I wonder about cultures. I’m not talking about existing cultures around our world, not exactly. More about creating a culture that the characters dwell in. It’s not about race, either, though how a humanoid moves can affect how their lives are lived on the most basic level. What I’m talking about here doesn’t have to be what the character believes, and that’s often what makes a dystopian novel run. But the culture itself is important to consider, if for no other reason than juxtaposition.
The easiest starting point, at least for me, is not to consider what is different, but what is the same. Yes, we all greet each other. Yes, we all have problems with pests in the home. Yes, we all get annoyed at our bosses at work. These are all hurdles we go through in our lives, and how we solve them is often informed by the culture we live in. Come up with a different solution, then you’ve got a different kind of culture.
We say hello by shaking hands, but what if the standard action was to press both palms together behind the head? It’d be an act showing they’re not aggressive, and they have to be pointing at someone they deem important to execute the motion. (At this point, body odor can come into play, too.)
Pests can be dealt with in a variety of ways, including bigger pests. Do they keep cats to get rid of mice? Or do they hire special fly-swatters to come purge the home to perfection?
Venting frustration can be vital to a culture’s operation. Maybe there are designated screaming rooms in public places, or everyone is expected to write out their annoyances and submit them anonymously to the government for further analysis. Even, in the most dramatic stories, understanding how cultures deal with suicide is important.
Holidays are another commonality in basically every culture. Not only do we use them to mark the passage of time, but having one in your story adds depth to an otherwise hum-drum society. In reality, most holidays are based on one of two things: celestial happenings or historical events. If you want a culture to feel more less civilized, then I’d go with the first. Ancient cultures often have animism and stargazing in common. That’d be things like celebrating the winter solstice or beginning of harvest. More modern cultures base their holidays on events. The 4th of July, for instance, or – in honor of recent events – Christmas. Something happened long ago, and that particular holiday is in place to celebrate it.
Festivals are a little different, at least in my understanding, in that they don’t have an annual occurrence, or a set date. A town nearby me recently held a parade in honor of a local football team winning the state championships. Heroes coming home from war, or the first bear sighting after a long, cold winter. These types of celebrations are important.
How a society deals with times of war, and how often they do, also informs everyday life. If war is common (often in fantasy), it wouldn’t be out of place to see a good character carry a weapon in public. If war never occurs (seen in dystopian societies), then how has natural human aggression been replaced? Sports? If so, what are those games like? How does the everyday man react to a societal surprise? They might all know to evacuate or take up arms. Or every pair of eyes might watch the violence, slack-jawed. Much of that reaction is built up in the culture. Is there a Grendel terrorizing the town? That’ll affect the town guard, and perhaps sleep schedules.
Nomadic and permanent residences is also play a part in crafting a culture. Architecture, entertainment, arts, religion. They’re all interconnected, and introducing the reader to them without (in most cases) letting your character be surprised by them takes an artful finesse in execution, but it’s invaluable in storytelling.
Environment is vital to consider even before all of these things mentioned above. I’ve already talked about that last week. If you’re interested, feel free to check it out here.