Last week, I talked about culture in worldbuilding, why it is important, and why it is complex and nearly impossible to create completely. Today, I’d like to look at one particular aspect of culture as I defined it, and how one goes about developing it.
I mentioned last time that there’s this facet of culture I like to call the “socio-self” aspect. It’s the part of culture that requires individuals and their interaction. It’s the individualism or collectivism perpetuated by society and self.
You’ll find these two parts – society and self – intertwined in our own world and lives. This part of culture is so important that psychologists and their studies tell us that society can have a profound impact on our personality and our actions. In fact, it’s clear that certain psychological disorders are dependent on the culture. Because they’re defined by society, these disorders can rise and fall as people define and redefine what is “normal” and what is “abnormal”. (As a side note, my blog follows exactly zero of the formal writing styles, so I’m not even sure how I go about citing sources… But I know this information because of a psychology textbook by Dr. David G. Meyers. I’m sure it will pop up in a Google search if you’re interesting… anyway.)
When it comes to writing, what are these two parts manifested as? Who is the self, and who is the society? In short, your main cast is the self, the rest of the people are society. In other words, whichever character you’re following is the self. It’s important to note, however, that everyone is the self, and everyone is society. All those other people who pop up in your book are also people. They have lives and they are complex characters with fears and hopes and dreams. You can treat them as society only as a whole.
Depending on whom you make the self, society will look different. We all have unique outlooks on life and on those around us. One of the hardest things to develop when it comes to culture is how your character perceives culture and how culture perceives them. It’s certainly a process. A long, long process.
I’d like to give you an example from my writing. In my most recent project (Agram Awakens), I have five main characters and seven minor characters whose POVs I use at least once. Each one of these characters follows an arc that takes place in completely different countries. They’re all in the same world, and their stories eventually intersect, but each is hundreds of miles from the other at any given time. These miles cross political and cultural boundaries, which means that each character sees and interacts with a different culture. They’re of different races and religions and family backgrounds and on and on go the differences. It made writing the book difficult, because I had to undergo a radical shift each time I wrote a different point of view. In fact, I often had to stop at the end of one point of view and wait until the next day to start the next scene, because the mindsets are so different.
It was hard, but this diversity allowed me to explore the idea of culture in so many ways from so many perspectives. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had. I wrote from the point of view of a girl who’s been so pressured by society to be one way that she’s adopted it as herself and when it’s stripped away from her she doesn’t know how to react, how to be something other than the self thrust upon her by society.
I got to write from the point of view of a man who was – in essence – damned by a sect, and from the point of view of someone in that sect who has to deal with racism from the outside. Through these differing cultural and selves, I was able to touch on such a harsh topic from both sides of the equation.
How? How did I work my way to a point where I could write these things?
Personally, I started with the society. You can start with the self, if you’re more of a character-based writer. Whichever works for you. I started with the worldbuilding side of culture and moved on to the personal side of culture.
For me, this meant taking the map I created for my story and examining it. I took into consideration every country that would become important in my story or where any scene would take place. Then I developed basic parts of those countries that shape culture. Of these, the ones that had the most impact were (in no particular order):
--- Familial Relations
--- International Relations
I wrote down basic notes on each of these things, and then as I wrote, I let the countries develop further in the creative juices of my brain.
How do each of these things affect culture? Well, society creates “norms”, the acceptable behaviors of the individual. Each of the categories above helps to shape those norms. A place where one religion is prominent will create religious norms that everyone is expect to follow or at least pretend to follow. A country where family is vital will form around a norm where family is close and they probably live in the same house with their extended family and children are everywhere.
Personally, I suggest developing that short list of basic notes on each country and then apply them to your main character. Ask yourself: how does the government of this country affect my character? How does the lack or excess of education change the way my character interacts with others?
These things are the beginning of the first part of culture.
The second part of socio-self requires less work for some of us, and more for the rest. If you’re a wordsmith (a character-based writer), this will be the easy side of culture. This is where you sit inside your character’s head and consider all the ways they interact with the rest of the world. It’s the way in which your character acts in certain circumstances. It’s their prejudice and preconceived notions and their thoughts on the world and others.
It’s hard to explain how to develop this, because it varies for each character. It’s that sixth part of character development I mentioned a few weeks ago. It’s the complexity of interaction that is hard to describe even for yourself.
Meshing Two Parts
All right. We’ve developed these two parts of culture. They’re one half of what culture is. How do we make them one complete piece?
It’s simple: write your story.
The only surefire way to mesh the social and the self is to write it. Write your society and your character interacting. You can’t just jot down notes, you have to stick your hands right into the goop and sort it out as you go. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll have epiphanies. You’ll contradict yourself and you’ll deviate from your notes.
And you know what?
That’s how true worldbuilding works. Worldbuilding creates a foundation and then morphs itself to fit the needs of the stories and the revelations of the creative mind. Culture is a liquid: it’s ever shifting. It sits on the cusp of change: on one side it’s ready to flash to a gas at one change, on the other it will mold into a solid with the right pressure. It’s constricted by the view of others, molded by the thoughts of the self.