World Building: Cultures

Year of Ox Chinese New Year Parade San Francis...
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     By culture I am referring to the distinct ways that a group lives their lives instead of the group’s symbols and creative aspects. Know the differences between the cultures in your world allows for both diversity and potential conflict. Knowing the specifics of a particular character’s cuture does the same – as well as helps you bring that character to unique life.

      As a reminder, culture traits are generalities – they are shared by most people in the culture but are shared to different degrees. There is still room for variation within a group even when they share language and dialect, aesthetics, gender expectations, social structure, and religious practices. Whether you are trying to understand your character’s surface culture or are trying to create new cultures, these are all key elements to examine. And of course a person can belong to multiple cultures and subcultures.

  • Dialect: Writers are encouraged to play with dialect as a way to make dialogue unique. Most often, writers focus on word choice. But grammar is a good way to do this, too – especially if the speaker is not speaking in her native language.

  • Aesthetics: Aesthetics will affect how character dresses, what she buys, the places she goes, as well as what and who she likes to surround herself with. Some people’s cultures can be identified by these things. Paying attention to a character’s preferences can be a quick way to characterize her.

  • Gender roles: Your character’s gender greatly affects how he will interact with people of the same or different gender, age, and power status. This needs to come across in both spoken and silent interactions. It also gives you an idea of the activities and attitudes expected of him. Knowing your character’s culture can give you an excellent template for designing these dimensions.

  • Social structure: I consider gender role as an aspect of social structure. To me, social structure is about the distribution of power. A non-mobile structure can give your character something to fight. It gives you an idea of who she respects (or treats with respect) and why. Not only does this affect her inner and outer behavior, it gives you insight into some of her values.

  • Religion: How open is this culture to multiple religions? How strictly do they practice? How do they practice? Don’t forget that religious faith can affect the naming of characters. A one-religion culture may be antagonistic towards the beliefs of other religions. Whether your character’s culture is in the majority or minority, this creates an undercurrent in the wider social situation.

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