Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A Call Against Hats

Fictional civilised species have long been a staple of many worlds and universes. Whether it's the "classics" like orcs and dwarfs or something more inventive, the potential for creativity in presenting their very own cultures, viewpoints and physical oddities is practically infinite. Fictional cultures can simultaneously evoke both familiarity and alienness and make for a very interesting experience as readers get to know them, see the world from their perspective and discover almost "real" civilisations that interact and brave the world's challenges in their own, unique way. Sadly, not many works utilise such potential to its fullest; more often than not, an entire fictional species ends up monocultural and possibly speaking the same language, even if it spans an entire planet (TV Tropes calls this a Planet of Hats, hence the title). Even when not taken to its hive-mind extremes, this is not only very silly and immersion-breaking when one thinks about it (cultural uniformity over vast areas is particularly unlikely in Fantasy settings with limited to no methods of globalisation), but also limits the diversity of the world in question unless a ridiculously large number of civilised species is created. Why not follow humanity's example and grant fictional civilisations some cultural and linguistic diversity (and individuals some individuality)?

Even in the most generic Fantasy world, not every dwarf needs to be a miner or blacksmith obsessed with beards and beer, and not every group of dwarfs needs to value such things by tradition. For this example, consider the traits that make a dwarf identifiable as a member of their species; they are likely one of the shortest civilised species in the respective universe, may be relatively squat and may have a tendency to grow long beards. They may also have other common or ever-present traits (unrelated to their culture). Is a dwarf with these features still a dwarf if it leads a rural farming life in warmer climates and speaks an eloquent tongue rich in vowel phonemes? Of course it is, as species does not define viewpoint, culture or traditions, especially for a species with advanced enough mental capabilities to form what we consider civilisation. When creating a fictional civilisation, consider its location, what its history might be, what influences and problems it may deal or have dealt with, what aspects of other cultures it may have absorbed. When creating a character, consider where and how they grew up, who or what may have influenced them and how they as an individual feel about things, not what species they belong to.

Even with a common origin, cultures and languages can and do drift apart and gain a unique identity, and while sympathy and familiarity may exist between members of the same species, "species" and "culture" are by no means the same (nor are "species" and "personality"), as real life has been demonstrating in great detail since long before recorded history and continues to demonstrate even in this age of globalisation. But only when even a civilisation of orcs or trolls can find a cultural and linguistical identity of its own and bring forth free-thinking individuals will fiction have conquered the Planet of Hats.

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