by IE Horton
You. Yes, you. The one reading this. I don’t know where you come from, or what culture you were raised in, but it’s stupid. Your stupid culture made you who you are, it civilised you, it gave you a sense of identity. A stupid sense of identity.
So why am I insulting the cultures of random strangers? Because that’s how cultures appear from the outside. We may know, for example, why it’s traditional in our culture to throw a left boot down the local well at exactly 11:57 and 12 seconds on the fourth Sunday in June, but to others it just looks like sheer madness. Even from within our culture, we are ignorant of the origins of our own traditions; they’re so ingrained in us, that we never really think to question them.
I’m originally British and I live in America. On the 11th of November every year, I like to drop a bombshell on a surprisingly large number of Americans (I’ve lived here 21 years and I have never run dry of two to three targets a year). It’s Veterans’ Day, and I think I’m confident in stating that all but the very young are aware that Veterans’ Day is November 11th. Very few people seem to know, nor care, why that date was picked. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, consider it homework.
On the other side of the coin are the stereotypes. I’m sure most people know at least one stereotype of another culture. Are you a drunk, angry Scot (like myself)? War mongering, sausage eating German? Cowardly, wine drinking French? Pompous, toothless English? Or are you… wait for it… a loud, obnoxious, overbearing, proudly uneducated American? Assuming the majority of people reading this are Americans, I have to ask you, did that surprise you? Were you previously aware that all those countries you have stereotypes of, also have stereotypes of you?
Why do we have stereotypes and traditions we don’t understand? Because, when it comes down to it, all cultures are stupid. Every culture can find a reason to laugh at another culture. It’s a basic feature of the multi-cultural world we live in. And it’s a feature we need to understand if we’re to make a believable, multi-cultural universe. Learn to laugh at your own culture. Only then will you be ready to build a culture for your world.
The world we live in isn’t perfect, which is why a perfect society overextends our suspension of disbelief. Our flaws, as well as our virtues, define us, and that is at the cultural level as well as at the personal. Give your cultures real personalities, warts and all, and they will come alive. People will remember them and, through that, will remember you.
So I’ll wind things down with a little cheat I like to use. If they haven’t appeared in a previous story, I will not develop a culture until the first or second edit. The reason I do that is motivation; there has to be a reason the characters from that culture have a vested interest in the story. This reason is often some manner of interaction, good or bad, between two or more cultures, some or all of which could be a misunderstanding.
And finally, the late, great Terry Pratchett expressed this whole thing perfectly when he wrote something along the lines of (I am guilty of extreme paraphrasing, here) “One half of the party guests wouldn’t talk to the other half, because of what one of them said about our Sharon seven years back.”
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
IE Horton, is a writer and game designer who we interviewed, he wrote this blog. You can find his book ‘Ordinary Spaceman’ on Amazon.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.