What is culture?
It’s a hard question to answer, because it’s such a complex answer with many facets. In addition, the answer will vary depending on where you’re from, because culture is defined by the culture you live in.
What about in writing? In worldbuilding? What is culture, and how do we develop it?
The Definition of Culture
According to Google, we find that culture is defined as:
“the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.”
What a mouthful. Well, if that’s what culture is, I could probably restate it with bolded font and then send you out to go develop it, right?
See, if I told you that you need to develop the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement, you would have the slightest idea where to start, would you? I mean, you could start with art, but then you have to define art and choose which kind of art to start with and then you somehow have to pull them into some sort of manifestation and it starts to sound like some sort of cult ritual that no sane person wants to be a part of.
Let’s try to simplify what culture is. I’ll use this post to talk about what culture and why we need to develop it, and then I’ll have two other world blip posts next month that get into the nitty-gritty of actual development of “culture”.
The Definition of Culture, Take Two
What is culture really?
I like to think that – for worldbuilding purposes, at least – there are two basic aspects of culture: the socio-self facet and the art-intellect aspect. In other words, culture is the combination of relationships and self-expression.
You find a variety of cultures in our world, each of which presents a different definition of what culture is. The modern West promotes a socio-self idea of individualism, this idea that the self is important, that who you are is what defines your social interaction. In the modern East, you find the “opposite”: collectivism is the promotion of the group before the self. Who you are is defined by the people around you instead of just you yourself.
I’m not here to promote one or the other, so we’re going to move on. Just keep those two ideas in mind, because they’ll be important as we look deeper into the socio-self facet of culture next week.
The second part of culture is art-intellect: it’s the portion of culture that creates and promotes civilization. Without intellect, people would never develop, and without art, life would be dull and grayed.
Intellect is most often shaped by the surroundings of the culture: land-locked communities focused on farming won’t have intellect in areas of math or fishing, necessarily. In a similarly different way, art is shaped by the emotional surroundings of the culture: the outlook that people have on life affects the art they create.
These two things are meshed together and are often heavily influenced by each other, too. It can be hard to find their separate entities in real civilizations, which can make it tricky to distinguish between them and learn how to build each separately and then intertwine them, but I’ll do my best in the next posts to do so.
The Importance of Culture
It may be obvious from the two things I just defined that culture is, indeed, important for our world and for the worlds we create in our stories. However, let’s look at it anyway. What happens when the world you create for your story has no culture?
First, there would be no community and your characters would live in solitude. Where two or more people are together for any period of time, a culture will form. A sense of self and others will appear, as well as potential for intellect and art. The moment you remove culture, you remove any chance for civilization, communication, and community.
Second, a potentially vibrant world becomes drab. Maybe you have a unique and amazing concept for a story world that everyone loves. Except… you don’t develop culture. Turns out, culture is a lens people look at the world with. Without that lens, everything becomes fuzzy and distorted, to the point where we only see things in a cloudy gray.
Third and lastly, your characters will lose a dimension. A few weeks ago, I talked about the six basic parts of character development, but this is one that I didn’t mention because it’s one that comes out in the story and the world more than the actual character. When you don’t have culture, your characters lose entities to interact with. Your characters can’t have an opinion about social issues because there won’t be social issues.
I’ll spend two different posts actually talking about developing culture, but I want to get the first basic step aside, the first way to make culture become a reality in your story:
Admit the differences between people. When people have differences, they come up with compromises or conflicts, resulting in new ways of thought.
When you develop your world, explore these differences. When one person or people group likes fish more than beef (or they have access to one over the other), it will influence their culture. Perhaps they live near the sea and so their main food is fish and their religion centers on a deity who controls the waves and the wind. People use curse words formed around fish or fishing or boating. Class and class interaction are formed around the size of your boat or the success of your fishing ventures. Education and intellect are strongly based on wealth, and social interaction is largely familial, with a sense of collectivism rather than individualism.
This culture will be far different from one that forms around a city with a diverse population and countless occupations. There are always overlaps in culture, but each one is unique to the circumstances surrounding the culture’s origin.