Why I Love Culture as Character

Yesterday, I talked about the idea of culture as character. To say that I’m a fan is a bit of an understatement—one of the things I was thinking, while sitting through the panel that set off yesterday’s riff, was that I keep trying to angle for an RPG of manners. It’s not just one appealing feature; there are a lot of reasons why I love a culture that steps in as an active character.

I like it because it plays up the differences between the setting and the modern day. I’m rather fond of looking at how people work through the prisms of my stories and games, and seeing how they work in a setting that isn’t like my own context makes me feel more like I’m looking at how people in general work than how people like me work. In those sorts of stories, an aspect of the world being different isn’t just a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” but an actual exploration waiting to happen.

The little details end up being far niftier. One of the coolest things about cultures as characters are when those cultures have little quirks—special salutations, particularly colorful idioms, and so on—particularly when there’s a chance to actually see where those quirks came from. And yes, people can do that without necessarily characterizing the culture, but they tend to be quirks for quirks’ own sake, rather than having a history and a sense of context. It’s much cooler to be in a place where the reasoning behind the Empress counting as two people comes from a definite part of the history than when it’s just “Oh, it sounded like a cool thing to throw in”.

A lot more attention gets paid to the characters. I read a book not too long ago, I forget the title. It came recommended to me by one of the patrons, and I admit, the politics were impressive, but the cast seemed rather like puppets—better-rounded than cardboard cutouts, but they seemed to exist entirely to do what the plot made them do. A good story with a culture as a character, though, tends to emphasize characters because how the culture shapes them is another way of characterizing the culture.

Similarly, a lot more attention gets paid to the culture. I’ve been reading through a few chapter by chapter snark-reviews of different books, and one of the things that all the books have in common is that their settings really aren’t thought through; at best, people miss things that are completely obvious, and at worst, the way the culture is supposed to be and the way that it’s portrayed—or the way the culture was portrayed three chapters ago and the way it’s portrayed now—are in direct conflict. When people take the time to treat a culture as a character, that generally includes taking the time to make it consistent, rather than subordinating it to the demands of the plot.

It creates a whole new avenue for character cunning. Most of my favorite characters have been the kinds of people for whom culture is as much a tool as an obstacle: the kind who will figure out how to loophole out of sticky situations using their enemies’ own social conventions, or who will wear the dominant cultural metaphor as robe and armor depending on the situation, or who play multiple roles and, when one can’t get them where they need to go, look to another to make up the difference. Besides, on a personal level, it’s a whole lot more fun to learn a world when I know that I can put what I’ve learned of it to use!

As a result, culture as character is one of those concepts that almost without exception makes me say, “Yes, more of this.”

1 comment

  1. UZ says:

    Ah, I found making a language was helpful in this case, although I doubt that most people want to invest that much effort. Still, it makes you think about why people do things and how.

    Look at English for a moment. Near every European language has the same word for “window”, derived from the Latin “fenestra” French has “fenetre”, German has “fenster” and so on. But, English doesn’t, we have “window”.

    “Window” is (so I read) a cognate of the Old Norse word “vindauga”, notionally an eye for letting in the wind. But a “fenestra” is kind of the same, your “orbital fenestrae” are the holes in your skull that contain your eyes. The meanings are slightly different, but the origin is sort of the same, we refer to the parts of a house with language that is anatomical (or vice versa, not 100% sure which came first).

    Trivia! If interesting. But the point is, when you make your own language, if it’s anywhere near complete, you have to consider this stuff. Do you call a thing by the action that it does, like a “grinder”? Or do you call the action by the thing that does it, like “spearing” something? How do you say “clockwise” in a culture with no standard clock? For that matter, why do people say “withershins”? Also, why do people refer to clockwise as turning “right” when the turning thing goes right at the top and left at the bottom? (Refer the old bit of wisdom “Righty tighty lefty loosy.”)

    Last time I tried this I tended to focus on homophonic ambiguity, and what this meant for humor in the language. (Consider the opposed directions “right” and “left” in English, and then Russell’s saying, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”) I deliberately developed a questioning prefix and then didn’t bother to not use the same sound on other words, so that the language was full of double meanings. I will warn you that constructing a language specifically for bad jokes is… not necessarily a good idea.

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