(disclaimer: This series will be ongoing and indefinitely open to new posts and new suggestions for topics. A table of contents is available and kept up-to-date as new posts are added. As with all advice on culture, if you are planning on basing your own fictional culture off an existing culture, please do extensive research into anthropology and discussions from people of the culture. Avoid direct appropriation and utilize only for inspirational purposes.)
Part 5: Incorporating Culture Into Setting
Setting is very rarely considered to be an aspect impacted by culture. It’s often a passive backdrop for the action. Instead of thinking in terms of 2D paintings, it’s time to start thinking in 3D. Once you start thinking of your setting as interactive, you can begin integrating culture into the surroundings. Even better, start thinking of your setting in terms of 5D to really bring your setting into the forefront and integrate it with culture. Think of your setting as though you’re walking through an old, run-down tenament or apartment building. That’s not a flat location, that’s an experience. You can’t talk about simply what you saw to fully impart what that place is like.
Besides the added benefit of being good writing practice, writing with all five senses also portrays culture. Think about food–what things are part of a typical meal become a cultural experience, right? So write about what your character smells as they’re going about your setting. That’s going to let your reader in to what foods are common, and provide a more immersive experience. Even sound levels are dictated by social norms, which are part of culture, so write about what your character hears as well.
Architecture particularly is a great way to convey culture, and in terms of setting, it’s one of your most powerful tools. Remember that all kinds of things can influence architectural details in buildings: religion, government, economics, popular trends within your culture’s arts. Even the interior features will portray culture. Do people have a certain color or color intensity preference? In Sweden, orange is a very popular color for anyone to wear; in the US, it’s considered bright and an unusual choice, and it’s often relegated to those with darker skin. (Obviously, fashion trends change from year to year, but in general, pure orange is a color Americans tend to shy away from.)
Consider this: The separation of church and state is reflected in the architecture of the US’s homes and businesses. Despite the fact my office building used to be a church, the stained glass windows have been built over on the inside. While still visible externally, they were deemed inappropriate to the goings-on of the building’s new, non-religiously affiliated tenants since stained glass is associated most often with cathedrals and churches. On the other hand, the Hindu religion’s vaastu shastra dictates specific ways buildings are to be laid out–all buildings, any buildings–because Hinduism is a religion that impacts life and culture as a whole.
A mistake that I’ve seen is the tendency to ignore geographical distance for cultural variation, especially in terms of setting and architecture. Just as what a “normal” neighborhood in Idaho
differs from a “normal” neighborhood in Pennsylvania
differs from a “normal” neighborhood in Galilee, Israel,
so will architecture differ across your world. Not only between countries and cultures (America to Israel), but also internally (Idaho to Pennsylvania), geographical distance will impact how much cultural diffusion there is. The less centralized and compact your culture, the more diffusion. This diffusion will vary where you’re looking both in types or diffusion and amounts.
Here’s a tip: Talk about what you character sees and is surrounded by. Even when your character feels it’s all normal, show your audience what normal looks like. Have your character travel and remark on how different it is and how “normal” it seems for the locals.
Next up: Culture in character!