How Much Culture to Invent - The Art of World Building
May 042020
 
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Now that we’ve considered our guiding principles behind culture, it is time to invent the manifestations that reveal it. Our focus will be on elements we’re likely to use, though some of us will need items others don’t. This chapter can’t be comprehensive because there’s simply too much. However, the techniques behind the cultural manifestations presented here, and their rationales and considerations, can be applied to any item not included. Music and art are two areas we won’t cover because they don’t apply to the written word except as we describe them, and other mediums are likely to have dedicated composers or artists defining them.

Be aware that borrowing anything from Earth might result in accusations of cultural appropriation, a recent term implying that cultural elements can be devalued and insulted by use as something shallow when someone from outside that culture uses them in ways not considered respectful. Do world builders need to worry about this? Maybe. Whether they’ve thought about it or not, audiences likely don’t expect storytellers to invent entire cultures because the work is vast and therefore, borrowing ideas from Earth can often feel like an homage. They can even feel pleased for it to be included. It helps to tie this manifestation back to our cultural vision so that it seems part of it, which we want to do anyway.

Remember the Rule of Three from Creating Life (The Art of World Building, #1) – make at least three significant (italics) changes to an Earth analogue. If we don’t, people may recognize it; I always think James Cameron swiped Native American culture wholesale in the Avatar (italics) movie; it’s pronounced distracting, and regrettable. Other works often steal Asian cultures with little conscience. Moderation is often best.

How Much Culture to Invent

As with many items, we could spend the rest of our lives building culture, so we need to limit our work. Asking why we are inventing culture can help. The answer is threefold. We are inventing aspects that will:

  1. Portray a more engaging, realistic world
  2. Make our story appear to take place somewhere other than familiar (i.e., Earth).
  3. Cause culture clashes, in the form of tension due to expectation and misunderstanding. There is a further question of degree. How much tension do we need?
    1. Minor, offended feelings to make characters dislike each other
    2. Serious breaches that lead to ruined agreements (like treaties), imprisonments, death, or alteration of story or character trajectory

This will help us decide how much culture to invent in any given location, and how much we need cultures to differ, and on what subjects. If bowing while greeting is considered a minor offense, we don’t have a character thrown in jail for not doing it. But if it’s considered major, perhaps we do. It will also depend on how touchy our characters are or if they’re looking for an ulterior motive to imprison someone.

Rather than inventing specific cultural items before outlining a story, we may want to only note that we want a culture clash to happen in a given scene we’re planning and the consequences of it. One advantage is that we can first plan our tale, then create cultural elements of great impact where we need them, then less impactful elements. We should also know how many locations we’ll need. In a Lord of the Rings style narrative, characters travel across many kingdoms, each needing a culture. We might have characters from differing places that might also need cultural tweaks. Add up all the people and places and that’s the number of cultures we might need. If we have three sovereign powers with very different governments and resulting lifestyles, such as a democracy, an absolute monarchy, and an authoritarian one, readily distinguishable cultures are easier to imagine than if we have three absolute monarchies. This can be a reason to vary the government types in our tale.

We can sometimes give the appearance of a culture being synonymous with an entire sovereign power, for example, even when differences exist within it. This may happen if we’re only using one of several regions or cities, for example, and not showing the others. Some might say we’ve created a mono-culture, so just be aware that we can create this impression. If we care to prove we haven’t, then we’ll benefit from a character thinking a rude (or kind) thought about a style of clothing or hair they see someone wearing when that style originates elsewhere. A few ideas like this sprinkled throughout our narrative can at least suggest we know culture varies. Using this approach, we can minimize the amount of culture inventing we’ll do.

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