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Culture in Medieval Fantasy

Ž.J.

Dreamer
Hey folks!!
Had quite some fun with our last discussion over "empires" and now I have a new topic in mind!

How important is culture in a fantasy world?

In my own fantasy world, that is only populated by humans, I find creating new and diferent cultures important. Combine this with my love for: linguistics, ethnical studies, genetics etc. I get a lot of enjoyment in creating new cultures.
How do you guys feel about this?
 

Momtoast

Dreamer
I love creating new cultures, and I think my favorite thing about fantasy stories is the way those cultures interact, and the impact growing up in one of those cultures has on the character. There are so many things that people can differ on, just being raised in different cultures here in my home city. Getting to play around with cultures so different from each other makes for good drama.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Culture can be a slippery word. I'm curious as to what you mean to include under that term. What do you think needs to be in place in order to say "I've made a new culture"? What are the key elements of culture as distinct from, say, politics or economics?
 

Ž.J.

Dreamer
Culture can be a slippery word. I'm curious as to what you mean to include under that term. What do you think needs to be in place in order to say "I've made a new culture"? What are the key elements of culture as distinct from, say, politics or economics?

Well for me personally, a given culture is represented by a: common language, religion, customs, food, clothing, a specific geographic region etc. Of course one or two things can differentiate, but if more then three of these characteristics (for me personally) are different then a common culture may not be present.
This is where the joy comes in my opinion. Creating different cultures and letting them give life to your world.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Language, religion, customs, food, clothing, geographic location. Let's see. I do think about co-location. I don't think much about clothing, certainly not enough to identify something unique from other cultures. Same goes for food and customs. Yes on religion, though, because it's so huge, but I leave room for significant variations within the culture. Think of the variants within Islam or Christianity or Hindu. I don't do much with language because I'm not a conlang sort of guy.

I also tend to look more at individuals, the characters in the story. Each of them come from a particular culture that is part of a larger one. Think southern US, which is part of being American which is part of being Western. I don't come at it as "here are my dwarves, this is what they wear" etc. Rather, I think this particular story has a particular dwarf. That dwarf comes from a particular place, etc. I tend to fill in only the bits that seem relevant to that story. At the same time, I try to maintain some vague consistency with other dwarves that might exist in Altearth, so I don't have to go back and retcon. Hope that makes sense.
 

Gray-Hand

Minstrel
Culture can be a slippery word. I'm curious as to what you mean to include under that term. What do you think needs to be in place in order to say "I've made a new culture"? What are the key elements of culture as distinct from, say, politics or economics?
Economics and politics are key pillars of most cultures. The values, beliefs and behaviours that support a parliamentary democracy are very different to an absolute monarchy. The values, beliefs and behaviours that support a communist economic model are significantly different to a capitalist system.

Economics and Politics are far more fundamental to how people think and behave than the style of clothes they wear or music they play.
 

Ž.J.

Dreamer
Language, religion, customs, food, clothing, geographic location. Let's see. I do think about co-location. I don't think much about clothing, certainly not enough to identify something unique from other cultures. Same goes for food and customs. Yes on religion, though, because it's so huge, but I leave room for significant variations within the culture. Think of the variants within Islam or Christianity or Hindu. I don't do much with language because I'm not a conlang sort of guy.

I also tend to look more at individuals, the characters in the story. Each of them come from a particular culture that is part of a larger one. Think southern US, which is part of being American which is part of being Western. I don't come at it as "here are my dwarves, this is what they wear" etc. Rather, I think this particular story has a particular dwarf. That dwarf comes from a particular place, etc. I tend to fill in only the bits that seem relevant to that story. At the same time, I try to maintain some vague consistency with other dwarves that might exist in Altearth, so I don't have to go back and retcon. Hope that makes sense.

Yeah of course it dose. We simply have different definitions of what culture is. Coming from a particularly diverse place, for me food, clothes, language and others, were always a clear marker for a given culture. And things like western, black, white or asian culture do not exist, at least in my definition. They are too uniting, covering billions of people, to be called cultures. What do French and Serbs have in common for example, or Somalis and Ashantis, or Kazakhs and Khmer?

As for the introduction of characters, yeah here I 100% agree with you, better to do it bit by bit, then just drop it like a nuclear bomb. :)
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Another interesting way to look at this is to look at differences within cultures. For example, most Americans would think "French" is a culture, but of course it's multiple cultures and they were much more distinct two hundred or five hundred years ago than they are now. Breton is not Burgundian is not Provencal. They speak the same language (nowadays, anyway), and they share the same religion. So what are the distinctions? Food, for sure. Not separate language, but certainly a different patois. Accents, sure. At least for this example, there's a sharp awareness of different histories.

Exploring small differences along these lines can produce good story stuff.
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
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This might help as a quick cheat sheet for worldbuilding cultures.
 
I do think about culture on a general level, in the same way as I want to know what the technology level of a society is, give or take a bit. It influences character actions a bit, but individuality is much more important then any culture.

It reminds me of a discussion we had in the Netherlands a few year ago about culture. And what we discovered is that it's actually impossible to define our own culture. There is no such thing as "being dutch" where the different traits all apply to every member of our society. Not to mention that there's even a lot of contradictions in there. We're very open minded and welcoming to other cultures, except for those cases where we aren't. And even that statement means something different for someone in Amsterdam and someone in the south of the Netherlands or a farmer somewhere on the border with Germany.

So, culture is this imaginary thing, which can be a useful storytelling tool. It's nice to have but it can only be there in the background.
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
So, culture is this imaginary thing, which can be a useful storytelling tool. It's nice to have but it can only be there in the background.
This I must point out is wrong. Culture shapes our sense of self, our sense of being, our values, our mentality, our attitudes and much much more.
I like to convey this point with what I call the alien abduction argument. If a thousand germans and a thousand bangladeshi were abducted, studied and interviewed by aliens, those aliens would over time notice differences in behavior, attitudes, wants, needs, expression. Those difference fall to the wayside when studying any individual pairing of abducted humans, for anyone can override and challenge the culture they are raised in, but as a whole, as a culture, those aliens would find the cultures shining through in the social and psychological patterns of those people

Culture is not imaginary, it is merely invisible.

As a Limburger, you're spot on on the rest though! The Netherlands like most countries is a country of nations, not a nation of its own, despite nationbuilding attempts. This is good to keep in mind when worldbuilding fantasy settings. Cultural homogeny is the outlier, not the norm.
 
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skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>Cultural homogeny is the outlier
Yes and no. The distinction is largley a matter of scale. Within Catalonia, for example, we have homogeneity. It's just that Catalonia is not (yet!) a nation-state.

I like the alien abduction analogy because it entails an outsider, and here's where I see culture being most notable (and useful in storytelling). To take a medieval example (gee, I wonder why he picked that), a citizen of Augsburg would have self-identified as an Augsburger. A citizen of Luebeck would have called that same man a Swabian, while a Scot would most like have called both of them Germans. If they all went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the locals there would have called them Franj, or Christians. Each--the Scot, the north German, and the south German--would have insisted they belonged to their own distinct cultures.

To go to a more modern example, I happened to be in Europe during World Cup finals. Those rowdy gents in the streets of London wearing the same color orange were Dutch to me, regardless of how they perceived themselves. And I've been consistently aware that somehow, in ways I can't identify in myself, people in European cities can take one look at me and say "American" though they likely couldn't identify me as western American, nor distinguish between and Boston and Brooklyn accents.

To put all this another way, culture and cultural perceptions are going to vary by context. The place where I try to use this in my writing is, to grab one example, to have my dwarves be very aware of the differences among themselves--this one is a dwarf of the Gray Cantons, that one is a Pirenaean dwarf, and this other is a dwarf of the Old Reverence--but to an elf they're all just dwarves. This can add layers to interactions between and among.
 

AMObst

Dreamer
There are different approaches to culture that appeal to different readers (and writers). For me personally, I enjoy picking up the flavour of a world I'm reading about through the small details of how people dress, behave, eat, etc that help me imagine what life is like. Culture can also be a key part of plot.
 

Nighty_Knight

Troubadour
>Cultural homogeny is the outlier
Yes and no. The distinction is largley a matter of scale. Within Catalonia, for example, we have homogeneity. It's just that Catalonia is not (yet!) a nation-state.

I like the alien abduction analogy because it entails an outsider, and here's where I see culture being most notable (and useful in storytelling). To take a medieval example (gee, I wonder why he picked that), a citizen of Augsburg would have self-identified as an Augsburger. A citizen of Luebeck would have called that same man a Swabian, while a Scot would most like have called both of them Germans. If they all went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the locals there would have called them Franj, or Christians. Each--the Scot, the north German, and the south German--would have insisted they belonged to their own distinct cultures.

To go to a more modern example, I happened to be in Europe during World Cup finals. Those rowdy gents in the streets of London wearing the same color orange were Dutch to me, regardless of how they perceived themselves. And I've been consistently aware that somehow, in ways I can't identify in myself, people in European cities can take one look at me and say "American" though they likely couldn't identify me as western American, nor distinguish between and Boston and Brooklyn accents.

To put all this another way, culture and cultural perceptions are going to vary by context. The place where I try to use this in my writing is, to grab one example, to have my dwarves be very aware of the differences among themselves--this one is a dwarf of the Gray Cantons, that one is a Pirenaean dwarf, and this other is a dwarf of the Old Reverence--but to an elf they're all just dwarves. This can add layers to interactions between and among.
Same thing with the US. Compare someone from San Antonio to someone from Boston to Tampa to Denver to San Francisco to Nashville. From the food, clothes, accents, music scene, even attitudes are different subcultures of the same country.
 

Yora

Maester
I think some anthropologists divided the US into 11 different cultures a few years ago. And that didn't even include various local ethnic minorities for each area.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I think some anthropologists divided the US into 11 different cultures a few years ago. And that didn't even include various local ethnic minorities for each area.
Which then raises the question, is American a culture? Is North American a culture? Is Western a culture?

Which is another way of asking is Elvish a culture? Dwarf? Orc?

It's worth thinking about these things in one's own worldbuilding.
 
I think there's always a big difference between how we think of, or see our fantasy world's culture outside the text and how it plays out inside the text.

For instance, using the general guideline for writing description as a metaphor—most of the time you only need to describe what's most important for a particular scene, using only a handful of key elements that will set the place and tone, maybe some significant plot elements—culture in our fantasy world doesn't need to be presented like some extended Wikipedia entry. Key elements, key features can be used to grab a reader's focus and, well, to focus the story.

For me, almost all the most important features of culture in any secondary world are the values held by the inhabitants. Do they value community? Warfare? Trade and wealth? Individuality? Strong social bonds? Love? The law? Nature? Etc. Even wildly different personalities will tend to have some overlap here. Heck, even being strongly opposed to something is a way of putting lots of value on it, so two people can have deeply rooted feelings about the same thing, but be in opposition—whereas someone from a different culture won't feel strongly one way or the other or else maybe never thought there was a question about it in the first place.

There are a slew of other cultural markers, things like food and dress and architecture, etc. These for me tend to be more in the background, add flavor—but they don't stand out much and may even be forgotten if they don't key in on some other more important cultural element. For instance, imagine a fantasy race that uses nothing but stone and metal for their homes. Well, so what? But what if that race's culture (or at least in a smallish single city or area) values security and privacy—or values things that last. This architectural feature would exist in the story not for its own sake but to accentuate another, more important feature of the culture. Without this connection, it's just a miscellaneous feature.

Besides values, the only other strong cultural element I see in lots of stories involves memory: legends, tall tales, history, etc. These are the stories the people of that land tell each other. They may even use these stories as guides for understanding their world. These will almost always tie into the issue of values also. I can't recall an example where they don't involve values, except recent history. I.e., events that have happened in living memory, probably sometime in the last decade or two. Rather than be keyed into cultural values, these may in fact be sign posts signally a society in change—even if they don't know this themselves. Of course, value judgments can be added, also.

Tastes vary, so I wouldn't use any of my observations above as rules, heh. I do like the flavors of culture, particularly food and, more generally, meal etiquette/habits/etc. I like to have these things sprinkled about, and when characters move into a new territory, I like seeing how things like food and clothing and architecture change. (Here again, though, the point is to key in on the changes—and, probably, to tie in hints about the different values of a different land....)
 

Aldarion

Inkling
Cultural homogeny is the outlier, not the norm.

Actually, it generally is a norm on ethnic/group scale. What is a (historical) outlier is ethnic groups having each their own state. But modern-day multiculturalism is very much an outlier historically; both Roman (including Byzantine) and Chinese empires operated on a "live and let live" principle. There was not much mixing between different peoples, except in large cities. When ethnic groups settled within the empire, they were often given their own areas to live in, usually in places depopulated by disease / enemy raids. People back then did not travel that much (excepting mass migrations likes the ones in 4th century), so you did not need borders to maintain ethnic and cultural homogenity.
 

Ž.J.

Dreamer
Actually, it generally is a norm on ethnic/group scale. What is a (historical) outlier is ethnic groups having each their own state. But modern-day multiculturalism is very much an outlier historically; both Roman (including Byzantine) and Chinese empires operated on a "live and let live" principle. There was not much mixing between different peoples, except in large cities. When ethnic groups settled within the empire, they were often given their own areas to live in, usually in places depopulated by disease / enemy raids. People back then did not travel that much (excepting mass migrations likes the ones in 4th century), so you did not need borders to maintain ethnic and cultural homogenity.

In my opinion ethnicities do need at least some sort of geographical borders to survive. Look at the Basque or the Romansch (who are a ethno-linguistic group). Yes maybe they dont need borders, but at least a specific geographic region that will in time reflect in their own culture and help to shape it.
 
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