How To Blend Cultures (Without Making Impossible Mixes)
This is a guide specifically about fantasy worldbuilding. WWC gets a lot of questions around “I’m mixing two cultures together, how do I do that?” and this is to explain both how to do that and when you very much should not.
Next up, mixing Greece/Rome with far-flung cultures gets a little bit eyebrow raising. Unless it was a direct trading partner/conquered property, Greek/Roman cultures do not mix with non-European cultures. The Greek empire only went to the Northern regions of India at its very peak, and that is limited to the ancient world. Rome stopped in the Middle East, so, again, you don’t have the cultural backing for a mixing of anything outside of its borders.
Depictions of Rome and Greece in ancient literature shows other ancient cultures found them quite backwards, and were adverse to mixing with them. By many standards they were very backwards, and it’s only Europe (and, as an extension, America) that revered them to the extent they do. Asia and Africa had no reason to see them as advanced, because they made many more technological advancements than either. North America and Oceanic cultures hardly interacted with either, and had both their own technological advancements+ cultures closer by to borrow advancements from, instead.
Outside of that, cultures are born out of the environments that made them. As a result, places with wildly dissimilar climates and resources pools will not be able to blend harmoniously unless you’re taking a modern analogue society where globalism has happened. This is plain old because resources only travel so far, and people are more likely to build culture around resources they have easy access to (even well-established trade links can lead to people re-creating things: Han purple and Egyptian blue point to an ancient trade link, but they were made with local materials processed differently).
Roman architecture exists because the Romans had access to copious amounts of concrete materials/marble and lived in the Mediterranean, which got very hot summers, heavy rains, and not a whole lot of cold. As a result they created structures that worked for this, which included open airways, pillars, easy to clean floors, shade, and ventilation. Places that lack these resources will not be able to replicate Rome.
Their resource pool was very specific to their regions, and there’s a reason Rome had the rule that anybody who did’t live like Romans were slaves: it was really hard to live like a Roman, and they wanted their slave pool as large as possible.
Different cultures with different resources formed in wildly different ways, and might not even have anything similar to Greece or Rome. Because of this, you need to look really close at why culture developed the way it did. If it’s because they had extremely dissimilar resources pools, it’s wise to not blend the cultures (or at least not think they’ll look anything like their original cultures)
Which brings me to value systems. Cultures put value on different things. Each culture ends up with a base philosophy for what they esteem and how they use resources, which proceeds to influence how it develops. Architecture has meaning to it. So does what colours you use in different applications. Because these things are sacred and/or practical for certain social orders. “Sacred” in cultures ends up becoming a shorthand for “this ritual helps us survive.”
There is no such thing as “aesthetic” when you get down to the root of each single item, because that aesthetic has a practical purpose. There is also no such thing as a “solely religious reason” under the same logic. Cows have become sacred in most varieties of Hinduism— because cows (and oxen) have been the main farming animal in the Indian subcontinent for millennia. They provide milk for sustenance, power for ploughing fields, and dung, which can be used as a floor polish and, when dried, a source of fuel for fire that gives off a more even heat than wood. As a single provider for crucial elements of agrarian life, their sacredness developed from their practicality. Having cows roam freely meant absolutely everyone could have access to an efficient cooking fuel.
Chinese brush painting has meaning. Jade sculpture has meaning. Pagodas and sloped roofs and gates have meaning. The philosophy, environment, history, and present circumstances of a culture is built into every. single. little. thing. about that culture, meaning you cannot just change it out.
Unless you learn the very root of culture, their values and stigmas and honours and shames, you cannot modify it accurately. Cultures survive because that was the best way to respond to the world at the time. A long-standing culture such as China’s has to be functional and incredibly well suited for the environment, otherwise it would not have survived. There is something about Chinese culture that works extraordinarily well for it to perpetuate itself, and you cannot disrespect that.
Learn the “why” of culture. Learn how it came to manifest and the reasons behind its manifestations. Study the geography and resources available to the people at hand. Know a culture so well you can explain how it works in real life and how your world’s history parallels the circumstances that created a similar culture in fantasy.
Only then will you be able to pull it off with respect.
i saw a similar post about writing tips when it comes to having paris as a setting, so i thought it would be helpful to have the same thing except for……new york city! as a native new yorker i love seeing my home appearing in fics, because lbr nyc is pretty awesome. so if you’re looking to make nyc your setting, here are some tips when writing about it. these can help establish if your character is a native or non-native.
—first off, nyc is technically not one city. it’s five cities. the boroughs of manhattan, queens, staten island, bronx, and brooklyn are all part of nyc. however, the nyc that’s always on tv/movies is manhattan.
—if you live in any of the four other boroughs, manhattan is always referred to as “the city”. so if your character lives in brooklyn but is heading out to central park, they’re going to the city.
—public transportation is the way to go. unless it’s staten island, where cars are the easiest way to go. mta fare is $2.75 and we use metrocards. trains are divided by uptown and downtown, and some are express and some are local. we do not refer to the train lines by their color—only by their number or letter. buses are designated by their borough; a manhattan bus would have M in front of the number.
—taxis are mad expensive and sometimes public transportation can be too when you need to take a combo of buses and trains. many new yorkers walk a lot. the reason we walk fast is bc it makes it easier to get to your destination. walking up ten blocks can only take ten minutes if you speedwalk basically. which is why slow walkers annoy us, especially when they stop suddenly.
—trains run slower during weekends and nights so your character might be in for quite a wait. bus generally take 10 minutes to come, unless it’s a popular route. then buses come every five minutes.
—except for the very southern part of manhattan, the roads are numbered. so areas such as greenwich village, wall street, little italy, and chinatown do not have streets with numbers. streets run from east to west; avenues run from south to north. the east & west streets are separated by 5th Avenue. numbers increase as you move north and/or to the west.
—you can always find pizza and hot dogs for a dollar. busy areas such as times square and central park will try to overcharge you. no new yorker would be gullible enough to pay $2 for a pizza slice. for cheap $1 pizza, the chain 2Bros is good. speaking of pizza, we fold it in half bc it is easier to eat and walk then.
—a distinctly new yorker thing is saying “on the line”. such as asking someone “are you on the line?” no other state says this. drive into new jersey and they’ll say “in the line”.
—there is one international airport and one domestic airport for nyc, which are both in queens. there’s JFK (international) and La Guardia (domestic). a third option is newark airport (also international) in new jersey.
—smoking is not allowed in nyc parks nor in most public spaces whatsoever. also the legal age for smoking and drinking is 21.
—if your character is a college student, all public colleges are branded as CUNY (City University of New York). every borough has at least one CUNY college. public colleges have “cheap” tuition rates, which are usually around $5000-$8000. the “famous” colleges in NYC are not public. NYU and Columbia are both private and are ridiculously expensive. Wagner College (private) in Staten Island has a really good performing arts/music program.
—new yorkers avoid many of the sightseeing places bc they’re expensive and overcrowded. i have lived my whole life in nyc (almost 20 years) and have only visited the Empire State Building for the first time this summer—and that’s only bc my internship covers the expense of my tickets to such places.
—speaking of expenses, most of the homes in the boroughs are apartments. Staten Island however is suburban and residential. houses are abundant there. in manhattan, houses which are really just townhouses, are super expensive. we’re talking millions here.
—manhattan is an island. so is staten island. the only ways off manhattan are by cars/buses over bridges or tunnels, or by trains. the only way off staten island is by car, bus, or the Staten Island Ferry. the ferry is free of charge, running 24/7 between SI and Manhattan. all bridges have tolls, where ezpass holders have lower rates.
—yes we’re the city that never sleeps, but we do sleep. some areas like times square don’t appear to. i’ve shopped at the forever 21 in times square at 1 AM. it was still crowded.
—SI has a predominant Italian and Sri Lankan community. Queens has a predominant Indian community, most especially in the Jackson Heights neighborhood.
—coney island is in brooklyn. the rides are fun but expensive. the beach is crowded and dirty. brighton beach and rockaway beach are better choices. staten island has a more calmer (and actually fourth longest in the usa) boardwalk.
—if you’re mailing something to manhattan, the address should be written as new york, new york. it would not be manhattan, new york.
this got really long but if your heart is set on writing within new york, i think it’s really important to get your setting right. like i said before, these tips can really help your character stand out or not as someone who is or isn’t from new york. i hope this helps for all the fabulous writers out there!