So I was in Shanghai last week. And you know what the defining feature of Shanghai is?
If you said history, high population, international business activity or shitloads of skyscrapers – no. Well, yes, but no. Those are traits that could also be applied to New York, Los Angeles or London. The defining feature of Shanghai is this:
It’s full of Chinese people.
What I am trying to get at, in case you think I’ve suddenly turned into Obliquely Racist Guy, is that what really defines a city or country to us – what makes us connect with it in a personal, meaningful way as a real place – is people. History, geography and architecture are important, of course, and fascinating to many of us (I’m always taking pictures of buildings), but it’s people, both as individuals and a broader culture, that truly give a place personality and meaning, that drive the events and experiences that we remember once we go back home.
It’s the same when it comes to worldbuilding – hell, even more so. History requires exposition and architecture requires description, and in prose those are both passive processes, stretches of words where the reader just takes information in. Interaction with characters is active, placing the reader within an immediate POV and letting them experience the protagonist and their world in real time. Well, as real-time as reading gets, anyway.
So when you’re building a world for your story, put the cultures of the setting in the forefront. They don’t have to be super-detailed or staggeringly unique, but if the people of your setting feel distinctive and engaging, your world will too.
How to do that? Here are a few ideas, based partially on how I found myself describing my impression of Shanghai and its inhabitants to folks back home and partially on the usual theorywank I engage in when I’m not wasting my life playing Guild Wars 2.
Stereotypes are your friend
When we talk about a culture we talk in stereotypes – the French like gourmet food, the British like Neighbours, Australians are always drunk and our reality TV shows are all mean-spirited, blah blah blah. According to my experience, Chinese people smoke a lot, haggle on prices and don’t indicate when turning. Are those stereotypes universal truths? Of course not. But they serve as useful broadstrokes for describing a culture; they let you set a baseline for the minor characters of your story. That also lets you define your major characters in how they don’t conform to the stereotype, or at least not to every aspect, and that makes them stand out more when they take the stage.
Obviously I’m not talking about embracing offensive stereotypes. Well, hang on – maybe think about those too. What are the racist slurs and stereotypes that are used within your story? How does culture X demonise culture Y and cast them as The Other in your setting? Stereotypes can be what most people in your culture are like, or what other people perceive them to be – and that tells the reader a lot about the intercultural dynamics of your story. It also gives you another characterisation tool for describing an antagonist – because hey, everyone loves to hate racists. They’re douches.
Steal from the real
Fantasy and SF worldbuilding gives you a chance to be incredibly imaginative and original, but originality can be a lot of work for not that much return. There’s nothing wrong with taking a real-world culture as the basis for your fantasy one – there’s a vast variety of them and they’re all different but still geuninely human. These are all ways we have collectively made sense of the world in the past, so anything mirroring that foundation is going to have a headstart in believability. That doesn’t mean you should just dump Shanghai onto Mars, of course, or have a fantasy culture called the Shinese who live in Shina. But you’re not going to do that; you’re going to take the core concepts and traits and then build something new with them.
And you can also pick and choose what you use, not just from one source but from many. Take a chunk of Chinese society and mix in some English customs, some French cuisine, some American beer, some Japanese pop culture and you can make something that feels entirely fresh and new. Or that feels just like Shanghai, which is an amazing mash-up of a city.
Tie it back to your themes
I’m going to keep harping on this until everyone finally gets sick to death of it – everything in your story should have a purpose. Details that are included just to develop the world don’t feel meaningful if they don’t also develop the narrative; they may provide verisimilitude but they won’t be interesting. The societies of your world are as much a component of the narrative as anything else, and they need to underpin the themes and motifs of your story. Which is actually a useful storytelling shortcut, rather than a cumbersome editorial edict.
If you want to tell a story about freedom and authority, you can create a society that embodies that struggle on a macro level as a thematic mirror for a character’s micro-scale struggle. If Fairyland’s people live in a whimsical culture, that helps you tell a whimsical story – and if that whimsy masks a more dangerous capriciousness, then your characters can help you tell a story that has that dark edge of uncertainty.
Remember, the flipside of ‘everything must have a purpose in the story’ is that everything in the story can be used to help you tell the story. It’s a good thing.
So anyway, those are (some of) the principles I’d apply to my fictional cultures. And I’ll put my money where my mouth is next time by looking at the cultures of Raven’s Blood through that lens.
…actually, no I won’t. Because the next blog post is going to be about something TOTALLY DIFFERENT.
Stay tuned. It’s exciting.