My guilty pleasure when worldbuilding is creating varied and unique cultures, however, different cultures are often the result of distance between each other (which allows them to develop unique customs and stuff). For the sake of my story I'm hoping these different countries can be closer together, meaning I have to find new barriers between them besides distance. Could mountains work? Maybe a long deep canyon? Perhaps they are all island countries?

For background, the time period is late medieval/early renaissance period, however each culture is kind of at their own pace and some may be more advanced than others. At the time in which my story takes place, all of these cultures have just gotten to formally know each other (maybe within the last 50~100 years?) and have become more connected, which means trading, new ideas, possibly conflict, idk.

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    $\begingroup$ Language barriers and religious barriers work just fine. During the Renaissance, Catholic Italians were in close contact with Orthodox Greeks and Muslim Turks, and yet the three cultures remained distinct; another example is the Muslim Tartars, which were in intimate contact with Orthodox Romanians and Catholic Poles: and yet, Tartars remained Tartars; or the Muslim Arabs / Berbers and Catholic Spaniards in Al Andalus; and so on. There are many examples of adjacent yet clearly distinct cultures, separated only by language and religion. Even in modern times: USA / Mexico, or Russia / China. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 0:51

2 Answers 2


Conditions, Conditions, and Conditions

Say one group develops on an archipelago of separate islands, another on inland plains. Different political organization.

Say one group lives in a key trade node, without much agricultural potential. Different economic organization.

Say one group lives in the floodplains of a predictable river, another one follows migratory species. Different economic and political organization.

Say one group lives in mountain valleys, cut off half of the year and fertile the other half. What does that do to them?

On top of that, religion and traditions.

But cultures will die out unless their traditions contribute to survival and prosperity in the environment they live in. In the Middle East, before refrigerators, you need strict dietary laws. In Northern Europe, different ones.

  • $\begingroup$ The technologies that a given group of people know how to use are another massive factor in shaping a culture. Even something as basic as domesticated horses or irrigation can be the cornerstone for a society's success. $\endgroup$
    – Karst
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Karst, the OP specified that the cultures know each other, so technology should spread unless measures are taken (cf silk). $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 19, 2021 at 5:15

Us and them

The scope of your question is huge and I guess you'll get plenty of great answers.

However, I think you can boil it down to something simple. Us and them.

All you need is the ability to separate some people from others. This can be distance, the food they like, religion or whatever. Each of these don't necessitate a different society or culture. They can facilitate. The change happens either on it's own, just growing steadily with little outside interference. It is working for them so they grow it that way.

The other thing is rejecting the rest. People mingle, but by seeing yourself apart from lots of other groups, us and them, you can keep your identities and grow them into cultures. Even when all else would pressure conformity and one society or culture.

Interestingly people belong to multiple groups and in essence in multiple (micro) cultures and societies. It is easier to differentiate yourself now in this interconnected society as you can find like-minded more easily, strengthening the identities. But in the end, culture and society are arbitrary drawn lines that can easily be drawn differently, identifying more, less or simply different cultures and societies.


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