Customs of the WorldWhenever I talk characters and worldbuilding, at conventions or in classrooms, I always recommend several books. One of them actually isn’t a book at all, and it’s the only one that I mention in both contexts.

It’s a lecture series from The Teaching Company, titled Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are. This is intended to be a course on understanding world cultures, but it’s a vital resource for creating cultures in both fantasy and science fiction. It’s also a great secondary resource for creating different personalities between characters.

As of this post, it is currently on sale at The Teaching Company’s website, starting at $35 for an audio download. I cannot recommend it too highly. You should all go get it now. If, however, you’re reading this after the sale has ended, I’ll explain why it’s worth getting.

The lecturer, Dr. David Livermore, lays out ten cultural markers, which are really sliding scales between two extremes. For example, there’s the one that most people think of: the fluid versus rigorous approach to time and scheduling. Another common one is on authority structures; you might think of it as authoritarian versus egalitarian societies, but that’s a gross oversimplification. Livermore spends a lecture on each of these ten markers, giving examples and defining elements of each.

After that, he goes through the world, defining it, too, into ten parts: “cultural clusters,” which can loosely describe different areas of the world. None of them are exact. For example, he describes the Anglo cluster, which includes the US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc.; but it also includes Ireland, which has significant cultural differences from all of those. An even more striking example is the Latin European cluster, which includes Israel as an extreme outlier, since that country doesn’t fit well into any other cluster.

This is a great survey course of world cultures, and while it won’t tell you how to survive in a foreign culture it does give you a place to start. More importantly for readers of this blog, it gives you a vital resource for understanding what makes cultures different, shows real-world examples, and gives you a fantastic boost for creating realistic yet very foreign cultures for a fantasy or science fiction story. It might seem strange if you’ve never studied it, but this even works for alien cultures; because honestly, there’s a lot of the world that will feel alien to a member of the Anglo culture, which in turn describes 90% of my audience here.

Once you understand these cultural elements, though, you’ll quickly find that you can apply them to individual characters. Every person can be described on a sliding scale of these ten markers, even if they’re within the same culture. For example, while the United States is a low-authority (“low power-distance”) culture, many in this culture exhibit attitudes off the norm, and clearly so, even without going to an extreme like a member of the military versus a stereotypical ’60s hippie.

Again, I highly recommend it. And, if you’ve missed the sale, you can always get it on Audible. It’s even cheaper there ($25, or one credit if you’ve got any), but that’s only the audio version and doesn’t come with course materials (and the individual tracks aren’t labeled, but you can always check the Great Courses website for the details). If that doesn’t matter to you, then go save ten bucks.

But don’t skip trying it, either way. It is valuable and should not be missed.