World Building Master Concept: Culture (Part 2)

Last time we took a look at the Master Concept of Culture, we got an overview of the Think, Feel, Act model for approaching fictional cultures, which allows us to apply the three key areas; Thought Process, Social Norms and Conflict Resolution.

Today we are going to explore the ways this model affects how two fictional cultures may develop

A Simple Cultural Template

When we want to apply the Think, Feel, Act, model to a culture, it is sometimes hard to directly infer the impact of the stated facts about a culture we are creating. Sometimes, the implications of a particular social policy are very clear, but sometimes they carry with them a hidden impact that may not be immediately apparent.

As in our own cultures here on Earth, there are plenty of things that, to an outside observer have a very compartmentalized impact. On closer inspection many of these compartmentalized influences are much wider spread and important in their implications than initially assumed. This template aims to help answer some questions about how the culture we want to create will actually implement the Think, Feel, Act model of culture.

The template takes the form of a series of priorities and simple questions, which when answered, will help us flesh out how the culture will begin to grow. Remember, you will likely need to have some idea in your head about potential cultures before you can effectively answer some of these questions. As with any world building, there is a required level of improvisation in this sort of work.

Think: The founders

The founders of the culture are largely responsible for the ideas that shape a culture. Thus we will use founding ideas to represent the Think portion of our culture. For the founders we will look at Nature, Danger and Survival. These are simplified names meant to help us remember some questions about the founding.

These questions about the founding are more about the environment and factors largely beyond the control of the founders, This is by design. By placing the founders in a reactive situation, we can explore the logic and reasoning in their responses.

Nature
What was the environment in which the founders existed?

Danger
What was the biggest challenge faced by the founders?

Survival
What idea or action did the founders use to confront this challenge?

Feel: The Enclave

The first settlement of the culture was likely smaller or less established than the current hub. Perhaps the original settlement grew and became what it is today. In order to answer the questions about social norms, let’s envision the Cultural Capital or, Enclave, of this culture.

Questions about the cultural center will not focus on the explicit norms themselves, but instead how the knowledge of the founders has propagated through society (Tradition) , how the culture has dealt with disruptive individuals (Disruption) and how the society approaches obligations (Community).

For the Enclave we will select from different options, rather than the mostly free-form answers of the founding. Try and select among the options that best fit your founding ideals.

Tradition
By what method is knowledge passed from the old to the young?

  • Public Schooling (Learning from Generalists)
  • Tutoring and Apprenticeships (Learning from experts)
  • Familial Tradition (Learning in the home)

Disruption
What is the method for punishing people who are significant disruptions to society?

  • Executing (The culture really does not tolerate disruption)
  • Exile (They kick out undesirables)
  • Penalty (Law codes have to handle this on a case by case basis)

Community
How does the society expect individuals to act toward itself and other members?

  • Communal (Work for the needs of many over the needs of few)
  • Balanced (Work for the greater good sometimes, other times for person’s in group)
  • For me and mine (Work for a person’s own in group)

Act: Conflict Crystallized

Every culture inevitably comes into conflict with another at some point. The Act portion of the template is designed to help us find out how this conflict might have (or still might) occur.

For the purposes of this segment of the template, we will explore some opposing attributes of the conflict resolution factors of the culture we have created. When doing this we will want to keep in mind both the founding questions and the questions about the cultural center we have envisioned

Conflict Resolution Factors

(Rate from 0 to 10. 0 being 100% of the left trait, 10 being 100% of the right trait)

0


Force

Strength

Loyalty

Matter of Fact

Widespread


–Method–

–Tool–

–Appeal–

–Honesty–

–Aggression–

10


Negotiation

Friendship

Honor

Intrigue

Measured

Example Culture: The NovaCore

Now that we have explored a template for creating a culture using think feel and act, let’s look at how an important culture from the Star of Ashor novel would look under the template.

After we fill out our template, we will explore the implications of answering some questions in certain ways. Below, we can find the template in an abbreviated form. Refer to the above for the broader context of the questions.

Think

Nature: What was the environment in which the founders existed?
The founders of the NovaCore was founded on a remote habitable world far from the home of the species of its founders. The planet was seen as harsh but livable, with vast resource wealth for exploitation

Danger: What was the biggest challenge faced by the founders?
The biggest challenge of the environment in which the founders existed was ensuring proper supply lines from home during the founding. They feared the rekindling of conflicts on their homeworld that could disrupt this balance.

Survival: What idea or action did the founders use to confront this challenge?
The NovaCore aimed to become self sufficient and ind pendant as quickly as was possible. Thus, the NovaCore military forces who spearheaded the expedition rapidly expanded their training to all people. As a result, everyone in the NovaCore became well trained and disciplined in survival and war-fighting to hedge against possible conflicts

Feel

Tradition
By what method is knowledge passed from the old to the young?

Public Schooling (Learning from Generalists)

Disruption
What is the method for punishing people who are significant disruptions to society?

Penalty (Law codes have to handle this on a case by case basis)

Community
How does the society expect individuals to act toward itself and other members?

Communal (Work for the needs of many over the needs of few)

Act

Conflict Resolution Factors

0


Force

Strength

Loyalty

Matter of Fact

Widespread


–6->

<-4–

<-2–

–6->

–7->

10


Negotiation

Friendship

Honor

Intrigue

Measured

The Breakdown

Now that we have the NovaCore’s Template defined above we can get an idea about the NovaCore culture, from founding to modern day. Though this is an existing culture, the process is similar for any culture: the creator must come up with reasons as to why things are the way they are.

This step is a very important followup for the template, perhaps more important than the template itself. This is where we really answer questions, just like we do during our world building techniques.

The founding answers from the template above, as free form short answers are self explaining to a large degree. Therefore I will focus my explanations on the rationale of the subsequent answers. Keep in mind that I am exploring a culture who operates a nation with essentially a single culture. The society of the NovaCore largely focuses on its own culture above others. As a result of this, some of my descriptions make heavy references to the NovaCore as a nation. This may not be a proper approach for every culture, as not every culture is also a national power. I also tried to add interesting “edge cases” that I felt were implied by these answers as a way of showing just how broadly impactful each of the answers to these questions can be.

Why public schools?

As a highly coherent group, who have always had a need for shared common knowledge and experience, a public educational system was a requirement for the NovaCore. It provides them with education in both survival skills needed from the days of the founding, to the modern cultural glues and norms that all the rest of the citizens will be expecting themselves. The culture itself is expected to help educate the rest of its members and this extends to the mindset of all knowledge sharing.

  • Military Schools and academies are common due to a confluence of public education and a military based culture.
  • Innovation is a work of public ownership, everyone who can is welcome to innovate for the common good. This is thanks to a communal culture and a strong emphasis on knowledge sharing from people to others in the education system

Why penalties?

During the original days of the NovaCore it was clear that kicking people out of the fledgling colony was dangerous. Everyone was needed to contribute. As a result, even when someone was penalized, their effort was still captured for the greater good in some way except in the most extreme of cases. This also meshed well with existing legalistic systems that were carried from the founding culture of the NovaCore’s founders.

  • Criminals are required to work to support society and themselves regardless of offense.
  • Rehabilitation is an important part of the NovaCore justice system due to the emphasized value on retaining the individual contributor.

Why communal?

The natural evolution of the shared survival mindset made the NovaCore a very communal culture. The people of the NovaCore shared a common need, and, being so heavily tied to the military nature of it’s founding, the NovaCore culture also instilled this military discipline and brotherhood into its own members.

  • NovaCore tend to demonstrate a high social cohesion even to strangers due to a strong sense of shared values
  • People who consistently fall outside the norm are often given chances to find ways to contribute because of a confluence of communal culture and the desire not to discard useful contributors. By embracing the shared values of the culture, the NovaCore try to embrace each other as well.

Force vs Negotiation

Because of its relatively young age and size compared to other powers, the NovaCore prefers resolving conflicts before they occur if possible. As a militaristic society, the duty to participate in conflict is extremely broad and far reaching. Therefore, public pressure to negotiate is also high, since people want to avoid fighting. Internally, NovaCore rely on their shared loyalty and communal mindset to try and resolve conflicts with negotiation first.

  • Because of their already strong connection to legal codes, negotiation laws and protections are important to NovaCore.
  • Penalties for senseless / needless violence are severe in the NovaCore to prevent the improper wasting of resources.

Strength vs Friendship

The NovaCore tries to keep a strong posture as opposed to relying on friends for support. This stems from its beginnings as a frontier colony as much as it does from the heavy military influence in its daily business. This need is balanced internally by the fact that strong cooperation and loyalty to one another are cornerstones of the culture as well. Thus, in daily life, strength and friendship are closely balanced in this culture and as potential avenues for conflict resolution.

  • NovaCore allies are rarer due to their focus on standing strong without help, but they are a strong ally themselves as a result.
  • Because of a strong loyalty to their in group, NovaCore tend to make strong friendship bonds once the initial barriers to friendship are overcome.

Lovalty vs Honor

The NovaCore culture is expected to adhere to itself and be loyal to itself. This means that loyalty to one’s own in group is quite likely to influence how and when conflicts are resolved. Rather than doing what is always considered the moral imperative at any cost, a NovaCore is expected to weigh that against the needs of the whole.

  • NovaCore tend to pursue the safety and well being of their own culture over others, even when others may think it morally ambiguous.
  • Novacore try to be honorable to those they are loyal to, as a way of showing their loyalty to each other.

Matter of Fact vs Intrigue

Being a relatively small power in the galaxy, the NovaCore employs asymmetric techniques as a matter of course. They are not above ambushes, covert plans or secret operations and will often prefer these options if they believe it is lest costly to their own interests than direct open warfare. Even during wartime, standard operations will be heavily backed by secret and covert actions. NovaCore tend not to be dishonest with each other due to the strong emphasis on loyalty however.

  • NovaCore want to ensure they can win in a fight, but that desire is tempered when interacting with each other because of a strong shared and communal loyalty.
  • NovaCore tend to have a large covert operations contingent when dealing with external powers or cultures

Widespread vs Measured

The NovaCore has no interest in causing undue or broad damage to most of its opponents, thus, too, do its people feel the same way. Whatever method a NovaCore uses to resolve a conflict is typically designed to resolve it without causing too much additional damage. But once pushed to conflict, strength would be employed judiciously and quickly

  • Surgical precision and measured response work well with the NovaCore tendency toward covert conflict resolution. This could easily cause them grief with their neighbors.
  • Avoiding a large collateral damage to personal conflicts is a preferred strategy for a culture whose communal and shared values are such an important part of daily life

Culture and conflict moving forward

One can see from the above that there are implications still left unlisted by the above rationale and explanations. It is possible to explore any of these particular aspects and, especially when viewing it along with the others, come to more new conclusions about how NovaCore society may work or evolve.

It should also be clear that not all questions in our template have direct and straightforward answers. In some cases, there can be a rationale that provides for an answer one might not expect for a given situation. Whether it is in how the NovaCore deal with people who do not conform in a communal society, or how they view honor and loyalty, I think it is apparent that there is plenty of room for creative exercise when applying this sort of template to a fictional culture.

While one can explore a bit more about NovaCore culture in the Codex on this site, or in the Star of Ashor Novel we will use the template created here as a springboard toward future building on the idea of culture.

Our next master concept article on culture will get to one of the most important aspects of culture in showing how culture provides a context for conflict between broad populations, nations, and even characters. We will explore how culture can be an important factor, or sometimes, a defining cornerstone of conflict in fiction, and how we can improve our handling of culture as a tool for good world building and storytelling.

World Building Master Concept: Culture (Part 1)

One of the most important parts of a good fictional narrative is that we feel characters and the worlds they inhabit are significant, grounded in their own logic. They need to have a context for what is done, and what is said.

Perhaps the strongest tool for providing this context is one that is all around us everyday, something that we are all participants in. Everyone on earth is influenced by and influences in turn, the culture in which they are immersed.

Today’s article will explore what role culture has to play in the art of world building and why it is so important. Once those claims are explored, we will then talk about how culture can shape the various styles of world building that we have previously explored in the World Building Basics series.

This master concept is somewhat long, so we will cover it in multiple parts. First, we will look at why culture is so important as a world building tool, and then, in the following article, we will explore examples of how to use it for world building.

Culture is a contextual cornerstone

One of the biggest reasons culture is such a powerful tool in writing fiction is that it is one way in which the context of actions by people is provided. This is because culture tends to provide a framework in which a person’s behavior is framed.

Some behaviors are shunned, some are encouraged. Some thought processes are more common, and some are not. Culture has an effect on everything in the life of an individual, from the the language they speak to the things they say within that language. It has an effect on the foods they choose to consume, the music they choose to listen to and the entertainment they find enjoyable. Nowhere is this simple truth more clear than on our own planet Earth.

Every human being is contextualized in part, by the culture in which they are immersed and because of this, the way they behave and think is put into context by their culture. People from different countries tend to hold different value systems and place emphasis on certain social or personal actions with a priority that strongly varies by the culture of those involved. This sort of dynamic world is something that tends to drive change, cause conflict or sometimes, spur cooperation.

Because of how dynamic culture makes humanity, so to, does it have a strong affect on the realities faced by our fictional worlds and the characters within them.

Because of how dynamic culture makes humanity, so to, does it have a strong affect on the realities faced by our fictional worlds and the characters within them. When we consider culture for fiction, we should consider it as a tool to add the same kind of believable, substantial context to our fiction, as it does to our daily lives.

Culture creates the context of life

As mentioned, culture creates a strong context for our actions. But why does it do this?

To me, culture changes some key things about us that strongly influence the way we live. It does so in at very least, three key ways. I distill culture’s impact into these three categories specifically for the ability to use these concepts in fiction. They are as follows: Thought Process, Societal Norms, Conflict Resolution.

Thought process

Through repeated action, humans tend to train our minds to learn patterns that allow us to more efficiently execute a task in the future. This learning process, over time, quite literally shapes the way we think. When our culture teaches us to value certain concepts over others, we tend to develop thought processes which prioritize those values as well.

This process goes beyond actions alone, but gets to the fundamental of who a person is. It shapes them from a deep level and modifies the way the world appears to them. Because of this change to the way someone’s thoughts are modified by culture, it becomes an extremely important tool for world building and storytelling at large.

Thought process is the most fundamental of the three concepts as it happens before all of the others.

Social norms

Another way that culture should affect a world or it’s people lies in the way that culture essentially determines what is and what is not normal or standard. Culture establishes this baseline, and while it may move or change over time, even the way it must be moved is directly impacted by the culture in question.

Because fiction tends to tell the interesting story about the situation that is beyond normal in some way, culture will therefore have something to say about what goes on or why.

It is not just plot, but character choices and interactions with each other that are largely determined by these norms. When one character performs an action it may produce wildly varying results based on what the cultures of the observers are. At a fundamental level these norms have a strong impact on how our world is built.

Societal norms arise from the way people think and, therefore, tend to act. Thus societal norms follow thought process.

Conflict Resolution

One of the key ways our culture influences us is that it has a direct impact on what we come into conflict with, and perhaps more importantly, how we choose to resolve those conflicts.

Often times it is the reaction and response to a conflict that is the greater driving force in how its consequences are felt, than the original conflict itself.

Often times it is the reaction and response to a conflict that is the greater driving force in how its consequences are felt, than the original conflict itself. Because culture has such a strong influence over these attributes of any given individual, it has a massive impact on the way stories are told and the way plots are shaped. It should be obvious then, that culture’s effects on conflict resolution have a very important role to play in fiction.

Conflict resolution is listed last here as the conflicts generally arise in response to thought process. Macroscopic conflicts often result from conflicting societal norms. Thus, a culture’s method of conflict resolution is tested.

Think, Feel, Act

The above trio of concepts is a set of things that I shorten to ‘Think, Feel, Act’

Thought process corresponds to the way people Think, Societal or Social norms, influence how people Feel about any given thing that they see, and how people Act to resolve conflict rounds out the trio.

Whether we are world building in a character or conflict centered capacity, or even in a world centric way, we need to understand the impact of this trio of concepts on every individual that is going to be shaping our world build.

Exceptions which are rules, are not exceptions

One of the important parts of culture when writing is that when we make choices about a culture and the way it influences people, we remain consistent. As I emphasized in the world building basics series we have to try and keep consistency when world building or our setting and narrative start to weaken considerably.

Further, when developing characters, consistent and believable adherence to the world we create in our world building, can be the difference between an annoying character who stands out for the wrong reasons, and a compelling addition to the narrative.

If one has a culture of violent warriors for example, a character who resolves their conflicts peacefully, or does not want to fight is immediately out of the ordinary.

It would not be a stretch to say that such a character would likely face some severe discrimination or dissatisfaction from members of their own culture for such stances or behaviors. This brings us to an important rules for writing when it comes to culture:

  • Do not create a culture whose norms you are not willing to uphold in your work.
  • If you make a ubiquitous exception for a rule, it is not a rule anymore.
  • Every exception to a cultural rule has consequences, no matter how small.

If you constantly break the norms that your cultures establish in your own fiction, you will actively damage the work as a whole.

The culture of a large, unstoppable empire who enslaves its enemies is imposing when one considers how scary being attacked by this empire would be for those who cannot escape. It is far less imposing if every member of the empire whom the creator reveals to the reader is actually someone who plans to liberate all the captive slaves that their family owns and treats them with love, respect and compassion.

That is not to say that there cannot be propaganda or misinformation that has shaped the surrounding people’s views of this empire, but remember that you, the writer, define what is the true nature of the imperial culture. If you define it as brutal and slave holding, you cannot also make it made of sympathizers too. In that case the sympathizers are the culture instead, and the narrative about brutal slaveholders being the prevailing culture no longer seems realistic or believable.

If you are making a culture that has strong views about sexual or gender roles for example, you cannot simply have the main character be outside of the norms for these roles without some kind of consequence to the way the story is shaped or the way the surrounding culture perceives them.

If you feel completely averse to a particular cultural concept or idea, it is best to use the tried and true world building methods we have outlined previously, to find an alternative: Ask Questions and explore the implications of their answers.

Creating a world build does not mean you are immersed in the beliefs held by individuals you are writing about anymore than a historian who studies history is a follower of whomever they are studying.

If however, you find a concept or idea too difficult to adhere to when creating a culture because it makes you uncomfortable, the answer is simple: Do not include it. Find a different way to solve the problem.

Culture Creation

In the next article on the culture master concept, we will take what we have explored here and try to see how it can shape our various world building techniques. By doing so, it is my hope that you will be empowered to leverage rich cultural histories in your world building.

While building a culture inside our world builds follows most of the same question and answer concepts we are familiar with, the collections of ideas that go into a particular culture have lasting and strong impacts on any build and we owe it to ourselves as creators to better understand how to apply culture to our fiction.

Stay tuned for the next article in the series!