Appreciating Culture

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Did you know that today is Chinese New Year’s?[1]

Growing up, even half-Chinese, I wasn’t aware that anyone went by a different calendar[2], or that there were holidays Americans didn’t observe, or vice versa. That’s pretty typical for children, of course. You don’t really start looking outside your own world until you’re a teenager – if even then. My first foray into a culture totally different from my own opened up my world figuratively – in drawing my imagination, and literally – I’m living overseas (and loving it).

But what helps people to greet such differences with interest rather than fear? I think that being exposed to other cultures through art and story make a huge difference in allowing people to cross cultural barriers and to have patience for each other so that mutual understanding can happen.

So what role does culture play in your writing? It’s impossible to escape writing culture, though if you are writing within the “real world,” you might not even be thinking about it[3]. If you’re creating a fantasy culture, perhaps you’re drawing from other authors who have gone before, or even parodying overused clichés. Maybe you’ve set your story in India or South Africa, which have very different culture practices and traditions. Wherever you fall on the scale, culture plays a big part in plot and character. How someone treats a stranger versus a friend, versus a family member, or how to greet someone if there are strict social mores in place, all change the dynamics of how your characters interact with others and their world.

Even how good and evil are regarded by your characters might be different, not to mention people’s thoughts on religion, politics, and money. Obviously there are endless details you could get lost in[4], but the goal of touching on this subject is to open up the possibilities of how you can introduce your readers to ways of thinking, living and seeing the world that they might never have encountered, but for your book.

So tell me, what do you hope your readers will come away with after walking in your story’s world? What cultural choices did you make that you’re proud of? What new thoughts (if any) did this spark in you? Where do you think you might venture next in deepening the world of your story?

Katie, signing off!


 

[1] I feel I had to mention this, as it is my fourth year to celebrate it while in China. Who knows where I’ll be next year?!

[2] I’m referring specifically to the lunar and solar calendars, though there are others.

[3] Even if you’re writing in and for your native culture, you should think about your characters’ cultural backgrounds. Someone from Alabama is going to respond differently to social situations than someone from Maine. Even friends raised in the same town might have very different views because of their cultural heritage.

[4] Which, incidentally, has brought one of my stories to a crawl, sadly. And perhaps I’ll write more about those Big Three topics in later posts.

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