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.
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.
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.
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.
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!