Whether real or fictional, cultures create a point of reference for your character’s thoughts and feelings. If you’ve ever been abroad, you’ll probably have spotted the differences in other cultures straight away. Even countries with similar backgrounds or origins will have developed clear differences.
So how can you construct a culture that affects your varied characters in a variety of ways?
First, I recommend you establish your characters and plot. Of course, the culture you create should affect both, so start off with a vague idea. What’s more important, though, are your characters. By planning a culture in detail first, you may feel restricted in character creation which could reduce the individuality of characters and lead to stereotyping real or fictional cultures.
Next, flesh out that culture. Your culture needs to be well detailed before you begin to write. Across the world, cultures are forever changed by huge events, marking their historical or scientific knowledge and seeping into people’s attitudes today. If you’re planning on writing about a real culture, you’ll have to do a massive amount of research into its history and speak to people from that culture too. Once again, this will help you avoid stereotypes. For fictional cultures, I like to make up historical events or boundaries of knowledge. It may be unlikely that you’ll address these directly when writing but it does give you a safer ground to work on.
Ask yourself how do the characters respond to their culture? From cultured to rebellious, you’ll want to line all your characters up on the scale and know what aspects they disagree with. Characters who fit their culture probably won’t affect the plot you’ve made. However, if your main character is an outsider it’s going to be difficult to show it without some clear clashes of ideas. You’ll also have to wonder how they came to reject their culture. By rejecting their culture, they must have learnt about other options somehow, or feel the culture addresses important issues poorly.
Now you’ll want to incorporate it into your plot. Even for characters who reject a culture, or are exposed to one they perceive as better than their own, they’re going to find it hard to change. Consider making rebellious characters a little more critical of their actions when they conform to cultural norms. In a new culture, your character may hold on to old habits because they won’t really know how to get by in their surroundings. This will make interactions between characters of different cultures more confusing. For instance, if in conflict one character attempts to be polite by not committing to their opinion, another character may not understand them if their culture is more direct.
Lastly, extend past conversations. We’re talking about thoughts and feelings here. Yes, culture affects those too. Someone who conforms to their culture will probably have limited sympathy (yet alone empathy) for a rebellious character. For any character, their entire perspective will be warped by it and be reflected in their moral or physical values. Say a character is brought up in a culture where wealth is highly valued. Even if they later reject their culture, they’re still likely to measure their success by their own gains. This could taint any selfless acts and, if they stick to rebelling, they’re going to hit a low point once they realise it.
Writing from a cultural perspective takes practice if it is different from your own but, with enough research and thoughtful planning, it will make your writing excitingly fresh or even awakening for your readers.