Now that we’ve covered the bigger picture aspects of Land and Animals, and Countries, it’s time to zero in on worldbuilding customs and daily life. These often manifest in stories as little details that give big clues about the world and its people.
Customs and Daily Life is arguably one of the most important aspects of worldbuilding because regardless of where your story takes place (whether in an overcrowded city, a small town, or travelling through the unknown), the customs and habits of your characters are going to impact their actions. If you have characters coming together from different cultures, they are obviously going to do some very basic things quite differently. This could be a cause of conflict among them, or learning their differences could be something that brings them together.
Questions about Customs
- Do they celebrate life events? If so, which ones. Births and birthdays? Coming of age? Marriages? What do these celebrations look like?
- Are there festivals or holidays? What are they for, why are they celebrated, and what does the celebration look like?
- What happens when someone dies? How do they deal with the body? Why? Are people in mourning treated differently? How do people mourn?
- What constitutes good manners? Does this differ between races, classes, or countries? Are good manners important? What behaviour is consider improper?
- How do people wash themselves? How often does the average person bathe?
Most of those questions about worldbuilding customs of your world are fairly large, but remember customs can be very small. Small customs are really just habits. For example, in my house the custom is to take off your shoes when you come inside. This means taking off my shoes when going inside is a habit for me, so when I go to someone else’s house I have to consciously check what their custom is. These sorts of habits will manifest in your characters too, so keep that in mind as you go through the daily life questions. It’s not about answering these questions but about considering how the answers impact the characters’ behaviours.
Questions about Daily Life
- Time: Is there one calendar that the whole world follows or is the calendar different depending on the country (or race)? How long is a year, a month, a week, a day? Are they called a year, month, week, and day, or are different terms used? How do people tell time (sundials, bells, clocks, watches)?
- Infrastructure: How do people travel? How is garbage and bodily waste dealt with? Does society build and maintain roads (if so, who does it?) or do they form naturally from the constant use of a pathway? Is there a plumbing system? Who maintains it?
- Work: What are the most common ways to make a living? How often do people work and for how long each day? How are people compensated for their work?
- Family: What constitutes an average family unit? How important is family? Who raises the children and why? What sort of hierarchy exists within a family unit, and why? Do people get to choose who they marry? Is marriage common?
- Food: What do they eat? Which foods and drinks are considered staples and which are for special occasions only? How do they eat (With utensils? What kind? As a family or on their own)? How often do they eat? Are some meals more substantial than others? Do different classes, countries, or races favour different flavours? How is food preserved for the off-season? Is there anything people are not allowed to eat? Why?
- Clothing: What do people wear? Does it differ between gender, class, or race? Is clothing expensive? Where does the material come from? Does the average person accessorize? In what way? Is it common for people to carry weapons?
- Education: How well educated is the average person? What is the average literacy level? How do people learn? Is there an organized education system? Who runs it? Is a formal education mandatory? Is it free? At what age is a person required to attend?
- Interactions: How do people greet each other? Why? Do people use different gestures or sayings depending on whether they’re greeting a friend or stranger? In a group of people, who is introduced first? Who takes a seat or walks through a doorway first? Does this society use a lot of body language? Are there gestures that are considered insulting? Why? Are there gestures that convey respect? How are guests treated?
I know you already have a ton of things to think about, but it’s worth noting that when writing about a place that has, at any point, been conquered or occupied by another culture there will be crossovers between the two cultures. There will be a muddling of customs that may at first seem quite illogical. So have fun with it. Give your cultures some quirks. And remember these details can change the shape of your story because they provide the backbone of your characters and societies motivations and opinions.
There are so many good questions to be asked about customs and daily life that there is no possible way I’ve got them all here. Are there any questions I’ve missed about aspects of worldbuilding customs that you find helpful to ask at this stage? Let me know in the comments.