Last week I posted a sample chapter from Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers. The book is due out this fall and will cover a host of issues in worldbuilding from the perspective of Cultural Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology and Archaeology. By using the science to compare real life cultures and what core elements exist in them, the book talks about how better to create authentic fictional cultures.
Without further ado, here is the cover for the ebook version of Build Better Worlds. More info and the official release date coming soon!
Myths are fascinating and interesting arenas within cultures. Every culture has some kind of myth story (but not all cultures have creation myths i.e. the Piraha) that helps us to understand what in the world we are supposed to be doing as human beings.
But here’s the thing. There are a lot of video games and fiction out there that just throw in cute myth story for no apparent reason. The myth is fascinating but doesn’t have any weight in the character’s lives. The culture gives it a nod here and there and it holds no real consequences in the society. This is a major problem. This is where many fictional worlds go wrong. So here is a list of things about myths that you should consider in order to create better cultures and better worlds.
1. Myths aren’t just about religion. They aren’t all false. They are repositories of knowledgea culture uses to interpret reality.
Every country has a myth about it’s creation. In the United States we tell a story of the Founding Fathers, a group of men who fought for liberty against the tyranny of the King of England and ultimately won out. Upon the granting of our independence, a sacred document was penned to replace the faulty Articles of Confederation that tenuously held the colonies together. This document is called the Constitution.
Every American grows up hearing this. We interpret these stories and this document over and over when new ideas, technologies, court battles, as they come into our culture. That document and it’s amendments structure the values of our society and so, there are endless debates and interpretations of what those men wrote. This is a very active and powerful myth structure.
When you create your myth structure, be it religious or secular in nature, what impact does it have in society? How do people debate the meaning of those myths? Are their other myth structures at odds with the dominant one? For example, how do the Christian myth structures support or conflict with that of the Founding Fathers and the formation of our country? We see constant debates on laws and rights based on these two competing (and sometimes overlapping) myths. This is an arena in fiction that is rife with making authentic and interesting conversations that your characters and cultures have.
2. Myths structure our idea of purity
Mythology also tells us what good and bad things are in society. Not all myths are concerned with simple binaries (regardless of what structuralists might think). But many of them identify what things are good and bad to have in a culture or give prescriptions for the kind of mind, body, or spirit to cultivate.
Returning to the American example, the political myth of our country includes a number of concepts about what kinds of governments are good and bad. Who should have the right to vote (which has changed over time) and with the Bill of Rights, attempts to map out the rights of citizens that are required to keep maintain a working political system.
Myths may or may not include the following
What things are we supposed to eat/avoid
What are good/bad/ideal sexual relationships or practices
Clean and dirty parts of the body and when or why you should wash
How we mark or think about time
What kinds of intelligences are there (does nature have a will of it’s own? Is there an all-knowing being in the sky? Does a fox have human intelligence? ect.)
What about disease? Is there germ theory? Is, like in the middle ages in Europe, smell associated with disease?
How about the question of suffering? Is there a being that makes suffering? Is suffering from ignorance? Is suffering a thing at all?
Is there free will?
How many lives do we have?
What words are sacred/dangerous?
Is there a certain style of dress or attire or tattoo or body modification that is considered sacred or taboo?
What is reality? Are we living in a giant theater performance? Do we live in a simulation like in the Matrix? Is there a better place to go when we die? A worse one? How do physics/magic/will structure reality?
You don’t have to include all of the above but you should at least consider them and their ramifications. Lots of tension and conflict in fiction can, like in the real world, arise for competing myth structures or provide interesting limitations that characters have to work with.
3. Myth legitimizes the present social order and system of power
Myth often offers an explanation for why people have the life conditions they do. In Hinduism for example, the Hindu caste system, and the breakdown of wealth and poverty is addressed in numerous Hindu texts. People are born into certain conditions because of consequences of their past lives. In Christian Europe it became popular for Kings to claim that they had a Divine right to be in their throne. In China, an emperor was thought to have a “Mandate of Heaven.” These are a mix of religious and political myth structures that allow those in power to continue to consolidate their power and claim a legitimate right to their station. Similarly in the United States we have the bootstraps myth, the idea that with hard work, you too can one day be wealthy and that often, the poor are lazy and unworthy of success. This myth goes back to Benjamin Franklin. (Check out this podcast “Poverty Myths Busted” on why it’s more complicated than the bootstraps myth suggests and also as an interesting study in myth-making and consequences.)
Your fictional world should include myths that have consequences related to power. Manifest Destiny was the myth structure that justified the Europeans conquerors actions during the 15th – 19th century. It claimed that God wanted Europeans to civilize the world and spend Christianity far and wide. That had some really deep and pretty awful consequences for non-Christians and non-Europeans. Empires always spread their myths. Even the Mongol empire which had freedom of religion and a secular state, still spread it’s myth about the mighty Genghis Khan and the legitimacy of their power.
4. Myths Explain The Nature of Reality
Myths can sometimes act as a kind of proto-science, that provides explanations for the state of reality. In the absence of scientific investigation (and even with it) Myths can provide us with the story of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. They can explain why man has two legs, why some creatures have different kinds of tales, what are good morals and values to have and provide limitations on what can/can’t do or can/can’t know. Myths can be flexible and empirical, based on the observation of individuals and experience, but they can also be fanciful and strange or even non-nonsensical to outsiders.
In writing your fiction, remember that even in a secular state, there are many competing myths. We still have creationists in the United States who argue the world is only 6,000 years old, along side scientific evidence that the world is 4.5 billion years old. Which leads me to…
5. Myths mark In Groups vs Out Groups and for the In Group bring Unity
Myths not only structure the way that people see the world and the elements above, but they also make clear cultural distinctions about who is a part of a group and who isn’t. Sometimes this can be as simple as, hey, I subscribe to that belief so I am part of the group. Sometimes, it can something like, in my mythology this particular group of people has different color skin because they are punished by god(s) (yes that’s a real myth story and has some obvious and very dangerous consequences). Myths can tell us, who is allowed to join in the community and who is a pollutant (back to that purity stuff) and a danger to the society. Thus, in your fiction, it can be a source of conflict. Perhaps the origin story of one group states that another group was created by an evil being hell bent on taking over the world. Enter your main character who suddenly finds themselves working with a person who they thought were inherently evil their whole life because of the myth structure they were raised on. Again, myths are a lens from which people see the world and how they order society.
And one final thing…
6. Myths are not monolithic
If you write a world where you have hundreds of thousands or millions of elves and they only have one myth story… you’ve got a serious problem. If you write an alien planet that has only one religion/language/myth/culture… you’ve also got a serious problem. Look around at all the myths in your own culture. How many religions are in the world? How many flavors of each of those religions that use different myth stories to justify their existence? If your cultures only have one myth and everyone agrees on it… that’s lazy and bad writing… unless you do it on purpose. If you do this, you will have to justify why you did it. Maybe there was some event in the past that forced everyone to agree on the same thing? But that has to be one hell of a justification. There are currently 42,000 denominations of Christianity in the world and some of them are very different from the days following the death of Jesus. Over the course of time, myth and politics and religions change. If you are doing one myth as social commentary, or a purposeful reason, make sure you have a good reason for doing it, otherwise it will just come of as lazy and/or bad writing.
If you are going to spend a lot of time creating a myth for your fictional world, make sure it has consequences. Nothing shows poor writing more then an amazingly well built myth structure that doesn’t impact your characters lives or adventures. Myths have weight. They are another arena to build good tension. Use them wisely.
This is a bit of a “Rules to live by” post I guess. I have spent the last six years of my life teaching both undergraduate and graduate students anthropology, culture, and diversity. In my classroom I try to make things as practical as possible. We can fill our students heads with theory all day long, but what I try to do is try to give a baseline understanding of how different cultures view the world so that when they encounter other people in work or out traveling the world, they can find a way to understand another person and prevent some of the conflicts and communication traps that we run into.
I find myself repeating a lot of the following over and over and so I thought maybe it would be useful to some of you out there. Of course, you can completely disagree with me (that’s kind of the point here) but these are things that if you apply them, you might be able to understand those difficult people in your life in a new way.
1. There is no glorious past when things were better. That’s a figment of the cultural imagination and based on the ideals we want in the present. There is no period in history, no culture in history that was ever perfection and/or paradise. Fantasies of the past are fun, but they are just projections on the wall in the great cave of our times.
2. Every culture, every religion, every language, is weird. We are all weird, our entire species is weird as hell. The only reason you don’t think your ideas/thoughts/beliefs are weird is because you are used to them.
3. If one group is disenfranchised, that means someone is benefiting. I.E. if Women are payed less, that means Men are paid more and reap the benefits. If people are treated poorly because they have darker skin, that means if you have light skin you benefit (even if it isn’t obvious). That’s what privilege is. It is not an attack on your character, people cannot help what system they were born into, but they can change it.
4. Everything has a cost, everything. Nothing is cost free. Every major world empire was built on, and is maintained by a river of blood. The very fact you live in this country at this time in history means you benefited from war, colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and all other manner of terrible things. But so has every other great empire. The Romans, the Islamic Empire, the Mongolian Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, they all did the exact same thing. So why teach them? Why talk about our mistakes and terror? Because I believe we can choose to be different. The first step is acknowledging that our culture did some fucked up things to other cultures.
5. Communication is really freaking hard. Words are really powerful. Everyone has words and images that they are sensitive to and trigger them (obviously survivors of trauma like many of my friends and myself have to spend a lot of time working through this) Figure out what yours are and watch your reactions. Sometimes just watching and understanding which words hit you hard can be a powerful tool for healing. But do remember, the only thing you can control is you. Life and most the world doesn’t care if you are triggered.
6. People are allowed to change. Something someone did 10 years ago does not necessarily reflect who they are now. Social media has created a distortion of static identity. Digging up ancient photos and tweets is only really useful if people are still exhibiting the same terrible behaviors now as they were then. Most of us go through a long hard process of testing ideas. This is normal and healthy, until you let your ideas take over and make you rigid.
7. Ignorance is not the problem in this world. Everyone is ignorant of something fundamental. Ignorance simply means to not know something. The problem is willful ignorance. When someone presents you with a new idea or a challenge to what you think about the world, take a breath. Let the emotional outrage simmer down and then try to approach it with calm and detachment and weigh all the evidence. Sometimes you might still be correct, and sometimes not. This is an uncomfortable but powerful process.
8. Being socially active, being mindful, being able to give back, boycotting products or getting an advanced education are all a privilege. Not everyone has access to these things. Remember again, that the only thing you can control is you. But also remember that you are powerful and that individuals are capable of making great (and terrible) changes to the world. You cannot force responsibility on other people and you should always remember that people face different barriers in life.
9. Read lots and from a wide variety of perspectives. Try and consider that you might be wrong about everything once in a while. It’s terrifying but sobering. Consider how little knowledge is contained in the entire human experience compared to the vastness of the rest of the universe.
10. Make sure you learn the difference between something that is opinion or cultural options (i.e. Monogamy or Polygamy are the best kinds of marriage) vs something that is objectively and verifiably true (I.e. The Earth is round). While your at it, learn about the scientific method and what good evidence is. Most things on the internet are easy to debunk with a little effort and awareness of your own bias.
11. Take a moment before you blame someone else for your problems or the problems of your culture. Yes, sometimes things are out of your control, structural violence absolutely exists, sometimes crazy random shit happens, and some people are unlucky, but if you keep seeing the same pattern over and over again, you might be a part of the equation. On a cultural level, if we are scapegoating people, who benefits? Blaming other populations for our issues, historically always turns out to be shortsighted.
12. Apathy and greed are deadly and destructive. A society that bases it’s institutions on these things will always have very serious problems. Empathy and generosity go a long way.
13. Listen to people’s stories. Share your own. If you don’t represent yourself, someone else will. Stories are how we save the world.
14. Diversity and difference is one of the most powerful tools in the human experience. Why? Because different people and cultures think about things in different ways. That means that there are many ways to approach complex problems. Sometimes we can’t see how to solve something because we are too close to it (personally or culturally).
15. There is no such thing as a homogeneous culture. People are people everywhere you go. Just because someone has the same language/religion/gender/nationality/income doesn’t mean they have the same inclinations or hopes or dreams. Each one of my children have different hopes and dreams about the future. Why would a group living on the other side of the world be any different? Don’t put people in boxes or make grand assumptions.
16. The is no one size fits all solution to anything. There is no single solution to solve any of the worlds major issues. All of history demonstrates this.
17. You are the bad guy, the evil empire, the oppressor, the asshole in someone’s story. No one in history is perfect. The people we claim as saints were either assholes earlier in life and grew from that or we are missing information. Plenty of people think I am an asshole. Plenty of cultures think Americans are terrible. No one ever thinks they are the asshole and every culture thinks they are they greatest ever.
I could probably think of more, but those are a lot of the things I find myself repeating most often. You, of course, are free to disagree, and of course comment and discuss.
We have all had the experience right? Someone decides that it’s time to blow up your post about something you feel passionate about, or worse, something that you simply thought was funny. Next thing you know, it’s all out war on your page and you’ve spent 4 hours of your life you never get back, leaving you to feel emotionally and physically exhausted, if not in a terrible mood.
But why does this happen? There are lots of articles that talk about confirmation bias and that people are more divided than ever before or how hard we cling to certain ideas, and so on…
But after teaching a college course specifically on diversity in the modern world, I have come to discover a few things when having in class discussions about social media. Now I may not be the first to notice these things, but I think there are at least three major problems (feel free to comment if you see an additional one) that we face when communicating online that we should consider.
1.People have different intentions for the internet
This one, in particular, was really hard for me. As a person who loves books and learning and the spirit of debate, I view the internet as a space to discuss important issues and try to learn from and understand people who are different than me in both philosophy and culture.
For years I loathed it when people shared cat videos or jokes or posted memes. I would grumble to myself about “what a waste of an amazing opportunity” and yes, sometimes I would comment just to be a jerk. Or, someone would post something that was clearly misinformed and I would go on the attack, because, of course, I must. How else would they‘learn.’
Do you know what I learned from thinking and behaving that way? I was completely and totally wrong. Also, people think your an asshole and it’s counterproductive to any useful thing you might say.
People use the internet for a host of reasons. It may be to share news, or keep up with family, or post information about their baby or their cat, or perhaps they like to joke or are looking to relieve stress after a hard day at work. Maybe they are promoting their new book, or using as a space to promote their business. Some people are looking to build awareness around particular issues and provide a space for discussion. I have to tell myself all the time that for some, critical debate is the absolute last thing they want to engage in at the end of their day (or the beginning).
There is also another side of this. Some people use the internet because they want to troll and bully others. Their idea of humor is to harass and bully and get cheap laughs at the expense of others. So we have this group into the mix aswell, which further complicates things. A few weeks ago, when discussing this exact topic in a class, one student raised their hand and said, “But don’t you think it’s funny to write a bot program to troll people and have them waste all their time arguing with a mindless bot?” My response was, ‘well, I suppose that’s one way to engage online.’ But in reality, I think that is hugely problematic for a number of reasons, but I won’t get into that here.
The point is, when you are on social media, it is hard to remember that people’s intentions and use of the social space vary greatly. We are not all on the same page, and so this alone creates conflict, confusion, and misunderstanding.
2. There is no paralanguage, and so we put things on other people that might not be there.
Paralanguage is the components of speech that help us to understand the meaning. It includes pitch, tone, speed, gestures, and facial expressions. It’s how we understand if the following phrase, “That’s so amazing.” is a sincere expression or a sarcastic one.
We don’t have that in written speech. Grammar helps, and a good writer can create a scenario where you understand the tone and attitudes within dialogue, but even then, stuff can get lost in the translation. Also, think how hard it is to tell if some people are joking or not. I am told often, that I have a dry sense of humor, and it’s hard to tell if some of my jokes are serious and that’s in person.
So add this to a forum of total strangers. You don’t know any of these individuals, or you might know a few from previous online interactions. So, someone makes a statement like, ‘That’s so amazing,’ to something you said. But the context of the conversation is such that you could interpret it as either.
In that situation, what your brain does is make assumptions. If you are in a bad mood, or you have had other bad interactions in this conversation, your brain may frame the statement as an attack or a comment in bad faith, which could launch a series of escalating replies and blow up the whole conversation, even if the person was commenting in good faith.
I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me on both Twitter and Facebook and recently even had to unfriend and block someone who took a comment that I said, as support, in a way where she nuked my page because she understood my comment as something completely different.
It is always always important to get clarification before you lash out at someone online, on social media or in anemail, because a lack of paralanguage will have our brain fill in the gaps. Depending on our history and our current experiences, we may completely misunderstand what the other person is saying. Remember when you assume you make an Ass out of U and Me (I have never stopped loving that play on letters).
3. When it comes to issues of diversity people are both at different stages of understanding and different states of acceptance
First of all, before I dive in here, there is a very excellent episode on the Netflix series “Explained” on PoliticalCorrectness that I highly recommend watching. It is a highly complex thing, and there are no easy answers there. The episode talks about the history of the phrase and some of the debates around free speech vs. censorship. But it does not provide you any clear answers, and that, in this case, is a good thing, because there are none.
The internet is constantly alight with debates of diversity and inclusion. Regardless of how you feel about these conversations, they are, for the most part, productive and useful to ensure that people who are sincerely facing injustice and oppression, are opening other’s eyes to their experience.
The problem with these conversations is multi-leveled. And when I say problem, what I mean is, why they are so combative and tense. These are important conversations. This is how society changes into something better.
I will illustrate this with my own experience. I am a white guy, as white as you get. All my ancestors are white as the snow in the northern countries from which they originate. I am a Cis, I am straight, and I grew up in an all-white community. For the first 12 years of my life, before I moved to Colorado, I grew up on the east coast in Philadelphia, in what was possibly the whitest community you can imagine. Segregation in Philadelphia (and many North East Cities) is a real problem (See this for more). So, when I moved to Colorado at twelve years of age, I was shocked to discover there were still Native Americans alive. I had been taught, by omission mostly, that all Native Americans had died out years before I was born.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I could go in more detail, as to the various kinds of ignorance I had going into college, (middle school and high school was also an all-white experience)because, for me, college was terrifying. Everything I thought I knew was challenged. It was a kick in the gut, it was uncomfortable, but it was a good thing. Why? Because there are a near infinite ways of experiencing the world, and I had made endless assumptions that really, the world was simple, orderly, and experience was mostly universal.
I was, legitimately ignorant of so much of the rest of the world. And that’s a real thing. There are a lot of people out there like that. Even ones like myself, who became an anthropologist, who lived and worked with other cultures, took a long time to challenge all those deeply planted ideas. And I am a person, who is willing and open to learning and accepting that I might be wrong on things. The reality is, some people aren’t willing to learn. Some people are, what we call, willfully ignorant. In other words, no matter what you say, no matter how well you craft an argument, you aren’t going to change their opinion on something, even if you have all the data and truth on your side.
Remember too, we are all ignorant of something, we all have sizable holes in your knowledge and experience. This is based on your gender, race, class, religion, family, language, etc. You cannot know everything, and it is not reasonable to expect someone, who grew up in vastly different circumstances to intuitively understand something you do. If you have never seen poverty for example, how can you understand what it’s like to live that way for your whole life? You can, but it’s no easy task, and you have to think critically about it.
So, when discussing online, the first thing you have to figure out is, which kind of ignorant do you have? Do you have a person who is willfully ignorant? Or is this a person who simply lacks exposure? That does make a difference, and it is a big mistake to treat both kinds of people to ad-hominem attacks because both of those individuals have entirely different intentions when discussing.
This comes to the next point, which is, even people who are willing to listen and learn, they can’t do it all at once. Keep in mind, that by the time you are an adult, your brain has been programmed to think in a certain way for at least eighteen years of life. Neurologically speaking, you simply cannot dismiss ideas overnight, unless you have a massive brain trauma that changes your brain chemistry drastically.
Using myself again as an example, when I first discovered the Implicit Bias test, (the test that measures our subconscious assumptions about things like race and gender) I thought, of course, I would receive the coveted neutral result. Because I didn’t hate anyone or any group right? At age 23, when I took this test and got “A Strong Bias Toward Individuals of European descent,” I was shocked. But, this is entirely explained by the background I grew up in, which I already explained. After that, I went out into the world and studied anthropology. I learned about other cultures, worked with them, and lived with them. After a few years, I remember that test. Took it again, and got “A Moderate Bias Towards Individuals of European Descent.” It wasn’t until after graduate school, that I finally got a Neutral result.
The point? If you are online, you cannot reasonably expect people to understand an issue overnight. You are fighting against years and years of programming and often, lack of quality education. People need time and space to digest things, to shift gears in their thinking. Acceptance of a new idea, rarely happens overnight and the older you are, the longer it takes because there is more social programming.
Does that mean you don’t hold people accountable for saying or posting really awful things? Of course not. But remember what you are fighting against. Remember, that you may not win that discussion, but also, other people are reading and watching even if they aren’t interacting, so it’s still worth having those discussions if you have the intention and inclination to do so.
To Sum Up
The internet can be the most amazing place for building ideas and spreading important social critique and creating a space for inclusion. But it can also be a messy imperfect mess that allows for long-established ideas, to persist and spread. We have seen some pretty terrible events in the last few years, like what happened in Charlottesville or a number other instances of social media being used to spread all kinds of nastiness.
But, if you want to avoid dumpster fires on your social media, keeping some of the above things in mind, may help. In reality, though, it’s not possible to avoid problems, because well, people are messy creatures, and any social space is fraught with controversy and difficulty. But I hope this lengthy piece was useful to the few of you who got all the way to the end. I wrote it, because I believe, that we can do better.
Note: Sometimes I have friends read my blog posts before I post them to get feedback.