WorldCon Panel Summary: 5 Questions to Ask When Creating a Fictional Culture

Panelists: Tim Akers, J. Kathleen Cheney, M.C.A. Hogarth, and Rose Lemberg

The panelists were charged with coming up with a list of 5 questions to ask that are the most important. This proved too limiting, so the panel came up with several extra. Each panelist had a different focus for their questions, or special areas of interest. The questions that we considered most important were (highly paraphrased):

Tim Akers:

What is their relationship with God, god, or gods? What is the culture’s measure of spirituality or belief? What is the nature of faith in that culture? Or do they live without faith?

M.C.A. Hogarth:

What are their food sources? What do people fear most? Starvation? Riot? Revolution? Why have they banded together as a culture? Are they alien? Does their biology give them other imperatives?

Rose Lemberg:

What are the relationships of power within the culture? How is this expressed/determined by language? What sort of family relationships are common? What about folklore? Do they favor proverbs? Riddles? Are they superstitious? Are they religious? What is the level of diversity within the culture?

J. Kathleen Cheney:

What is the economic base for the culture, and how does that affect their everyday life? Are they rural? Or urban? How are their houses built? Their cities?




In addition to the types of questions, the panelists also talked briefly about how much worldbuilding a writer needs to do. It was generally agreed that:

  • More worldbuilding is usually done than shown.
  • Don’t go too deep (because it’s time consuming and keeps the writer from writing).
  • Readers will find the author who writes at the level of exposition they like. (Some people like all the extra information, others skip over it.)
  • Too much will slow down the story.




One thing that was pointed out was that most writers will get worldbuilding factors wrong through basic lack of knowledge—one can’t know everything. It does help to have a wide knowledge base and a large circle of friends and acquaintances who can help answer specific worldbuilding questions that are beyond the writer’s own areas of expertise. (Writers groups can be helpful in that situation.)




Finally, I’ve included here a list of resources that writers may find useful for worldbuilding.


Patricia C. Wrede—Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions

(This is the 30ish page document that serves as a comprehensive list.)

On the SFWA website / On Google Docs / As a pdf file


Other online resources, suggested at large:

Kate Elliott—Series of Blog Posts on Worldbuilding

Alyssa Hollingsworth—10 Questions to ask when you create a fictional culture

Holly Lisle: FAQS About Worldbuilding

cru’s D&D Reading Room: A World Building Checklist

Kitty’s Writing Toolbox: (10 Part Discussion of Worldbuilding)

Tiana Warner’s Worldbuilding Checklist for creating Cultures and Religions.

N.K. Jemison: Worldbuilding 101 (pdf)


Tumblr: Toasty Hat

Tumblr: The Writing Café: Worldbuilding

Tumblr: Writing with Color


Juliette Wade’s Dive into Worldbuilding Hangouts (with videos)


Suggested Book:

Melissa Scott, Conceiving the Heavens


Other resources can be added in comments!
















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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Tiana Warner
    August 23, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    Thanks for the link!

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