Thursday, November 13, 2014

Beyond Fancy Clothes and Funny Foods—Creating the Culture of Your Story


Shallee McArthur originally wanted to be a scientist, until she discovered she liked her science best in fictional form. When she’s not writing young adult science fiction and fantasy, she’s attempting to raise her son and daughter as proper geeks. A little part of her heart is devoted to Africa after volunteering twice in Ghana. She has a degree in English from Brigham Young University and lives in Utah with her husband and two children.

She is represented by Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates. Her YA sci fi novel, THE UNHAPPENING OF GENESIS LEE, debuts from Sky Pony Press Nov. 18, 2014.


And because people always ask, her name is pronounced "shuh-LEE." But she answers to anything that sounds remotely close.

When I was in college, I took a semester off to go to Ghana, West Africa. Everybody and their grandma warned me I’d experience culture shock. But hey, I’d studied up on the culture, I was ready for new experiences, and I could handle anything.

Then I got there and freaked out a little bit. Maybe a lotta bit.

I had to bathe from a bucket in cold water, and cram with six people I didn't know in the back seat of a taxi, and eat weird, slimy food like fufu with my fingers. Eventually I realized my biggest problem with culture shock was that I couldn't forgive Ghana and its culture for not being MY culture. I didn't understand the values behind the behavior, so I couldn't accept it. Once I was able to learn from the people around me, and to look at things and say, "this is the way it is because of this reason," I was able to love it.

Shallee walking the rope bridges in the Kakum rainforest canopy in Ghana.

So. In your stories, how do you make readers love this new world you’re throwing them into the way I came to love Ghana?

Culture. It’s the biggest key to your worldbuilding. It’s the world that shapes a character. It’s their way of life: the behaviors, values, and symbols that have become part of them as they live in their world. 

Building a culture is as simple as this diagram. Ha! If only it were really so simple. But if you understand these elements of culture, you can create them for your own world, and work them in to your story.

More information on cultures can be found here.

Let’s start at the core, the basis for everything in a culture—VALUES. All the things people do in a culture are practices, but all the reasons why they do them are their values. These are things that are most important to your world. What does your culture consider good or bad? What characteristics, objects, or ideas do they prize most? These values will be shaped by their environment (a desert culture would value water), as well as their history (a people nearly destroyed by war might value peace—or violence, depending on how you want them to be).

Once you know your cultures values, you can start on their practices, beginning with RITUALS. Rituals are activities that really aren’t necessary for survival, but are essential to how your culture interacts with each other. They’re actions performed that have some kind of symbolic value as dictated by tradition. It could be greeting, birth and funeral customs, or holidays. Think of things like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. Rituals often take place when a certain event or circumstance comes up (such as births, deaths, weddings, coming-of-age, saying hello or goodbye, etc.).  These are often a big part of what we see as “culture.” And they always tie back to those VALUES you created—people form rituals that reflect their values.

Next up: HEROES. Pretty easy, right? Who do the people in your culture look up to—living or dead? These heroes are your culture’s role models. They are prime examples held up to everyone else as living those values they hold dear. Sometimes, rituals (like holidays) might even revolve around a hero. They are role models for how your society thinks people should behave. For another Harry Potter example, think of the Houses of Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin—they’re all named after HEROES that exemplify the values of that House.

The final layer of culture are its SYMBOLS.  These are the daily outward expressions of a culture and its values. It's slang words, objects, dress, food, or hairstyles that define the culture and are significant to them. These are things like Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, Chocolate Frog cards, wizards robes, and even wands in Harry Potter. This is where you can really play with the flavor of your world—but remember, that flavor is going to be a little bland if you don’t have the values, rituals, and heroes to back it up.

By starting at the center to build your culture, you can create a world that is not only fun, but has meaning and depth. You can create a world that seeps into every subplot and character in your story. And when you manage that, you can create a world and a story your readers will love.




Jill here! Thanks so much for the awesome guest post, Shallee. I learned a lot!

To thank Shallee for posting, we're giving away a copy of her new book, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. Enter on the Rafflecopter from below.


What would it feel like to never forget? Or to have a memory stolen?

Seventeen-year-old Genesis Lee has never forgotten anything. As one of the Mementi—a small group of genetically enhanced humans—Gena remembers everything with the help of her Link bracelets, which preserve them perfectly. But Links can be stolen, and six people have already lost their lives to a memory thief, including Gena’s best friend.

Anyone could be next. That’s why Gena is less than pleased to meet a strange but charming boy named Kalan who claims not only that they have met before, but also that Gena knows who the thief is.

The problem is that Gena doesn’t remember Kalan, she doesn’t remember seeing the thief, and she doesn’t know why she’s forgetting things—or how much else she might forget. As growing tensions between Mementi and ordinary humans drive the city of Havendale into chaos, Gena and Kalan team up to search for the thief. And as Gena loses more memories, they realize they have to solve the mystery fast…because Gena’s life is unhappening around her.


a Rafflecopter giveaway

41 comments:

  1. This is a really helpful post! I'm saving it to my favorites right away. So far in my fantasy WIP the characters don't have any contact with the other world, but they will later, so this will be great to help build up the other world.

    Thank you!

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  2. This will help a lot with my world building for my sci-fi story.

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  3. This is really helpful. Too often it seems we come up with the exterior customs first, then try to find the inner reasons for them, rather than the other way around.

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  4. This is so helpful, I never thought of world-building this way. :) thanks!

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  5. I found the linking of values, rituals, heroes, and symbols to be helpful. I like the idea of answering the questions in that order (starting with values). And the fact that values are influenced by history and environment will jumpstart me into defining the values of my imaginary culture. Thanks for the post, Shallee!

    Also, if I may add, I particularly value the science fiction book of someone who actually studied science. I would be curious to read your book because of that, if nothing else.

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  6. Oh my gargoyles, your post is so...clear! It "defined" the lines for me. Before, I had a vague intuitive sense of what my storyworld needed to be like, but thank you so much for putting it all down on paper :-)

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  7. This is a really helpful post. I'm about to start world building with a book I'm writing, and I'll try to use this. Unfortunately, there's a part of me that says that this will be too long and hard, and that I should take the shortcut. But I'll try not to listen that voice. I know my book will be better if I don't cut corners.

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    1. Actually, I take that back. Using this method is easier than just coming up with a list of things about the culture. I'm trying it with a desert culture that I just had a basic idea of, and now it's starting to become real and even give me more ideas for plot, conflicts, and backstory! Thank you so much for this post. :)

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  8. The back cover of that book is screaming 'read this' to me. I think I'd love the book! I do love the cover, by the way. It's gorgeous!

    arendedewit.blogspot.com

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    1. And I forgot to say that I like the 'rituals' part in your post. I often forget something like that, but it's great to make your story likable, I guess.

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  9. Awesome post. It made things really clear for me! Love the chart.

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  10. Wow, why did I never realize culture is so important? I'll be creating mine! Thanks for today's blog post.

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  11. Hmm ... I've never thought about worldbuilding this way, though I think I've been unconsciously doing it this way for a long time. When I build my culture, I always try to start with what the culture deems important, whether it be knowledge, bravery, faith in God, or even true love. From there I can fractal it out, building their history, their political system, their religeon, and everything else, because I know what foundation those things are built on.

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  12. Wow, I really like this technique! Also, your book sounds fascinating.

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  13. Never even considered the culture to be so important...
    ....I think this'll make a difference. Thanks!

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  14. I love creating culture-esque things for fantasy I write. Sometimes it's a lot harder to do it though! I have to keep a whole notebook filled with the things to keep track :)

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  15. This was a really educative post! How do you make sure that the culture values (and practises) aren't so alienating as to completely transform a world? (Like when writing contemporary with characters who have their own lifestyles (and thus their own viewpoints) as well as an overarching "normal" culture to deal with?)

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  16. What a fantastic post! I usually write realistic fiction, which I love, but occasionally I've considered trying my hand at fantasy because I adore reading it so much. In the end, though, I often give up before I even began because I'm so overwhelmed by the amount of worldbuilding necessary! On the other hand, your tips for building a culture are amazing, and the best part is the way that each element grows organically on the one before it: setting leads to values leads to rituals and so on. It makes so much more sense than trying to create a piecemeal culture from a list of those elements, and it overwhelms me so much less, haha. :) I'll definitely keep this method in mind in case I ever have a new fantasy idea I want to try writing--thanks so much for stopping by and sharing!

    (Also, your book sounds so cool--definitely entering this giveaway. And congrats on your upcoming release! :)

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  17. This was very interesting! I almost wish my stories weren't set in modern-day America so I could use it. I mean, I guess I still to need to take it all into consideration. Just not as much as if I were building my own world.

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  18. this post was really helpful! especially the part about heroes of the culture.... but what if most of even the recent history had been forgotten by most... I suppose then it is only 'heroes' that are still living.

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  19. I'm so glad so many people are finding it useful! And for those who write contemporary, certain aspects of it can still be used to deepen a culture in small ways, like at a high school or for a family setting.

    Mawa-- If I'm understanding your question properly, I think the best way to make sure that a character's own personal culture doesn't class with their world culture is to remember that their personal culture would draw from the world around them, but with certain twists that would come from their personal background. Or, you could let the personal and societal cultures clash if you give a good reason why they would-- that kind of clash can work out great for your plot, too!

    Clare-- Yes, the living heroes would probably be very important to them in that case!

    Thanks to all for your thoughts and enthusiasm! You can make this process as complicated or as simple as you want-- and a lot of times, it's not until you're in the middle of writing the story that some of these things will come to you.

    Good luck to all with your writing! And thanks to Jill and Stephanie for having me here!

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  20. Thanks for the helpful post! I tend to create my worlds as I write my stories . . . which usually ends up with said worlds not being developed all that awesomely. But these are definitely things I can easily think about as I'm writing my novels!
    Thanks again!

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  21. Ooh that book sounds awesome!
    Great post! I never thought about culture this way before, but I'll definitely keep it in mind as I edit my sci-fi and fantasy stories!


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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  22. I loved this post, so I was pumped to get to the end and see that you're the author of The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. I saw something about it a bit ago on another blog, and it looks wizard. Congrats on its release!

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  23. This is so neat and insightful. This could even apply to my novel which takes places in a distance future America. Even though it's still the USA some things have changed and this post puts it all into perspective.

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  24. Ah I love the onion approach to culture. I'm not even sure that is what it is officially called, but my teached would always call it like that, because you can peel it back layer by layer like an onion till you end up at it's core.
    Great post!

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  25. Thanks for this really awesome and helpful post! I had to save this to favorites :D

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  26. This is some really great information - thank you! I'll be sure to save this for future reference.

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  27. This was great. It reminded me of a lecture I was at once about different cultures and their worldviews. Why do people do what they do? That was the big question. I never thought about applying it to my writing, but now I think I need to, especially in the story that I'm writing.

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  28. Really good advice! I've never thought of worldbuilding that way and I've read a lot about it. And your book sounds really cool! Thanks for sharing!

    Stori Tori's Blog

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  29. Congratulations on your book! You must be so excited!

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  30. I should probably work on heroes a bit more. Rituals might be important too.

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  31. Thank you! I'm gearing up for world building right now. So this was helpful.
    Oh, and your book sounds really interesting.

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  32. SOMEONE WHO UNDERSTANDS ICE COLD BUCKET SHOWERS AND WEIRD FOODS EATEN WITH FINGERS.
    AWESOME.
    Sorry, I just had to get it out of me. ;)
    This post is absolutely FANTASTIC. I love culture (mainly because I usually live in a different country, which gives me two cultures to know. So, I actually think I had reverse culture shock than culture shock.... (no seriously, we can drink out of the faucet? You must be joking.) Sorry. :P )
    But anyways, this post is one of my favorites, thanks so much for it! :D

    TW Wright
    ravensandwriting.blogspot.com

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  33. Ally, it's true, understanding the why is so important--in life and in writing!

    TW, hurrah for bucket showers and finger food! I understand reverse culture shock, too-- I had that coming home from Ghana for sure.

    Good luck with your world building, everyone! I hope the ideas and words are flowing. :)

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  34. This post is really awesome! In the novel I'm working on for NaNo, I'm working out the fantasy world. It's really fun, but it can also be very challenging. Speaking of which, I should really get back to writing that...

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  35. This doesn't just apply to fantasy, if you are writing about different regions in the same country things can be vastly different. Thank you for posting this, as it is going to really help me with NaNoWriMo.

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  36. This post was very helpful to me as I'm building a parallel universe with its own unique culture for my current WIP. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge - and introducing us to your book! :)

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  37. This is going to make my fantasy story so much more real. I'd been worrying that the culture's foundation was a little ridiculous, but if I use this I think it will fix my problem! Thank you! I would love to read your book!

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  38. That was a super helpful post! I am very fond of world building but often I get caught up in one aspect of it and forget about all of the others.

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