by Janet Forbes
Who do you cry out for when you’re in pain? Is it God? Your mom? Or do you try to stifle your cries?
We’re all a product of our environment: of our parents, our education, our morals and taboos. And the same is true for our characters.
But when worldbuilding, writers often create characters before thinking about cultures and backgrounds. They tack culture on afterwards, like a precarious, florid hat. Not only does this make the culture feel superficial, it can make our characters feel generic and tropey.
If you know my Agile Worldbuilding method, a smarter approach to worldbuilding for writers, you’ll already know my favorite saying - your worldbuilding is the tapestry of your novel, weaving through your characters and plot. So let’s put this another way:
Your character is in love. Will they show it with a hug? With a Haiku? Will they rub noses? And if they kiss, how will they kiss? Will they press lips or suck them? Will they touch tongues? Is there nibbling involved?
Fictional and fantasy cultures can be even weirder than our real-world examples, and that’s saying something. So you can see how critical it is to understand your character's cultural background, particularly when interacting with others of different backgrounds. And this doesn't just bring characterization - it can bring character motivation and conflicts, plot points and drama to our writing too.
When you’re worldbuilding cultures, there’s a lot to think about - traditions and behaviors, beliefs and taboos, symbols, language, costumes and artifacts. If you're looking for more guidance on worldbuilding cultures, World Anvil also has a culture worldbuilding template with a lot of prompts to help you cover your bases.
But assuming you’ve already done the hard work, and created a culture or two (or five!), here are some ways to develop interesting character traits, goals, biases and even conflicts from their background.
A lot of our goals and ideals are inherited from our parents, our background, and in a wider way, from our culture. There are several very fertile creative spaces to explore.
What were you supposed to want when you grew up? Because that's a cultural construct. Favored professions is a good place to start. What a culture interprets as a desirable or worthy profession reveals a lot about what they value. And that has a huge impact on your character’s goals, too. Did your character's culture pressure them into a money-making career (lawyer, stock broker)? What about an honorable career? Exactly what honorable means varies from culture to culture: from caring and educating (nurse, teacher), to putting yourself in danger (firefighter, soldier), to distinguishing yourself in the eyes of your god (priest, nun). And how did your character react to this pressure - with fervent excitement, tired obligation, or rebellion?
Some cultures also prohibit careers for certain people - for example, non-working castes or genders. If that’s the case, how has it affected their motivations, and the things they strive for?
What defines “adulthood” in your character’s culture? Is it remembering to do your laundry before you’re wearing a bathing suit beneath your clothes? Does it mean you can protect your own from bandits and raiders? Does it mean financial independence, catching the biggest stag, entrance into the man’s tent, instead of the boy’s? The meaning of adulthood can be bound up in a lot of different things, but different cultures have specific markers and rites of passage which affect the way we view adulthood. And that can drastically affect our character’s motivations and understanding of self.
And that brings us to parenthood. Is having children a right, an honor, or a duty in your society? How will people react if you don’t want to have children - and how many is the “right” number? Is a specific gender of child preferred? There are people whose life’s goal is to be a parent, and those who can’t abide the idea. While this can be personal, a lot is related to culture and background, or the rebellion against them.
And speaking of families, familial duty - what our families expect of us - plays a huge part in our daily goals. If someone killed a member of your family in Ancient Greece, vengeance wasn’t just your honor-bound duty, it was a viable legal action. What about duty of care? Are you honour-bound to look after your parents? What about your second-cousin-twice-removed parents? How far does that duty of care extend, and is it with money, time or both?
Whether it’s honoring the ancestors, giving our mother grandchildren, or crossing the earth for vengeance, our duty to our families forms a huge part of our motivations. And for characters of different cultures, this can be a massive and varied motivator.
And finally, virtue plays a huge part in character motivations. Whether it's Xena, Warrior Princess, Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender, or Ebeneezer Scrooge, characters seeking redemption - a return to what they consider virtuous - is a compelling, age-old story. But virtue is considered different in different cultures. For example, getting up early, eating vegan, and praying, are all behaviors considered virtuous by some cultures, and meaningless (at least in virtue-terms) by others. Whether your character strives for their culture’s interpretation of virtue, or rebels against it, it's still a defining motivation. And sorting out your personal moral code from what’s been handed down to you is a personal journey that’s fuelled a great many memorable characters and powerful narratives.
Did you know that multilingual people exhibit different personalities in different languages? That's the power language has not just over our words, but over our thoughts.
As writers we know that our characters are entirely made up of words. Dialogue, sure, but also thoughts, reflections, descriptions through the lens of a character's eyes. And this makes language a hugely powerful tool for us to convey character.
How does your character's culture and background affect their language? Do they use the longest words possible, or keep it simple? Are there people who they refuse to speak to? Who are they polite to, and who are they rude to (and why)? What are their touchstones for similes and metaphors?
If they're speaking a language which is not their native tongue, how does this affect the way they communicate? Are they terse or long-winded, hyperbolic, rhetorical, or painfully literal? Greek, for example, is a hugely rhetorical language, and those speech patterns are baked into the way people communicate, even when they’re fluently speaking another tongue.
And speaking of language, idioms and sayings are a great way to convey cultural background, and make characters feel distinct. Game of Thrones does this with its mottos, although for me, the real gold is in sayings like " fear cuts deeper than swords" and, my personal favorite, "as useful as nipples on a breastplate". Both idioms mark the character as being from a martial or warlike culture; you could use them to reinforce the image of a warrior, or put them in the mouths of someone surprising, like a priest or a princess, to reveal deeper truths about where they came from.
Old wives tales, nursery rhymes, parables - all of these reveal the culture. The songs of our childhood become the touchstones of our nostalgia and, often, an emblem of innocence and safety. Working these into your characters, both into internal thoughts and into dialogue, will give beautiful depth and individuality as well as embedding them within your setting.
Taboos represent what a culture finds too repulsive, offensive, or too sacred. Occasionally they also involve things allowed only for certain people - e.g. a specific caste, or gender group.
Some of the key taboos to consider surround food, sex, religion & blasphemy, honor, death, and social taboos (what happens if you lick a stranger’s face, or refer to someone's baby as hell-spawn from the nether regions of Satan's underpants?). Depending on what genre you're writing, and on your worldbuilding focus points, choose some relevant areas to really dig down in for your cultural building.
But what's important for characters is which taboos they observe and which they don’t. After all, different people in our world embrace or avoid taboos differently, and their violation means different things to different people. Some people swear like sailors, and others never do. If you don’t swear, do you judge those that do (or vice versa)? That probably has something to do with the culture you’re from, and your background.
Or what about hugging? In the western world, it's common to divide ourselves into “huggers” and “not huggers”, and hugging a not-hugger is a social violation. But for a Muslim, that could be a religious violation - after all, devout Muslim men are not allowed to touch a non-mahram woman.
You can see how this space can set up fascinating character interactions, and tell us more about characters too. Which taboos from their culture are important to them? Which have they rebelled against, and why? And how does that mesh with other characters they meet, both from inside and outside their cultural background?
I’ve left visual cues until last, because they can be very overdone. “The guys in the funny hats” is an obvious way to distinguish characters of different cultures. But this can also be done sensitively, adding layers of subtlety and meaning to dress, tattoos, piercings, haircuts and facial hair and the accessories. Some of these should be obvious to outsiders, but you can keep some differentiations only for characters in the know.
Beyond dress, nonverbal communication can be a goldmine, too. Beyond physical trapping, gestures and facial expressions are an important part of culture it’s hard to get rid of. Raising eyebrows can mean, in different cultures and situations, surprise, mischief, evil thoughts, seduction, or disagreement. Nodding means yes in most cultures, but no in a few. Hand signals for eating in India are an expression of frustration in Italy. And while some cultures wave their hands and yell in casual conversation, others appear straight faced and emotionless. This brings confusion and conflict, but it also builds character differences.
If your character has disabilities or physically distinct differences, how are those perceived? And how has that affected them? Not all physical characteristics are considered the same everywhere. Consider, for example, this quote from a person with albinism in modern day Uganda:
Some say it’s a curse, others say albinos are blessings, others say that when you sleep with an albino, you get wealthy, others … [that it] cures AIDS; others consider them spiritual persons. Some communities can even worship us. Therefore, different people have different perceptions towards the concept of albinism.
And speaking of cultural complexity, it’s important to note that while cultural traditions can unite people, and cultural stereotypes can often prove true, not everyone is the same. For example, there's a stereotype in our world that Germans are always punctual. I know many who uphold the stereotype of punctuality - but I have friends who break the mold, too.
When you’re worldbuilding cultures, you can certainly add stereotypes. But when making characters, present different people from the same culture with different personalities, traits, and proclivities. Not all dwarves in a fantasy world should quaff beer, have a beard as big as a badger, and be obsessed with gold. Introduce artists, rebels, wine drinkers... Anything to highlight the differences between people of the same culture.
There’s a lot of worldbuilding questions in this article designed to prompt you - and I won’t apologize for it. I didn’t want to make assumptions about your culture, dear reader, and where you come from. After all, that can be a taboo all of its own.
And that’s not surprising - our culture and background is woven into the very fabric of our psyche, from the way we swear, to how we coo at a baby. And as writers, we must embrace this show-don’t-tell, worldbuilding gold - it can speak volumes about our characters, without ever bloating our word count!
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Janet Forbes (she/her) is not just a multi-lingual, multi-cultural mongrel, but a published fantasy author, professional worldbuilding consultant, and game developer. In 2017 she co-founded World Anvil (https://www.worldanvil.com), the award-winning worldbuilding, writing and tabletop RPG platform which boasts a community of over 2 million users.
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