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.