Recently I sat down with the very wonderful Joanna Penn on her podcast, The Creative Penn. Her podcast has more than 500 episodes on just about everything you can think of when it comes to writing and she’s also a very well published author. Definitely check out her podcast and her books.
Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!
Alright, so after reading my first two blog posts on world building you have some semblance of the kinds of dynamics that go on in crafting a cultural environment right?
Also, here they are if you need them.
So here’s the key question, how does your world impact your characters? This really is the biggest and most important piece of your world building and the easiest place to lose consistency. If you mess this up, your story could suck or at least have readers rolling their eyes. At the end of the day, it’s compelling characters that we care about. Also, don’t forget to listen to your characters. They have hopes and dreams too.
I touched on this a little bit last time, but this time we’re diving deep into a little social science of identity construction.
1. Nature vs Nurture
Since good old Descartes (but really all the way back to the ancient Greeks) wrote on Dualism in the 1600’s there has been a question of what influences us most, Nature or Nurture.
Most of you probably know this already but the answer is both.
Humans are not a tabula rasa (a blank slate). On a very physical level we have certain tendencies that have been fostered by natural selection. For example, human’s don’t have wings (of course if they do in your story you might need to consider various elements of winged culture) they walk on two legs (known as bipedalism) and they speak.
A terrible example of world-building done wrong because of the physical limitations is the Planet of the Apes series. Now, I enjoy those movies but what kills me is this. In order to have human speech, your mouth, throat, and tongue must have a certain shape to produce human noises. Apes do not have the physical apparatus for speech and even the shape of their face and neck would have to change significantly before they were capable of human-like speech. Still, they are fun films and I do enjoy them, but I can be heard grumbling like a disgruntled Star Wars fan after I watch them.
So that’s an example of nature, there are certain things in our neurology and physical makeup that put limitations on us as well as certain instinctual things that pop up.
There’s now also some science to suggest that your experiences and traumas may pass themselves on to the next generation. This surrounds epigenetics, and I am not going to get into this here (as I am definitely no expert in this area) and admittedly there is still a lot of unknowns about the science behind this, but if true, it certainly complicates things doesn’t it?
What about nurture? Well, there certainly isn’t something inherent or genetic in religion. If there was, we would have people who have never had any contact to Christianity spontaneously becoming Christian in remote areas (we don’t). We are enculturated (basically taught our culture) as we grow up. Our family brings us to church or perhaps we are raised Atheist or Buddhist or Pagan and learn the values and ideals of those practices (remember that purity stuff back in part 1). A huge portion of your personality comes down to nurture.
Speaking of which…
Personality is one of those that is a hard mix of both. If any of you out there reading this have more than one child, you know that they are born with a tendency towards a certain personality. Some children are more cautious, some are absolutely fearless (I’ve got both types and it’s fascinating to see the difference). Some have short tempers and are emotional while others are calm in almost any circumstance. Add environmental factors and it shapes and reshapes their personality. People always have tendencies but the wonderful thing about human beings is that we are capable of changing the way we experience the world, it’s just that a lot of us don’t because it’s a lot of work. As some of you frequent readers know, I have spent a great deal of time working on meditation and have seen changes in my own thinking and experiences, but damn is it hard!
So how does this relate to your character? Well, what elements of nature and nurture come into play? If you have a genetically engineered winged population that’s going to change the experience of your character. Are there benevolent vampires? Well, they gotta eat, right? Perhaps your humans have undergone gene editing to live on Mars but suddenly find themselves back on Earth? Robert Heinlein’s famous sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land posits the question of a human who is raised by Martians returning to earth and how he struggles to understand what it means to be human with some fascinating cultural results. So, just in the nature/nuture part, there’s a lot to consider.
2. Imagined Past
So, before I get into this, when I use the phrase ‘Imagined Past’ I don’t mean that something is made up. What it means is that our upbringing and cultural perspective foster history in such a way that we imagine that one event is important and another isn’t. Of course, there are objectively more and less important events in history, but how we imagine those events unfolding is based on things like culture and ideology.
The reality is, history is always messy as hell. I don’t care what event you are talking about. Nothing is ever straightforward and simple. Remember our discussion in part one of world-building on Power and Resistance? That’s why.
The Imagined past is your perspective and your wider culture’s perspective on history and events. They are an interpretation of what happened and why they happened that way.
Let’s take an example that is debated every October, Columbus Day.
If you are a fan of Columbus Day you might say that we should honor a man who changed the world and ‘discovered’ the Americas. Here is a perspective on that point of view.
If you are of indigenous heritage though or perhaps you’ve read some pretty terrible (and true things) about Columbus… you might be a bit more critical of this point. For that perspective check out this article.
But where you sit on the side of Columbus isn’t the point here. The point is, both sides IMAGINE THE PAST and take a certain perspective on what happened and if the events were good and we should honor Columbus, or they were bad and we should ax the holiday. I am, admittedly very critical of Columbus day, but it is impossible to argue that 1492 wasn’t a very important year in world history. After Europeans realized there was a huge chunk of populated territory waiting to be exploited, the world changed significantly. The event happened but how we interpret it changes in our imagination and our perspective. That is imagined past.
So why should you think about imagined past in your worldbuilding? Well, if you have a story where two sides are at war, you might consider having characters from both sides of the conflict. For example, In Avatar the Last Airbender, where four different nations rule the world (one for each of the four elements) the Fire Nation, the conquerors have a very different imagined past as the Earth Kingdom, whom the Fire Nation are trying to subjugate. The amazing thing about that world is that you have characters from all four nations (I really recommend that series if you aren’t familiar), and you get an amazing backstory and shift in perspectives of characters from different nations and even variety within each of the nations (Remember in Part 1 we talked about how every population is variable?) So consider that in your world-building, how do your characters imagine the past? How can this create conflict? Could the sharing of a perspective of the various perspectives on a historical event change the character interactions? Could it further entrench them? Perhaps part of the past was hidden and is now revealed and changes how charters see things? Think of how your favorite stories do this well.
Red alert Red alert! If you have heard this term before and don’t understand it, you might cringe at its use. I promise I don’t have some crazy agenda here so just hear me out.
It’s actually really quite simple.
Intersectionality = Identity is complex and variable
Intersectionality is really about considering the various components of identity. Identity is really complex.
I will use myself as an example to begin with. A White, Middle Class, Straight, Male, Raise Catholic (and now Buddhist), with a Graduate Degree in Anthropology and raised on the East Coast is going to have certain kinds of expectations, perspectives, and thoughts that will impact his perspective. All of those components, plus my personal experiences went into making me the person typing this blog right now.
Now, imagine an African American, Woman, Wealthy, Gay, raised Atheist, with a degree in Engineering, and Raised on the West Coast. She’s going to have very different experiences, expectations and perspectives then I do right?
Intersectionality shows us that Identity is Conditional. It is based on the various ingredients of your life and your experiences and fosters different identities.
But it’s still not even that simple! Because imagine you took another copy of me and raised me five blocks away in near identical upbringing both of us are still going to end up different, aren’t we? We may have a lot in common but maybe my clone loves Nickleback (which means we couldn’t be friends) and thus we may end up going to different concerts and meeting and encountering different people and thus changing our experiences and perspectives.
Let’s talk about freewill really briefly here too. Though, if you want a prolonged philosophical discussion on this check out my blog on Freewill. When studying a culture Anthropologists often look at something we call ‘agency’. Agency means basically, your ability to act based on the rules (formal and informal) of the society. Agents are individuals within a society that have to function based on cultural norms, laws, and expectations. So yes, we do have free will, but our culture puts rules around what that means. For more on this check out a YouTube Video on ‘Field Theory’ Also if this or anything is confusing to you, feel free to comment and I will do my best to clarify.
There is nothing wrong with difference, but if we want to understand someone else’s perspective and why they might think or act in a certain way, then intersectionality, understanding the conditional nature of identity is a good tool to consider.
What about intersectionality in your characters? Well, intersectionality can help you to avoid those annoying stereotypes and tropes, such as strong women come from tragic backgrounds. Maybe, for example, the woman in question was raised as a blacksmiths daughter and had to work with her father and deal with difficult customers on a daily basis. Or perhaps you have a character that comes from a race of elves that are savage and violent, yet the character has adopted a pacifistic religion after a personal revelation? The point is you can look at the conditions of your characters lives and upbringing. Some people make character profiles in this regard where you can plot different parts of your character identities. I don’t do this unless I run into a roadblock, but some of you may find it useful to do so. Really, there is no wrong answer for method in writing.
Oh, one more thing, your identity changes every day little by little (or a lot if your world comes crashing down) based on your experiences and daily interactions. You are never the same person from day to day. Consider this also in your characters.
4. Personal Bias and Blind Spots in knowledge
All of the above contributes to this section. Everyone has blind spots in knowledge. Everyone has bias and limitations as to what they can see and understand. If you put me in front of a motorcycle and tell me to fix it I will blink at you until my eyelashes fall off. If you tell me to understand the experience of a Muslim woman growing up in Sri Lanka, I probably can’t help you there either. There is nothing wrong with having blind spots, the problem is, when we assume that blind spots equal weakness and we make arrogant statements to cover it up (I can’t tell you how many times I myself have done this only to realize what I was doing later).
So back to me and my conditional identity. I grew up on the East Coast. On the East Coast there is often a kind of linguistic style in play where it’s actually weird and awkward not to interrupt people. We are very often active communicators cutting each other off mid-sentence and it’s not considered rude. Also, I come from a huge family. Now you might think your family with 3 kids is big, but my Dad had 14 brothers and sisters and I have 3 brothers, with some of my aunts and uncles, who were my age raised almost like siblings. So, on top of this east coast conversational style (Here’s a wonderful YouTube on that for you who really want to understand the linguistics of it) and my huge family upbringing, I can be a loud, arrogant, interrupting son of a bitch. Now living in Denver Colorado, it took me a long time to understand that people don’t always appreciate the way I communicate because this region in the Rocky Mountains has a very different conversational style. So there is a huge blind spot for me. Understanding that blind spot was really powerful and helped me to see the way I bulldoze people in conversation sometimes.
So what are your character blind spots? Is your character a Buddhist monk and barely knows anything of Christianity? Is your character a male who suddenly finds himself in a female-dominated society? Hell, look at Star Trek TNG, is your character a Klingon growing up in a human world and trying to bridge both cultures? What kinds of things wouldn’t your character easily understand because of their training or knowledge? A pacifist priest isn’t usually going to understand combat. A warlord may not understand diplomacy. Good characters have flaws and weakness and blindspots. No one likes a perfect character. They are boring. My character Mimi, in Mimi of the Nowhere, doesn’t trust easily. She struggles with sharing intimate parts of herself after a long life living on the streets. Blindspots can also be where your characters grow and change. The world you built could suddenly come crashing in and force them to change and alter their identity.
I hope this short series was helpful for some of you on your writing journey. Certainly, there are other blogs and podcasts and stuff on worldbuilding out there, but I hope sharing some of my knowledge and experience from my field of study helped you to consider some things about your writing.
I am more than happy to entertain other questions and perhaps write future editions to this series but unless someone has a specific question about worldbuilding, I’m gonna call this series complete for now. Good luck with your writing journey!
Want a much expanded book on worldbuilding and anthropology? Check out Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers, now available on Kindle!
There are many blogs and books out there on world building. I thought maybe injecting a little anthropology in this process might help you with some of your writing process. After all, anthropology is about studying culture. But if you really want to know more about anthropology I have a page for that. I also sometimes answer questions on a variety of topics on Quora on anthropology and culture.
In particular, though, check out the episodes from Anthropology in 10 minutes or Less on ‘What the F*** is Anthropology’ and Understanding Culture. in order to get a picture of some of the basic elements of understanding cultures and how we study it.
Before I get into anything though, It is definitely possible to overthink things when you are writing. This is not stuff for your first draft, but rather it’s stuff for you to have stewing in the back of your brain while you are writing and for that second draft… or seventeenth draft… You might be useful to think a little about how worlds actually hang together.
Personally, I don’t plan anything. I am a pantser. Once in a while, a note occurs to me, but I can’t even be bothered to write stuff in order. Right now, in fact, I am writing parts of the 5th book of my series before book 4 is even done.
That being said, if you are one of those writers who wants to outline a world, this blog, and some future ones I have planned, might be helpful for you. Even if you don’t write science fiction or fantasy, it might be helpful to understand how cultures function for your writing process.
1. Worlds/Cultures are Integrated, Holistic and Ever Changing.
We hear that term Holistic thrown around all the time. But when it comes to understanding how a culture is structured, it means this: Everything about a culture is connected. That means, Politics, History, Art, Language, Economics, Religion, Family, Technology, Gender, Education and every other element interacts with one another constantly. No one single part of culture isolated.
It’s like the butterfly effect. You change one thing, you change everything.
Look around you. You can see examples everywhere. One right now is the thing you are reading this on. It could be a tablet, or a phone or a computer. It doesn’t matter which. How much has this technology changed the world? Consider how it’s influenced family relationships. Social media, for example, allows us to annoy the crap out of relatives with our political posts all the time right? Businesses, elections, religious organizations and so much more all use these technologies and are impacted by them.
If you are world-building, and something in that world changes, remember that everything is going to change. If for example, some kind of new magic is introduced, or some new technology comes around, you have to account for how that impacts the entire culture, not just one part of it.
Further, if your story takes place on a trade outpost in deep space, recognize that multiple cultures are going to influence other and cause culture change. Language and terminology will also change. Things like Pigeon Languages Appear. Religious practices change. Catholicism in Central America is different than Catholicism in Australia. Why? Because the local cultures influence even the most powerful of institutions and cause change.
2. Cultures/Worlds are not Monolithic
Think about your neighbor. How alike are you? How different are you? Now think about your siblings, your friends, your parents, your coworkers, or whoever is around you. Do you all have the same ideas? Do you all share the same political views? Religion? Sexual Preferences? Are they a cat person? Dog Person? Do they eat Sushi?
No culture/religion/political group/gender/race/class of people are all the same. People are variable. That’s because people have different experiences and preferences. So if your universe has a group of cultist nutjobs who want to blow everything up, remember that amongst that group there will be people who have different opinions and ideas. Some of those followers might question what the leadership is doing. Some might be more devout than others. Hell, maybe this causes a major rift in the organization, opening the way for your hero to swoop in and pit two sides against one another or gain some valuable intelligence.
Trust me when I say this, with a history of doing research with people in the field, I know that getting people to agree on any one topic is difficult. Getting people to collaborate on a project, even when they actually do agree is difficult. There’s infighting, different political agendas, different expectations and perceptions as well as different communication styles. And that’s just within a single unified group. Throw in some diversity and you get lots of misunderstandings.
At the same time, people can only know and understand what they experience. So, even though individuals aren’t monolithic, neither are they free from cultural context. People are influenced by the history they are taught growing up, their religion, ideas of gender norms, class expectations, and so much more. I grew up Catholic and then left the Catholic church as an adult. That doesn’t mean that some of my thinking and experiences weren’t heavily influenced by the upbringing but it also doesn’t entirely limit my ability to make choices. It does, however, provide a frame of reference for how I understand the world. Certain characters of yours may have the ability to be critical of their past and their cultural context and enact changes, but not all of them will be able to do that.
Lastly, there is no such thing a monolithic evil group of people. Even within the Nazi regime, people tried to assassinate Hitler. Some worked to hide Jews or spied for the Allies. In the death camps, some of the administrators smuggled people out and resisted in other ways, Think Schindler’s List.
Which leads me to my next point…
3. Power and Resistance are really important
When we think of power, we have a tendency to think big. But power and resistance operate every single moment of every day. Yes, this can happen in big, overarching, world-shattering ways. Or it can be as simple as an argument over who pays for a check at the end of a date.
In fact, in the classroom when we discuss power relationships, I ask the students to brainstorm the power dynamics involved on a first date. At first, students might have a tough time understanding what I mean, but the moment they realize that there are power dynamics in just about everything you do during that date, (Who pays? Who drives? Who orders? Who decides where you are going? Will there be a second date? ect.) hilarity ensues and the students inevitably bring up funny personal examples.
Within a culture, two things are constantly happening. People and systems are trying to either keep things as they are, or change them. An overly simplistic way of looking at this is Conservatives vs Progressives (I say overly simplistic because no one is 100% conservative or 100% progressive and people have complicated views on a variety of issues). At the very least, you should have forces in your world that are trying to maintain the established way of doing things, and forces that are trying to change them. So, in building your world, what are those things? And remember our lesson from #2, those forces are not monolithic.
But the forces of conservation vs change brings up another really important point…
4. Cultures spend a lot of time concerning themselves with ‘Purity’.
If you think about it, you’ll realize that most things you do are wrapped up in some kind of concept of purity. Take off your shoes before you go into the house? Purity. Wash your hands after using the bathroom? Purity. Resisting eating that donut I found in the dumpster? Purity. On a more serious note, things like Immigration, Crime, Religion, Traditions and so much more are all debates about purity.
In fact, Law is a form of purity. It is the idea that in order to maintain society, we must have certain laws in place to protect ourselves. Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote a book on this back in the 1960s called Purity and Danger. It looked at just how cultures construct and maintain these ideas. She analyzed the Book of Leviticus and the Hindu Vedas for her insights. You don’t have to read the entire book, in fact, the core concepts are in this nice brief video Summary of Anthropologist Mary Douglas Danger and Purity
5. Pacing your World
Be wary the info dumping. It’s really easy to do. Introduce your concepts and ideas slowly throughout your dialogue and through your character’s experiences. Take your time in introducing your world. A field researcher doesn’t see the entire country in one go, they travel across the landscape trying to make sense of how things are connected and why people do the things they do. If you overload your reader, they will, like a field researcher, go into culture shock and run away screaming.
One key thing I have noticed in worlds that are built well is that they start small and work their way out. For example, in Harry Potter, you are first introduced to Diagon Alley and Hogwarts. Each subsequent book introduces you to more of the Wizarding World so that by the time you get to the final book you know there is an entire planet full of Wizards, political organizations protecting Wizard Identity, Schools in other Countries and so on. If you’re writing a series, consider starting small, in one or two locations and then working your way out. This allows you to build slowly focusing on character and plot development rather than getting bogged down by World Building.
Alright, for now, this is enough but one last thing. Study worlds that work! (Read Read Read) I cannot stress this enough. Why does the world of Harry Potter work so well? Think of the concepts above. How about the World of the Dark Tower? The Hyperion Cantos? Hunger Games? Dune? (Can you tell my genre yet?) All of these worlds incorporate these particular kinds of ideas. Go back and really think about how these things are implemented in some of those famous stories. Then take a critical look at your draft version #566 and see how each of the four above concepts function.
I am going to write a bit more on Worldbuilding in the coming weeks but for now, here are a few links to some videos and articles on Worldbuilding that I have found helpful.
Also, if you like this blog, maybe, just possibly, check out my own unique world, about Giant Walking Cities.