Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Writing Cultures #1: Location, Location, Location!
So, you want to write a Fantasy or Science Fiction book. You want to do something new, something exciting, something that sets your worldbuilding apart from everyone else's.
You need a unique culture for your unique world!
But, how to write it? If you haven't been able to experience a culture different from your own, how do you know what to do to make a culture that isn't like every other fantasy culture, feels realistic, and feels unique?
This is a problem I ran into when trying to add a unique culture to my fantasy series. I looked for advice, but nothing seemed to help. I could see the unique cultures in other series, and I understood how they worked and, to some degree, even how the author made their choices in creating the culture. However, when it came to writing my own culture...I was stuck. I had no idea where to start.
Recently I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Cambodia for two weeks. Two weeks isn't a particularly long time, but through those two weeks I learned what truly makes a culture, even though I only managed to scratch the surface of Cambodia. I learned more in those two weeks than I had in what felt like endless research into how to write cultures.
So, I wanted to share what I learned so help answer some of the questions that I had problems finding clarification and answers on.
There's a lot to go through, so it will be broken up into segments. I hope that it helps answer some questions.
Cultural Tip #1: Setting (Location, location, location...)
Well, the first thing in making a culture is making a setting for the culture. This is the building block of the culture. How the people dress, their diet, their religion, their customs, their economy, EVERYTHING is based in the setting and environment in which the culture is based.
Yup, writing a culture starts with worldbuilding.
Where does this take place? North? South? Is there a magic system? What kind of magic system is it? Worldbuilding is the absolute basis of writing a culture. Build the world, and it will even start to answer questions in accordance with the culture within it.
How might this work? Well, let's make a culture.
Let's say the setting of this story is in a fantasy world, where the climate is always cold. Odds are, if the planet it is based on is similar to earth, this country will be near one of the planet's poles. In this case, the country will probably change drastically from summer to winter, with summer having few hours of night and winter having few hours of sun.
Sound a bit too much like Alaska or Antarctica? Let's switch it up a bit.
In this world, perhaps there is a magic system that is based around generating heat. People use the magic to start fires quickly in spite of damp, allows to them to stay warm during travel, cook, etc; Maybe this magic system can be used by animals, or can be found in certain minerals, like a heat-generating stone.
Suddenly, there is a whole new dimension added to the setting and to the people who live in it.
In spite of the cold, people can travel for long periods of time on foot because they are less effected by the cold. They can travel lighter because they have to wear less layers and carry less bedding or camp supplies. People who use the magic well would be highly regarded members of society, as they are able to provide heat, the most important resource in a cold climate.
Let's expand this further. What kind of clothing would these people wear?
Well, when in time does it take place? Let's keep it easy and put it into a medieval-style time period. In a place that cold, we can assume that they wear many layers and furs (unless they have this heat-generating magic). There, now we have a base for the appearance of these people.
What kind of religion would they have? If their societal system is based around heat in a cold climate, their deity might be related to the sun (as a beneficial god) or the snow (a cruel god).
How about government? If it's a monarchy, do the monarchs have some kind of skill with magic, or do they need to have advisors that can work with heat? Is it a council? An elected seat? Government is one of the few things that isn't particularly determined by climate, so just about anything can be chosen in such a case.
Economy is also quite effected by location. What a culture imports and exports dictates their diet, their materials, their views on profit and trade. In a place based in an arctic climate, they cannot grow certain fruits or vegetables, or maybe certain meats would be considered extremely rare.
Location effects everything. Even in a book set in the traditional European-style world, the location within that world, the time period, the trade, everything is still effected by the location of the story.
An excellent example of how this is used in popular fantasy right now is Brandon Sanderson's shared universe, the Cosmere.
In a recently released anthology, Arcanum Unbounded, he goes so far as to show the planetary locations of each world, how they are affected by gravity and their shared mythos, outlines their culture, and shows how their magic system effects both the world and the culture. If you haven't read any of his Cosmere series (Which is pretty much all of his adult fantasy work, such as Mistborn, The Stormlight Archive, Warbreaker, Elantris, etc;) check them out. They are excellent examples of how worldbuilding effects culture.
So, how can this be practically applied?
Well, start with the world, and build it outward. Look to real-world environments, and how the culture grew out of it. Research the real world, not to make a carbon copy, but to learn what patterns come from different environments.
And that's step one to building your amazing fantasy culture.