Thursday, October 7, 2010

Culture in Fantasy and Science Fiction Writing

I recently read a blog post- It was a guest blogger post by Jeannie Lin on The Ron Empress.


She was talking about conveying deep culture and surface culture in novels. Her specialty is Asian culture, but her post got me thinking about writing science fiction and fantasy. Of course it did. What doesn't get me thinking about that? ;)

My novel, Syzygy, is set in modern America, but the race of people in it, called Fir Na Gealaí, have a subculture of their own which they carry with them no matter where they live in the world. They have their taboos, traditions, ways of doing things. My main character, Finn, rebels against it. But even as he goes against his culture, it sometimes rubs him wrong because the belief system is so engrained in him. For instance, he's angry at himself when he takes sedatives to sleep through his "madness phase," because it's highly frowned upon by the Fir.

This is just one example of Fir deep cultural that made it into the novel. There are dozens that I "discovered" in the course of writing Syzygy that didn't make it in. Do other fantasy writers feel like they're "discovering" rather than inventing a culture? Well I do. Most of the time, anyway.

One of the tough aspects of writing scifi/fantasy is deciding how to gracefully include all the sumptuous tidbits of your new culture and its history. The fact is, you can't. Or rather, you can't and also hold your reader's attention. They do want you to get on with the actual story. But I think it enriches the novel if the author knows the background. And you never know what you'll end up weaving in. So, world-build and backstory to the fullest but don't worry if it doesn't all get shoved in. You can always write your own Silmarillion. ;-)

I was working on my new fantasy w.i.p., Twelve Keys, last night. I starting making myself mentally gag while writing the little asides within a conversation between my protag and another character- explaining polite behavior in this invented culture and how they're breaking it. It began to sound like a Miss Manners lecture. Don't do this.

So, I tossed it aside for the night and watched Van Helsing. I'm not sure I learned anything of use from the movie, but watching Hugh Jackman hunt monsters in a cool hat is always a pleasure.


14 comments:

LK Hunsaker said...

Oh, nice picture of Mr. J! Now what was I going to say? ...

Culture, yes. I love books where the characters are deeply affected by their culture. We all are, whether or not we realize we are. I can't answer about fantasy, but when I'm writing my realities, it dredges up things I didn't realize I was thinking about, so I could see that you would be discovering instead of only creating. ;-)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Yeah, he leaves me speechless too. LOL

Good point. Sometimes writing about real stuff, I start dissecting my own culture and notice social mores I didn't even notice before. Also how thing are different between social settings, regions, and age groups.

Oh gosh, I could go on and give a billion examples, but that would turn into a new blog post. :p

Summer Ross said...

Cultural things are all over in alot of books, i think its natural we end up discovering them in fantasy we create. Or even doing it on purpose.

great picture.

nissa_ami_kato said...

Yeah, I've been doing a LOT of work on the cultures of my fantasy-world Erileth which is the setting of my W. I. P. 'The Thousand Year Fox'.

(Erileth is a fantasy world which can be reached by going through certain cabinets which were built from wood from St. Joseph's carpenter shop.)

In the part of Erileth where my story takes place, the people are Korean in origin--- but they are Christians and have some customs which diverge from Korean culture.

I think a writer has to do some work on creating a culture for a novel or you will end up unconsciously using your own culture (or a simplistic reversal of it....)

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Thanks, Summer. That's so true. :)

Nissa, you're right. And "The Thousand Year Fox" sounds awesome!!!

karabu said...

Dang. You always remind me of other problems in my novel that I forgot to figure out. I still haven't decided if my colonists are a random sampling of the population, or a select sub-group of like minded people. The resulting colony culture will be extremely different depending on how the group was formed. More to figure out, more, more. . .

Thanks for keeping me on my toes. Again.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

@Kara~ *bwaa-ha-ha*
It's all part of my evil plan. ;)
Hmm, a random sampling or a select group? If select, who selected them? Did they volunteer? Forced evacuation? Oh man, you gotta let me read this!

eeleenlee said...

great post!

Frank Herbert's Dune has excellent example of how to build fictional cultures- the desert Fremen with their 'water discipline', the rich aristocrats and the aversion to computers and sentient machines

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Oh yes, Dune. Perfect example! :)

Brenda Drake said...

Ooo cool picture. Great post. Sometimes we forget to really focus on the cultures when writing fantasy.

I've given you an award on my blog site http://brenleedrake.blogspot.com

Joanna St. James said...

Congratulations on your award, I hopped over from Brenda Drakes blog and Hugh Jackman in anything is also a good idea

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Brenda, oh wow! Thank you! :D

Thanks, Joanna. I'm so glad you dropped by! :)

Hannah Kincade said...

I just purchased a copy of Syzygy! Hoooray!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Thanks, Hannah!!! :D

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