Friday, November 18, 2016

World Blip – Culture Part 3

A few weeks ago I posted about Culture, and a few weeks before that I also posted about culture. I’ll give you half a guess about what today’s post is gonna be about.
That’s right, you almost guessed it, culture.

The first of these posts was about why you need culture in the first place, and the second was more about actually developing that culture. Now, I’d like to take a post and create more of a world blip-meets-prose blip sort of post. Here, I’m going to assume you already have a culture built, but you don’t know how to actually write it into your story.

I know the feeling. It was something I struggled with when I was first writing, and have recently realized is something I’ve grown to enjoy and excel at (according to my beta readers, at least).

Putting it into Words…

One of the hardest parts of putting your culture into your novel is actually describing it. The work required to actually write out what your culture is and make it come alive and active is immense and many people aren’t willing to put in the effort.
If you’re reading this blog post, I’m going to assume you’re willing to put in the effort, so let’s go off from that:

First, describe only relevant details. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the info-dump when you’re attempting to show your reader what a detailed world you created for them to experience. When you want them to get a picture of your culture, it’s tempting to go on and on and on about the way that these peoples interact with others in these situations.
Except… half of those situations will never come up in your novel, will they?
Here’s the deal: when you describe your culture, describe only what you could see in that scene. If you can’t see the thing your describing in front of your character’s very eyes, don’t describe it. You don’t randomly spend long minutes in the middle of walking through the grocery store to consider the social interaction you’d have if you met the president. Instead, you put into practice the social interaction you actually have at the grocery store.
When your character is walking in the market, show the interaction of society and self, of art and technology in that situation. Don’t talk about something that won’t show up in that market. When your character is at home, don’t describe how they would act in the presence of strangers. When your character is at the castle ball, don’t describe how he would act in a pig sty.

Stay relevant, show everything. The best part about culture is how easy it is to show it through character actions. In Agram Awakens, my current project, I wrote an entire scene that was basically just me showing off my culture, but I had a beta reader tell me how much they enjoyed the character interactions. Of course, this reader was also a writer so they congratulated me on the way I showed my worldbuilding without an info-dump, but a reader who isn’t looking out for that won’t notice the culture building consciously, they’ll notice how the character interact and behave.
Let your characters lead the way. When your characters act in relation to others, you’re showing how culture has affected them. 

The Right Stuff

The main danger that worldbuilding creates (beyond distracting you from ever writing your story because you spend too much time developing your setting) is the temptation to spill all the beans at once. It’s the temptation to showcase your world through info-dumps and long paragraphs.

I already wrote a blog post not too long ago about info-dumps, so I’ll let you search for that in my archives at the end of the post (it’s quite recent, so I believe in you), but here are a few basic tips that I’ve found work to avoid those info-dumps about culture in particular:

---Spend less than four sentences on any given subject of culture in any given scene. Basically, the piece of culture should be boiled down to four sentences. This only applies to telling about that aspect. If you spend an entire scene showing culture at work in character actions, you’re probably fine so long as the scene also contains conflict and emotion. 

---Use sensory information. There’s this thing about culture that tempts us to make it this ethereal “thing”, when really you should be able to smell and taste and touch and see and hear that culture. Now, don’t use this as another thing for your character to see. No, sight is overused. This is your chance to explore the other senses. What does a culture smell like, you ask? Well, food and spices are culture things. Cleanliness (or the lack thereof) is a culture thing. 

---Be unexpected. While your culture is supposed to be unique because you invented it, there are a few tropes of culture that have come to be expected. Social castes are one of them: showing caste system by having some noble ordering a beggar executed for blinking at him happens all over the place. I can think of three movies and two books off the top of my head that match that description. Another is the marketplace: sure, your market has interesting new wares that are different from all the other fantasy markets, but here’s the deal: we’ve seen hundreds of fantasy and sci-fi markets. Are there no public baths or gymnasiums or libraries or cathedrals? Those are great places to show culture, but they’re rarely utilized. One book that does this fantastically is Sailing to Sarantium, by Guy Gavriel Kay. He uses a variety of places to show culture, without having to rely on genre tropes like markets and taverns exclusively.

---Show us the big picture and the minute details. You can impress us with the scope and breadth of your worldbuilding, but you want to know what really sticks with us? The subtle details slipped into the burial rites spoken over the dead or the way children are treated, the elevated and unspoken rights of certain races.

Culture is a powerful tool in writing, done right. It can fuel your story conflict, and provide a vibrancy to your story that you never knew it had.  


  1. How about when your culture doesn't want to show itself? For example; I've spent a whole lot of time on detailed world building, and it influences how my characters interact, but to someone other than me, someone who doesn't have the detailed inside knowledge of my story world, they wouldn't see any of that. The character's dialogue would just be slightly... off.

    1. Hmmm... well, I might need a more specific example, such as how they dialogue would be slightly off.
      The thing is, readers are smart. Most people who read read because they enjoy it and can pull a lot out of a story. The chance that your readers will be able to perceive what you're trying to do is much higher than you think.
      They'll first give you the benefit of the doubt, and then they'll start to piece things together. One of the best things you can do is avoid spilling all the beans at once. Dropping hints and clues is good (in short and subtle ways), but let the reader puzzle them together. Your readers like being trusted with that job; it makes them feel wanted.

      When your culture doesn't want to show itself, that means it's time to develop some part of it that DOES want to show itself, or at least is easy to show. If your culture and world are completely dependent on you telling your readers everything, then you need to develop something more: you need to develop the sensory aspects of your world as well as the abstract and thematic.

      Make sense? Feel free (and please do) to ask clarifying questions and so forth.