When I was volunteering at Conjecture, there was one panel that I had decided the moment I saw the schedule that I was going to see. I would carefully schedule my break, I would barter time with the other volunteers—but I was going to go to that piece on Fantasy/SF of Manners and Culture as Character. It did not disappoint—and the discussion got me looking at the idea, and thinking about what makes culture a character in its own right, and what makes stories like that so utterly cool.
The main feature of culture as a character is the idea that the prevailing culture has a strong enough influence on most characters to cause them to do things that would be otherwise counterproductive. Think about stories in which “I gave my word” makes the action mandatory rather than merely emotionally important. Or ones in which the main conflict is the character’s wish to do something despite the social mores against it. Sometimes these things are even strong enough to snag outsiders; if you’ve read Digger, for instance, just look at almost anything having to do with the hyena culture.
That doesn’t mean that the culture has to be an antagonist, or even has to be an obstacle. I’ve seen—and sometimes played—characters who used cultural expectations like a finesse weapon or a shield, damaging people’s reputations or deflecting their anger with protocol. Carefully set up traditions can allow a stroke of particularly good favor to seem not like a deus ex machina, but like something that could reasonably happen (and, depending on how it’s set up, something the character might even have legitimately earned). And some characters just go a different way, or even get shoved into a situation where they unexpectedly blossom, because of what their culture expects of them.
It does also mean that, when our characters don’t readily fit in the mold, we have to think about why; sure, our society values the characters who go against the grain, but it doesn’t make sense to have someone trying to take apart a societal standard without having some hint of where they got the idea that things might work better if done differently. Outsiders get a pass to some degree, though we have to think about how much they’d let themselves be influenced, but insiders pretty much demand justification.
The emphasis on the culture means that stories of this sort tend to be more about their characters than about their plots—without an understanding of the character and how she is shaped by her surroundings, a lot of the plots really wouldn’t make any sense. Why can’t they just denounce this person? Or back out of this particular deal? Why is it so necessary to go help the teacher/exile the prankster/salvage that one particular letter?
Cultures are already there in the story; if we’re willing to give them full character status, it opens a whole kaleidoscope of otherwise inaccessible plots.