If you want a novel to come alive, you don’t want a generic group of people. You want some culture. Culture is an important part of life, and different cultures are often shown in novels, whether real cultures or fictional ones like in fantasy. But how do authors handle cultures?
I don’t. I like to know what I’m writing about, so if I was to include another culture in my fiction, I would demand extensive research of myself. Research takes a lot of time, and time isn’t something I have a lot of… so… I haven’t, really, had any cultures in my writing that aren’t my own.
Great question. Doing this is tough. You have to be judicious and clever as you share aspects of different cultures, especially if you created them (such as in Sci Fi). There is tremendous danger in bogging down in minutia as you try to detail every aspect. Your readers won’t stick with you if your story turns into a textbook summary.
So — as with every story — you have to keep your story focused on what maters, which is the plight of the protagonist and her efforts to fulfill her goals and desires. The fact that she might be living in or intersecting with another culture is just color and background. Don’t spend so much time on it that you bore your readers.
I try not to portray real-world cultures in my fantasy, but I do try to understand real-world cultures and relevant history so that I can invent and portray cultures with believable depth.
For example, I don’t want to do a cheap knock off an Asian culture by depicting a race with Asian sounding names, a particular skin tone, martial arts and a Confucian-style religion. But, if I understand why a particular Asian culture developed a particular fighting style, religious belief etc. then perhaps I can realistically portray how that element evolved in one of my invented cultures, and build something that is logical and believable, with an element of familiarity and a dash of the fantastic, without it feeling like a cliché.
The biggest difference between real cultures that appears in anything I have written so far involves a now-adult character who was born in Japan but moved to America as a teenager. She is probably about as culturally Japanese as someone who hasn’t lived there in 25 years can be, but also glad to be (mostly) free of one particular aspect of Japanese culture. She’s become part of a family that has shades of the American “melting pot” style of cultural mixing; for example her partner’s (white) daughter speaks Japanese and is stated to own a kimono.
Depending on your definition of a subculture, I think I do a decent job of portraying several of them appropriately, and positively unless there actually is something destructive.
At the same time, I think most of my characters are closer to mainstream American culture than to the regional culture of the part of the country where they live…which is entirely consistent with the majority of people I know in real life.
Probably the most important depiction of culture in my writing, though, involves someone from a fictional culture trying to fit in a real one while also actually wanting to change parts of it. I try not to drag it out by making her an unrealistically slow learner, though, so after a while she settles into being someone who is aware of the norm but doesn’t really care any more about following it than any other nonconformist.
Hopefully well, or my Anthropologist card will be revoked. Seriously, I try to follow the standard anthro definitions of culture and show different technology, economy, social structures, politics, language, arts, and ideologies.
I don’t. Most of what I write centers around life in the South. When I think of different cultures I think about foreign cultures.
Because I write mostly sci-fi and fantasy, I don’t often rely on real cultures, but I do draw upon them for creating ones that fit my stories. I like to think the future is a much more open and accepting place and try to make my people diverse.
This is likely the most difficult thing for me to wrap my head around, whether real or imaginary. I find the easiest way to do it is through speech patterns, vernacular and little ticks or physical cues. Both my fantasy stories and contemporary stories feature characters of varying backgrounds, and I find this method very natural for me to get across. Of course, individual characterization influences how closely the culture is followed – or rejected, so that’s something to keep in mind as well.
I portray them fairly, I hope? This is a broad question. I have a lot of cultures, and I like to think that they’re well-formed and varied without being needlessly different. Since I’ve worked out a lot of the deep history, I know who’s invaded each other, and whose culture has influenced or been rejected by their neighbors; I know some of the regional variations of religion, music, architecture and art, and the reasons for them. I know why each territory or kingdom has the political system it uses, and I know the ethnic divisions within and between territories. I want it to feel like a living world, and I know that sometimes this impulse makes things overly complex and opaque within the books — so I do my best to demonstrate these clashing cultures through the characters, not so much through narration. And it’s the characters who have opinions on each other’s cultural ways, not the narrator-voice. I have my own opinion on who’s wrong and who’s right, but I try not to push that on the world.
To be honest, I don’t think I have portrayed a culture other than my own before. I stick to what I know best. I suppose children could be a culture of their own.
Honestly, it’s never really come up for me. In all the cases in which I’ve written about different cultures they were completely fictitious cultures that I created myself and thus could portray in any way I saw fit. If we’re talking even about those kinds of cases it becomes even more odd because almost all of the cultures I’ve created for a story have been non-human or demi-human, meaning that the usual rules don’t even really apply.
In general, I just try to approach other cultures – real or fictional – by trying to sound as realistic as possible. If you as the reader can imagine the culture I’m writing about as being a real one, then I’ve done my job.
I mainly do this through language and food. While I haven’t been ambitious enough to make a full-on conlang (yet), there are differences with how characters with different ideas use their words. Playing with idioms and expressions is a favorite.
With food, it’s a matter of showing what’s common in the area and what methods are used to cook it.
At the moment, I’m writing science fiction that takes place about one hundred fifty years in the future. I imagine that where the people live, there’s a mixing of cultures, as it is multicultural. However, each person has their ancestral roots to consider, so I look at what makes many cultures special. I usually consider food and traditions, though in the future, clothing will come into play.
In fantasy, anything goes. The author creates the culture, and can use many things to portray it. In my case, I focus on food, traditions, architecture, and a lot of daily life. It can be a complex thing to do, and it has to be consistent.
How about you?
When you write, how do you show the culture of your characters? If you don’t write, what do you look for in a book to get to know the cultures? Let us know in the comments below.