Science Fiction and Fantasy: How an Anthropologist Designs a Fictional Society | Maxxe Riann | Skillshare

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Science Fiction and Fantasy: How an Anthropologist Designs a Fictional Society

teacher avatar Maxxe Riann, Author|Artist| Student

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Building Blocks: Worldbuilding


    • 3.

      Magic, Mythologies, and Morals


    • 4.

      Food and Drink


    • 5.

      Language and Linguistics


    • 6.

      Beauty and Economy


    • 7.

      Interacting With Outsiders


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About This Class

Many writers (and video game designers and DnD DMs) are great at coming up with ideas for cool societies set in interesting worlds but then struggle with making the details feel realistic. To avoid ending up with something generic, follow along with this guide, designed for you by a published novelist... who also happens to be a cultural anthropologist. 

In order to get a fictional society to feel realistic, you're going to want it to have developed in realistic ways... but not necessarily to be based specifically on a preexisting culture. In order to create something unique and believable, try thinking like an anthropologist-- what are the building blocks and mythologies you're working with here? What do these people believe, and why? What do they want? What geological features exist to make them lead the lives that they do (clothing, buildings, etc)?

This class will guide you through these big questions, using a combination of anthropology concepts and examples from fiction/literature to help you create a fictional society for your sci-fi and fantasy stories (also perfectly applicable for Dungeons and Dragons, video game development, etc).

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Maxxe Riann

Author|Artist| Student

Level: Intermediate

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1. Introduction: Hi. Welcome to your class on writing fictional societies. So a little bit about me. Hello, My name is Max. I'm an author. I have two published novels, both of which are in the sort of fantasy SciFi range of things. I'm also an anthropologist, and I spent a lifetime reading science fiction and fantasy. And in that lifetime of reading science fiction and fantasy, I've come across a lot of really common flaws, especially for first time authors. But, I mean, you can't tell me that you've never read a book and not gotten irritated with the way that social hierarchies just exist for no apparent reason. That has nothing to do with the way that people live their lives in the context of their world, or the way that things were just a little too similar to European and American history, or the way that people curse with references to a god in a society that was not built on Christianity or the way that clothing is built off of silk and cotton and velvet, despite fact that the agriculture wouldn't necessarily support thought. So what I want talk to you guys about is how to fix all of those falls within your writing , and this can apply to science fiction and fantasy writing. This can apply to video game development. This can apply Teoh, dnd I anything that you would use a fictional society for. Hopefully this class will teach you how to fix any of those laws and keep them from happening in your writing. So I'm excited to teach this class with you guys. Let's get going. 2. Building Blocks: Worldbuilding: the first step to creating a believable fictional society is, of course, the very basic building blocks I'm talking about world building. Things that you want to take into consideration are what is the world that you're pieces set him. I think that's why it Brandon Sanderson in particular, is a very solid example because he creates these worlds that have very unique geological features. So a wind that sweeps the world from one direction to the other every single time. Um, that's the kind of thing that you want to take into consideration. Is it a rainy area? What is the geology like? What kind of skills do you need in order to be able to drive? How does a social hierarchy evolved from math? What jobs become absolutely necessary? So those are all things that you want to take into consideration. But arguably more importantly, is how did this society that you're working with evolve the way that a society evolves is arguably even more important than just what it looks like? I mean, if you think about it in context of the real world, look at America. We pride ourselves on food acquisition and wealth. A lot of that stems from the fact that we started a set of British colonies. And then we had a big focus on agriculture and they'll tell you get the idea of the Wild West so that easily transitions into industrialism, which is how you get capitalism, which is how we're in the society that we exist in today. So these are all things that you have to think about. If you want a believable society, how did they start? What steps did they have to go through in order to reach where they are, Something that gets overlooked? A lot is the agriculture of the place that your story is set in. I mean, that could be a simple as what textiles air people wearing and it can get as complex slash Also, very simple as what do people eat? I mean, think about how many fantasy stories you've read in which everybody eats stew. I don't know about you. I'm kind of tired of it. I think it's a little bit of a cliche, but say you know exactly what kind of animals are being brought up in the area surrounding where your culture exists. Maybe people are vegetarians because of something in their core theology. So these are all things that you really want to think about. Um, I think stew was kind of cough out. Please, I am begging you do not make a stew eating society. It is boring. It's sad. It was overdone when Tolkien tried it. Please know. Speaking of Stew, though, even when you're writing something that's super traditional fantasy, I'm talking elves, dwarves, goblins, whatever. You should still be thinking about this. I mean, think about the geology, especially. Why do we associate elves with the woods? Well, it's based on what kinds of skills you would need in order to survive in the woods. Doors with mountains. It's the same thing. I mean, there's a reason why we associate dorms with mining and with metal work. It's because that's what we also associate with, or which is what you mind from a mountain, especially if you're thinking about this for a fantasy. Think through those aspects of society what skills are important. How does one character reach their social position? Some other really good examples for especially the skills and hierarchy side of this, our Pierce Brown, with the Rev. Arising Siri's. And if you're looking at SciFi specifically, I would look at Pierce Brown in terms of world building and building society out of a very realistic seeming world. Um, I'd also look at Paolo Bacigalupi, who takes a world that starts off as ours and just pushes it forwards a couple of years thinking about ecology and biology and the environment. And it leads into this very realistic feeling. Totally scifi experience those air things even want. Think about how did the society evolve? How do you get from point a creation to where the rest of the story is happening? Something else that you want to think about is an email perspective versus an edict. Demick is gonna mean everything that you understand as an insider to a culture. You are a member of this society versus EDEK, which is going to be. You are an outsider to the society looking in. So that's something to think about with your narration. Think about where your narrator is situated in all of this that you're building. Are they a member of this society? If so, they're not going to think that some things were weird. They're just going to assume that that is how it is and how it has always been there. Not gonna need to describe every single thing that they're seeing because that would be like you describing every tree and bush on your walk down the street. When you go to walk your dog, you don't need to do that. But if your character is or if your narrator, I should say is coming at this from the outside, then absolutely. They're gonna notice every single thing that's different to how they grew up, in which case you're gonna need to think about the society in which they started and to which they have anemic perspective. So just to sum all of this up, it all comes down to what the world looks like in terms of geology and ecology, because that's how society is going to evolve. And that's what gets you to the point where your story or your book starts. That's what gives you those foundational building blocks that will help you build something really realistic and effective in terms of getting your audience to believe that it's riel , and it'll help you come up with something that's really unique, as opposed to elves, dwarves and stew, or if you want to get a little bit more creative space, Alison Rehydrated Spaces Dio Um, obviously there's nothing wrong with that. I just think that you can go a little bit further and be a little bit more creative with it . 3. Magic, Mythologies, and Morals: Alright, it's time to get a little bit fancier. So something that you're gonna want think about if you're writing SciFi and fantasy is is there magic in your world? And more importantly, what is the mythology in your worlds that you're working with? If there isn't magic, is there a perception of magic? Is there a perception of divinity? What does religion look like? And if you're gonna think about what religion looks like, then this is where we get into what in anthropology we call moral discourse. And with that, what you're gonna be thinking about or what are the do's and dont's that your society allows for? I mean, is that something as basic as don't climb trees? Because something bad will happen to you if climb the trees is that don't go in pursuit of knowledge that maybe you're not supposed to have so don't eat the apple from the tree of knowledge. So these are all just things to think about. How does something like modesty get covered? How about something like femininity? How about social rules? All of that tends to come from religion and mythology, and in addition to all of that, that's where you get a lot of ideas about kinship. That's where you get a lot of ideas about who owns the land that your story is taking place in. I mean, if you want a real world parallel, think about Jerusalem. How many cultures claim we owned this land when in actuality, it's because a piece of scripture told them that they dio So those are all things to think about. And then on top of that, how do magic, religion and divinity all connect? I've got three very different examples about the 1st 1 is gonna be Percy Jackson, Um, by retired and you've got God's. There you go, Divinity, you've got magic. It's sort of given by the gods, but it's there. And then on top of that, you have religion, which is a completely totally different thing in the context of this. So, you know, the gods were there, but there, I mean, they're not human, but they have flaws, and that's made very clear. They're not all powerful beings. They still struggle. You have magic. But in some cases, it's gonna be controlled by what the gods will you dio. In some cases, it's just innate ability complete opposite end of the spectrum on a lot of levels is crucial. Start Jacqueline Carrie. There is the idea of magic, but it's very rare that it actually takes place as a tangible Hello. I'm speaking these magic words, and we're gonna have this magical result. It doesn't really work like that, but there is belief in a higher power that allows for magic to take place. And that's something else that you can consider. That's another route that you could take. And then, of course, there's sort of the gold standard for magic pleases. You got Harry Potter. It's a very specific instance of points magic wand. Say magic words have it all work out. Um, there are no gods actually implied very heavily that everybody is very Christian, as opposed to cause she'll start where there are gods, but they very rarely deal with earthly matters, or Percy Jackson, where every God out there is a very intense meddler. So obviously those are the three only permutations out there past for office, in particular, very, very different. So obviously these aren't the three only permutations out there, but they're things to think about. Um, and if we're talking about mythology. Something that you should be thinking about is, are you going to adapt and existing mythology and turn it into something that you can use? Um required Him is absolutely, really into that, and they're good fantasy books, and he draws on existing but not terribly commonly practiced mythologies. Are you going to write your own mythology completely from scratch? Doing your best not to draw on any previously existing examples? It might make sense to think through the broader impact of the mythologies in your story. How is that going to change your characters interactions with other societies around this world that you're creating? How does your society lead to different social castes? What do those stories tell you about what you can and can't do? If you don't have stories like the seven deadly sins, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? All of that, then how do you frame similar concepts for the people that you're writing about? Do those concepts exist? Similarly, Something that you can think about is vocabulary and language, and there's a whole video on this a little bit later, so I'm going to save most of this conversation for that. But are there actual changes in describing how you talk about things based on magic and mythology? Can you say that something is ungodly? If there are no gods, how do curses change? Can you talk about hell? If there is no concept? Does that change your concept of heat and fire or punishment? If you're living in a world without stump lights, does the color green suddenly means stop? So it's little tiny things just in the basic conception of how you think about the world. And if you are going to invent a mythology, how far do you want to take it? So, in short, what you're gonna want to think about if you are creating your own mythology, is how does it shape the world that your characters live in? And how do your characters inhabit that world? What role do they take within that mythology? I mean, if you have a religion, maybe not everybody is going to believe in it. But people are going to be influenced by the idioms that are endemic to that religion. If it's all around you, then you pick up bits and pieces of it. So how does that then shape your world and your character's interactions with one another. And then how does Magic play into that? On top of it, if magic is something that you're planning on working with. 4. Food and Drink: Okay. See, you guys may remember from the first video when I said that I was really sick of stew. I'm sick of reading about characters who only eats Dio. I am sick of stew and bread. I am sick of ale, most of kind of sick of SciFi characters who only rehydrated Al De but like not when I can kind of excuse because their science backing up that that might be what we're doing anyway . But seriously, every damn fantasy book everyone is eating stew and drinking ale and a kind of tired of it . So I mean, if it works and it makes sense for your story, then go for it. But if it's the easy way out for you, we can fix that. We can absolutely work on that. So first off things to think about our what nutrients to your characters actually need in order to survive. Most living creatures, especially carbon based, are going to need protein minerals and then an assortment of macron micronutrients that will help you to live your most effective life's. That's gonna be carbs, fats, whatever. You obviously don't have to be a full on biologists to make this work, but just give it a little bit of consideration. I mean, can the food that your characters air eating adequately fuel them through the physical rigors that your story is gonna put them through? Something else that you should probably be considering is just what's available. What is the agriculture around? Are there creatures being farmed? Is your character hunting? Do they have access to meet? Do they have access to agriculture? Can they afford the food that there may be considering eating? And I think this is why the stew option is such an easy copout is because it's cheap and you don't actually have to think about what goes into it. You can just say it's too. But again, I don't think that's necessarily a good enough excuse. I think that you can do a little bit more working in that and end up with something much more believable. Something else to think about is just how does stuff hold up to the environment that it's in? Can does your character want to eat hot food all the time? If they live in a desert, can your character eat hot food? Old time. If they live somewhere where it's very cold, it might be difficult to keep a fire going. Likewise, if you character lift somewhere very, very hot, eating something cold might be a great idea. But in practice, does your character have access to the kinds of things that would make that possible? Something else is that people in general don't like boring food. So don't write boring food. Feel free to get fancy with your descriptive. I mean, if something tastes salty, tell us that if something tastes sweet, tell us that. But go a step further than that. If you're inventing a food that is your characters world signature food give your readers a sense of what that tastes like. Driving riders of Pern did that brilliantly. There's this one drink. Everybody drinks it. I've never had it, but I know what it looks like. And I have very good image in my head. I have a vague sense of what it would taste. Something else that I think doesn't get talked about. Enough is alcohol. It's not just is your character old enough to drink cause like the world that we live on camp? Exactly. Real not. But does your character understand what drunkenness feels like. Um, does your character know what a hangover feels like? More than that, what's available? This goes back to that agriculture question and also think about that storage question. And what can the foods that you're writing about withstand in terms of the environment? So do the people in your world have access to stills? Are the using fermentation using barrels? Is it really closer to A to a drug that gets digested than it is to a fermented alcohol? So those were some elements off your world that you might want to take into consideration. As you're talking about food, I've got some again, very different examples. But patter office is high. He very much a stew guy. His characters eats dio. They eat bread. At one point there's an apple. I think of another point. There's cheese, and that's about it for the food. His alcohol descriptions, however, are spot on. And if you want to get a good sense of what characters would have access to in a world like the one that he writes, he's got a very good idea of what that would look like. Only complete opposite end of that spectrum. You've got the rebel looks brand jock. Um, I will not say that the all ideas air terribly accurate, but that's OK. Their kids books, But I will say, is that the food descriptions kept me invested through the entire time I was reading those books. Ages six through I don't know, probably 12. And I mean, I have never had any of the foods described. I probably wouldn't enjoy them if they were presented to me. They're tiny. They're made for mice. But, Tim, if they don't sound delicious, and then I think the happy medium of all of the above, the absolute master of this. If you want to know how to write food accurately and in a way that is appetizing and intriguing to your readers. Erin Frickin Morgenstern does it the best I've ever seen in the night circus. Everything sounds appetizing. Everything sounds like it looks beautiful, and it feels kind of attainable. Not like you could go into your kitchen to find it yourself. But you know what it would be like if you walked into a very high class restaurant and found it sitting on a table waiting for you. So Israel just things to think about. And I mean, I know it's tiny little detail work, but details are what make your story evocative and unique, and they add the little nuances that make it feel real to your readers. 5. Language and Linguistics: all right. I said we were gonna wait till later Video to talk about language. It's a later video. We're gonna talk about language, So I'm actually a linguistic specialist when it comes to cultural anthropology. And this is where I run into may be the most issues with fantasy and SciFi books I have ever come across. So just going to start it off? Super simple, like we talked about with mythology and magic, you can have very, very simple linguistic shifts. It could be as simple as shifting the idea of one God to multiple gods. So you go from saying, Oh my God, to Oh my gods, Percy Jackson Books Serious does a brilliant job of this, and even fan fiction writers have noticed it and have incorporated that into what they're doing. You could go to the complete other end of that spectrum and completely invent a language for your own use. That's what it was, Thrown said I That is a choice. You can do that. I can talk you through the way that you could go about doing that. Um, there's also the absolute easy way out, which is, and then X character said whatever in X language. So you know, Sam was wandering around and he ran into This guy only spoke Spanish, So he said this in Spanish and you're reading those words only in English. But you know that he's speaking Spanish. That's the super easy way out, and it works If it's done effectively, something else that you could do is what I did with one of my books, where most of my characters in that Siris are trilingual. So I stuck with languages that I speak. So every once in a while there's a Hebrew word here, a Spanish word there, a Spanish sentence that takes up, not even all paragraph. Just send it to your sentence there. So then what I did after that was I went through, and I added footnotes with translations for the things that aren't easily understood through context. I also made sure that anything that I could contextualize so it doesn't really need the translations it did. But the place where I have just a big, gigantic caveat is, if you're going to use language for magic and the magic happens as a result of speaking another language, then you at least want to think through some degree of a grammatical structure because anything magical is going to be a command instead of just kind of talking and chatting. And if you're thinking about that, then you have to think about where the language came from. If it's the super old super ancient language, then was it super formal? Wasn't even spoken commonly, Or has it only ever been used for magic? Are there different bird congregations? Are there different verb tenses? Are you only speaking with verb roots? Um, do you need to speak at all or can you get by with just cliffs and illustrations? I mean, if we think about the ancient languages that we have access to today, we have no idea what some of these ancient like, which is actually sounded like. But we know what the glyphs look like, and we can put together image and meaning. So try not to just throw random words out without any consistency. If you're gonna be using magic for words at all, at the very least, keep a glossary for yourself to keep it consistent. But if you're gonna use it for communication on top of magic, then that's where that consistency gets even more important. If there are verb tenses, use them. If they're a verb, congregations keep track of them. This is actually were quite a number of fantasy. Syriza just kind of lost me a little bit. Uh, they're gone books in particular, not there, anyone under the bus. But when the grammar structures get frustrating, it makes it harder for your readers to follow. It makes it harder for you to keep up with as a writer, and it makes it just trickier for the believability of your world. Overall, um, you could go the inventive, awful language route. There are plenty of examples of how to do that, but not everyone needs to be Tolkien or Martin. I think that there are a lot of ways to do it much more easily and much more quickly. If you are that committed to writing language completely front, Bath come. I can do a whole course on that, but I don't think that it'll fit into the context of this one video. So if we're talking about language in terms of just how to write it, it's those simple shifts that people would think off language as different from the way that you or I might speak it in common English. And it's just a matter of paying attention to who is speaking what and how they would have learned those languages and how dialect would function and all of that. So you don't have to make it crazy complicated. You just have to make it feel free. 6. Beauty and Economy: All right. So I just want to touch on this one really quickly. This video's gonna pretty short, but I won't talk about appearances and beauty and fashion in fictional societies. So first of all, is the same concept that I keep coming back. Teoh, I think you guys are getting a pretty good sense of it by now. Agriculture and e con. What do the people actually have access to? How does economy play into it? And this is just on a material level alone. What is valuable? Um a really good example for this is I don't remember the title of the book, but it's set in an alternate Venice. And in this context, silver becomes more valuable than gold because in this universe, silver is the thing that doesn't tarnish. And it's that simple shift. But it shifts the entire aesthetic off the world that the characters live in. Likewise, what is the currency? How are people paying for things? If people are paying for things with a barter system, then value gets shifted as a result. Can the people that are in your society afford the stuff that they're making? Are they making things? Is their artistry is their craftsmanship. If so, how is that valued? Then we get into the less material stuff, which is beauty standards versus physical utility. If one aesthetic is favored over another, maybe do a little bit of thinking as to why, Um, if you're thinking about making everybody where silk clothing think about whether or not there are agricultural conditions that would allow for silk. If you're thinking about gems as a former beauty, well, that doesn't work. If gems air super highly prevalent, because then it's just kind of like, relatively common. It can be made beautiful. But it's not the same kind of stand out value that we have in our society. Um, I'm not gonna get into the whole discourse on body type in fantasy. I will say that that's a place where utility might come into play over beauty. Just in the sense of this person is going to be really useful. Um, something like musical ability can come into play on this one as well. Gill Carson Levin does this better than any writer I can possibly think of. I just think that these are things that you should be thinking about there not necessarily things that should change the way that you're writing every aspect of your world. But they should just be in the back of your head as you're writing. 7. Interacting With Outsiders: Okay, Last video in the Siri's. Congratulations. You guys made it. So this one. I just want to talk about the bigger picture. How does your society interacts with other societies that are set in the same world that you're writing? Because if you think about it, no society ever really exists completely on its own. I mean, there's the global social sphere. But I get the sense that if you're making up a fictional society for your book, it's not necessarily gonna play out that way. It's your character is going to eventually have to go beyond their walls to interact with someone from the outside, even if that someone from the outside is just your reader. So I want to go back to that idea of a make vs edict points of you. Just think about what your society looks like to an outsider if they come to visit. And at the same time, how is your characters view shaped by the world that they live in? And with that, you're gonna want to think about agriculture, beauty, standards, mythology, morals, language, every single thing that we've talked about leading up to this point because that all plays into how your society is shaped and how the people in that society think of themselves. But this could be as absolutely simple as in your society. Everybody drinks coffee, but then they go to another city and everybody there drinks tea. And it's not a huge shift, but it's enough for your characters to go. Oh, that's different. It can also get as complicated as women in leadership positions may be. One society has it, and another doesn't, uh, women with swords. And maybe women are allowed to be warriors in one society. But they're super, not another. You can also go into things like gay people. Are they generally accepted in one side in your world? How does bigotry explain itself? Is racism and element is xenophobia and elements. I mean, I'm telling you right now, very few societies exist that don't harbor some element of fear towards people who are different than themselves, sometimes represented Silva's violence. Sometimes that presents itself as a resentment. Sometimes it doesn't escalate, it just simmers under the surface. But those Air dynamics intentions that are probably in your world if you think about it. My favorite exercise for understanding how your characters would react to other societies is actually to imagine short crossover fan fiction's How would character from Ex World react to why world if they were just dropped in? So I mean, one way to think about it is just take a C. S. Lewis character versus a J. R. R. Tolkien character. Even better, let's make it a girl. C. S. Lewis would have had an absolute heart attack at the thought of a girl picking up a sword. I mean, I think about the gifts that the kids get in line, which in the wardrobe, the closest any girl ever gets to anything even remotely violent, who isn't like totally evil is a bow and arrow so that she could do things like super far away from the fight versus Tolkien, who doesn't really want women in positions of leadership because that would involve them being educated and doing their own thing. And you know, their ultimate role is obviously either to die a tragic death or get married. But there's no problem with them running around swinging assault. So it's just a question of how you think those reactions would play out that will give you a really good sense of how things were happening inside your characters. Heads, if you want to cross over, that really does happen, really does exist. Think about the opening of Avengers with Thor meeting Captain America. These were two characters with wildly different mythologies, but they're forced, interact, and you can watch it play out the things that Thor thinks are normal versus the things that cap does so especially if you have sort of a sweeping, epic world. I mean, obviously you do not have to go a vendor's level epic with this. Some others do. Brandon Sanderson is kind of the master of it, but you should be thinking about how your characters perspectives change the way that they interact with the world around them. So just to recap the things that we talked about in this class, we've covered some basic laws that was thinking about teaching us how to fix. We've covered the building blocks based on your super basic world building and set up, and then within that we talked a lot about Emmick, an edict perspective. So what your character seeing from within their society versus what somebody else sees from the outside looking in. We've talked about mythology and magic. Is there magic? How does mythology shape your characters? Worldviews. We've talked about food. We've talked about language and how the way that your character speaks is gonna change the way that your readers are interpreting what they're saying. And we've talked a little bit about appearances and beauty standards and those things. We're all gonna come into play any time. A character from one society interacts with a character from another. Thank you guys. So much for watching. I really hope that this helps you craft a believable, unique world with believable society is that all have their own little idiosyncrasies, and I hope that my guidance as an anthropologist has been helpful to all of you writers out there in some way.