Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World-Building 301: Cultural Referents

Greetings from across the pond! I'm on vacation in England until the 15th of July, so I thought I'd follow up last post's discussion of larger-scale world-building with a bit more elaboration on working with a unifying motif. This post, originally written over a year ago for Eventide Unmasked, explores the cultural referents that can evolve out of unifying symbols or motifs prevalent in that culture, including an extended exploration of the sun/moon duality in my own WIP.


How have your surroundings affected your perception of the world around you? Do you come from flat prairie land and always look to the horizon, the goal at the end of the journey? Does a coastal upbringing give you an urge to travel? Perhaps your faith emphasizes a trinity, and you look at things in threes.

We've talked before about how a character's individual perspective alters their world and the way they describe it, but on a larger scale, these sort of distinctions can influence the development of an entire culture or country. An island nation requires sea travel, producing superior knowledge of naval transport, as seen with the rise of the British Empire. An island nation may also create an insular culture, as with the Edo period in Japan.

In building the setting for your story, any such detail can become a focal point for the development of the culture and people of that region, permeating all the way down to technology and turns of phrase. A kingdom in rich agrarian land may have advanced farming and irrigation techniques, and the majority of the population may show a greater awareness of weather and seasons, as well as developing a need for more accurate, long-term predictions (a Tolkien's Almanac, if you will). A landscape filled with rivers provides greater ease of travel, acting as natural highways, allowing faster communication. It can also produce a collective consciousness of the lifeblood (both of information and water) rushing through that kingdom, and produce a great deal of water and river-related analogies for passages through life, successes, and set backs.

In Antharon, the people give their reverence to the sun and the moon, in the form of a pair of god-figures. This sets the cultural perspective towards picking out contrasts, opposites, and similar binary pairs. As a result, they are keenly aware of light and shadow, and thus the changing of the days throughout the course of the year*. The play of the seasons and the waxing and waning of day and night play a large part in the kingdom's culture, producing celebrations such as Nocturne, the transition from the sun's reign to the moon's long nights.

For those with a meticulous bent, the cultural attention on the passage of sun and moon across the sky has led to chronicled transition of days, months, and thus a recorded year turning on the longest day and longest night. On a shorter scale, sundials and other attentive trackings of the sun mark off the progress of the day, allowing for improvements in timekeeping over their less celestially-concerned neighbours. Antharians also study the night sky for signs and signals from beyond the Veil, and even a child tending flocks can recognize the familiar figures speckled across night's dark canvas.

Charting of constellations, then, enables sea travel, and Antharon is a coastal nation. What's more, the sea forms their eastern border, so the sun and moon rise out of the sea to travel over the kingdom, placing that far country, Amaris' twilit shore, across the sea. Many have attempted voyages to find those silver sands, but none who cross the Veil return without the Dark Lady's consent.

A simple thing, like landscape or a religious referent, can expand to influence all aspects of world-building from culture and technology to turns of phrase and the perceptions or remarks of your main character.

What key features influence the world-building in your stories? Does the landscape, the beliefs, or another aspect play a large role in the development of that culture? Share your process below, I'd love to hear it.

*I am not so gung ho about world building as to start dabbling with worlds featuring a different axis tilt toward the sun.


Joanne Brothwell said...

Great post, Hayey!
For my new WIP through Forward Motion for Writers, I'm spending a lot more time on world-building than before. As a result, I think it will be comprehensively fleshed out in the end.

It has a more fantasy feel to it, and more mythology as well. So far, there will be a leader who is idolized, a monster who is revered, and primitive culture focused on survival, becoming increasingly violent as resources deplete. Anyway, that's as far as I have gotten!

Denise said...

I'm delighted to have been referred to this series. All your points resonated with me, some as "yeah, got that" or even "oops, missed that." I've gone back and read the earlier posts and they've been filled with wonderful points. Thank you, Hayley, and I hope see more.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Great series, Hayley. I appreciate you linking all the others in this series.

And that last statement - about the axis - my jaw dropped at the thought. LOL

Happy wandering.


Karyn Good said...

I love these posts, Hayley. Even though I write comtemporary romantic suspense and my world-building is very small scale, I'm still thinking about it my small fictional town of Aspen Lake, in which life revolves around the four seasons. How, as a prairie town, weather plays a huge part in success or failure of crops, gardens and livelihoods. The vastness of the landscape compared to the close knit community. A lot of that information doesn't even make it into my wip but it provides me with a strong link to the people who inhabit my story and allows me to flesh them out. At least, hopefully it does.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
You've really thought about this a lot, haven't you! I never really considered some of the aspects you talk about, but they make perfect sense. I write mostly contemporaries, so I don't need to create a world with a new axis, but a writer always wants to build her own little world to set her story in. You've provided us with great information.

Have fun on your holidays!

Janet said...

Another excellent post, one all writers should bookmark for future reference! And thanks for linking the entire series :)

Hope the vacation is going well and you're loving England.

Helena said...

Sorry I missed commenting yesterday, Hayley. I was on the road, meetings to go to in Regina, and back late.

Like Karyn and Jana, I don't often think of world-building in the context of what I write, but there is certainly an element of creating the settings based on elements of nature, culture, historical facts, or even wishful imaginings for our characters to move in.

I'm very impressed with all the information that you have formulated for us. For me it broadens the scope of what is possible.

Were you at Stonehenge for the summer solstice?