesn’t mean that your world has to. Too often, I read fantasies where the writer has come up with stories about the non-human races (who almost inevitably turn out to be still alive, not extinct), but that’s the end of the cultural background. That’s fantasy feeding on itself, really, since a lot of fairy tales aren’t particularly about fairies, elves, or unicorns. Try writing at least one story you imagine is typical of the culture, and see what comes out.

4) What are some minor, inexplicable things that are still important to your culture?

Three is a powerful number for a lot of people. Various explanations get offered: the Holy Trinity, two parents plus a child, three visible phases of the moon. It’s unlikely that most people think that deeply about it, though, and it’s unlikely that one explanation will ever get traced all the way back. Yet people like the number three, feel it’s a nice good number, and continue to hold those feelings despite the lack of much explanation.
The number thirteen being unlucky is the same way. People who have no idea that some scholars explain it as the number of people at the Last Supper still get uneasy about being on the thirteenth floor of a building. It’s used as the basis for black magic in a lot of fantasy novels. Again, not much analysis involved, but it’s still there.
Try coming up with things like this for your own world. What numbers are important, what colors? What’s unlucky- not necessarily the source of a whole cluster of horrid tales, just unlucky? What things do people feel silly for doing (like rapping on wood after saying something unfortunate), but do anyway? These little gestures aren’t sufficient to establish cultural depth by themselves, but they can help.
Not nearly done on this yet. I get fascinated by culture, and building it is probably my favorite part of making a fantasy world.