The Writer’s Toolbox: Behind character

This round I’m going to focus on the things that shape character – environment, culture, language and so forth, in that approximate order.

Whether you’re talking multi-tentacled aliens or your next door neighbors (and on some occasions, both at once), the way they think will be influenced by the culture they grew up in, which in turn is influenced by linguistic remnants from generations back and by the environment where that culture got its start.

The environment is the biggest influence of the lot – which isn’t at all strange when you stop to think about it. Take a look at the tropical cultures that evolved in relative isolation (the nearest neighbors were close enough for trade, but too far for much in the way of border conflict – and when an island defines a culture, border conflict doesn’t happen. Invasion and raids, sure, but it’s pretty hard to argue over whether this bit of ocean belongs to your tribe or mine). Every single one that also had reasonably abundant and easily accessable food meandered along at about the same level of social complexity.

Diversion here: by social complexity, I mean specialization, with a defined ruler and various classes or castes, supported by a food-producing class who are able to grow or catch much more food than they personally can eat. There seem to be a few prerequisites for this: the separation of individuals and roles (the chief is not automatically good – he can be good or bad, and a good person but a bad chief (and vice-versa)), the presence of animals and plants that are suitable for domestication (yes, this can be done in an island culture with fish – but it’s going to take longer for people to get there because it’s not as obvious as that great big cow that follows you around and has lots of meat on it), and an environment that can be partially tamed – by which I mean there are clear and consistent climate patterns, enough soil replenishment that rapidly learning proto-farmers won’t strip it bare of nutrients in a couple of seasons, regular enough rainfall that your proto-farmers can actually grow their crops, and so forth. Conflict with the neighbors at a level where you’re going to do better if you cooperate with your tribe than if it’s every man for himself is something of a complexity booster, but it’s not essential.

Okay. So why the ramble? Because your cool fantasy with the oddball woman who won’t accept her tribe’s roles for women is impossible. She wouldn’t survive to adulthood unless conformed to one of the roles. Those roles got there for a reason – which is why societies that have only recently been discovered by Western cultures all have them. Her tribe ain’t going to fare well when the technologically advanced Western-style culture shows up, either, and here’s why:

In a simple tribal culture, where every person contributes to providing food on more or less equal terms, there tends not to be a concept of the individual separate from the tribe. That also means no private property as we understand it. The spear is Fred’s because Fred made it, not because he owns it, and anyone’s stuff is pretty much interchangeable with anyone else’s. You don’t start seeing the distinction between person and role until you get enough specialization that a chief doesn’t have to kill his own meat.

No matter what kind of interaction that culture has with a Western-style culture, there’s going to be trouble. If the techie culture ignores the locals and does whatever they came from then leaves, you get cargo cults. If they trade, you get cargo cults and a destabilized culture. If they colonize, you get a shattered culture, a whole lot of weird distortions, and if it’s well managed you might end up with something half-way functional after enough generations have passed – if the techies actively try to supplant the native culture with their own for long enough that the native group forgets its origins.

So. Harsh environment with buggerall in the way of domesticatable anything? The locals will probably be tribal, not terribly cooperative with anyone but will band together against “outsiders” because they’ll be xenophobic as all get-out (why? If your environment is trying to kill you, everything unfamiliar is automatically a threat). Forgiving environment, lots of domesticatable stuff, chances are good there’ll be either a Western or Eastern style culture there – depending on how much of a group effort is needed to grow the staple foods (Rice takes intense work, and without modern tech tends to be easier to manage if a village pools its resources to manage the crops semi-collectively. Western grains tend much more towards bursts of activity followed by not much, and a family can grow more than they can eat without really pushing too hard). That’s the super-quick version. Jared Diamond goes into more detail in Guns, Germs and Steel, although even that is more of an overview.

So, environment and culture intertwine. Add in language and you get all sorts of extra fun. Consider that every language carries with it hangovers from events that happened hundreds of years back (Ask Sarah about this – she can tell you plenty). In English, there’s “meeting one’s Waterloo”, meaning decisive defeat – which commemorates a battle fought close to 200 years ago. Further back, a lot of the “blunt” – and outright rude – words in English derive from Anglo and Anglo-Saxon. The cultured words with the same general meaning derive from Norman French. That’s nearly a thousand years of heritage encapsulated right there: the language of the conquered is for the lower class and the crude, where the right people use the language of the conquerers.

More recent examples: Modern Australia started life as a convict settlement. Convicts naturally wanted to be able to say what they thought without their guard overseers understanding them – and Australian dialect is loaded with colorful imagery, ironic use of words to mean their opposite, contextual meanings (where it ain’t what you say but how you say it), and can be bloody near impenetrable. Modern USA started life as (mostly) a collection of religious outcast colonies. They wanted to be closer to God and to be allowed to practice their faith without being arrested. Funnily enough, the US use of English tends to be quite direct and to the point – and Americans have a lingering Puritan streak where the mere prospect that a politician did anything remotely sexual outside of marriage (and sometimes inside it) sets off a media frenzy. (The last real sex scandal – as opposed to amusing anecdotes – in Oz involved a call girl who was regularly doing the Russian ambassador as well, so the pillow talk had a lot of potential to… ahem… travel. It was really a national security scandal with added sex.)

All of that sits underneath your characters, a great fat foundation that they’re built on. And just like you wouldn’t try to build a stone castle on river mud (unless you like to see it sink or get washed away), your character will act according to the way his culture works, particularly when stressed. More often than not, he won’t even notice.

And yes, it’s bloody difficult to really get a culture that isn’t yours. That’s why so many mediocre books are full of modern Americans or Brits in fancy clothing (and multi-tentacled body suits). And why we as writers should be at least trying to do better than that.

7 thoughts on “The Writer’s Toolbox: Behind character

  1. Excellent post, goes directly into my “world building” folder, but …

    ARGH! Another UNSIGNED post. Please, I’ve lost whatever link used to explain the daily order of posts by author, so … sign your work! Is it really necessary to point this out to … authors?

    1. Allan,

      We are still making the mental transition to the new site. Also, Sarah is posting from Portugal right now and her internet connection isn’t the greatest. I’m sure she was focused on just getting the post up. For reference, the order is as follows:

      Sunday — Amanda Green
      Monday — Dave Freer
      Tuesday — Rowena Cory Daniells
      Wednesday — Sarah A. Hoyt
      Thursday — Kate Paulk
      Friday — Chris McMahon
      Saturday — rotating authors and guest posts

      1. I was wondering what Alan was going on about since I tend to read these posts on my iPhone using WordPress’s mobile settings and can see the author’s name. I swapped to the Web version and Hey-Presto the names disappear! It is an odd problem that is for sure:-))

    2. Sorry, mea culpa. I’m living in the land of brain-fry and forget everything….

  2. It’s really hard to write something that isn’t your native culture. If you’ve made a transition between cultures, that forced you to become conscious of what’s subconscious to most people, you have a slightly better chance of doing so. But even then it’s not garanteed. Even reading a lot of history won’t help, since historians – particularly in prehistory — tend to assume that what the see can be interpreted in light of THEIR culture. For instance, I’m tired of all the idiots who assume that the passage from common to private property was the birth of “greed” and a sort of fall from Eden. From what we’ve seen in actual recorded events, it’s far more likely that when things didn’t belong to anyone they belonged to the strongest. Also, heaven deliver me from liberated women in the most unlikely contexts. Something to ponder, though, is whether or not being “culture accurate” to an alien culture is better. I write little set in Portugal because I know Portugal WAY too well, and make it authenticlaly alien. And then it seems unlikely not to say impossible to my American readers. I keep a rejection that called me a narrowminded and xenophobic pain, because of one of those stories. (I think this person couldn’t handle the fact I described Portuguese pastries as being kept in hte open air and unrefridgerated, which, at the time, they were.)

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