Tag Archives: Fiction Writing

Writers’ Group: Culture

23 Apr

Somehow I convinced my writers’ group to let me lead them this month. I didn’t drug them, I swear!

I had a flashback to my semester of sociology in college and remembered the seven elements of culture. Well, I couldn’t find a list of seven and my Google searching gave me ten. When you’re writing a historical setting or a fictional setting, it can be really helpful to think more about the background of your setting in terms of these elements. There’s a lot more to creating a world, race, or religion than you’d think!

  1. Economic System– We’ll start with the boring ones. Well, probably the borning ones. If you’re writing about a currency revolution, this might be really exciting. Normally, this is more of a background element to a culture. It sets up how goods and services are exchanged. Currency and bartering would be most common.
    • Example: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter uses galleons, sickles, and knuts. Not our filthy Muggle money.
  2. A Form of Government– Again, this could be exciting or boring depending on your story. The government in A Song of Ice and Fire is central to the plot while The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t mention who’s president. If you’re writing about royalty or politics, this is a big one to think about. Otherwise, it’s likely a background element that you should give a few second’s thought to.
    • Understanding the legal system and how corrupt it was in the 1920s is helping me with my novel set in that time period.
  3. Symbols– Now we’re getting to it. A symbol is a visual that stands for something. It should evoke a reaction from the members. It’s a form of nonverbal communication or a material object. The meaning one group attaches to the symbol may be different from another group which makes a symbol unique to each culture.
    • US President Richard Nixon made a hand symbol while visiting Brazil that means ‘OK’ here but meant something very rude to Brazilians!
  4. Language– This one may seem obvious. For people to share a culture, they need to share a language to communicate. However, language can also divide cultures. Think of different regions of a country. How I speak in Michigan is going to be different from someone in Texas. Meanings of words vary by country (chips) and region (Coke).
    • My first conversation after landing in London was with the woman at the coffee counter. She asked me if it was “For here or take away?” I stared at her for twenty seconds before responding, “To go.” My jet lag brain didn’t process what had happened until the next day.
  5. Rituals– These often mark a transition in life and many are religiously based. In the US, the Super Sweet Sixteen is a non-religious ritual. Rituals often have established procedures or ceremonies, like a wedding or funeral.
    • Again to Harry Potter, having the trace lifted is a ritual that signifies someone has grown up.
  6. Artifacts– An artifact is an element of material culture that holds meaning for that culture. In modern times, our artifacts change quickly because of technology. My simple Nokia phone from middle school seems like an ancient artifact next to my iPhone 7. These can include the household tools and clothes of a people and are very important to visualizing and describing the setting.
    • A book set in ancient Rome wouldn’t have watches but the togas and shoes the people wear are going to be essential in setting the scene.
  7. Social Organization– This mainly covers family patterns and social classes. Does my imagined race of blue centaurs live in herds or do they hunt alone? Would the poor and the rich be able to eat at the same restaurant? How people interact and who they interact with defines the social organization.
    • In The Space Between Us, Serabai lives with her mother in law because of the traditional family patterns in Mumbai.
  8. Customs and Traditions– This is a big one. I’ll break it into two major groups, values and norms. Values are judgments of good and bad that a society has. They define something as desirable or undesirable and shape the way people act. Norms are these ways of acting. They are accepted standards and expectations for behavior. They can be formal norms which are strictly adhered to and called mores. The most important norms are made into laws and enforced with a punishment for breaking them. Informal norms are called folkways or customs and do not carry a strong stigma if they are violated.
    • Because American culture values individual achievement, it’s a norm that we don’t use all of our vacation days (unfortunately).
  9. Religion– While not every person practices a religion, most societies (especially in past times) have one. Before modern science, people answered the questions of the universe with a supreme being, be it God, Zeus, or Krishna. While a culture might not have a god, chances are they do.
    • Many wars are fought over religion. There are too many A Song of Ice and Fire examples to count.
  10. Art and Literature– The best for last! Art and literature might be a subcategory of artifacts, but they’re not always material. Stories can be passed on orally and many times these stories reinforce customs and traditions. They’re also an example of entertainment in the culture.
    • The Tale of the Three Brothers in Harry Potter warns young witches and wizards about the dangers of power and living in the past. And it tells the origin story of the Deathly Hallows

I hope I haven’t bored you too much! My group assured me this was helpful but they’re too nice. Until next time, write on!

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!