A few lost sentences into drafting this, I realized I didn’t have the faintest clue what the word culture encompassed. I couldn’t untangle what it meant to me, as an immigrant, or what it would mean to a character like me.
So, of course, I turned to the ever-trusty Google, which defines it as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group,” which didn't help at all with my identity crisis, but may help you build situations and relatable and complex values and lives for your characters.
Before we cover the aspects of the vast and intimidating umbrella that is culture, there’s going to be a brief overview on how to build it and how it’s going to change and mold through history. Some fantasy and sci-fi writers don’t go that far into the past to figure out the future of their story, and that’s totally okay! But, if you choose to, there is a lot to think about.
Some of the most interesting aspects of building a culture lie in the history, how they started and how they evolved. When you think of land — who lived there, who was killed there? Most modern-day cultures are a mix of millenia of people moving about and a reflection of resources as well as superstition and beliefs that are passed down. Most places (outside a very particular sort of society) have stories passed down to promote similar ideas--danger of greed and arrogance, importance of kindness and generosity, so it can be important to ask yourself what any region would value and how it could impact the way they deal with issues through history, and how history changes the stories into other values, creating the mindset a character finds themself in.
Speaking of history, how much value would different places put on it? Group mentality is less historical knowledge, and more the history any given society is fed. Cultures and mindsets are often shared by communities, and that includes harmful bias too, so that’s something else to consider. Your character very likely won’t know exactly where a certain holiday or superstition originated, and unless they are an academic or religious, but that is something an author wants to take into consideration — especially with plans for a longer series.
If the world is a huge part of the story you’re telling, it has to be believable. If not, then it would still be useful to throw in a superstition or a reference to a historical event to flesh it out. For that, an author needs to understand the world. And even more, fleshing out a history and a world can be a rewarding and enjoyable endeavor.
There has to be something deeper for a well-developed character. A way for their environment and their personality to co-exist, or to clash. Common character arcs often include a character’s nature versus the society they live in. Often, they will be portrayed to reject that society for whatever reason, and sometimes seen to embrace it in a different sense. The building blocks of that society, however, are still factors of what the people around them see.
An interesting application of this is characters who have travelled a lot — whether that be a nomadic or adventurous lifestyle or just having moved a lot as a kid. If they had a consistent circle of people, that would be who would end up influencing them most. There’s also the question of how much information are they getting about the world they live in? And, perhaps, more importantly, you can build their personality with how much do they want to know?
The idea of culture inherently comes with believing in something enough to hold it as a custom, because it’s impossible that someone at some point has not questioned that, and if your character is an established individual worth their salt, they are likely to question it at some point too. Many projects tend to use one cultural event — a certain long-lasing feast or tradition or a solstice and turn that into a main event or a setting, which is brilliant to read, and even better when the world is developed enough to be fully understood and embraced.
If a character doesn’t have thoughts on their cultural identity or the society, then a writer has to make sure a reader does. The explanation for this is that if you’re going to create a world that could be escaped to, perhaps even have a fandom built around, there have to be ideas of ‘yes, I understand this, but…’
There’s also the matter of pride to consider, and more plot-versed, what happens when that pride is threatened? How will different characters react? How will different peoples react?
A world that digs straight to the core of a character will impact the reader the same, and a story will be all the better for it.
is a high school freshman in New Jersey. She likes (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and is always up to learn something new! Find her on Instagram at @writing_stoot.