Nobody grows up in a vacuum.
We are each shaped by a dizzying, multi-layer construct of culture and sub-culture. Our culture often determines our occupation, our political leanings, our moral compass, our sense of humor and, to an extent, how our personality manifests. Culture could be defined as the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.
The last one-and–a-half years I’ve spent living and working cross-culturally have made this truth quite clear: Culture shapes characters, not the other way around. I’m a history buff, as well as a fan of speculative fiction, so it’s with great perplexity that I have read the recent rash of novels that are supposedly set in a unique time or culture, yet the central characters react to circumstances from a modern American worldview.
Now, I’m no expert on culture. But I am a learner, and I’ve received a bit of a crash course over the last couple of years. So, hopefully I can shed some light on this complex topic with a few “Dos” and “Don’ts.”
Do your research.
Whether you’re looking through yearbooks for a contemporary or historical novel or stirring dust in a library that exists only in your fantastical imagination, find out political histories, ancient feuds, where the ethnic/racial/class lines are drawn, etc. Know what your characters had for breakfast that morning, and where the food came from. Aim to include details from each of the five senses.
For example, from my recent trip to the Middle East I remember the feel of blowing sand on my face, the sound of the 6 a.m. call to prayer, the taste of spicy biryani rice, and the sight of rolling, shifting dunes as far as the eye can see.
Don’t show off.
Resist the urge to include details just to show you did your research. Describing every article of clothing just isn’t necessary. It’s a novel not a sewing magazine. Sci-fi writers tend to go overboard on technogadgets. But while futuristic technology may be extraordinary to us, your character won’t really care, because it’s part of their culture. Therefore, they “turn out the light” rather than “gave a voice command to dim the halogenic mood lighting that came into vogue last year, 2034.” If you’re talking about the light fixture, it’d better emit rays of death about to incinerate your hero or heroine.
Do know your cultural standards.
It’s great to base your cultures off pre-existing or historical cultures (medieval fantasy is a prime example). But when mixing cultural influences, avoid conflicting value systems that will make your resulting character feel contrived.
For example, on the surface mixing Middle Eastern and Japanese cultures would seem to be a recipe for world-building disaster. However, the shame/honor and family-oriented value system of these cultures has much more in common than, say, the individualistic Americans and the rule-following Germans or Brits. Know the rules so you can break them well.
Don’t ignore cultural rules to suit your needs
Throwing out cultural norms for the sake of plot or your own agenda doesn’t work. Not only can readers smell that cheese a mile away, it also undermines the depth of your character. Common offenders are “strong” female heroines in medieval-based cultures who get their way by running around with a sword or saying whatever pops into their heads. I’m sure we can all think of many other examples. Gender roles and social constructs exist for a reason, and shouldn’t be ignored.
Characters should react and make decisions based on their beliefs, values, and worldviews, which the culture they live in affects dramatically.
Do be original.
Just because a character is consistent with their culture doesn’t mean they can’t be unique and intriguing. Use the prevailing culture to show how a character is different—or why they respond in a way that surprises the reader. Actions that may come off as chauvinistic in one culture will be interpreted as good manners in another. Use culture to reveal character.
Don’t forget to have fun.
Creating a new character in the context of their cultural background is complex and time-consuming but also incredibly rewarding when done well.
Your character will step fully formed from the pages of your manuscript and into your reader’s imagination. And your characters will stay there long after your reader has turned the last page.
Recommended reading list: For characters who behave consistent with their own culture(s), take a look at Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and the Walks the Fire series by Stephanie Whitson.
Katie Morford is a media missionary living in England and traveling the world making documentaries for a Christian non-profit. She is also a founder and editor of Crosshair Press, a small indie publishing company dedicated to high-quality action fiction from a biblical worldview. In her spare time, she writes sci-fi and action-adventure novels and eats way too much Indian take-out.
You can check out here missions blog at www.storyforhisglory.com.