Characters and Culture

Some of the characters I’ve run into could fit in anywhere, really. Maybe it’s just being archetypical, maybe it’s being in worlds that have a lot in common with the other worlds I’ve read, but I could swap them with other characters of their ilk all day and all it would get me is amusing mental images. They might at least be sufficiently in line with their overall worlds to not present a direct anachronism or have inexplicably aligned moral compasses, but you really can’t trace any part of them back to their surroundings, just their shaping events, if even that.

Sometimes you see characters who are willing to acknowledge their cultures, but only in order to thumb their noses at them. You get this a lot with collectivist cultures, ones with an overall ‘evil’ bent (or just an overall ‘does not fit with modern sensibilities’ bent), or ones that seem too limiting to the free-spirited creator: the character is from such and such a place, such and such a family, but rebelling against those things that define it.

A good culture is far more than skin-deep. Yes, it gives the character clothing and often appearance, provides a hat to wear however the character wishes, and offers a range of skills and abilities that it makes sense for that character to have. But there is, of course, more.

  • Culture is communication. It gives and takes both concept and metaphor, formal language and slang. It describes things, and chooses things not to describe; it determines whom one speaks to and how.
  • Culture is place in the world. It provides people to look up to and people to look down on, people to aid (or get aid from) and people to reject, support networks and groups in opposition. Likewise, culture is the environment, and the things that the character must do to function in that environment—and then, when they go somewhere else, it is how they carry a little bit of their environment with them.
  • Culture is rules. More often than not—even for the rebels—culture will determine what people will do, what they will not do, what they refuse to not do. It is laws and guidelines, and the knowledge of which is which; it is where one finds the difference between illegal for a reason and illegal because they said so.
  • Culture is procedures. In every culture there is the possible and the impossible, the things that are spurned and the things that are respected, methods for everything from stacking dishes to resolving a conflict. This gives people from different cultures their own distinctive ways of approaching problems—some ask for their elders’ advice before they do anything, some run their independence into the ground; some will fight where others talk, or display their gifts where others keep them hidden. Some cultures are raised to flash immediately onto solutions that might not occur—or even be unthinkable—to others.
  • Culture is purpose. Each member of a culture, be it political or organizational, is given a sense of what the culture is for, what it values, what the culture will do for them and what they must in turn do for their culture. Often, this takes the form of stories, narratives that are so inherent to the culture that to deny them is tantamount to denying one’s own roots and birthrights.

All of these things feed into each other. Environment and purpose may determine rules, which in turn might spread into place in the world; language may be shaped by environment, and serve as the means of carrying the environment along. Combining purpose and communication and rules and sometimes procedures as often as not creates the narratives that the members of the culture live by. And when a character takes these into account, she becomes not only her creator’s creation, but also a product of her culture.


  1. Shinali says:

    Just because I can, here’s how Samar shows a few of these facets of culture onscreen (and off):

    Communication – sure I have some more detailed language stuff milling around my notes, but onscreen where it usually shows up is curse words. Most of these she pulls from plant themes (she comes from a forest, and was taught the lingua franca by wood elementals) or sun themes (chosen of the sun, so yeah). So we might say “darn it!” she’d say “brambles!” (actually “brambles” is a bit stronger).

    Place – she is very far from home, but she’s tried to convince people she’s cut from the same cloth being from the same region and all. (That was a bit like saying that a person from backwoods Maine and a person from LA are cut from the same cloth).

    Rules/Procedures – Run together so far. Mainly shown onscreen in her tendency to show great deference to anything shinier than a coin, even if they are her enemy or far weaker than her. Of course, if you are weaker than her and you really make her mad… well expect freezing cold anger and a bit of rank-pulling. Less obvious is her clan rule (she’s a shaman/healer by birth) to help heal anyone who needs it, and sort out feuds and such later (which is why she helped Amaya in spite of Lirit). As far as procedures specifically, may I direct you to her long and probably audience-participation healing ritual?

    Purpose – Not much onscreen yet. Off-screen is too much to explain in a mere comment.

  2. UZ says:

    @ravyn: This is interesting, but I might add something – often, a thing is culture if someone can’t see it.

    This takes two forms, really:

    “Culture is culture if you can’t see it” – easily spotted in North American societies, where death (as a real phenomenon) is a subject that is addressed very rarely. A coworker from Mexico who observed this to me. “Nobody talks about it here,” he said.

    Admittedly in Mexico they have Death Day, but it’s hard to look at a sugar skull
    and say that it’s wrong. Tea and skullmuffins. It’s very cheerful and civilized. By contrast, the holiday seems a little macabre in a North American context – “Remember Aunt Edna? She’s dead now, but she was pretty cool. Skullmuffin?”

    But, ask someone from the US if they don’t think about death enough, they often have nothing to contrast their experience against, so they’ll feel that their contemplation of the Big Sleep is probably adequate, even if other people find it odd. This is culture.

    “Culture is culture if other people can’t see it” – had a friend long ago who grumbled about one of his parent cultures, which he called “Chinese”. (Not sure which part, China is a big place.) Apparently complimenting someone supposedly invites bad luck in his culture, so when you greet someone it’s considered polite to tell them that they’re not looking so hot today and that they seem to have gained some unwanted weight.

    Anyone who didn’t understand the context would probably see this as an overly familiar and somewhat detracting comment, but in reality it’s intended to be *polite*, a sort of projected modesty for other people. The nuance is lost because that aspect of culture is invisible if you don’t know it’s there.


    Writers frequently include “culture” in their works, but it often comes off as monolithic and deliberate (consider “warrior culture”). Some aspects of real culture are like this, demonstrative things like Death Day and sugar skulls. When culture appears in this form in a story, it’s either “good” or “bad” and the characters thereby support or rebel against it, or it’s just “different” and it forms a means of differentiating expression (see lady raised by plants above).


    If you want culture to resonate with the reader, let it be one of the invisible aspects, and be sure to let them see it from the invisible angle so that they can appreciate what it is to be an outsider. Make sure that there’s a context where it doesn’t make sense.

    @Shinali: What, hypothetically speaking, would be an invisible part of the elemental plant-metaphor culture? (I ask because usually when elementals show up in fantasy stories their motivations are very simple :) )

  3. Shinali says:

    @UZ maybe i’m just tired but I don’t totally understand your question, so let me answer the part about motivations and see if that helps.

    The elementals are nature spirits, and while some are very very simple-minded, there are a few Samar knows from her childhood who taught her Old Realm and other things to sway her view in negotiations with the villagers (main job of the shaman). At some point in time one may have joked about her becoming Exalted, but there is no evidence of them trying to force her into situations or personality traits that would encourage it. Their main motivation when she was young was to influence her to build influence in her village and get stuff (and their little god peers want prayer, and lots of it). Now due to her being able to summon elementals, against their will if need be, things are a bit more confusing on that front. And boy are they glad she likes them.

  4. UZ says:

    @Shinali: I mean, what does she pick up on that other people don’t? Alternately, what does she do that makes sense to her but not to anybody else?

    See, one characteristic of fantasy culture is that it’s usually rational – that is, people can judge it correctly at face value once they have an explanation. All motivations and forms of understanding are clean and direct and translate easily to the POV implied culture.

    When Axebeard says you have “unfinished edges”, he’s saying he thinks you need greater discipline.

    When Axebeard says that your actions have “skived agley of the mainshaft”, you’ll need a translation from their native idiom, but ultimately it will come out that he means your plan failed.

    When you mention going through a “tunnel”, and Axebeard give you *that* look, someone else might have to explain to you that you’re making a semantic error, “tunnel” being a made passage as opposed to the current natural formation.

    But this is all direct, literal-type stuff. It’s all pretty visible and even if you don’t “get” it, you still know that something’s up.

    I mean the invisible stuff, like when your plant lady doesn’t talk to someone because they keep pressed flowers on their desk and that violates her sense of the passing seasons, or when she tells someone that their project is “growing like a poplar”, which they take as a compliment (i.e. developing fast) where she means it as a criticism (i.e. poplars are flimsy and break easily but spawn a lot of equally inadequate nuisance rhizomes).

  5. Shinali says:

    @UZ, Well, the one on-screen example I can think of of that is the following exchange. Is this what you mean?

    Samar: “But first we need a main plan, leafed out and all.”
    Aurelius: “I don’t see an oak tree though…”
    Samar: “What? How do you expound upon plans?”
    Aurelius: “Normally i write them down on a sheet of parchment or memorize them verbally.”
    Samar: Samar raises her eyebrows, “The point remains, all we have now are the bare branches of a plan.”

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