Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tear Down The Monoliths (No Race, Religion, Etc. Is Universal)

How many times have you been reading a fantasy story, and you didn't bat an eye when someone started speaking elvish? How many times have you been elbow-deep in a sci-fi novel, and you were told that every member of an alien race without fail holds a particular cultural viewpoint? Now ask how many times you ground to a halt, and asked exactly how many separate, thinking, feeling individuals were painted with the same brush?

You racist son of a bitch, there is no such thing as an "orc" language!
This very same logic, applied to humans (even in fantasy settings), tends to trip our bullshit detectors. When we hear a character decry that all followers of the White Prophet are evil, there's a part of us that asks, "Really? Out of the millions of members of that religion, every man, woman, and child is a baby-killing monster? Come on." But we just accept that when we're talking about made-up races. Whether they're elves or Vulcans, Klingons, or orcs, we just accept that they are all universally the same, no matter where they're from. They share the same language, the same culture, the same religious beliefs, and more often than not the same political views.

If you really want your work to stand out in the genre, scrap this broad-brush paint job, and do the heavy lifting.

Make Your Cultures Feel Organic

When you create a culture, whether it's for humans in a fantasy setting, or for a non-human race, you need to ask what needs informed that culture. How did it develop? What reinforces its values, what are its rules, and what does it frown upon?

Now, once you've done that, you need to go to the next culture, and do it all again, from the ground up.

Now repeat until the map is full.
Once you have your cultures and races established, that's just the foundation of your world. Now you need to ask if they evolved based on other factors, with familiar and recognizable elements of one culture shifting and changing to suit a new place.

As an example, say you had a group of traditional Tolkien elves. They left their forest to establish a new colony, and traveled south. What they found was a tropical forest, denser, and larger than their northern counterparts. These new forests were also filled with older magics, and stranger beasts than the temperate woods of their homelands. They are, however, still elves, with all of the inherent benefits and abilities that makes them what they are.

So how do they change to fit their new home? Do they darken in hair and features, blending into the teak and mahogany woods? Are their clothes still as elegant and flowing as before, but now they're woven from spider silk? Do they ride leopards instead of caribou, and are they fiercer in combat as a result of the predatory mount choice? Is the bow still their weapon of choice, or have they mastered the spear, the dart, and other weapons more suited to the shorter range that's more common in the dense rain forest? Do they still stay apart from humans, or have they made alliances with local populations, intertwining their lives with the lives of such short-lived mortals?

Now look at the other aspects of their cultures. Did they bring their gods with them, or have they taken up new pacts with the spirits of this forest? Has their language changed to fit their new surroundings, creating new words to suit new ideas that weren't present in the forests of the north? What traits is their environment, and culture, rewarding and reinforcing?

It's also important to remember that nothing happens in a vacuum. As cultures interact, they'll take ideas or concepts, and change them to make them their own. There will be transfer... so ask what that interaction teaches each culture taking part. Is it that one culture adopts the fashion and greetings of another? Do certain turns of phrase just become part of everyday use? Or does one nation develop extremely precise aerial weapons, since they've been at war with a foe that rides on flying mounts?

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

There are certain shortcuts you can use to bring across ideas quickly. However, if you want to add instant depth to your world, put in different factions of a faith. Make the mountain elves different from the forest ones. Give your orcs different ethnicities and cultures to show that, while they might be universal as a presence, they are just as unique and varied as humans. And if you really want to make people flip their lids, make an island nation of surfing dwarves.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it got the gears turning for some folks. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help me keep creating content, and get some free books out of the deal, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is a minimum of $1 a month, and I'll send some books flying your way as a thank you.

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