Making the Cultural Well Deep, not Broad

This is a bit of an addendum to my rambling last week about worldbuilding, and something that I wanted to touch on then but found myself going higher and higher over what I wanted my word count to be. I spent a good part of the weekend refining it and making it more of a standalone article, but it will probably make more sense coming right after the prior post.

So. Worldbuilding. Looking at things through the cracks, treating the modern story as a kind of ivy or fungus growing on the crumbling ruins of this setting you’ve crafted, letting the readers explore it alongside the characters and filtering all of the information through secondary and tertiary sources. Or primary sources who are perfectly willing to lie to make themselves look good, as most primary sources through history have done.

When I talk about worldbuilding I’m not simply talking about architecture or magic, am I? I’m talking about the cultures that came before, and how they influenced the cultures that now inhabit the world. Note that I say cultures rather than races, because there is nothing that pisses me off more than when every member of a fantasy race has the exact same culture. Give me a nationality with a multitude of fantasy races who have gone on to mix together and create cultural norms, because that is exactly the kind of realism you need to ground your story in a way that I’ll be willing to accept the elves, banshees, orcs, dragons, kappas or whatever else you want to throw at me. In the entirety of world history, even when races were incredibly insular and restricted by geography, it was still the culture rather than some trait inherent of the race. This seems to be a hard lesson for many fantasy (and science fiction, to be fair) authors to grasp. You tend to get more “elves are treehuggers because they’re elves” than a more realistic “elves, humans, half-elves and some aboveground dwarves have lived together in a forest region with a delicate ecosystem, where they have developed an almost religious reverence for the seasonal cycle, ritually start forest fires to cleanse the buildup of debris and enrich the soil, and due to their reliance on the forest for their livelihood they are more protective of it than they are their individual homes.”

See? Not particularly hard, but you have to spend a few seconds to think about it and give your people a reason to do what they do. Every cultural trait, habit or norm is a result of social evolution (or devolution, if you want to go with the dystopia story).

This is why I say that I prefer a deep well over a broad one when it comes to fantasy cultures. A broad well is the illusion of depth. It looks like a lot of water, a lot of details, but the details are only a few inches deep. Yeah, you’ve listed out all the currency denominations, you’ve created a pantheon that looks suspiciously like the Celtic or Norse ones we know and love, you’ve talked about military uniforms and what kinds of weapons are favored by warriors from this group, maybe you’ve even created a system of government to either aid or hinder your protagonists. But take a step back, look at those individual traits, and ask if you’re nabbing stereotypes from a bunch of real world cultures and copy-pasting them into a fantasy setting without much thought as to where the stereotypes originate. I’ll step up and say no one is perfect at this, least of all me. A couple years ago when I decided I wanted to start writing more middle eastern themed fantasy I steamed right in and swiped what sounded cool, which resulted in a complete bastardization that seemed neat at first glance but didn’t actually make much sense, the sort of culture that would have collapsed on itself or erupted into civil war after a few years, which was not what I needed to happen in the story. Many, many hours of research later I had isolated certain traits I wanted to incorporate, found out how those traits came to be about, and essentially reverse-engineered a starting point for each one to show up in one nation through a combo of immigration and refugee cultural bleed, a Persian-inspired foreign policy that tried to incorporate the deities of the conquered and allow satellite cities to maintain their own small governments subservient to the throne, and tribal warfare and intermarrying.

Which is, you know, exactly how many contemporary cultures in the middle east came together today. The middle east and the rest of the world, even. In my recent sword and sandal short drawing a lot of influence from the Ottoman Empire, I wanted to mash up Janissary culture with refugee Jews under fantasy pseudonyms, but distance it enough to stand on its own. I made the Sephardic Jew analogue group come from a recently-conquered-theocratic nation heavily opposed to their dual prophet worship, and set their last homeland as an archipelago rather than a peninsula, which completely changed much of their history in comparison to the real Sephardic folks who fled Iberia and sought refuge in Turkey. Just setting it on a series of islands necessitated a few cultural tweaks and changes, because island nations are radically different than something you’d find even on the coasts of a peninsula. I was able to hold onto the traits I wanted, give them grounding, and morph the rest enough that the characters are not just Jews, But With Magic This Time.

sef.pngI’ll use Jews here as a continuing example even though I have done this with a lot of cultures – right now I’m doing research on medieval Ireland, the Mongols, a much later look at the Ottoman Empire circa WW1, and a few others – because I’m much more familiar with Jewish background stuff and because I run much less risk of offending anyone if I screw up, because at least I’m screwing up about my own ancestors. Worst case scenario I eat some Larry David-esque accusations and can respond in Curb mode, which is pretty much my default setting.

But I digress. Jews make a good example here because I have seen them done very, very poorly in fantasy. Jews tend to become either dwarves or gnomes, depending on how close to the drunken Scottish viking stereotype of the former you wish to hew. Totally-not-fantasy-Jews are often tied in with money. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it can be if you don’t do your research. If your Jewish dwarves love gold for the sake of gold, well, um, that’s a little worrying. If they’ll outright murder you over it and then dance a thinly veiled pastiche of Hava Nagila, I guess props for wearing your red, black and white heart on your sleeve. If your dwarves have a broad Jewish feel to them but no depth, all of the negatives are going to read (intentional or otherwise) as critique of a real world culture. How do you go about adding depth to something like that?

Well, let’s continue on with the money grubbing stereotype. If you have any kind of background in the history of medieval up through turn of the century Europe, you’ll find that my ancestors developed that reputation because they moved in with a population of people who were generally not big on handling money. Sure, they needed it and they loved it but there were religious or social restrictions on handling it outside of direct purchases or maybe paying your taxes/tithes. The banking stuff did not fly, and so there were a lot of open positions for enterprising refugees who didn’t have the same restrictions on handling that money. They become more and more entrenched in the industry, not out of any malice or desire for gold coins, but because the jobs are readily available, they probably have friends or family in banking who can help them out, and it’s a living. Now, backwards engineer that to the dwarves. Let’s say they have a reputation, deserved or not for being money grubbers who run all the banks. They have that because they’ve settled in a more human dominated kingdom with a draconian theocracy, maybe a racially tinged one who says that nonhuman races are already dirty and can handle money. Now you’ve got a good plot seed, you’ve got some tension. Hell, depending on how far you want to take it, you’ve got the fertile ground for pogroms and really awful violence, which is tragic when it happens in real life but generally makes for a compelling story. Go further and ask yourself why the hell these dwarves have moved into this realm where the nobility looks down on them and the peasants think they’re part of a grand banking conspiracy. Maybe they’re fleeing their homeland for some reason. Maybe they’ve got a dragon infestation. Maybe Smaug wasn’t just a big mean wyrm, maybe he was the middle earthen equivalent to an anti semite.

And that’s just the one trait you’ve added depth to. Do it to more of them. Look at the beard culture, maybe don’t steal that from the Jewish people at all. If you take too many traits from one group, like it or not, your fantasy stand ins will be regarded as that group and your feelings on that group are probably going to be read into from how you approach the fantasy version in the narrative. If you set your dwarves up in the same manner as Jewish bankers and then try to justify the pogroms? Oof, yeah, no. Maybe look at those big dwarven beards and look at famous beard musings through history, like the works of Tacitus when he was campaigning for Rome in Germany and he found weird German tribes of barbarians who weren’t allowed to shave until they’d shed the blood of an enemy in combat, and who painted themselves with brilliant woad. Looks at cultures around the world who braid their scalp and facial hair in specific patterns to show clan affiliation. You know how dwarves traditionally love axes? Axes are typically used to hook an enemy’s shield away from their core and open them up for an attack, or to yank people off horses in close combat, or to strike around a shield wall. Now you know some of their military history. Maybe you’ve got a group of dwarves fleeing from a superior military power with weapons technology advanced enough to counter your average shield wall, and now a group of refugees in a strange land, they find themselves taking odd jobs that the natives don’t want but seem weirdly jealous of you for having, and you feel like the enormous braided beard probably isn’t helping your case very much because their culture sees beards as dishonorable but your culture sees them as honoring the ancestors. You’ve got roiling cultural tension ready to boil over, or if you want to do a happier story perhaps your heroes can broker some peace and understanding between the two factions in time to face yet another threat.

See, no one wants to write harmful stereotypes. No one sets out to write a fantasy novel thinking “if I put the bare minimum effort into this made up race I can totally make people mad at me and make the lives of others a fraction of a micron worse in some way,” but it’s the hazard of writing broad rather than deep. If you go deep enough you’ve approached each identifier, each trait, each shorthand from such a level that it’s nearly impossible to incorporate those stereotypes. I hesitate to say they’re even drawn from lazy writing, because it’s entirely possible to slave over a book and end up with them; I’d say they’re more drawn from rushed writing or a belief that you don’t need to do research if you can incorporate enough window dressing to make up for a lack of study. Don’t. It’s a trap. It’s a terrible habit to get into, and even if you don’t end up offending anyone your story is probably going to feel a lot more forgettable because it’s the stories with the research that stand out. Look at some of the stuff I’ve reviewed over the last few months, fantasy novels with a lot of deep cultural studies and backdrop research. The Traitor Baru, Bloodsounder’s Arc, City of Stairs, these are all drawing influence from real world cultures put putting their own unforgettable twist on them and making them into something wholly belonging to that fantasy world even as they pay tribute to their real world inspirations.

Jeeze. Man. That sure is 1800+ words about dwarves, jews and beards. I should probably hop to my book recommendation, which has nothing to do with any of those. Not even the jews, because while it is cosmic horror it isn’t Lovecraft or even Cthulhu mythos!

51zgtjvqzmlI am speaking of The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us Alla short story anthology about cosmic world-devouring leech gods, possessed loggers, sweat-soaked crime noir with a hint of supernatural dread, and a bunch of other delights. I’ve been a fan of Laird Barron for many years now, ever since I picked up The Croning and spent the night reading about backwoods cultists attempting to appease an entity that once ripped open a hole in reality and ate the dinosaurs like so many chicken mcnuggets. Beautiful Thing is much lower key and deals with more more intimate relationships. Barron has a real touch for breaking down toxic masculinity in the face of overwhelming horror, something that reminds me of the best elements of True Detective, and I feel that it’s really on display in this collection. These are strong he-man figures, secure in their insecurities and suddenly up against things that they cannot comprehend or filter through their usual world view. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, usually they end up scarred either way. Barron remains one of the few mythos writers I will snap up on release day for every anthology or novel, he’s proven himself worthy of that time and again because he doesn’t ape the mythos, he makes it into his playground and treats it as a tool to accentuate his own work with rather than the only raw materials he has.

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2 thoughts on “Making the Cultural Well Deep, not Broad

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve got to say, this was probably one of the most eye-opening pieces on world building I’ve ever come across. I really appreciate – and need, to be honest – the butt-kicking advice to make the well deep and not broad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m going to be trying to put out more stuff like this in the future since it’s fairly near and dear to me, and something that even acclaimed authors still struggle with. Anything to add more tools to the collective authorial box feels good to write about.

      Liked by 1 person

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