I’ve been thinking about how to differentiate one cultural group from another in writing. For me, this is a really important thing because I generally write about the interaction of cultures and subcultures and age groups and… Well, we all know I’m a nut for interactions, but I also think that this is important in any story wherein more than one culture is present. Which, let’s face it, is just about every story. Whether it’s modern literary or secondary world fantasy, life is such that we all basically come from our own unique culture. Now, of course, the individual cultures of two people from the same region will necessarily be more similar than the individual cultures of two people from opposite sides of a planet. However, even in people from the same region, differences such as class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. can create massive difference is personal culture.
But how do we display those differences? It’s far too easy to fall into cliché and stereotype, to take what we have seen done—good and bad and absolutely horrible—and apply it to our own characters and then consider it finished. But I think we all know that’s not what we want to do. (If you want a deeper discussion of why we don’t want to, check out A Rant on Stereotypes, Clichés, and Tropes).
So, how do we then create characters that are lively, and real, that are not two-dimensional or based on stereotype? And then differentiate their culture from the cultures of the other three-dimensional, non-stereotypical characters? Details, details, details. The more nuanced, well-considered, and fleshed out your character, the more real they will feel to the reader.
Of course, if you’re writing a character that belongs to one or more cultures that exist in our world, this means research. You can’t get around it, you can’t ignore it. If you’re writing about a culture you don’t know intimately, you’re going to have to dig in there and research. But there’s more to it than that. Because you can’t just look it up on the internet the way you can a fact, and that’s because every single person has a different experience. Also, remember it is never anyone else’s obligation to educate you on their experience, ever. What you can do is immerse yourself in that culture. Read a wide variety of people’s thoughts and posts and comments and articles and essays (which, honestly, is something you might want to be doing anyway, right?). But this research should be focused on the culture you’re trying to write. Read as much as you can about the experiences of people from that culture. Watch the TV that is popular. Watch the TV that isn’t popular. Read the thoughts and opinions as to why those two things are the way they are. Read, research, and immerse yourself.
Now, that’s harder if the character you’re writing is historical, because they very well might not have had TV, and even if they did it’s unlikely they left their opinions about it floating around on the web. So, you’ll have to dig a little deeper. Find historical sources; read, read, read. Read so much that you begin to think that, if somehow zapped back to that time, no one would guess you were anything but a proper resident of the time line. *nods* Don’t just stop at the surface. Find out how people felt about the way the world was. No matter who, no matter what setting, there are always some people who feel differently than the “mainstream” (the most prevalent and socially acceptable point of view), but it is often the “mainstream” that gets the most attention from historians. That’s understandable, to some degree, because in the beginning historians are trying to sketch out a whole culture, and we secondary world lovers know just how tough that can be. However, over time, as historians specialize more and more in a given culture (because the general overview has already been given, we get more and more specific information. Additionally, the perspectives, opinions, and accomplishments of women, people of color, and LGBT peoples (among many others) have generally been ignored, downplayed, and demonized. So, consider all of this as you step through the research, and your final results can be much richer for that consideration.
But, with research, a lot of it—usually the detail—is taken in subconsciously. We take them in when we look at picture after picture, when we soak in the way the vehicles look, the way the clothes looked, the way the people styled their hair and thought about themselves, and thought about others. That’s good in that it helps you reproduce these details and the feel of the place, sometimes without being aware of it. However, what do you do when you’re creating a world, and there’s no material to research? Nothing to study?
Well, I like to start with the details I know, the bits that I’ve already worked out. I generally think about an idea for a while before I begin working on it in any real way. I have an idea of how the characters are dressed, something of the kind of world they live in, the look of the place, etc. So, that’s where I start building. I think more deeply about these aspects, and compare them to cultures in the real world. Do the buildings look like Mayan? Is the setting dystopic? Are the clothes shabby Victorian, or upper class Roman? The comparison may only be artificial, but it gives me a starting point. Why did those people wear the clothing they did? Obviously, because they think it looks good, but these things symbolize something. The “royal purple” of Rome was rare, very expensive, and probably stunk a bit, but its rarity made it something only the very rich could afford, and that made it a status symbol. It is a common theme with human civilizations, so that can create an “in.” What’s rare? What do people who value wealth use to show their wealth? If you’re writing science fiction, it’s quite likely technology. So what technology? To do what? This is probably also linked to your culture’s view and values.
For instance, in our culture media is a huge deal, being able to take it with you wherever you go a big thing. Being able to move it from device to device is another. In some circles, being able to produce it is also big. Health technologies are a huge area of differences, and transportation technologies are often another area where you find differences. Even worlds without such advanced tech, tech differences exist. Home heating and cooling methods—often a function of architecture in lower tech worlds—are one possible status symbol, as well as the housing itself, of course. So, once you find an “in,” you just follow it wherever it takes you. Let it be a line that guides you deeper into your own culture. And, if you hit a wall on one line, look for another “in.” And just keep doing it, over and over, until you’ve built up all the cultures in your secondary world.
But, once you’ve figured all of these things out, it’s quite likely you’ll have to do some tweaking to make things consistent and workable. A good way to do that is to consider each culture in relation to the other cultures, and the governments you’ve built around the given cultures in relation to the other governments. Having the groundwork laid makes that possible.
What makes one group different from those around them? It’s the differences that are often the easiest things to see, but don’t let them blind you to the similarities, either. Their similarities will affect them just as deeply. They may decide to ally against someone they feel is a common enemy, and that can be huge for the path of the cultures, the nations. But, start with the differences. If cultures are different, they should read different, feel different. Even if the reader doesn’t know the story behind the differences, they should be able to see them. We can portray these differences in a number of ways. Some of those ways will be visible to the reader, such as in tattoos or physical differences, jewelry or clothing. Those are the easier ones.
The harder ones require thought and work. Making two different groups of people speak the same language in different ways is a particular challenge for me, but there’s also their ways of looking at things, their names for given places (each culture might call a given mountain by a different name, etc.). Cultural differences can make for those really perfect moments in a story, those moments of clarity where one character finally comes to understand another.
What’s your favorite way to show the differences between cultures in your writing?