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Author Topic: Culture in worldbuilding  (Read 2573 times)

Offline J.R. Darewood

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Culture in worldbuilding
« on: April 06, 2017, 02:39:20 AM »

So I've slowly started to recognize that building a world is less about throwing some random syllables and apostrophes together to make majestic sounding names and BAM!
It's also more than just a mechanical the coal economy in a feudal system-- that reads like a lifeless boring machine

It flew over my head when I was a younger reader but now I'm noticing stuff-- like how Welsh Lloyd Alexander's Black Cauldron stuff really was, in Jordan's WoT like how Andor feels like the UK, Ebou Dar feels like New Orleans with Portuguese naming conventions, in Lynch's Gentleman Bastards, Camorr is invariably Venice, the naming conventions of the Marrows at least feel very German... I never quite figured out LoTR in the books, but in the movies the elves are all from the nicer parts of London and the Dwarves are clearly scottsmen.

When you borrow from an existing place you have the benefit of like a whole lived in configuration that's greater than the sum of it's parts-- names, places, fashion, religion, expressions, economy it's not cobbled together it *fits*

So how much borrowing is too much?  Where does this begin and where does it end?  How do you go about doing this the right way?

Offline Lanko

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Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #1 on: April 06, 2017, 02:42:47 AM »
For me it's a mixture of inspiration by something that exists, rework/adapt some of it, import a little from someone else and add in stuff totally created by yourself.
« Last Edit: April 06, 2017, 02:46:37 AM by Lanko »
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #2 on: April 06, 2017, 02:55:59 AM »
The LotR began as a study of fictional language, which, as JRRT knew well, is a result of history. For me, it's a mash of the distant history, the most recent climactic events and "recent history" and the current state of affairs - which includes the clash of the two most popular but incongruent world-views.

You see this in Tolkien's work, Jordan's, and many other authors and works from Hunger Games to Star Wars:

These are hasty guesses, so don't put any weight in them, but:
LOTR: history - ancient alliances and battles; most recent climactic events: Sauron's defeat; recent history: splintering of peoples into little realms; two conflicting views: Sauron and the need for worrying about the big picture are gone vs. not so much.

Star Wars: once-free universe guarded by the all-but-forgotten Jedi; most recent climactic events: rise of the Empire/Emperor; recent history: rebellion; two conflicting views: the empire must be overthrown vs. we shouldn't get involved
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Offline Peat

Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #3 on: April 06, 2017, 08:21:51 AM »
So how much borrowing is too much?  Where does this begin and where does it end?  How do you go about doing this the right way?

If there is such a thing as too much borrowing, I don't think anyone's found it yet. Unless we're talking about borrowing from other fictional worlds, because that can get you into trouble. Look at something like Carey's Kushiel's Dart, which is literally just Europe with some anachronistic cultures and a thin layer of fantasy, or GGK's historical fantasies which don't even have the anachronisms and have an even thinner layer.

The right way of doing this starts with knowledge. You don't have to be a professor about the cultures you wish to borrow from, but you need to know enough to do so accurately and respectfully - I'm sure you know a lot more than me when it comes to accurate and respectful depictions of other cultures all things considered so I shan't tell you how to do that :P

From there... depends what you want. Presumably you're adding a layer of fantasy, although most cultures have enough myths that you can just present the culture as its mythic version and voila. That's what you get with, say, the Black Cauldron.

If you want something new, then you start adding elements of other cultures. The Aiel, f'ex, have elements of Zulu, Bedouin, Apache and Gaelic culture in their make up. Oh, and Fremen. They don't have to be real cultures. Tolkien's dwarves are a mix of the mythic archetype and Jewish culture.
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Offline Henry Dale

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Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #4 on: April 06, 2017, 09:33:32 AM »
It's often said that scifi is the mirror of society but I feel like any form of fiction has this to some extent. This shows in worldbuilding.

Offline Quill

Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #5 on: April 06, 2017, 10:38:26 PM »
I borrow heavily from real cultures in building my own, especially with languages to ensure that if nothing else, the names and places of an area sound linguistically connected. So I obviously have nothing against that happening. I think rather than a line of how much is too much to borrow, it is a question of respecting the source material. I spend a lot of time researching the meaning of the names I use, in particular if it might seem disrespectful to use. I try to show in my writing for anyone knowledgeable that I am not using the names randomly because they sound cool, but because I am aware of their often mythological or historical background.

Much the same how I appreciate when my own culture and heritage is being used as inspiration for art, the use seems done with respect and understanding. I can think of examples of when this has happened and when it has not.
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Offline Dan D Jones

Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #6 on: April 12, 2017, 09:14:24 PM »
So how much borrowing is too much?  Where does this begin and where does it end?  How do you go about doing this the right way?

If there is such a thing as too much borrowing, I don't think anyone's found it yet.

Well, yes and no.  I completely agree with you, and if you're strictly talking about white, European culture then the rest of the world largely does as well.  But if you're talking about any culture which is or is perceived as minority or oppressed, there is a very real danger of being accused of cultural misappropriation.  I'm onboard with Lionel Shriver.  Google her name and dig in if you're not familiar with the controversy.  I won't presume to advise you on where to draw the line but do be aware that it is a real issue.

Offline ASJames

Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #7 on: April 13, 2017, 10:12:11 AM »
I think unless the culture is at the very forefront of the novel and what you are trying to talk about then it shouldn't matter too much.
Take a culture you find interesting and then change two or three things about it to make it unique is a rule of thumb. But I imagine character and plot are the things I will be focusing on.

Drop in and highlight the few things you have chosen to make the culture unique and then the rest will just be in the background to fill out the world and give me a sense of the place. If you start highlighting too much of the culture that isn't unique and is just straight from a real world culture then you start to bring it to my attention and then I start to realize oh this is just London but the oldest person is the ruler or whatever.

Offline Mike Brooks

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Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #8 on: April 17, 2017, 09:02:43 PM »
Really, really tricky. A bad example I could give would be Marie Brennan's Lady Trent novels. While I'm a big fan of them in general, the cultures she depicts are so blatantly lifted from the real world that it threw me out of the story. Her Pacific Islander analogues in The Voyage Of The Basilisk and the Islamic culture particularly depicted in Labyrinth of Drakes are the two that jump to mind (I think her version of Islam even has its followers conducting a pilgrimage to a holy place). So everything feels well put-together and legitimate, but mainly because it's something that's real with virtually no gloss over it.

A contrast would be Scott Lynch's work: while Camorr is definitely Venice, there's a whole lot of background culture that's original, so he's taken something real and reworked it with loads of original stuff to make it new.
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Offline Dan D Jones

Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #9 on: April 18, 2017, 06:58:33 PM »
Really, really tricky. A bad example I could give would be Marie Brennan's Lady Trent novels. While I'm a big fan of them in general, the cultures she depicts are so blatantly lifted from the real world that it threw me out of the story. Her Pacific Islander analogues in The Voyage Of The Basilisk and the Islamic culture particularly depicted in Labyrinth of Drakes are the two that jump to mind (I think her version of Islam even has its followers conducting a pilgrimage to a holy place). So everything feels well put-together and legitimate, but mainly because it's something that's real with virtually no gloss over it.

I have yet to read those (they're on my list) so I can't comment myself but I'm curious.  Would you have felt the same way if Brennan had written the books as alt-history and used the real-world names of the cultures?

Offline Mike Brooks

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Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #10 on: April 19, 2017, 10:40:48 PM »
Not at all. If you're basing something in history (even if it's a different version) and you use the real world culture names, that's just good research. She's presented it as a completely invented world, only massive chunks of it aren't invented, they're just renamed.

This is of course a balancing act, and its success or otherwise is down to personal preference: this came down on the wrong side of my preference (there's also a perplexing instance where she refers to Komodo Dragons, presumably being unaware that Komodo Dragons are named after the island of Komodo where they were first discovered: this was akin to having a second-world fantasy book talking about a California Sea Lion or a Canada Goose).
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Offline Kaybee

Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #11 on: April 25, 2017, 08:17:40 PM »
One method that works well for some of us when building worlds:  Do start with a culture you know well, or at least are very learned about. That's your "point of departure."

Then, little by little, borrow, embellish from other cultures and imagination. You may end up replacing the food/agricultural system, for example, or how the population congregates (possibly changing what you're familiar with -- such as towns -- with districts or tribes that live as units because of attributes such as physicality or ability or vibrational attunement to the geographical location.

But by starting with a familiar, solidly grounded world unit, it can help your eventual embellishments end up with more of a sense of being from a unified world -- of being more than the sum of disjointed parts, even if much has changed from the original by the time you're finished.

As others have said, watch out for copyright and strong sensitivity to racism accusations.
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Offline CryptofCthulhu

Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #12 on: April 27, 2017, 08:54:11 AM »
As far as I'm concerned the language police and the politically correct cry babies can go to hell.  Not worth living in fear over what someone might say about your writing.
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Offline Mike Brooks

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Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #13 on: April 28, 2017, 08:36:52 PM »
As far as I'm concerned the language police and the politically correct cry babies can go to hell.  Not worth living in fear over what someone might say about your writing.

On the other hand, if your aim is to get published then it is well worth bearing these considerations in mind, as publishing houses are increasingly reluctant to take on projects that are tone-deaf when it comes to cultural sensitivity. Of course, I'm not saying that you should attempt to write what you think other people want to read rather than what you want to write. But I think there's a difference between trying to write what you think other people want to read, and trying not to write something that you think other people definitely won't want to read.
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Offline CryptofCthulhu

Re: Culture in worldbuilding
« Reply #14 on: April 30, 2017, 11:36:30 AM »
As far as I'm concerned the language police and the politically correct cry babies can go to hell.  Not worth living in fear over what someone might say about your writing.

On the other hand, if your aim is to get published then it is well worth bearing these considerations in mind, as publishing houses are increasingly reluctant to take on projects that are tone-deaf when it comes to cultural sensitivity. Of course, I'm not saying that you should attempt to write what you think other people want to read rather than what you want to write. But I think there's a difference between trying to write what you think other people want to read, and trying not to write something that you think other people definitely won't want to read.

The thing is, there will always be someone that gets upset by something someone else writes about and will make a big stink about it. It's practically the cultural norm these days in America. Fake outrage is the national sport. I don't think many authors are trying to be malicious and denigrate people intentionally with their writing.

In the series I'm working on I have the prototypical European setting, but I also have other continents and cultures that are based off of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian civilizations. No matter how hard I try to portray these groups fairly, I can guarantee you that someone will call me a racist and accuse me of cultural appropriation because I'm white and I wrote about another ethnic group in my story. I can't worry about whether or not this will happen and become paranoid about every word I type because it might trigger someone's emotions.

Even if it means I have to self-publish, I'm not going to compromise what I do just because a handful of people might get upset and cry about it. That kind of person will always exist and will always be there to give you a 1 out of 5 star rating and write a nasty review of your work, even if there is nothing that is offensive in it.
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