Cultures and Cues

Yesterday, I talked about visual cues—simple parts of a character’s physical appearance that hint at her job, skills, background or other salient details. Most of us have a mess of visual cues trained into us, but when we’re creating worlds, what’s the fun in only using the kinds of cues we’re trained to see? Why not create our own?

The first thing to think about, when designing visual cues for a culture, is the kinds of cues the culture deliberately assigns, and what they’re supposed to signify. Does it try to have people telegraph age? Marital status? Job/skills? Class? Family? Favored flavor of magic? In what sorts of circumstances are people supposed to be able to tell at a glance that that guy over there is a [fill in the blank]? (Think of it this way—it’s a lot easier to tell who the police officer is in a crowd than which ones are accountants.)

What sorts of cues are in theme with the kind of category you’re dealing with? When you’re dealing with divisions that have some economic relevance, color (due to the comparative value and scarcity of dyes), intricacy of design and material (both of the item itself and of whatever embellishments it includes) are likeliest to come into play; things like age, job or marital status, where the expected activities are going to be different between subgroups, are likelier to be signified through cut or type of clothing or hairstyle. Family, particularly in a culture where the major families are relatively balanced in terms of economic status or favored occupations (or show a lot of variation within them), is likelier to be indicated by some sort of cosmetic detail, like a crest or a signature pattern (or color if most dyes are created equal). Almost anything can be signified by some sort of additional indicator, like a sash, a bit of jewelry, or a hat. And of course, if what’s being dealt with is some sort of trade, the tools thereof are as good an indicator as any.

If you’re willing to stretch a little farther, consider cues that appeal to the other senses. What if there’s a lot of dialect variation between the groups, hierarchical language patterns, or even a language that some are allowed to speak/taught and some aren’t? How about if there are certain scents only one group can wear? If what we’re dealing with is favored type of magic, do they tend to have indicative auras of some sort? And of course, there are the cues that come from behavior, and appeal to all the senses. We use visual cues because we’re visual people, but not everyone has to.

Another thing about culture-enforced cues is that the culture is at least presumably enforcing them. What happens when someone tries to exhibit a set of cues for which she isn’t actually meant, like wearing a different family’s colors, and gets caught at it? How is she viewed if one of her cues says one thing, but the rest of her presentation says another (a household matron wearing a girl’s hairstyle, for instance, or a man showing up somewhere in noble dress but without the additional bling of the nobility)?

But do bear in mind that some cues are somewhat more accidental, or at least incidental. Think about people’s hands—the idle noble’s might be soft and smooth, the worker’s callused, the string player’s callused differently, the calligrapher or the illuminator’s covered in dye and ink stains. Some people are trained to a different set of slang or jargon than others, whether it’s skill-related or cultural or what have you.

Cue design can be a challenge, but it gives your world more color and your audience more shortcuts.

1 comment

  1. UZ says:

    A real-world example I borrowed for one story – differences in dental hygiene. Tooth-cleaning magic would have to be a popular thing to learn in a magic-ubiquitous world, but in one where it was less common, does everyone have access to proper tooth care?

    (Note: I understand that, in the US, this is not the case.)

    I always found it a little odd – everyone notices that there is no toilet in the RPG, but nobody notices the lack of a toothbrush. Is sword-and-sandal romance really that great when your teeth look like moldy tree stumps? It makes me wonder.

    I wasn’t actually cruel enough to give the hero bad teeth in that story, but the alchemists all had noticeably nice breath. Cowardice, I know.

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