1. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Cultural Depth

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Wreybies, Jun 25, 2009.

    How deep do you go when you create a culture? How detailed are your details?

    The reason I ask is this:

    I am a person who comes from two cultures (maybe even three) at the same time. Walking the fence that I walk constantly makes me look to either side and compare the differences.

    Can’t help it. *shrug*

    The American Me recognizes the importance of deadlines and dates; memorized bank account #’s, social security #’s, pin #s; birthdates, times, places; every little thing in folder, every folder in a box, every box in a stack, every stack in a room, every room in a building…. Blah, blah, detailed details ad infinitum.

    The Spanish Me recognizes none of these things, but instead a whole host of other things: Propriety and politess in a conversation; recognizing and acknowledging social standing of individuals within a group; body language; the importance of chillaxing … blah, blah, detailed arbitrary social structure ad infinitum.

    *Deep breath*

    When you create your fantasy/sci-fi/weird fiction world/culture/race, how much of this do you take into account? Are your created cultures just Yanks/Brits/Aussies/ (fill in your particular culture) in disguise? If not, what have you done to make them not so?
     
  2. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    Aaagh, another one who thinks British is a single culture! Flows perfectly into my post...

    Most of what I write about isn't created by me, it's my interpretation of accounts I have gathered from oral stories. There's not that much room for me to make things up, and I wouldn't do it anyway. But sometimes I have to fill in the different areas where there is little information, and when I have to do that I look at the very fantasy films I hate, such as Braveheart, for ideas. Which I then butcher and transform into something more historical ;)
     
  3. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Now, now, Gallo... Of all people, I am the last to believe this to be true. I had to simplify as much as I could in the post. What you mention holds true for the American as well. The New Yorker has about as much in common with someone from Southern California as a man from Burma does with a Lapp.
     
  4. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    True, I mainly said that to emphasise my Braveheart insult :D
     
  5. CDRW
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    CDRW Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can't really say how deep I go, because I haven't reached the bottom yet, but I can tell you what I look for.

    It's the single most important background aspect of any story. Culture is what determines things like morals, and motivations. It's what makes the difference between a character going hell-bent for revenge or committing ritual suicide when someone he was protecting is killed. It's what makes conflict when the character goes against the norms of his culture. It's the standard the character has to judge against when figuring out what is right and wrong, or just what he should do in a situation. In the nature vs. nurture issue, it comprises the whole of the nurture side. It's the answer to "Why dont'cha just shoot him?"

    One of the most epic shows I've ever had the opportunities to watch was not that way because of the humongous interstellar war going on, but because of the cultural issues that were driving it. There were times when it could have been a radio show for all the importance the action had. The most badass moment in the entire series took place in the imperial throne room, where the empress refused to play with all the political wrangling that certain diplomats were trying to use to stall, and declared war on every other spacefaring nation in the galaxy, all because of an ingrained cultural pride and loyalty to their own kind over anyone else.

    I am a firm believer that the story is driven by the details. The war is started by an insult, the gang member just wanted something to replace his family that wasn't there. History turns on small hinges, so the more hinges you have, the farther the story can swing.

    There is one thing I can't stand though. I hate it when an author uses an in-story culture to make an aesop about morality. If the evil empire fails because they don't rely on "the power of love" you can expect me to start banging my head against the wall.

    One of the things I love most of all is when the author is able to write a story about someone who is on what would traditionally be the evil side, and yet is still a hero that you can root for - without having that character turn his back on everything he grew up with.
     
  6. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    It depends just as much type of area as actual georgraphy, at least here in the US. A person from Dallas or Savannah or Los Angeles has more in common with a Manhattanite than the dairy farmer in the Fingers Lake region. The term Southern Californian can apply to a lettuce grower in the empire valley, a music producer in L.A., or a beach bum in Huntington Beach. That L.A. music producer will have more in common with a N.Y.C. music producer than he shares with either of the other two Southern Californians.
     
  7. sophie.
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    sophie. Contributing Member

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    My 'culture' is probably a mix of French and English, like the two have been glued together in a botched attempt at blending them 'subtly' together. Ha.

    Fat chance. :D I unconsciously use what seem very 'English' points and then muddle them in together with French, though hopefully not too stereotyped. Been there, seen that, huh.
     
  8. Tobias
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    Tobias Member

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    The culture and background I create can be deep or shallow depending on the story. Sometimes a good story requires a shallow background as outstanding characters present themselves. I watch some theater, and I have seen some shows where there's culture but little culture at that. In everything we say and do there is culture and heritage from some where, yet it doesn't have to be so bold all the time.

    Good life.
     
  9. 67Kangaroos
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    67Kangaroos Contributing Member

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    i love culture and particularly love it to shine through in novels! there are some authors who portray their own culture through their fiction (Kurt Vonnegut - very American voice, to me at least - even had it not been set in america, i could have guessed an American wrote it. Haruki Murakami - so obviously Japanese the same way) and others who can make a whole new one (uhh, no examples off the top of my head)

    i especially like to read and write different aspects for fictional world cultures - i like to read it understanding where the MC is coming from. one of my (very badly written) books, i made the whole elf culture using ideas from many different places - just the little things that set a people apart.

    i can't remember who the author or the name of the book, but all i remember about a Korean-American writer i once read was how she was able to really let the reader know the struggle of being in between cultures, etc.

    basically, shine through the culture, wrey!

    i really should have gone into anthropology....
     
  10. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I agree. I guess a part of the question which I left out in order to have a more general, global discussion for all is my personal concern the I personally pay too much attention to this when I am writing.

    The piece I am writing at the moment is Sci-Fantasy (I can say that, right?) and there are humans from more than one culture in the story and nonhumans (dolphins) who have their own culture, and I have found myself getting a bit bogged down in the creation of well-fleshed and distinct cultures for these groups.

    I'm starting to feel like maybe I've gotten a bit neurotic on the subject! :eek:
     
  11. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    Like so many things in writing, there's a fine line in there, somewhere, between what YOU need to know to write the thing and what the READER needs to know to enjoy it.
    Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find that line and tapdance on it.
    Isn't writing fun?
     
  12. 67Kangaroos
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    67Kangaroos Contributing Member

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    it might all depend on delivery, wrey. I like to see the bits of specials and normals of particular cultures through what the characters are doing, without the "this is because in their culture blah blah". Explaning a culture can get tedious, but I never tire of seeing or experiencing it~!
     
  13. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    I usually establish the setting and culture first, before I do anything else.

    Culture affects pretty much every aspect of our lives. With that in mind, how can you generate a story without culture(s) to put it in perspective? If the story takes place within your own culture or something similar, that's not so hard. . . anything you don't know can be learned through research. But fantasy/sci-fi worlds are a different can-o'-worms.

    I think before you can even develope a character properly you need to have his culture firmly in mind. Then you can decide how much he will deviate from it, and in what ways. His culture is sure to influence, in some way, his personality, social conduct, religious or spiritual beliefs (and by extension, ethics), goals, his personal ambition vs family and community obligations, and his sense of morality, among other things. . .

    Depending on the story, culture can be more important than characters, because it is from culture that characters are born.

    How much of the invented (or researched) culture you should explain to the reader is a different question entirely. The most imporant thing, I think, is to just establish your world fully in your own mind. Then mention only the details that are necessary and relevant.

    My 2 cents.
     
  14. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    You have to establish the culture, period. The thing is you have to figure out how deep you go. If you don't develop the conculture deep enough, you'll start pulling off cliches, and then you'll have the conworlding equivilent of plot holes, where basically things don't make sense for the culture.

    Obviously, you can't go into all the details, and you have to choose what's right for your story - no one would care if the traditional Wheat soup of the Habayaha peoples required exactly two scoops of salt, or that the armor of the Bakhaj pointed upwards two hundred years ago.

    But you still have to have something that you can work off on. What I mean is, you have to know what are the culture's ideals, their general philosophy and ideology, what they respect and admire. For instance, a culture that lives in the desert would probably worship water, or at least be very protective of it - so, if you have a character from this desert culture, they could be pretty anal about throwing out dirty water or rotten food.

    Basically, you don't have to make all the nitpicky details, but know the kind of "flavor" and "atmosphere" (for lack of better words) the culture has. What is their general philosophy? Why do they believe these things? Once you have that down, you can easily make up things as you go, because they'll be consistent with the culture's beliefs and values.

    Most importantly, don't rip off cultures 100%. They can be similar, yes (and probably it is preferrable that way too, to make everything a bit easier for the reader), but there should be a few little interesting things here and there.
     
  15. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I'm not sure if its the kind of culture you're looking for, but the way Bret Easton Ellis defines the yuppie culture of 1980s Wall Street New York is probably one of the best examples of the depiction of a particular culture in fiction I've ever read. And the best thing is that its never revealed expositorily, but through how the characters talk, what they pay attention to, things like that. The book isn't really driven by narrative at all, its more of a cumulative effect and by the end of it you just get the culture and what its values are and why it succeeds and why it fails, there's no real sense of development of it or anything, it just kinda flows organically from a word here or a bit of dialogue here and by the end its this collossal thing that you just understand.
     
  16. A2theDre
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    A2theDre Active Member

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    OMG what is it? That sounds like my ideal show.

    Wrey, I don't know what is going on in your story, but I think the level of detail you have to go into about a culture is directly related to how much the reader already knows. Obviously, you're having a whole non-human culture that nobody will know about so you may have to show quite a bit of culture.

    Take, for example, a sci-fi novel involving an interstellar/galactic war. The reader needs to understand why the aliens are attacking Earth (or vice versa, if that's the case), so the writer will need to delve right into the alien (or future-human) culture.

    One of the best novels conveying a made up culture that I've ever read would have to be Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. No doubt there's other great ones out there but I'm just not that worldly :D
     
  17. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    I create as much "culture" as is necessary for the story.
     
  18. Kirvee
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    Kirvee Contributing Member

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    @A2: I'm decently sure the show CD's referring to is "Star Trek".

    Regarding culture, it really depends on how realistic you want to make your story seem. The more culture you show through the story, the more realistic the world seems. Things like customs, holidays, language, crafts, religion, and even money can determine if a culture becomes realistic or just stays obviously a fantasy world.

    This is why I love the "Tales of" series of games because Namco (the developers) surround the games in individual culture to make the story even more interesting and "real".
     
  19. CDRW
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    CDRW Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's an anime called Crest of the Stars, and it's sequels Banner of the Stars, Banner of the Stars II, and Banner of the Stars III. It's a nearly perfect example of having a culture drive the characterization.
     
  20. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    I think culture always drives characterision. If you don't put much thought into culture, you just end up copying culture from real life without realising it. So the question of how much thought you should put into fictional culture basically translates to: how much do you want it to differ from whatever is familiar to you?

    But I do see your point. I prefer fantasy with unusual cultures. You end up with more interesting characters who are more likely to surprise you. Less predictable, less cliche - almost always a good thing. I don't care about being able to relate. . . as long as I can comprehend, that's good enough for me.
     
  21. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I will echo RomanticRose's comment.

    You will develop much more depth to the culture in your head and in your notes than will ever grace the pages of your novel. A writer should know and understand how and why things work for it to make sense and to remain consistent, but 90% will remain in the background.

    Resist the temptation to 'show off' what you've created to the reader. Rather, let them experience it as needed to tell the story.

    Terry
     
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  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Good point. Background material should be like an iceberg -- 90% hidden from view. You can tell by the way it moves that there is much more substance below. If the whole thing is bobbing atop the surface, you can sense that it's all Styrofoam.
     
  23. CDRW
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    CDRW Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm actually in the middle of a book that shows what happens when the author forgets to use the in-book culture instead of her own. It's The Ship Who Saved the Worlds by Anne McCaffery.

    She set up a world with a culture based entirely around struggling for power, one where drugging your slaves to make them stupid and assassinating your superiors in order to gain ground is not only a matter of course, it's mandatory for survival. Then she has some major characters decide that they shouldn't be doing all that because the new guy said they had been misinterpreting the colony charter for hundreds of years.

    They've grown up in a society where they were taught it's right to do the things they've been doing and they turn their backs on it at the first chance. Not only that, they've grown up in an environment where every one really is out to kill you, and they trust the rather spurious evidence given without questioning it. Forgetting culture results in a story where the characters are too dumb to live more often than not.

    It could have been so good if she'd remembered to keep on track. The funny thing is that I can relate more easily to someone who acts consistently with their alien culture than I can to someone who acts like they're from our own when they're in an alien setting.
     
  24. Ragnar
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    Ragnar Contributing Member

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    Does there need to be a specific culture in another society? I like to believe that humankind doesn't have to be as generalized as that. Or rather, maybe I focus on the cultural exceptions.
     
  25. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Yeah, you make another great point (and ditto what Cog and TW said). If you manage to create a unique culture, you better stick with it. I'm not familiar with the book, but my guess is that she was trying to make some kind of grand moral point: people are fundamentally good etc. She probably thought that the inherent 'goodness' of people would transcend culture.

    I really do hate that stuff. The personal views of writers can be hard to swallow sometimes, no matter how good the writing is. I don't like to finish a book with the feeling that I've just had a thorough lecture from my mother, complete with wooden-spoon waving and nonsensical arguments born of hysteria.
     

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