Creating Cultures

By Tim Hillebrant.

What do the books Twilight, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Lonesome Dove, Game of Thrones, and Interview with a Vampire have in common?   More than you might think.  Here, for this example, every one of these stories had some kind of culture created for it.  Twilight had its own vampire culture, Harry Potter’s created culture was that of the wizarding world,  LOTR had the culture of the elves and the hobbits both, Lonesome Dove’s was the culture of the old west cattle drives, Game of Thrones is the cultures of Westeros and the Dothraki peoples, Interview with a Vampire has yet another vampire culture, 

imgresOkay, admittedly this piece is going to, at least at first, probably speak more to the fantasy and speculative fiction writers among us.  After all, the piece is on creating cultures, and that is the kind of thing that typically goes with worldbuilding.  Which is exactly why I’m going to tell you it’s not just for those two mentioned genres.  It’s for any author trying to write a story.

If you think about it, different cultures abound even within the same country.  In England there’s the cultures of the Welsh, Scots, and English, and even the cultures between those who live in the city and those who live in the outlying areas.  In the United States that cultural diversity is even more widespread, since here we are, as is so often stated, the great melting pot.  In the early days of this nation, cultures came from England, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Germany, France, and Spain.  As time passed, Asian cultures and those from south of the border found their influence gaining hold.  As these people came from their old worlds to our new one, they brought with them aspects of their cultural heritage.  From religion to cuisine, language and clothing styles, even laws and morals have all found their way into the mix.

So, how does this have anything to do with the story you’re writing?  

If you look at any culture, there’s going to things that affect it.  Even a stand alone culture, like a civilization completely isolated in space from any other cultural influence, is going to change over time.  Events will happen, leaders rise and fall, technologies develop, and just the simple passage of time will affect the cultures of a society.  So, what should we be aware of when creating a culture for a story?  What pitfalls should we look out for?   Let’s look and see.

For the story you’re creating, there’s some questions to ask yourself if you want a rich, deep culture for your characters that your readers can immerse themselves in.

For creating a culture, we need to take into account three things:  Cultural Deviance or Drift, and Cultural Exchange,

Cultures will deviate over time as they age.  Leaders will come to power whom the people dislike, and laws will be written to keep future leaders from repeating the mistakes of those prior.  Crimes will be committed, and ways to deal with them will be sought out as technology grows.  Think of it- 30 years ago, people didn’t have mobile phones, or at least not commonly so.  Now, you bump into someone without a cell, and it’s an unusual occurrence.   Women used to find it fashionable, even proper, to wear dresses that came down to cover the ankle no matter the season, and pants were almost unheard of.  Presently, if it’s high summer and someone is wearing a pantsuit, or a short skirt, it’s not unusual at all.  It’s considered normal.  Any culture you create will show the same deviance over time, even those which are very isolated or otherwise constricted.

As cultures encounter each other, there will be cultural exchange.  Did you know tomatoes are not native to europe?  Or that cows, horses, and pigs, as we know them, did not evolve in America?  Fact- before the discovery of the new world, europe had never seen a tomato.  It was imported into europe by returning explorers and conquerors who took it home with them, along with such finds as chocolate, hot peppers, and corn.  The first settlers into the Americas brought with them clothes made from fabric rather than animal hide, apples, horses, cows, even Christianity.  These are only a very few examples of cultural exchange, but a great way to show how it happens.
People are by nature curious, and will want to show treasures they’ve received from the new lands they’ve visited.  Settlers will want to bring with them memories from home.  The more varied the cultures in your story, the more likely there is to be cultural exchange.  Religion, cuisine, new or different ways to use existing technology, and the passage of time as the cultural exchange continues, will all be factors to think about.

So, you want me to create an entire culture?  Why?
They’re things that matter.  Why does it matter?  Well, how important is your culture to you?  What parts of your heritage to you choose to carry on?  What new technological wonders do you think about obtaining or upgrading to make your life just a little bit easier?  These are the things that are going to be important to your characters too.  Most people’s definition of who they are takes into account, at least in part, how they feel about, and fit into the culture they belong to.

So, what are your thoughts?
Have you come across any stunning cultures in your reading?
Or do such things not really matter to you?
Share your thoughts and opinions below, and let’s talk about it!!


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