Worldbuilding, Part 6: Culture

While normally I agree that building a new apartment complex of strip mall simply because there is land isn’t really a great choice, now, driving by the construction for the new farm equipment store or watching Gold Rush grieves me. All those trees uprooted, all those animals and creatures with no home. The bare land speaks volumes to me. This is an extremely Lupa view of land development. It is part of their culture and who they are.

There is a road I drive on often on which the land used to belong to a farm, and has since been sitting, full of grasses and a little woodland. It’s been there since I was a child as other things have sprung up around it. It has recently been under development. Driving by the construction grieves me. All those trees uprooted, all those animals and creatures with no home. It’s the same feeling I often have when my husband watches Gold Rush. The bare land speaks volumes to me. This is an extremely Lupa view of land development. It is part of their culture and who they are.

Some writers enjoy moving from one story to the next, while others work with the same characters or group of people over a series or even multiple series. In the series process, we often move from writers who control stories, to writers who discover stories. There is a point that it becomes part of us. We begin not just to understand who our characters are and where they’re coming from, but when we begin to think like them, and see through their eyes.

Culture is the part of a people from which we derive customs, modes of action, and world view–how we think. Ten years ago, construction never bothered me like it does today. I have incorporated this, and many other, Lupa ideologies into myself. Creating the culture from scratch, however, was long, and sometimes difficult. I had to determine the best way to show their character in all kinds of situations–and what was their character exactly?

In this section, we will discuss cultural elements beyond the basics of food, clothing, and shelter. Here is the time to consider social customs such as greetings and rank, how they treat various arts, how they deal with death. Some cultures focus on particular arts (such as singing and dancing in Tibet), while others adore poetry and plays (ancient Greece). Here is where we determine how people handle all kinds of things in life, from work to leisure, and everything in between.

 

Customs

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All societies have customs. If you’re writing in any kind of historical genre, you have the added bonus of people able to research the culture and customs of which you’re writing. This is, of course, still quite a bit of work. If you’re based on an Earth historical period, such as medieval, you can make modifications. Even if you’re starting from scratch, you can start with a basic set based on the people you’re writing about. As the Lupa are very natural and instinctual, I started there. Do make sets of customs for both public and home life.

 

Public Life

Chose things that make sense for your basics. If your people have a great sense of smell or hearing, it may be very rude to not acknowledge someone’s presence when they come into a room or join a group–in most cases there’s no way you wouldn’t know they’re there. So if you have to acknowledge a new presence, start with the basic greeting. Is “hello” enough? Should there a nod or bow? What about gestures? Some people shake hands, grip forearms, or exchange a kiss of greeting. If there are different types, when is each used? Likewise, there are ways to say goodbye.

You’ll want to determine if there is rank, and if so, how do they interact? Are certain topics forbidden in public conversation? (See Victorian society for examples.) Are there certain things everyone knows about and therefore don’t need explaining? Why?

Not only should you have your basic public etiquette down, but you should delve into very specific things, as well. This is the difference between okay and good writing. Know your subject, and do differentiate. If you’re writing a feast, it’s not just enough to have food on the table. Know how many courses there should be, how many dishes are allowed under sumptuary laws, and what’s included in each one.

And always remember, people want to be thought better of in public. There is a reason that traveling outfits are traditionally better than home wear.

Home Life

Home life is where your characters may be most revealed, so you’ll want to make the most of it. Servants always know the intimacies of their masters and mistresses, and family and close friends reveal both the best and worst of themselves. However, there should be common expectations of what acceptable when one has guests, and what friends can expect when visiting.

For instance, who always uses the front door, and who may use whatever entrance they like? Who is free to move about, and who should stay where invited to sit or dine? In ancient Greek culture, a man may have been killed on the spot for entering the women’s quarters of a villa. Intruding on the king or queen’s chambers without an invitation is always a serious offense. Close agemates in Lupa culture have the right of entering through a bedroom window during daylight hours.

Most cultures make large distinctions on what’s appropriate based on the time of day. Some prioritize organization in the home, and others comfort. Made decisions on what’s most important for your people and characters, and again, write in a fully functioning manner for personal homes, whether it’s a one room hut or a residency wing of a large castle.

 

Learning

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One of the prime telling points of a society may be how they approach education. There are many types currently in use in our world, from standard primary, secondary, and university schools, to master to apprentice, to tribal group learning. In science fiction one may find direct download to the brain (the Matrix trilogy) or in fantasy, direct mind to mind.

The lives of both the young and anyone who teaches or mentors significantly depends on how they learn, and the system in use in their community. Alana Treebond lives in the King’s castle to become a knight and is also required to pass general educational school subjects; Wesley Crusher attends Star Fleet Academy in San Francisco for his genius-level education; Balien the blacksmith as apprenticed to the town blackmith to learn his trade.

These all present very different means of learning, and greatly affected the lives of the characters. Most children go somewhere else for school, whether a daily commute or a boarding situation. Alana was put up at the King’s expense as part of his household.

What about people with no formal education system? How do they teach their children? Who does it, and what do they learn?

 

Communication

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A secondary but important feature is how people communicate. A high-tech community who doesn’t use voice or video as their prime communication network is very telling–they may be phobic to other people, as in Azimov’s The Naked Sun. Millennials usually prefer texting, while Baby Boomers may prefer email. Romans may have sent messages tattooed on slaves.

For most of history, the letter was the main communication for those who could read, while the town crier or a minstrel may be the main mode for the illiterate. How information and news is disseminated can lay quite a backdrop. Who knows about current events, and who doesn’t. It may make a marked class distinction.

On the other hand, very high-tech societies which rely on video or holo communication where everyone is networked may make a much more even playing field in your people’s culture. Control of information via technology may also be important.

A species of telepaths, like the Betazoids on Star Trek, have an en entirely different understanding of communication than the average species. They commonly communicate telepathically, and  hold very different trials than other species. The Lupa, for whom some members are gifted in this area, often have trouble understanding why Humans hold trials, and why they take so long–a Speaker can settle guilt in moments and recommend appropriate action.

 

Art and Death

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These are two very telling areas when it comes to culture, as how one deals with both art and death reveal much about one’s mindset and point of view. Some cultures will see art as a waste of time and energy, while in others it is the pinnacle upon which existence rests. A culture where death is seen as a doorway to a different existence may place little importance on death, or make it an important ceremony, depending on other aspects of their culture.

If you’re writing in a world in which there is much class structure or societal rules, consider if there are certain types of art that are prized or despised. Why? What are the most common types of art practiced by non-artists? Are there any very strange things that they consider great arts? If you have an artist as an important character, research how art was done in that time period, in that place. If in another world, determine what kinds of paints or drawing implements are used. Be prepared. A culture without eggs, for instance, will not be using tempera paint.

Regarding death, you will want to know the common modes of celebrating or mouring. What happens when a friend dies? A business acquaintance. A family member? If your have telepathic or mentally bonded characters, how does this change their or the people’s understanding of death and grieving? Death can be particularly harsh for these kinds of people, so is there a universal kind of understanding?

These are two important aspects of background culture which can shed luminous light on your story and characters.

 

Medicine

Herbal Medicine Vs Chemical Medicine The Alternative Healthy Car

How your people handle medicine also has a lot to do with their world view. Throughout history, there have been a lot of thoughts about medicine that while not true were chief ideas that affected the entire field. During medieval times, for instance, your physician kept your humors in balance and preserved your health on a regular basis, whether or not you were ill.

Deeply spiritual people are more likely to use spiritual paths of healing. Science fiction isn’t just about the scientific ways of healing; it can also show much more metaphysical ones. Whatever your people do, make sure it fits with the rest of their culture. Also figure out if there are different modes of medicine used by different people. Lower classes of people often use more resourceful sources of medicine which can be found in their environment, while the wealthy may import unicorn horns.

 

Special Powers

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The other major area of culture we must discuss, as world building is so heavily used in scifi/fantasy, is the inclusion or reaction of culture to special powers. The X-Men universe delves into war between Mutants and non-Mutants. The people of Betazed expect to communicate telepathically and to have others connect with them mentally. Witches and Wizards of the Harry Potter Wizarding world expect to see people doing magic as a matter of course–it is more unusual not to have magic.

Sometimes only certain people have powers, while other in other worlds it is much more common. Especially where it is common, what natural accommodations made? How is this power built into the foundations of society?

Lupa, for instance, have trouble understanding our justice system. Those with astral abilities are expected to help others in various ways, including determining whether someone is guilty. An experienced Speaker knows their pack members well, and can rightly determine this. To them, the time and “what ifs” of a trial are debilitatingly slow and unnecessary. But then, the guilty aren’t punished the same way, either. There are punishments when needed. However, part of the Speaker’s duty is to work with the person psychologically to correct any underlying causes, and likewise alert other pack members as to how they can help.

Take care and think through this aspect of the culture. It is very important. Even with only a percentage of the population (1-3 Lupa in every 30-50 have astral abilities), the cultural reflection can have a large imprint.

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