The biggest inspiration for worldbuilding is the real world, so many of us turn to real-world cultures when designing our own! They are amazing resources, but it’s important to be careful—not only because misrepresenting them can hurt those cultures, but also because it can hurt your own writing. Janet interviewed Basheer Ghouse, game designer and cultural consultant, for our podcast, and here’s what he had to say on the matter!
What can go wrong when adapting real-world cultures?
Of course, the first problem most people encounter is that we don’t know what we don’t know! And so, it’s very easy to base these adaptations on stereotypes rather than what the culture is really about. Art and media is the main way most people interact with other cultures, especially distant ones—so your representations of these cultures will have a huge impact on their perception. For example, Middle East and Islamic cultures are often portrayed in a negative light, which influences public opinion on them a lot.
Now, you might be thinking that this isn’t as important for a personal project, but that’s not true! Cultures are not one-dimensional, but stereotypes are. This means that if you adapt the stereotypes rather than the cultures themselves, your worldbuilding will likely be one-dimensional too. And falling into this trap is easier than you might think: art relies a lot on shorthand, i.e. using a couple of words or visual elements that are part of common knowledge to set the scene or suggest a specific reaction. Many of these shorthands are based on cultural stereotypes.
Look at cultures from the inside, not the outside
Cultures have very nuanced views of themselves, but it’s very easy to look at one from the outside and think that you have an accurate idea of what the culture is roughly about. This only creates a simplistic portrayal of the culture, and you’ve probably experienced this before! Take the way you think about your own culture and compare it with how people from other cultures perceive it. No matter what your opinion of your own culture is, it’s probably way more nuanced than an external opinion.
Another common issue with viewing a culture from the outside is treating it as a single culture. What many of us perceive as a single monolithic culture is actually divided into many different cultures, some of them even with opposing values! Many people talk about India, or even Africa, as if they were places with a single culture, when it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, this happens within European countries too! These are geographically small countries that have a huge cultural and linguistic diversity. For example, Spain has five official languages and over ten languages in total.
Do your own research—but be careful!
Researching should always be your first step when writing about a topic you’re not familiar with, and this goes for cultures too! The best way to learn about the nuances that only someone from that culture can see is by reading their works. But that’s precisely where you need to be careful. Not all works about a given culture are produced or reviewed by experts from that culture! Always check who’s the author of your source and what their experience with the topic is. This goes for translations too: while a translator’s job is to give you access to what the source said, translators have biases that can occasionally find their way into the text. The best way to minimize this issue is to use several sources and dig deeper into contradictions or topics that are only covered by one.
Of course, how deep you go into research is entirely up to you and the kind of project you’re working on. If you’re worldbuilding just for your home RPG game, you don’t need to spend any money or more time than you have available on this (unless you’re super passionate about the topic!). For personal projects, just keep this advice in mind, do enough research to have something solid and nuanced, and do your best to be sensitive—your worldbuilding will be better for it!
Common worldbuilding pitfalls when adapting real-world cultures
As you know, our creative works are heavily influenced by our surroundings, as well as by whatever other art or stories we use as inspiration. Due to the long history of racism in our society, it’s very easy for our sources (or the sources of our sources) to have racist undertones, even if they are unintentional. For example, tropes like goblins and the Banking Clan from Star Wars (as well as many banking systems in other fictional worlds) have their origins in anti-semitism. If you’re not aware of the history of this sort of trope, it’s very easy for problematic elements to slip through the cracks and find their way into your worldbuilding.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t use goblins in your world, of course! But if you do, consider going beyond the typical tropes and stereotypes they’re usually associated with. Characters are people, and people are nuanced, no matter their culture.
Listen to the full interview to learn more about adapting real-world cultures!
Who is Basheer Ghouse?
Basheer Ghouse is a game designer and cultural consultant who’s worked on the award-winning Tal’Dorei Reborn sourcebook for D&D 5e, as well as Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, Call of the Netherdeep, Southlands Worldbook, and more. Check out his Twitter for updates!
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