What is culture? Those of us in the anthropological community may define culture as a common set of practices, beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyles within a group of people that is passed on through generations. Many writers, especially fantasy writers, will take on the challenge of designing an entire culture. As someone who’s studied anthropology, I’ve made this article to address common pitfalls with designing culture and how to avoid them.
1. Don’t use your own culture as a point of view in your narration.
As humans, we tend to have a mindset that there’s an “us” and a “them.” Seems obvious, right? I have my culture, and then there’s the “others.” This is the easiest trap to fall into when you’re designing a new culture, and it is blatantly obvious in writing. An easy way to identify this is if you find yourself explaining cultural practices more often than your character(s) engage in them. If your character is part of that culture, they’re not going to have a concept of us v. them within their community. They’ll think like all humans do when acting within their own culture–with an attitude of “that’s just how it is.” Your writing should reflect that. When a reader asks themselves, why are these people eating their dead relatives? The character(s) within that culture shouldn’t have anything to say on it because it’s not even a question until an outsider asks why.
2. Do study other cultures.
Your culture isn’t the only one, and if you haven’t studied cultures that aren’t yours, chances are your worldview is limited by that. For instance, I didn’t think anyone had the cultural practice of consuming their dead, but there are a several cultures that do. Their reasoning is that they want their deceased loved one to return to the community in some way. After someone dies, the community will typically burn the body and cook the ashes into different dishes that the community feasts on. So study different cultures. You might be surprised by what you find and get inspired. Just try not to be ethnocentric–making the cultures wrong for their practices or shaming them. Your culture probably seems weird to a lot of people, too. (Why all the flags, America? No one needs that many flags.)
3. Don’t ignore regional variation.
Culture isn’t fixed. It’s constantly evolving, and like everything that evolves, you’re going to find variation. The culture of the southern United States, for instance, is vastly different from that of the north. In fact, the culture of eastern San Francisco, California is different than western San Francisco, and that’s just in one city. Keep this in mind when you’re designing your culture because, realistically, one nation isn’t going to have exactly the same practices and cultural traditions, especially if you have things like frequent immigration. Actually, this is just a good thing to remember in everyday life. My southern Vietnamese grandfather would burst a blood vessel if someone claimed he was northern Vietnamese. Not all Vietnamese people are the same, and a lot of us southerners still aren’t over the fact that Saigon is now “officially” called Ho Chi Minh City.
4. Do study a bit of linguistics.
Just a little. If you’re designing a new culture, you have to design a new language, as well–at least, a little bit. In fact, many of us in the anthropological community separate different cultures by linguistic distinctions. I had the opportunity growing up to experience the difference in spoken Southern Vietnamese from a majority of my family, Central Vietnamese from my grandmother, and Northern Vietnamese from popular Vietnamese media. The various dialects of the country also reflected cultural differences amongst them. Central Vietnamese takes its accent and some words from aboriginal people who were present before modern Vietnamese people. Southern Vietnamese also has roots in Khmer, a Cambodian language. Similarly, word choices can reflect what cultures place value upon. For example, many people have heard claims of Inuit people having several words for “snow.” While they don’t have as many words as people think, they do have quite a bit more than English, and these words are actually used to describe different types of snow–powder snow, new snow, firn, etc. This linguistic emphasis on snow makes sense considering the people who speak these languages live in cold environments where it would be important to differentiate between snow types. Including linguistic elements to your created culture adds to its depth.
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments, or shoot me a message.