I’ve noticed that out of the many avenues of character development, one is constantly overlooked by new writers.
Now of course, since many new writers are also young writers, the claim can be made that this is due to lack of life experience.
Not entirely anyway.
You do not necessarily need to be a historian or well-traveled to accurately portray different cultures in your writing.
Later in this article we will discuss different techniques that you can use, but first, we must discuss why you’d want to put in all of that work in the first place!
So, why is culture essential to writing?
Culture is the story of humanity
Our traditions and behaviors tell of our society’s morals and social values. This varies from civilization to civilization despite the fact that overall the human experience is the same.
We are born. We grow and learn. We eat. We drink. We love. We lose. We hurt. We overcome. We die. We constantly question our place in the universe.
But how we do these universal things differentiates and makes us unique.
Culture adds further depth and meaning to your work
Let us take, for example, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
William Shakespeare crafted a romantic tragedy based on the premise that the two lovers could not be together because of a generational quarrel between the two families.
Imagine if this story took place in a culture where no one cared who married whom or if social status wasn’t a consequence in marriage or if the families were able to solve their feud ages ago, forgive and forget.
What significance then, would Romeo and Juliet’s love have?
What if the story took place in a culture that discouraged marriage at such a young age? Would Romeo have been so naive to misinterpret infatuation for love? Would Juliet have so easily fallen in love with Romeo? Would the couple have been so easily overcome with emotion to commit suicide?
Needless to say, we would get a completely different story, but would that story be any less significant or would it simply take on a new meaning?
Culture can elevate your plot
With different cultural expectations and settings come different obstacles that your characters can undergo.
Take an outspoken character from America and place them in a society where freedom of speech is limited.
The struggles which this character must endure in his/her journey will not be the same in America as in the other country.
Lifestyles and traditions will also affect how your characters go about problem solving and dictate how they interact with each other.
Culture opens the door for a creative variety of characters
Much like how culture can affect the overall meaning of your story, it can also add the same depth to your characters.
Say, for example, you are writing a story with a reluctant hero. Your character would have a different outlook on bravery (and himself for rejecting it) if he grew up in a warrior clan than if he grew up in a peaceful society.
Just think of the breadth of opinions around the world on arranged marriages. In some cultures, this is an appalling affront to their perception of romance. In another culture, this is a way of life that is seen as an honor and a way to develop a strong and happy marriage.
You can use the development of culture to your advantage to cultivate characters that are unique but also relatable.
4 Techniques to Help you Incorporate Cultural Variety in your Writing
1.) Represent a known culture
This, of course, will require a great deal of research if you plan to represent a culture that is not your own.
Luckily we have the knowledge of the world at our fingertips and can access more information without having to travel from library to library.
This does not mean that this is easy; you will still need to invest a good deal of time into your research to develop authenticity in your story.
2.) Focus on setting
If you are not attempting to mirror a known culture, you can still create/modify cultural elements that fit into your story.
For example, say your novel takes place in a society that lives in the mountains. You can research similar cultures like the indigenous people of the Tibetan plateau and Andes Mountains then incorporate certain survival techniques into your story.
3.) Re-purpose myths and legends
The oral tradition is a huge part of every culture, the stories that are passed down from generation to generation.
This can be a simple and way to incorporate an underlying custom in your writing.
Generally, legends, myths, fairytales, etc. already have strong cultural elements in their themes and plot. You can easily modify a fairytale to create a new-ish story or tie elements of lore into your worldbuilding.
Which leads us into our next technique:
4.) Create your own culture
Who says that you have to imitate a known culture anyway?
You are creative!
You are the writer of stories!
It only makes sense that you should want to create a world all your own.
So, do it. Create your own civilization(s).
Make up a language and a culture and a moral code.
Go for it!
In accordance to our last few posts, this article simply outlines another way that you can add layers and textures to your writing.
World-building and culturally focused writing is not for every writer.
Be open to new ideas.
But don’t try to force your writing into a style that just doesn’t work for you.