Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
July 5, 2023

Character in the Tapestry: Writing from Culture to Character

by Janet Forbes

person crying with mountains in the background

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. 

The basics of worldbuilding a culture

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.

Character goals - their inherited vision of self

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.

Favored professions

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?

The defining moments of “adulthood” 

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.

The issues of parenthood

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.

Familial duty and kinship bonds

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. 

What is virtuous?

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. 

Language for building characters

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.

Idioms, sayings, and folklore

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.

Embracing taboos & superstitions differently

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? 

Make sure looks have meaning

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.

Avoid cultural monoliths

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. 

Culture is worldbuilding & storytelling gold

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!

How have your characters (or well-known characters from popular IPs) been influenced by their cultures?

* * * * * *

About Janet

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. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

17 comments on “Character in the Tapestry: Writing from Culture to Character”

  1. A fantastic post. The trouble is, I now want to go back and rewrite my 8 fantasy novels with this in mind. 😊 However, I will resist--at least at the moment--and use your wonderful information for the next world I build.
    Actually, I did have a different culture in one of my books. Lost relatives of dwarves who had withdrawn from the world. Their culture was different.

    1. Oh goodness, I know the feeling - I'm always tempted to unpick my work with new knowledge! But we've gotta keep writing forwards. 😀 Thank you so much for the kind words. 🙂 What are you working on now, and could these thoughts help that? <3

  2. Hi Janet,
    Wow - so many great examples of how culture ingrained in our characters can drive their actions. This prompts me to dig a little deeper into some characters I'm refining as I revisit my YA sci-fi project.

    And I appreciate the subtle urge to work in culture details with care and accuracy beyond the accepted stereotypes. It makes our characters more interesting, for one, and it helps break down expectations that are simply not always true.

    Great post!
    Kris

  3. Blown away, funny, interesting, educating and inspiring. Definitely getting bookmarked and referred to a lot.

  4. This is fantastic, Janet!!! It gives me so many ideas! In Dominion, I have my two main characters separated in time. He lives a lifetime while she's asleep. When they reconnect, he's changed with the culture while she's still clinging to the past. Makes for some powerful interactions.

    All of your posts are worldbuilding gold!

  5. Hello lovely. You already know I'm your fan, and I'd read just about anything just because you wrote it, Janet =)

    ...but I always love reading your perspectives on worldbuilding. Brilliant article.

    We have a passion and talent in common.

    Aaaaaand I have a story for you -- because of the "How will people react if you don’t want to have children - and how many is the “right” number?"

    You know me well enough to know that I love people. All kinds, and I love them FOR them, where they are, right now. Sadly, there are times when people are aggressively cruel, and one thing I wont tolerate is a bully.

    Be what you want, I don't have to agree, I'll fight for your rights, but don't get in my face and cross that bubble barrier.

    ...especially about my family.

    My wife and I are in a local grocery store, and everyone working there knows us. We've lived int he neighborhood for almost two decades, and I think my wife babysat half the checkers they employ.

    We are checking out, and we have had baby #8. She's small, new and oh-so beautiful, and the checker, whom we Do know, asks, "Oh my is this the new one?"

    My wife nods.

    "And this is number...eight, is that right?"

    Everyone turns as an old woman in a shredded tank-top snorts and rears back from us. Her purple hair make her unnatural orange skin and blurred tattoos covering her arms and chest area stand out.

    "Eight children!?" she gasps. "That's disgusting! Why would you EVER decide to have ONE child, and you have EIGHT?!"

    My wife pulls our daughter closer to her chest, turning the infant from the volume aimed at her.

    With a smile, I pay the young lady, and then ask the young bagger (also a teen boy we personally know from the neighborhood) to escort my wife to the minivan. My wife frowns at me, "Jaime, don't..."

    My smile widens. "I'll be out presently. Go on."

    As my wife walks away, I turn to collect my change, then turn my full attention on the old woman, still snorting in disgust.

    "Have we done something to offend you?" I ask her.

    "What?"

    "You don't know us, and yet you felt to be so unkind to my wife, who both loves and wants every child she risked her life to bring into this world."

    She sneered at me and spat, "It's disgusting! I'd rather DIE than bring a child into this world."

    I stared at her for a moment, then nodded. "Well, that's good. Some folk just shouldn't breed."

    ...and I walked away.

    Just a reminder that if our own parents didn't feel some form of obligation, duty, or in my case, absolute honor and joy, none of us would be here now to read this fantastic article.

    Just sayin'.

    (wink)

    1. So glad you found the article helpful! Your anecdote really highlighted my point about subcultures - and the kinds of conflict-driven interactions they can produce! There are darker sides to this too, such as when nations restrict or control how many children can be had. This can lead to all sorts of crazy conflict too! How do you feel your large family has affected the cultures you worldbuild?

      1. I can tell you how my large family has affected cultures and society in real life...

        I'm known as a catalyst. I've raised my children to be catalysts in their own right, and that the soul of an individual is most precious.

        As my children have grown, married, and moved into their own sphere of influence, that bold, unafraid, 103.2% bias personality comes alive...and people who are often afraid to speak up find their courage and their voice. Things not revealed have a light shown upon it.

        ....oh, and children laugh. A lot.

        I'd like to think that through the real life worldbuilding of my wife and I, the world is a brighter, more loving and accepting place to live.

    1. Hey Denise - yeah, my article was a little, uh, chonky! We even talked about running it as two. I get super passionate about worldbuilding! 😀 Hope it was helpful, at least? 🙂

  6. I have a tendency to write rebels 😛 The one who wants to escape the cultural taboos and just have fun in a foreign city, one who doesn't want to take up his father's profession and marry his dream wife, one who doesn't want to go to the war, one who seeks the individual glory in the war despite of his family's safety... And a lot of queer people navigating heteronormative cultures.

    Great article, you still managed to bring up points I haven't thought about!

    1. Hey Tuisku, rebels are the best! Showing how they fight against cultural norms adds an extra layer of interest and internal conflict, as well as external! Rebels also make great adventurers because they have a reason to break the status quo and go do something exciting! So glad to hear it was helpful 🙂 What's your favourite genre for writing rebels in?

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts

Search

WITS Team

Categories

Archives

Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved