World Building Master Concept: Culture (Part 3)

When we explored the creation of cultures last time we used a template to describe a culture in order to allow us to determine some things about it. Culture is a complex topic, and analyzing it in a simple manner is often impossible. What the templates allow us to do however is establish a baseline, forcing us to define some aspects which allow us to expand as creative writers, upon them at a later time.

It is often hard, or even impossible to anticipate the ramifications of a single cultural decision that we make as a writer or creator: sometimes the implications of some cultural choice are too broad for a single person to understand. Nothing we make as writers is going to be perfect out of the gate, and we need to refine it.

We talked in the initial master concept article on culture about how culture and conflict resolution are tied together. We talked in our second concept article about how we can make some guesses at a new fictional culture using templates to provide us with a jumping off point.

Today, we are going to be exploring the idea of taking a culture we have created and using character examples to determine how it should shape the way we present an individual who is a member of the culture, their thought process, choices and goals.

We will do our best to understand how to put characters into our worlds that are believable representations of the culture we create and what it means for them and the world itself. Additionally, we are going to be taking on the idea of the culturally outcast character and I will do my best to show why I think it is a requirement that we first understand how a culture affects the individual, before we can properly flesh out the ‘outcast’ archetype.

When we first started into culture, one of the things I asserted was that “The reaction and response to a conflict is the greater driving force in how its consequences are felt, than the original conflict itself.” In other words, how people react to a problem is actually more important in a majority of cases, than what the problem actually was.

If every problem one experiences is met with hysteric consternation, then the outcome of every problem may be quite a bit more dire than if the reaction was more subdued. Conversely, a subdued reaction to a truly catastrophic challenge, may result in a lack of precaution, amplifying the original problem beyond containable levels.

The way that conflict is treated is at its core a combination of factors, but one of those factors is certainly the education and cultural background of the individual reacting.

The way that conflict is treated is at its core a combination of factors, but one of those factors is certainly the education and cultural background of the individual reacting. When that individual is an important leader, an influential figure, or perhaps a uniquely gifted outcast, their reaction can have extremely far reaching consequences for many more people than themselves. This is one of the reasons that it is so important that we writers understand the impacts of this cultural background: We tend to write stories about the people who are not the norm, whose ability or influence exceeds the average. Thus, their reactions to conflict will almost always impact the world around them to a greater degree than average.

A Comparison Of Single Trait Cultures

Let’s explore some extreme examples of culture as a point of illustrating just how drastic these impacts can be. We will use some easy to understand cultures that we will distill down to one real trait for the sake of simplicity.

One of these cultures we will call the punchers, whose real cultural trait revolves around fighting whatever problem they experience in an attempt to overpower it through brute force.

The contrast to these will be the huggers, who are bent on caring and loving regardless of the problem being faced and will go out of their way to minimize the use of force for any problem they encounter.

Now, lets take two leaders, of equal social status, the King of the huggers and the King of the punchers. To illustrate just how wildly different these cultures might be, we will put both of these people into a hypothetical scenario in which alien space craft are spotted landing in a remote part of their national territory. The knowledge has gone public and people are nervous because they do not know what to make of the aliens. Both kings are asked to take control of the situation.

Based on what I know of punchers due to their singular defining trait as a culture, the puncher kings learning and teaching would encourage him to be strong, try to dominate the problem and perhaps, defeat the aliens preemptively. He and his people might view the aliens with suspicion or distrust because they are an unknown that cannot be controlled and thus, adopt a hostile stance in order to pre-empt potential aggression.

Conversely the hugger king might decide that he will send diplomats or envoys to the aliens, offering them friendship and cooperation. The hugger king would most certainly not be interested in hurting the aliens and would almost certainly attempt to negotiate and communicate.

At a glance, this sounds very simple, but it is when we explore the ramifications of these choices under various circumstances, that we can start to see just how come the culture of a character has such a drastic effect on their behaviors.

Let’s explore some hypothetical meetings now, given what we know about the two kings we have already described and the stances they might take toward the arriving aliens. First, let’s take a look at what might happen if the alien culture mirrored the puncher mentality:

  • If the aliens are just like the Punchers, and the Puncher King’s forces meet them, it is likely there will be some kind of fighting breaking out relatively soon. They might assume that the cadre of tanks and soldiers coming to greet them are hostile and thus, blow them up with a deathray before they have to fight.

    Perhaps this prompts an escalation from the Puncher King, who decides to launch a large bomb at the alien landing site. Soon, all out war breaks out between the aliens and the punchers.
  • If the aliens are just like the Huggers however, and the puncher King’s forces come in aggressively, the aliens may be shocked, caught off guard and offer easy prey to the King’s forces.

    Perhaps, despite their advanced technology, the aliens suffer a catastrophic loss because in their learning and understanding, they have never truly considered that some people as aggressive as the punchers could exist and wish to dominate them. Perhaps the aliens are forced to leave the planet and write it off forever.

Now let’s look at what might be possible if the Hugger King meets the aliens:

  • If the aliens are just like the punchers and the Hugger King’s forces show up, the aliens may be emboldened by these volunteer slaves and soon the Hugger King’s nation or planet is seen by the aliens as a good place to get some manual labor for the next giant asteroid mining project the aliens are planning in the nearby star system.

    The Hugger population, unable, or unwilling to defend itself, falls prey to the Puncher style aliens rather quickly because they lacked any sort of cultural capacity for retaliating.
  • If the aliens are just like the Huggers and meet the Hugger king’s forces, it probably would not take long for both sides to push to communicate and soon, the aliens and their advanced technology have begun to spread around the world.

    The advanced Hugger aliens and the Hugger king are seen as heroes because of the way they met together and cooperated without any kind of coercion.

On their faces, any of these scenarios offers a potentially interesting story on its own, but the real meat of these conflicts starts to become apparent when we start exploring cultures that are more complicated than the single trait Puncher and Hugger cultures.

Fictional Cultures Should Be Deep And Meaningful

One of the reasons the templates from part two presented the conflict resolution factors as opposing philosophies was to help allow us as creators, to use the template answers as ways to see where these points of conflict might happen.

The above examples might apply for example, only to the Force vs Negotiation aspect of the template we visited last time. If we looked over the Strength vs Friendship aspect of the template however, we can see that there are additional factors that will influence the way any two cultures could meet.

Perhaps the culture of the Huggers is actually very aggressive in trying to enforce its ideas of peace love and unity on others. Perhaps the Puncher culture values strength and courage so much that they avoid conflict entirely with people they consider like minded.

When we add more dimensions to the culture, we can see how even things we might not have thought of at first, become options for how and why conflicts might occur. Importantly, we can also find reasons for cooperation where we previously could not find any, the making of unlikely alliances of friendships.

In my own Novel, Star of Ashor, one point of difference between two of the dominant cultures presented is the difference in how they view artificial augmentation of the body and prosthetics.

The culture of the Hil’Raigh and Kul’Raigh people under the Hil’Raigh Federation takes a dim view of the practice or artificial augmentation, considering it un-natural. This is engrained so much into the people in their society that the idea of seeing someone with obviously artificial eyes is out of the ordinary and that seeing someone with something like an obvious prosthetic arm would be near unheard of.

By contrast, they are quite fond of genetic engineering themselves from birth, and so, while they seemingly reject augmentation, they also engage in a prolific amount of tinkering, ranging from customizing aspects of their body, to repairing entire limbs. Some outside observer might claim that his too, is on par with artificial augmentation, but because of the culture, it is the norm to them.

This stands in stark contrast to the NovaCore, the other culture heavily featured in the book. They tend not to have much of a problem with artificial augmentation, but have deeper ethical questions about the realities of genetic engineering as practiced by the Hil’Raigh, especially in the areas related to the engineering embryos and unborn children for optimal traits.

If characters from these different cultures were to discuss the topic of genetic engineering, it might generate conflict between them, not because each of the characters came to strong conclusions as an individual beforehand, but more so because each side had developed its own opinions and feelings based on the common wisdom in the culture from which they came.

While this may be a small factor in the overall cultural fabric of either side, one might begin to understand how it could affect the outcome of events if the topic of augmentation or genetic engineering was very important to particular characters in a story.

When we realize that the topic of Genetic Engineering is perhaps only a tiny fraction of a person’s core belief, we can start to see how the layers of behavior and thought that are applied to the individual by the cultural background they carry, can become quite meaningful in the way they interact with the world around them. These effects cannot be ignored in proper fictional writing.

What It Means To Be A Member

It should be clear by now, that there are a number of things that culture defines for the characters we create. The individual in our writing and creations is always going to be at least, in part, a product of circumstance, and cultures have a huge impact on the way that circumstances play out for a particular person.

When we look at people around us or in fiction, we can start to see that each is a member of groups, cultures, that define the norms and attitudes of the individual on a broader scale. Those who fit into a particular group have behaviors that fall in line with what is expected within that group, while those who do not, must usually find a new group to fit into instead.

Thus, as we explore the impact of culture on storytelling, we must at the core, understand how it affects the singular person first. Nowhere is this more clear than when we are dealing with “The Outcast” archetype.

When we think of fiction, the story of an outcast is not all that uncommon. The outcast is often a good character to focus on because they are not the average, and thus, more interesting to the observer. The mundane is often overlooked, and the personal motivations and reasoning, the conflicts between the outcast and the culture they are surrounded by, often serve as a good vehicle for creating tension, drama, and even moving the plot of a narrative forward.

There is a fatal pitfall however, in telling the story of the outcast, one that is often fallen into by writers and creators who have not taken into account, the culture in which their outcast resides. Usually this can be identified by the ‘Because I said So’ trap.

Because I Said so, Doesn’t make it so

“But T,” I hear you say, “Isn’t creative freedom paramount? Why should the creator’s desires have to be held back. If they want to tell an outcast story, they should be able to.”

Yes, reader, You are right, creative freedom is the pinnacle of art, However, not all art is created equal. This is especially true in fiction and story telling.

If you’ve explored my character design basics, series, you know that I am big on ‘consistency’ or rather, trying to make the motivations or actions of characters line up with what makes sense in the world they live in.

Now that we are talking about culture, we can talk about how this concept matters so much more than we covered before. The reason that the culture matters when all is said and done is explicitly because it defines what is, and is not, consistent with the supposed motivations of a character.

The reason that the culture matters when all is said and done is explicitly because it defines what is, and is not, consistent with the supposed motivations of a character.

Truly consistent characters, and excellent story telling do not exceed the bounds of what is plausible given the facts. When it comes to character behavior, culture is one of the strong influencers of motivation. As we know from previous discussion, motivation is key to making character action feel believable.

My assertion today, is that those who want to tackle the narrative of the outcast, must first understand the norm. If you cannot understand what is normal for a fictional culture, and accurately describe or define it, then you cannot hope to explain why your character is an outcast of that culture, no matter how hard you try to convince me.

If a culture’s defining trait, as defined thus far in a narrative, is that blue skin is required, and your character indeed, has blue skin, then no claim that ‘the character is totally an outcast’ will stick, no matter how much the people in the story speak about it, or think about it.

Perhaps, the character is just being bullied, but even then, the responsibility still rests on the creator to describe how, or why, this is bullying, and thus, they must understand the culture anyway. Remember, cultures other than your own will not look at bullying the same way as you do. A tribal culture built around strength and endurance will probably ignore fist fighting among the youth, as they might see it as a character building exercise, while a culture similar to a modernized earth might see this as an unacceptable behavior.

The takeaway should be simple; When characters who are entirely average, and just happen to be the main character, are labeled as an outcast, there is an expectation from the reader that the author present to them, why exactly they are outcast.

This is simply not possible if one does not understand a culture well enough to pin down what exactly their OC is doing so differently from the rest. Regardless of what is creating your outcast, you must always understand the culture that made them outcast. There is no escape from the need to understand fictional culture when creating worlds and narratives even if you label your caste as outsiders.

Culture Is a Strong Asset In Storytelling

In knowing how cultures shape the individual, we are better prepared for every part of our storytelling. We can better understand how our characters will act, react and behave, and by extension, better understand how entire communities, nations and governments, composed of these individuals will act.

When we neglect to define, or explore the impact of culture on our narratives we are eliminating the chance that our creation can be of high quality. Those works of fiction which take the time to make these explorations will always have a stronger foundation than those who do not.

Important to remember however, is that simply exploring the culture is not enough. We must actually apply the culture to the narratives and characters we create or we will not be able to produce the richness we hope to create.

Only by understanding our fictional cultures can we hope to understand what makes our people tick, what sets them apart, or makes them a conforming member of society. In order to create the best narratives, we must truly be anthropologists, ambassadors for our fictional cultures. We must be able to show the cultures we create in ways that explain and provide context for our narratives. They need to be important interwoven considerations when we write and plan, never an afterthought that we attempt to hastily assemble after the fact, to make our reskinned elves feel “new and exciting” compared to the other reskinned elves we passed one narrative back.

Take the time to explore your fictional cultures, and then when writing, you’ll be able to apply them and enhance your narrative beyond what others who did not, can achieve.

Now that we’ve explored culture in fiction, I will have to plan the next article because my outline for all of this is way out of date by now. With the release of Star of Ashor’s paperback and the recent world events, things in the outline took an interesting, prophetic sort of turn. Thus, I need some time to rearrange some of my article ideas.

If you have a particular topic burning a hole in your head, let me know and maybe we can explore something related to it in an upcoming article.

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