This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. Today’s post focuses on the challenge of portraying fictional cultures.

Few things get creative types more excited than talking about culture in a fictional world. As writers, we like to think of our creations as living, breathing things that go right on existing after we’ve set them aside. As fans, we like to imagine we could actually go to these imagined places just as easily as boarding a plane for the other side of the world. In both cases, it’s usually the portrayal of culture that makes the fictional become real for us. We want rich details underpinning every aspect of life, details to explain how and why the society functions a certain way. We want to know how the culture informs the beliefs, motivations, and actions of the people within it and how it shapes the consequences of their decisions.

The irony, of course, is that actual culture is anything but an orderly construct. It’s complicated, messy, and often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, even to people who spend their entire lives surrounded by it. Surprisingly, it’s also something we don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about. I mean, do you ever stop and think about, say, eating utensils? Take a fork. Everybody in western society knows how to use a fork (more or less). Why do we use forks? It’s not because they make eating easier, because they don’t. In almost every instance, your hands are much more effective tools for shoveling food into your primitive primate face. No, we use forks because they help us keep our hands clean, because at certain points in human history (around the 14th or 15th century in western Europe, but earlier in other places), keeping your hands clean became equated with socio-economic and political status. The aristocracy begins using utensils at meals and, since social mores are historically exerted downward, the rest of society eventually adopts the trend. Next thing you know, the wealthy nobility are using thirty-five different kinds of forks for a fancy dinner while the peasants down the road (on the other side of a wall by that point) are using the same crudely made fork for every meal. The difference of degree is vast, but everybody has tacitly agreed that forks are great, even though they’d all have a much easier time eating with their hands.

Wait, where was I going with this example? Oh, right…culture…

The point here is that the sociological development of eating utensils and table manners doesn’t make much sense, at least not in the way you’d expect. It’s not a simple case of people changing the way they do something because a new way proved to be better. Rather, it’s a case of deliberately doing something that doesn’t work as well because of some ancillary reason that might not be readily apparent. This is what makes human culture so fascinating. We do all kinds of things that don’t make a lot of sense, sometimes for really bizarre reasons. The worst case is when there’s literally no reason for why we do something a certain way: somebody made an arbitrary decision and we’ve been following that example ever since.

We can accept eccentricities like this in the real world. Life doesn’t always make sense. But we absolutely refuse to tolerate them in fiction. In a fictional world, we expect everything to make sense. In a lot of ways, this is similar to the problem of character motivation and narrative structure. We get angry when a character does something “out of character” or events “don’t make sense.” But this is pretty true of real life. We’ve all made plenty of decisions that an outside observer would be left scratching their head over. Random stuff happens in our lives all the time. But you can’t get away with that in fiction (at least not TOO much of it). Characters have to “stay true to their character” and events are expected to connect with one another enough to form a coherent, directional narrative.

This expectation bleeds into the fictional culture as well. There’s a temptation to provide a lot of cultural context to explain how a society functions. But the more you try to explain why people do what they do, the more you create a rigid and ultimately artificial view of that society. The next thing you know, you’re creating an elaborate calendar system that you think tells us so much about the world, but really doesn’t contribute anything beyond verisimilitude because you’re creating it out of whole cloth at one moment rather than looking at something that developed organically over time (and yes, I’ve done this before).

No amount of appendices and glossaries of slang will make your world’s culture come alive. That’s because the responsibility of conveying that culture belongs to the characters. There’s a great observation in one of the “making of” documentaries for The Fellowship of the Ring where screenwriter Phillipa Boyens said they decided the best way to explain to viewers what dwarves were like was to cast John Rhys-Davies as Gimli and let him show them.

When it comes to portraying culture, then, writers of all stripes should keep in mind the boring old advice to “show, don’t tell.” A reader can pick up more about the role of religion in the world from a character’s off-handed comment about priests than they will from page after page of exposition on the theological basis of the church. To bring the focus back to the earlier fork example, you won’t find many people interested in the lengthy description of the sociological development of eating utensils. Even if they did get through it, they wouldn’t know what to do with it or how to apply it to characters and situations. All the reader needs to know here is that people equate clean hands with high social status, which is easily established with a disparaging expression, a disapproving glance, or a smug comment from one character to another.

My point here is that culture is both impossibly difficult and incredibly easy to portray all at the same time. The conundrum is that it’s something so important that you want to explain it in exacting detail, but the more you do, the more artificial and detached it feels. Finding just the right balance is one of the ongoing challenges that make writing such a compelling and worthwhile endeavor.