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How To Create A Civilisation

You’ve OSMADTH - Nasreddin by flaviobollalistened to the pounding hooves of nomadic Dothraki as the Khalasar sweeps across the grass plains, you’ve looked out from the heights of Minas Tirith over the white city of Gondor, and you’ve baulked at the cutthroat world of the Drow. Now you’re going to create your own civilisation, where do you start? This article will look at the factors that authors should consider when creating a new people and how to integrate them into their world.

Broad Strokes

Now your idea may come fully formed as a proud empire with a history that stretches back millennia, all of which is central to the plot. But if you’re starting from stretch it can be useful to have a basic idea to build on. Start by thinking about what your story needs – does the plot require a noble kingdom that is threatened, or an oppressive police state for your rebel hero to bring down? Think about some of the central factors that define a people. What type of civilisation will it be, a nomad culture like the Mongols or great city builders such as the Roman Empire? Like sketching an outline, shape an idea of your desired civilisation with active questions.

A City Besieged by neisbeisLocation has a massive impact on a civilisation; it can affect the whole nature of a society, and shape the culture of a nation. If your world is an archipelago with many islands then the civilisation will of necessity have a strong naval tradition, otherwise they would be isolated. What is the local climate like, and how does that affect the people who live there? A civilisation that lives in an idyllic rural land would likely have a more laid back attitude than one who struggled to scratch a living in a harsh wasteland – which would probably produce a strong survivor mentality. The climate will affect other aspects as well, influencing everything from methods of travel to the style of dress. The clothing of a desert tribe would obviously differ from the heavy garments or furs worn by those living in very cold climates.

What resources are available is also important, whole wars have been fought over an area of rich land in our own history, and what materials are abundant can shape the economy of a nation. A civilisation of coastal cities would be likely become a mercantile trading empire with great wealth, as with the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. To ensure the civilisation fits with your world, consider how their surroundings would have affected its development – your whole plot may even be about a resource an empire possess or a place of sacred importance.

A Diamond Sword, A Wooden Sword (cover art)Now you’ve got your civilisation, who’s going to run it? Is there a monarchy and feudal system, or is there a council of elders running the show? If you do have a council, are they wise and benign, or focused on personal power and spend their time backstabbing each other? There are a variety of political systems to choose from, and you can find another FF article here that goes into detail on them.

Tech Level/Industry
What kind of technology level is your civilisation at? Are they a medieval society, early renaissance, or primitive and tribal? What kind of atmosphere do you want to create? And what will be the impact on your story? Do they have medicine to save your heroes at a crucial point? Has gunpowder rendered walls and plate armour obsolete? You want to have vast armies of mailed knights clashing, fine – does your civilisation have the technical and industrial capacity to maintain such an army, with all the smiths, forges and craftsmen needed?

Class System
Medieval Market by MinnhagenThere are few civilisations where all men are equal, even today. Are there different levels of society divided into rich and poor, working class and landowners, are there minorities? If your empire is a “good kingdom” you’ll probably want to try and minimise the class divide, while a tyrant might keep the wealth of an empire for himself and a few lords. A civilisation’s class system can reveal a lot about the psyche of a people and is a useful tool for building the character of a nation. Think about what it means for a culture to allow something like slavery, what values they must have. You might also want to consider the roles of men and women, are they restrictive or more open minded?

This is a broader term as culture is a vast subject. It can be thought of as the style of a civilisation, what kind of tone and feel they have. Look at Martin’s noble houses in Westeros, influenced by English factions in The Wars of the Roses, or the Japanese inspired Tsurani from Feist’s Magician. Culture covers everything about a people, their architecture, language, fashion, beliefs, everything. It’s what makes up the personality and character of a civilisation. You might consider adding some frills here like festivals and holidays that can flesh out a people.

GodsWilling by MarkWintersWhat kind of belief system do your people have? Is there a God, gods, do they seek enlightenment, or worship demons. Religion might have a strong presence in relation to your story and dominate a culture like the Church did in England a few centuries ago. Or the deities might be figureheads remembered only on the holidays. What kind of influence does religion have and how does it reflect a people? Take the example of Moorcock’s Melnibonéans and their chaotic demon worship, ideally suited to a race of pleasure seeking sensualists.

Since it typical features a lot in fantasy, the army of a civilisation is an important point. It can relate to other elements like organisation with feudal lords raising levies vs. a standing city army. Think about how the army would look, what its traditions are, the weapons that it fights with and the tactics that it uses. Maybe your civilisation doesn’t even have one; it could be a quiet nation of pacifists who rely on their remote position to halt invaders. History is filled with information on armies and battles, and is a rich source of research when designing your fighting force.

Old Korvosa Slums by BenWoottenHow well off is your civilisation? Is it a nation in decline, a rich kingdom in the middle of a golden age, or fallen remnant of a greater empire? It could just be plodding along at a steady pace – but think about the economic situation today and the politics, there’s always something going on that could impact the story. A rich nation might have nobles vying for power and control, a poor one could have starving homeless littering the city streets your hero walks though. People are obsessed with money; don’t neglect it for your civilisation.

What’s the origin of your civilisation? Was it a splinter of refuges looking for a new destiny, or the more common rise of a nation as local tribes are subjugated into one mass and slowly form a new empire? How long has this empire existed, a century, a millennia? What does that means for its culture? The history and weight of tradition can shape the people, and events in the past can scar the present.

Servants to the Crown by DenmanRookeDoes your civilisation play well with others? They could be a peaceful kingdom, eager to explore and encounter new peoples. They could be aggressive and expansionist, conquering and colonising. They might be isolationist, seeking only to be left alone, how far would they go to ensure that? Maybe they’re hostile your protagonists?

Average Life
Can you visualise a day in the life of a citizen. They could be a simple craftsman like a potter, a farmer or civil servant. In a more tribal society the men could be hunters/warriors while the women stayed at camp and performed domestic chores. What’s the life of a slave like, are they treated well or brutally downtrodden? An aristocrat could be a useless layabout, or they could have responsibilities to those that serve them.

Pure Fantasy Elements

Up Grombrindal The White Dwarf by Murphyillustrationtill now we’ve talked about the basics of empire building, but what about the fantasy elements, what about the magic? Your civilisation may not even be human; they could be elves, dwarves, or a totally unique species. It could be an empire of flying squids with magic powers, and you might think that supersedes the other factors. It doesn’t. Even with a totally alien species, you need to think about the factors I’ve mentioned; they may work in a different way, but for your civilisation to be plausible they should still apply.

If your empire has flying insects instead of horses, that would affect the distribution of information, speed up transport, as well as providing military applications. An author needs to look at the interconnectedness of all elements and logically work out how things would develop. If your civilisation suffers periodic attacks by dragons and other magical flora and fauna, how have they adapted, did they develop countermeasures or are they suffering under a superior force, as with the corelings and wards in Brett’s The Painted Man.

House of Prophecy by najtkrissWhat about magic? Your civilisation could be a race of spell casters who use magic in everyday life, or they could abhor sorcery and ban the practice. Their cities could be floating castles or exist in another dimension. Maybe the climate itself could be deadly, with chaotic storms of magic ravaging the landscape. Try to work it out as a “what if” thought experiment and let the ideas flow.

So the next time you set out to found a civilisation, consider these points when you bring it to life. You might not use all of it in the story, but having the knowledge will enable you to bring more realism to your work and create something the reader will remember.

Title image by neisbeis.



  1. An excellent run-through of the questions and options. The one thing I’d add is don’t get too hung-up with mediaeval Europe. Not that there’s anything wrong with it as an inspiration (though it’s better if the inspiration comes from history, rather than from other mediaeval-inspired fantasy) but it’s one localised civilisation, and not especially typical. Although little is known about the earliest civilisations, bear in mind that humans had been building towns for ten thousand years before the mediaeval period started, and almost everything had been tried somewhere, sometime.

  2. Avatar G R Matthews says:

    Some excellent points to consider when world-building – whether for a novel or D&D session!

    Fantasy writing does get stuck / revolve around medieval Europe quite often. King Arthur probably started that off. There are some other fascinating cultures out there to play with or use as a stepping off point.

  3. Avatar Craig Comer says:

    Great article! Especially the section on an average person’s life. I think this aspect is often forgotten or not well thought out, and yet it is rife with details available to embellish a world. Whole new subplots and cultural flavoring can come out of whether the tanners are ready to revolt, the fishwives ready to unionize, or why the barman’s daughter is whistling a happy tune.

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