Cultural Worldbuilding

With mentions of two series:

Wayfarers by Becky Chambers & Xenogenesis by Octavia E. Butler

There is a writing trope called “The Planet of Hats” in which each member of an SFF culture wears the same “Hat” or shares the same characteristic. All the elves are playful, all the dwarves are drunkards, all the trolls are violent, etc. This trope is usually used pejoratively, to indicate poorly crafted worldbuilding. I wanted to have a think today as to how to avoid falling into that trope, and how to create rich, diverse and believable cultures, whether they live on other planets or in an alternative fantasy world.

There is a dimmer switch between going full Tolkien and not bothering with worldbuilding at all – as often, I think the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. I wouldn’t recommend writing a whole alternative language (as it is very hard to do successfully), although it can be nice to find words or concepts which cannot be translated and integrate them into the story. We borrow words all the time in English, from Schadenfreude to karaoke, ketchup to pyjama. So why not do the same for alien cultures?

Some milestones of worldbuilding, such as the aliens’ appearance, where they live, what they call themselves, what language they speak, and some of their history, can be useful to the reader. However, there are a few simple elements to focus on which can help create an engaging culture without having to create pages and pages of backstory.

One thing to bear in mind, when writing a different culture, is what makes human cultures distinct. Most often, the variations between human cultures appear in three places: food, sex and death.

People across the world eat differently and have different rituals around food; they court each other in fairly elaborate ways and feel strongly about who should be having sex and how; and they honour their dead in a variety of ways. It can be very effective to write an alien culture who, aside from ‘cosmetic’ elements such as their appearance and language, have distinct rituals around these three key components of a person’s life.

A good example is the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers. Not only does she create a wide variety of distinct cultures, but she also strives hard to make sure respect is a cornerstone of inter-species relationships. This is in itself an interesting idea: what happens when, rather than rivalry or war between humans and aliens, there is an attempt at living together? What is easy to understand about another culture, and what isn’t?

In the Wayfarers, lizardfolk called the Aandrisks are very present. The Aandrisks have a different approach to sex and intimacy; they use touch and intercourse as a way to socialise. They do not form monogamous family units. They leave their children to grow up in a hatch of elderly adults, but do not tend to them themselves. They have long, complex names so they can know who their relatives are.

Some of these elements depend on biology – it is rare for reptiles to educate their children as mammals do, so it is logical Aandrisks don’t tend to their young in the same way as we do. Some of these elements belong to the inner logic of the culture Chambers created – if everyone has sex openly with everyone else, a tidy genealogy, easy to trace through each person’s name, is useful to avoid inbreeding.

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Once the writer has created a believable culture, there is another way to avoid the “Planet of Hats” trope. To avoid simplification, make sure the character, and by extension the reader, meets more than one member of the alien race you are introducing. In the Xenogenesis series by Octavia E. Butler, the aliens have three genders, male, female and olooi. Our main character, Lilith, meets several aliens living in a family unit. She meets adults and children, as well as members of each gender, noticing how their behaviour varies.

 

As the story focuses on the third gender, the neutral olooi, Butler she lets Lilith interact with two distinct olooi, one whom she likes, one whom she dislikes. This is a clever writing trick. Because Lilith feels strongly about both characters, and despises one but understands the other, her relationship is shaped differently in both cases. This allows Butler to underline the differences between each member of the alien species.
 

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Interestingly, the aliens in Xenogenesis share some traits – they don’t lie, they are extremely patient, they go stubbornly silent when they don’t want to answer a question, they are fascinated by humans, they do not understand violence. They share enough traits to be believably from one culture, but they are sufficiently distinct to be plausible characters.

When creating another culture, it can be useful to think what evolution might have encouraged these other creatures to do. It is also interesting to think about their biology, and how that might influence their understanding of sex, family, death and food. Once the writer has started creating a fictional culture, it can also help to think about the consequences of various cultural elements, how they might impact individuals, what would be required for a functional society to emerge from the ideas that have been built on so far.

Finally, to avoid these elements from becoming character traits rather than cultural traits, it can be good to imagine various characters within that culture, how they vary and how they resemble each other.

 

I’ll finish on a lovely quote by an Aandrisk in the first book of the Wayfarers series, when trying to deal with a human: “Why hadn’t this been covered in interspecies sensitivity courses?”

15 April 21