Sunday, April 11, 2010

World Building, Part 3: Culture

Everyone's culture is different. Whether you create an entirely new world or extrapolate on our existing one, there will be a change of culture, to some degree. But culture is such a broad term. How do you know which sorts of things should be changed or not?

Dictionary.com describes the word culture as:

  • Anthropology. the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

  • that which is excellent in the arts, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.

But when you're trying to write a story, how are you supposed to narrow it down? A good rule of thumb is to think about everything you would find different if you lived in the U.S.A. or Canada, and travelled to China or Japan—or vice versa. For those of you still mind-boggled by the possibilities, let me walk you through it.

1) The first thing you would notice walking off the plane is fashion. So let's apply that to your story. If you're writing a paranormal romance taking place in modern day, likely your characters will wear the same everyday clothes that you wear. You can base your fashions off what you know. However, it is also possible that they may wear different, exotic clothes for celebrations or ceremonies. Your first step is to ask yourself if your character would ever wear something out of the norm, and why.

2) The next thing you would notice if you were in a foreign city would be the technology. Because technology is so integral to western culture, you would immediately notice if there was a lack of it. Or, conversely, if even more technology was used. But what about your characters? Have they adapted to modern techonology, or do they find things like cell phones to be fairly useless because of, say, telepathy?

3) So you've stepped off the plane, noticed fashion and technology, and now you're feeling a little peckish. What do you have to eat? Often, meal choice varies on location. This is definitely something to keep in mind if you're writing a fantasy romance. Your characters aren't likely to eat watermelon if they're in a desert.

But what about a paranormal romance? Your characters are only going to eat regular foods, like you eat, right? Well, there are two ways of looking at it. First, they do, but let's say your immortal is from Italy. He'll have a natural predilection towards Italian foods, because they remind him of home. Or, if he had a very unpleasant experience, he might shun Italian foods altogether. Another thought is to integrate odd foods into celebrations and ceremonies. For instance, maybe during a vampire wedding the bride and groom drink from a goblet of blood. Even though the rest of their food source is normal (neck-biting or bagged blood) by having this in the ceremony, it adds a certain autheniticity to your story which might otherwise have been lacking.

4) Now we move on to the fun part—etiquette and manners. Here's where your story can really branch out, and you can show the true difference between our culture and the culture of your mythological creature. Even if it's something as simple as your vampire having old-world values, practicing the chivalry of a long-dead time (or conversely, to the historically-minded, thinking women are beneath him), it will add to your story. Or, if you're willing to put in a little more time to produce an entirely new set of etiquette, the addition layer is sure to make

Are you wondering what kind of manners your characters should have? Unfortunately, this time I have no rule of thumb for you. You need to decide what feels right for your characters. But if you're looking for where you can add in exotic manners, let me give you a few ideas:

  • Courtship—don't be afraid to spice things up by adding in a different way to treat women (or men) in a dating atmosphere.

  • Table Manners—perhaps, in an intimate setting, using a fork and knife to eat would be considered too clinical.

  • A means of showing respect—in older times, this was done by tugging on one's forelock or bowing; these days a simple "Sir" or "Madam" and a polite tone will do the trick. How will respect be shown in your world?

  • Touching—some cultures kiss to say hello, some forbid touching. Which will yours follow?

  • Eye contact—similar to touching, sometimes it's encouraged to make eye contact. Sometimes, it's an act of agression. Or perhaps, in your world, it could be a sign of attraction...
And of course, there are many other areas you can explore as well. Think of what situations your characters will be in, and then the reactions they could have should become more apparent. If not, a valued critique partner is always a good person to bounce ideas off of.

5) Back to the topic at hand, stepping off that plane in that foreign country, the next thing you might notice is the arts and entertainment. When you're building a world, there's either got to be something that mirrors that (in its own way), or a complete lack of arts if that's in keeping with your characters' culture. Even if you have mythological creatures, they are bound to have their own literature, if not their own version of theature, dance, etc.

6) The last major point, you likely wouldn't find apparent if landing in a foreign city. That is traditions. These are things that are integral to a community—for instance praying before meals or before bed—but might not be something which is publically shown. Some examples might be in naming a child, celebrating an accomplishment or birth, or mourning a death. Think of certain things that you or your family does, and often you can extrapolate or change those to fit with the needs of your character.

Later this week: Part Four, Government!

Clara.

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