Being a Better Writer: Including a Range of Culture

Welcome back readers! Potentially to me as well!

Yes, this post was written weeks ago, to make up for the fact that I am in Alaska for a fishing job right now. I might be back, but it’s unlikely. At least from my perspective in the past.

Anyway, with that being said I have no idea what the news will be, and even if I’m back I’ll still be letting these go up as scheduled, so there’s little else to talk about aside from diving into our post today! So let’s get to it!

Today, I wanted to talk about including a range of culture in our works. Now, a quick aside here to start things off. I’m not just talking about contemporary books set in the here and now of the real world. I’m talking about all and any stories we happen to write. Are they second world? Are they future sci-fi? These count. And in a very important way.

However, with this I have to include a second aside and say why. This may disappoint some of you, but I’m not here to talk about “diversity for the sake of diversity and checking off a little box in our story so we can feel good about ourselves and post a feel-good message on twitter.” That’s not the point of this post.

No, the point of this post is for use to consider the range of cultures, groups, and traditions in the settings that we place our stories in, and give them life and vitality by presenting them as they are. And I say this because yes, I’ve seen fantasy and sci-fi stories alike that have done the “diversity checkbox” by writing a story with setting or cast that checks the box … but then never doing anything with it. Or odder still, building its own walled garden of a culture or a society that isn’t actually diverse, but is just written to the be the “opposite” of whatever the one-note audience is. In other words, one-note and no more diverse, just not the one-note of what it’s trying to step away from.

So no, with both those asides, this post isn’t about being able to check that little checkbox. And it’s not about fiction set in the here and now on Earth either. No, this is a post about looking at our setting and portraying what’s in it.

Let me start with a real-world example. Say you’re writing a story about Ancient Rome. You know, the Roman Empire. If you were to set a story in any random region across that vast empire, what would the odds be that you’d have a decent range of culture and ethnicities on display no matter where you were? That your characters could run into, or even be, characters that weren’t “stock Romans.”

Here’s the thing: It’d be high. Rome had a spectacular system of roads and trade setup, with products and economy being shipped sometimes thousands of miles, as well as a full system of inns and protection to account for that. Ergo, travel in Rome was surprisingly not that hard, all things considered, and people tended to be quite well-traveled. Meaning that if you set a story in Ancient Rome, it wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) be based just around “standard Romans.” First setting aside that Rome was so broad that you’d be as hard-pressed to find a “standard Roman” as you would a “standard American,” Rome was a busy and multicultural place! Travelers and traders from all over its vast expanse and even outside of it traversed its roads, on pilgrimages, tours, trades, even vacations and tourism (for the record, Rome turned Sparta, yes that Sparta, into a tourist trap). People immigrated to Rome from other nations, set up shop, and ran businesses or found jobs. Sands, people came to Rome as slaves and then when their debt was paid became regular folks (if still not Roman citizens).

My point being that if you were to write a book in Rome, real Rome … it wouldn’t be a cliche collection of just one kind of “Roman.” You’d have a wide variety of people, cultures, traditions, etc, all on display. And even if yes, the “Roman citizens” would be the largest by number, there’d still be a lot of other people around.

And a lot of books, even in Sci-Fi and Fantasy, tend to forget this. Especially in some specific types of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, or Star Trek-style Sci-Fi, we often tend to see the “planet of hats” on display quite a bit. This a “dwarf village. That means everyone here is a dwarf.” Or “this is a mafia planet. Everyone on this planet acts and talks like a mobster” (that’s a real Star Trek episode that named the trope, actually).

Even modern books still tend to fall into this issue despite what has lately been a large (and welcome) push for being more diverse. Rather than broaden the setting as it exists, a lot of stories just go “Well, we made a road trip out of it stopping in as many one-note villages as we could. Diversity achieved!” And well … Yeah look, that’s better than the alternative, which is an entire nation of like-minded individuals. But it’s also a bit of an obvious patch job because again, reality isn’t quite so … shall we say … neat?

Because that’s what a lot of this feels like sometimes. Like the book is doing a tour-guide moment of “Now if you look out the window to your right, you’ll see this fascinating elf village with the following local traditions!” And the audience and protagonists ooh and ah and then the story moves on.

Now, I don’t want to say that this can’t be very realistic. I’m also not saying that the “tour bus” that is the story needs to stop and become a museum tour. What I’m saying is that we can ditch the “tour” aspect entirely, and let our story be a bit more organic.

Look, there are settings, real and fictional, where cultures tend to keep to themselves and live in divided groups. And I’m not saying we can’t write about those settings. We can, and I’d argue should, because they were real.

But we also need to remember that there are places where variety in culture was also real, and reflect that in our stories.

Another way to explain this would be by asking us to remember that our stories are not set in a vacuum. They’re set in a world. A living, breathing world. A world that, if we’ve written and developed it well, doesn’t just exist so that the characters can have an adventure, but so that everyone else the story never focuses on have a life and an existance.

We should show that. Remember that.

For example, let’s say that our characters will be stopping at a … space station! Let’s go Sci-fi for a moment. They’re on some journey, and they need fuel. Well, what’s this space station going to be like?

Actually, let’s go deeper. Let’s ask a few more questions. Why is this station here? What sustains it? What sort of visitors does it get regularly or rarely? Why does it exist? Who lives there? Who does business there?

As an author at LTUE once said “Who can make money off of this, and how?” And I know, that may seem like an odd point to bring up during a conversation about culture, but in truth, how much of where culture goes is driven by money? People move for jobs all the time. Even companies have a culture that can range from awesome to dystopian.

Now, again, the aim here isn’t to offer a museum tour. We don’t want to sit our reader back with every book and say “And now here’s the amazing [insert hat here] and let’s tell you all about it.” No, we don’t want to do that.

So why do we want to ask these questions about where our characters will be? So we can offer a broad, deep world and show it to our readers through the characters they meet and the places they go.

You can still have questions like “What does that saying mean? I’m not familiar with it” if a character is perplexed by something. Or we can have them guess.

But by asking questions about what makes our world and our setting and the little places tick, we’re opening ourselves to accurately representing a slices of the setting we’ve built. One that can go past a planet of hats or a village of dwarves. Or whatever setting we’ve built for our world.

Again, this isn’t shoving something in to look for a reason to report to twitter that we’ve checked a box. This is sitting back and looking at our setting, examining how it functions and performs, and how all the people in it interact.

And if we realize that we’ve created a setting where that doesn’t happen, then maybe we need to step back and look at if such a society could function?

Now let me be clear, we can write settings like this. There are settings, real and fictional, where people don’t interact much with others outside their culture. We can set up isolationist groups or kingdoms, even star empires, that push for a large amount of conformity to a “norm.” And fascinating stories can still take place there.

But when it comes to settings that, by the creator’s reckoning, should have a wide range of culture on display, how do we choose to show that? Or are we even asking ourselves what our wide, expansive world should really be like?

Now, I’m not writing this to single out anything specifically, because I do think that there’s a lot out there that these days is doing a great job at building intertwined worlds that are full of culture and nail a lot of the details and variety that would come with a such a setting without feeling too much like a tour bus or a scripted presentation. And more are coming every day, because there is a demand for that kind of more in-depth, explored setting. Readers love to imagine themselves in these expansive settings, filled with characters of all kinds! And they want to feel like they’re real places they could go, even if they aren’t.

So then to wrap up this post, how can we build settings or stories were a wide variety of culture can not only occur, but be on display in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s on display, but merely the real happenings of a world?

Honestly, I think it comes back to that statement from LTUE about the money. Only we can broaden it. We can ask ourselves what the values of the various people in our setting are. Why is a town where it is? Why do people live in it? What sort of people might want to move there?

Go deeper. What might people from that culture value? Will they put that on display, or make it private? How can this impact their interactions with other cultures that might be around them?

And before we get too far down the path of second-world, remember that this can apply to our very real world as well. There are lots of places past and present where different cultures have mixed and intermingled, sometimes creating new cultures unique to an area or region, or sometimes drawing deeply divided lines between those on both sides determined to not let go of what their culture had. Again, not saying good or bad here. This is just how people be. And we can let our writing show that as our characters interact with a myriad of people that are, in our setting, their own people!

Ultimately to end this post, I feel like I have two things that I want to stress. The first is that this world, or any world that we make, can be an amazing place with a vast range of human (or nonhuman!) experience, beliefs, ideals, and values. And we can reflect that and show it by making it part of our setting.

The second? No matter what, no matter where, no matter the species or the setting, sapient beings will be sapient beings. They’ll make choices, decisions, and travel. Be they dragons, humans, or some other form of life no one will ever experience until they pick up the pages of your book, they will be with their own aims, wants, desires, values, and objectives. And if we let them, we can build a very real world every bit as varied and unique as our own.

So good luck. Now get writing.

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