Thursday, December 21, 2017

SiWC 2016 Workshop #8 Culture Building is World Building

Culture Building is World Building
Sonali Dev

Beloved books, ones that have never left you, build up the fabric of who you are, where we fall, body and soul, into the character. That’s what makes the story unforgettable.

How do you get your readers to fall into your characters like this?

Audience examples:

Wizard of Oz, the journey, conflict, fantastical element
English Patient, multiple stories going on and the setting where it takes place
A Fine Balace, words were just beautiful, characters were real, ending was enraging

Think about the books you’ve read and what makes them memorable.

What is Culture?

The sum total of ways of living developed by a group of human beings and is passed down from generation to generation.

Here’s the problem: we cannot have genetic memories of all cultures, so our cultural stamp (that we bring wth us) is going to be on our writing.

How you feel about anything, is informed by every conversation and experiences and saw since you were a child and that cannot be researched, it’s a hundred million moments of a life, and that cannot be researched.

#ownvoices movement: stories about a culture, by a person from that culture


Every book has its own unique sense of culture, so that’s what we’re talking about today: Culture OF Story.

World building/setting is often used interchangeably with culture, but:

Place and time are the worldbuilding/setting.

What goes on in that place and time are culture.


Aspects of Culture

1. References

Shared knowledge, recognition of being from the same culture, that you won’t have to explain everything.
Like, you meet someone overseas also for Vancouver, you talk about the lack of rain/weather, coffee, etc, small details that, growing up in Vancouver, you understand. Tidbits of how your shared culture is different from where you currently are. What you make jokes about. What you miss. Local commodities, local delicacies, local celebrities, heroes or tragedies. Media we grew up with, streets or neighbourhoods we grew up in. How people look at you depending where you are.

2. Manners

How we treat each other, like how Canadians are considered ‘friendly/polite’. How elders are treated in the community, how are children expected to behave, how you interact with your neighbours & strangers. What are married relationships like, how much and how to people from various cultures interact, how friends greet each other or say goodbye.

3. Relationships

How is a family defined, what’s the usual age of marriage, is there divorce, what do people compete over (what makes them jealous of each other), how and what are people judged over, how do people interact with their government- > is it a democracy or a dictatorship or is it ruled by the underworld? How do people interact across class/race/age/sex/etc. What are neighbourhoods like, do they live there for generations, or do people move in and out? Dialect/language play deeply into how those of different class/race interact.

4. Legacy and Land

Who owns land, how far back does ownership go, what is the best/worst house, wife, food, salary? Are people proud of the places they live in, who are their ‘royalty’ (even in the slums, who is their royalty?), how far back do the generations go and have they always lived here, where did they come from before (if the culture has a lot of immigration, like North America), what is migration like, who is establishment vs newbie and how do they interact? What was the city like 100 years ago -> agrarian, industrial, etc How they think about land.

5. Celebrations & Mourning

Rites of passage, where and why do communities gather and who organizes this? Who is allowed to go and who is left out? What’s the focus of the celebrations, food, alcohol, music, art, clothes?

6. Beliefs

Not just religion, but things like what is sinful in this culture, to adults and to children? What are the expectations and failures? Depending on class/race/age/etc, are these different? What’s shameful, honourable, worth dying for? What happens after you die? 


World building is geography, climate, it’s the relevance on which culture is formed, and culture informs character:

How characters feel about their world and their place in it.

This is why we can rewrite an old classic and the relevance stays the same, because even if the setting is different, the culture is the same -> the character is looking through the same lens at the same circumstances, so they feel the same. ‘Emma’ and ‘Clueless’, same story, different time/place/character, but the characters feel the same about what’s important.

So, what makes any of this matter? You can write a character you know everything about, but a reader could read it and no care at all…

What keeps you reading?

The conflict.

Why is culture so important to conflict?

Because it’s going to define the conflict, and what the characters do with the conflict, how they react to it.

What does the world expect from the character (identity), and how does the character feel about it, where they end up, where they adjust expectations of who they are and who they are going to be?

A character can either learn to love those expectations or they can figure out what’s missing and discard/change it, that’s the character’s growth arc.

Culture IS context.


Struggle is all about context, so we won’t care about a character struggling if we don’t understand their context/culture.

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