Before I get into this post, I want to let you all know that this will be the last post for a week. I have graduation festivities this weekend and so will be spending lots of time with friends and family – and away from my computer. It’s sort of going to be a technology fast. I am looking forward to it.
Now, I majored in Anthropology, which is the study of human cultures. For me, culture is very important, especially in fiction. If I pick up a fantasy novel, and it is just like all the other fantasy novels (by which I mean it seems to come right from the medieval period – even when it is set in another world) I’m probably going to set it back down. Admittedly there are similar characteristics in lots of fantasy books – magic, foot transportation, castles – but it really irks me when there are only surface descriptors and nothing deeper, nothing to tell readers that this is not medieval Europe, but some strange world that no one has ever heard of. This is where culture comes in.
Culture can make even places that seem similar to wherever we are incredibly different. It’s what makes the world so interesting – so why not make our fictive worlds that interesting too? If you have characters from different places in their world, chances are that they are going to behave differently from one another based on their culture.
But culture can be a hard thing to get a grasp on. We can’t just look at a society and say “There, that’s the culture,” because culture is made up of so many little things. It’s all the quirks and nuances that are important to people, and yet outsiders might not even see them. It’s the big stuff too, like religion and education systems and if people are primarily hunters or farmers or something in between. Culture is hard to pinpoint, and this makes it especially difficult to create a culture for a story.
I am still not done creating the cultures of my World. I don’t think I’ll ever be done – after all culture is something that keeps changing. For the Ibvailyn Empire, I have lots of bits and pieces of their culture, and the overarching tie of their religion, but it still feels like clumps of dirt that will either fall out of my hands or break apart and leave me with new, smaller bits. The problem is, everything has to have a reason. There has to be a legitimate reason why the people who live in the far north don’t eat meat or why the number two is considered evil. In our own lives, we take what we have and don’t really think about the why, but in fiction the why is all there really is.
I keep seeing quotes and posts about how in fiction, there is no such thing as coincidence, because people won’t accept it. There has to be a reason. It’s the same with fictive cultures. There have got to be good, consistent reasons why things are the way they are. Sure, those reasons don’t need to be (and really shouldn’t be) explicitly laid out in the story, but they should be there, somewhere. They should be inside of the characters. Those rules and reasons are what make up the world around them. It’s hard work to do, though.
When I start posting again, I will do a series on the culture of the Ibvailyn Empire. Until then, I’d like to hear what you think about culture in fiction. Do you think it is a valuable part of a story? How do you go about creating fictive cultures?
Take care, fellow travelers.