Friday, 19 April 2013

5 Considerations to Make a Culture Come Alive

In my last post, I talked about avoiding the "Planet of Hats" effect in Fantasy species by creating distinct cultures with traits based on their location, history and influences rather than simply the dominant species. But what are some aspects that can be used to make a culture distinct? What are some considerations to make when creating a fictional culture? Some are obvious, others are all too frequently ignored; all can add an interesting and unique note to the culture in question. Below are a few ideas (to be regarded as examples, not a comprehensive list) that have occurred to me while planning out Pelsatia's cultures and peoples and which may help authors who are trying to add some spice to a fictional culture in their setting without simply copying one of Earth's civilisations.

  1. Language: This seems like an obvious one, but is still often ignored as a cultural aspect and replaced with one language spoken by the whole species. Languages are probably one of the most diverse aspects of culture; consider not only Earth's languages, but also dialects, and you will see that a great potential for diversity exists even within the same culture. If you are looking to create new languages for a setting, such potential should not be ignored.

    Consider the culture's history, location and influences here. Languages can assimilate one another over time, so the languages of cultures that have coexisted in the same region for a long time are often similar or at least influenced by one another in some manner (think loanwords). Conversely, when groups of individuals even from the same culture are separated in some way, their languages can grow apart, especially with limited communication between such groups. Also consider the importance of specific other cultures in the target culture's history; it is likely that an influential other culture's language has had a particularly large influence on that of the culture in question. Consider formalities as well; a peasant is likely to speak in a different manner than a ruler. What kind of language is considered formal, what is colloquial, and to what degree? There may be polite forms to be used in certain situation, and there may be contractions and dialectal variations used in informal, everyday communication especially by the lower castes.

    A lot can factor into the development of languages; as with other aspects, taking a look at Earth's history can yield a lot of inspiration.

  2. Architecture: Another obvious one, but often generalised for an entire species, if any individuality exists at all. Consider the conditions that the culture needs to face, what materials they have available and whether their building style might have been influenced by that of a neighbouring culture. Don't forget that architecture can be an art in addition to being practical! Infrastructure also plays a role; the ancient Romans were famous for their road building and water supply networks. Not every culture needs a completely unique style of architecture, but there is a lot of potential for creativity here.

  3. Music: Some form of music exists in virtually all of Earth's cultures, but is frequently ignored in fictional ones. If the culture possesses instruments, think about what kind of instruments they may have access to (available materials can also influence this). Consider what kind of music can be made with these instruments and what role it plays within the culture's society. Is music carefully composed or spontaneous, and is the general sound and emotion valued more than memorable melodies? Is making music a group activity where many people get involved? Do people commonly sing, and if they do, what may they sing about? Different castes may have different music; perhaps certain instruments are only available to wealthy individuals and used for playing carefully crafted music, while common people prefer to sing and dance in a less strict manner?

  4. Food: As proven by Earth's cultures, a culture's cuisine can be one of its most distinct and varied aspects, with diversity existing even within the same culture! Keep in mind what kind of food is readily available in the respective region and/or what can possibly be imported. The majority of available ingredients will likely be used in some way, but be aware that the rarer and/or exotic kinds are prone to be more expensive or otherwise problematic to obtain and will not find as much use in common people's food. Consider what kinds of flavours may be preferred, what the people are particularly skilled at preparing, whether there is anything that they will not eat for ethical or similar reasons and their general relationship to food. Is eating sometimes a community activity? Under what conditions, and what kinds of food are eaten? What importance does the visual presentation have? What manners and traditions related to preparing and eating food are valued?

    Don't forget that this is one of the few aspects that can be influenced greatly by the primary species that the culture is made up of; be aware of what the creatures in question are able to chew and digest without ill effects (and would thus even consider "food" to begin with) and whether there are any special needs in their diet.

  5. Holidays: Important dates and celebrations are ubiquitous in all cultures, yet creators of Fantasy worlds like to forget about them. Think about not only the culture's history, but also its view of the world. What has happened in their past that they are proud of or would like to remember? What do they believe, what do they value? What natural phenomena affect their society? These are all good reasons for holidays and festivities to be established. Also consider what may be done on those days and how people get involved; perhaps different castes celebrate differently, or maybe in celebrating, everyone is equal for one day. Mayhap different local traditions exist.

These are by far not all the ways that an individual note can be added to a culture or civilisation (others include more obvious and commonly utilised aspects such as politics, ethical considerations and general entertainment, which I will not examine in detail), but can go a long way in making them believable and truly come alive to make the world they exist in so much more fun to visit and explore, for readers and writers alike.

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