Worldbuilding: A Planet of Hats

A major part of worldbuilding is filling your world with unique, believable cultures and/or races. However, it is all too easy to fall into the pitfall of creating a monoculture; that is to say, a culture without deviation or any distinct subcategories. An example of this would be making all your orcs into barbarian warriors or making all your elves into tree-hugging hippies. Though I believe this should go without saying, having a monoculture is bad because it limits the creative options of the writer when the time comes to build characters, as well as making the world shallower and less immersive.

A planet of hats generally comes about for one of a few reasons. One possibility is that the writer is just lazy. Now, I’m sorry if anyone out there sees themself in this, but hear me out. The lazy writer comes up with a cool idea for a culture and implements it, sometimes even decently, but then neglects to fully explore it or flesh it out. This could be the result of poor planning, no planning or a simple lack of experience. The second possible reason this could happen is if the writer bases their new culture on an existing culture. While this is certainly a legitimate way to construct a culture, it’s important to do your research. A lack of research can lead to a homogenous, stereotyped culture, which is at the least, shallow, and at the most, insulting. For a more detailed look at the trope, I’d like to direct you to Overly Sarcastic Production’s Trope Talk on the subject.

Now that we know what a planet of hats is and what causes it, we can address the question of how to avoid it or fix it. When I design a culture, I look at it as two layers. The first being a racial culture and the second being a regional culture. Let’s use elves as an example. Let’s start with their racial culture. For the sake of simplicity, their culture is all about being tree hugging hippies who don’t eat meat and love nature. Now, let’s start asking questions, how would this racial culture adapt to living in a big city? In my mind, elves living in a big city would have to grapple with what constitutes nature. Is the city any less natural than an anthill? It has its own ecosystem, wildlife and unique weather conditions, so why does the fact that people made it, make unnatural? You then start having the elves come up with their answers. Maybe some absolutely hate the city and see it as a blight on the land and so become more politically active to reduce the impact of the city. Maybe others adapt their religion and it becomes its own offshoot. How do elves outside the city feel about those in the city? When you start finding the myriad answers to these questions, you can start creating smaller and smaller cultural groups down to individuals who don’t fit in anywhere.

This solution works in multicultural societies, but, if like me your story or world has a place that, for whatever reason, only has one race of people in the vast majority, or if you’re dealing with a race’s home territory, then this method becomes slightly less feasible. In this scenario, my advice would be to downplay the racial identity and focus on individuals or small groups thereof. To do this effectively, you will need to have a decently fleshed out racial culture. You may need understandings of how the government treats different classes, what different types of religions there are, or perhaps how a lack of religious choice affects the people. I think what this comes down to is that, just as in real life, you shouldn’t generalize people. Treat every character as an individual and examine how the populace reacts to their government, class system or religions.

I won’t pretend that these are perfect methods of avoiding a planet of hats, but it’s what has worked for me. The first method will give you a multicultural world, and the second allows you to take an existing monoculture and flesh it out by examining the effects that large bodies of power have on the populace. Now one thing I didn’t touch on in here is racism. Obviously, when mashing races together, racism will develop, and it’s important to explore this and what effects it has on the culture of the oppressed. However, that’s research that you should do on your own as it’s a much more focused question that requires a lot of individual answers. I will end this little guide here, but I’ll have more to say on the topic of worldbuilding at a later date.

Also whoops, I ran out of cool looking maps and images for this one. Guess I’m gonna have to either make more for next time or do another big ol photography run.