Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Culture isn't uniform!

Way back in the very early life of this blog (in 2008!) I wrote a post about making sure your characters aren't all the same. Not surprisingly, the post was called "Don't make them all the same," and I encourage you to go back and look at it.

Today's post deals with culture, but it has the same message. Not only aren't different cultures the same as one another (on a very fundamental level), even cultures that are spoken of as if they were uniform aren't really uniform.

American culture. Which one? From the point of view of Australians or Japanese, our culture is what they see on the television and in the movies. I remember having to explain over and over when I was living as an exchange student in Japan that just because they hear stories about Americans who own guns doesn't mean that every American owns a gun. Just because they hear Americans talk about Christianity doesn't mean every American is a Christian. As my Aussie husband has remarked, "America has Utah, and it has Nevada, and the two are side by side."

You shouldn't be surprised to learn that Japanese culture varies a lot also. There are a myriad dialects across the Japanese islands (as should be expected given the length of time that the population has lived there). The Japanese are particularly proud of their regional delicacies, but the differences go beyond just that.

In fact, culture isn't necessarily uniform even in a single location. In a tiny town dominated by a printing plant, you might have a microculture for the people who work at the plant which distinguishes itself from the people who work in service positions for the plant workers. In a major US university you'll have African American groups and Asian American groups as well as groups based on religious affiliation, hobbies, etc. People align themselves based on professions, religions, neighborhoods - almost anything can become the basis for alignment, or realignment. When I was an undergraduate one of the major issues that came up was that the Asian American group was splintering into subcomponents - the Filipinos and the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese were starting to want their own groups. In the US we often talk about the culture of a company, or the culture of sports, etc.

So let's say you're creating a fictional culture. It could be aliens, or elves, or humans in a secondary world - that part doesn't matter. The characters that you create will differ enormously based on the culture they are a part of, but also upon the subcultures they belong to. And here's another thing - different subcultures aren't necessarily even aware of one another's existence, even when they interact all the time. Let's say that you have one group that works as servants to another group - the master group will know a lot about the servant group as pertains to their interaction with the master group, and the expectations for intergroup relations. However, they may not know much if anything about the norms for relations inside the servant group, when the master group is not present. People can live side by side and interact constantly but have no idea how members of another cultural group think.

I encourage you to think this through as you build a world. A character doesn't behave the way he/she does because he/she is a member of X labelled group. That character is a product of his/her own experience and has layers of cultural awareness. That character will also have ideas about how other groups work - and those ideas probably overlap with other groups' views of themselves, but they probably miss a lot too.

I have a big trilogy in my future (something I wrote before when I wasn't as good a writer!) and I'm having ideas for it on and off continually (which is why I'm sure I'll go back to it). One of the things that's developing is the social structure and the intra-cultural contrasts. It's a Varin trilogy, so it's set in a society with seven caste levels. I used to have three point of view characters, but now I have four planned, and contrast is the reason for this. It's going to look like:
  1. Imbati #1
  2. Imbati #2
  3. Akrabitti #1
  4. Akrabitti #2
Each of the two members of the Imbati caste have very different ideas about what it means to be Imbati, which grow out of very different sets of experiences - and as you can imagine, the same is true for the Akrabitti characters. There's also going to be an important contrast between the noblemen that Imbati #1 and Imbati #2 work for. These contrasts give the portrayal of the castes and the world far more depth than they could have if I used only a single character from each group. In my reading of science fiction and fantasy I've met a lot of quest groups, and other groups, with different races and cultures - but usually only one representative of each. It's not a problem, per se, but when you want to create a truly three-dimensional society, it can really help to get a stereoscopic view of the cultural groups from which it is formed.


  1. I'm trying to do that (with the emphasis on "try") in my current WiP. My character keeps running into her cultural expectations when she interacts with other races, but the big learning experience is when she bangs into a cultural expectation when dealing with others of her own race.

  2. Plenty to think about. I enjoy your posts very much, and the more intangible and fundamental the subject, the better!

  3. Sounds interesting, Suzi! Hard to comment, though, since I don't know the specifics.

    Porky, I'm glad you liked the post.

  4. Very true and unfortunately very easily forgotten. I must add a link to this blog to my own to remind all the writers out there of that very important truth: A country may be more than the sum of its parts, but its parts are certainly more than the sum of the country.

    I am both a council worker, a volunteer, a gamer, a writer, and a nerd. Some of these sub-cultures blend, some do not. I will have similarities to different members of each of these groups but that doesn't mean that those groups themselves will behave similarly.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Shannon! Good move, mentioning the groups you feel you belong to - this is an excellent way to bring the point home for people who don't think they have a lot of exposure to different subcultures.

  6. I just have to look at all the people who are friends with me on Facebook: several different subgroups and most either don't or just barely overlap. Sometimes I repost things from my friends for the benefit of the various people in the unconnected groups, and they do the same. Culture is indeed weird and diverse, even if we aren't always consciously aware of it.

    I've only scratched the surface of the various subcultures in my YA fantasy, something I realize I need to get deeper into since it's a strong factor for what I have planned for my MCs and for why the primary one is so pivotal. Your post clarified the half formed thoughts I had on the subject.

  7. Jaleh,

    Facebook is an interesting example! Indeed, people I know who have one parameter in common often differ vastly on other parameters. Glad I could help with half-formed thoughts. If you'd be okay with having a public commentary on your project (like Janice's real life diagnostics), you could always send something (text or descriptions) to me and I'd be happy to share my thoughts about it.

  8. Great post- its important that writers understand that culture is not merely about surface detail.(Iain M Banks pun not intended...!)