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How do I get started in developing cultures for a virtual world?
The first step in developing an artificial culture for a created world involves learning about cultures in the real world and pin-pointing individual aspects of those cultures. This step should be on-going, but once a writer begins to easily identify single elements of real cultures, researching real life cultures simply becomes an interesting and enjoyable pastime.
Even if the writers's background involves dealing with multiple cultures, identifying key elements that create a culture can still be difficult, but the writer will have more first-hand material from which to draw. Travel guides and children's books are an excellent place to start when researching real world cultures. Though these books often contain simple breakdowns of various cultures; the goal here is to learn to create these simple breakdowns. For example, a Thai travel guide will often describe the wai, a simple gesture of bringing one's palms together coupled with a slight bow. The wai, when described in a travel book, sounds quite simple, but all sorts of factors are actually involved in the wai. The age of the person performing the wai and the age of the person receiving the wai both matter. The position of the person receiving the wai may also determine how deep the bow is performed by the person doing the wai. These aspects of the wai do not matter as much for identifying cultural traits of Thailand compared to actually knowing that the wai exists.
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How do I know if I can identify the elements that create a culture?
Begin this part of the process by reading science fiction and fantasy novels or watching science fiction and fantasy shows or movies. Try to identify elements of the individual show or novel's world culture. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer can be used to test one's prowess in identifying cultural elements. What makes Joss Whedon's vampires stand out when compared to vampires from other shows or books? They have no souls, they turn to ashes when they are staked or are exposed to the sun, normal people do not know about them, and they take a bit of time to cook under the sun. Practice by picking out more such defining elements.
Lastly, make sure to start reading some fantasy novels. Reading a lot will only improve a writer's ability to create stories and virtual worlds.