The Danger of Understanding Cultures from the Outside In
Imagine you’re an Englishman in the middle ages. You’ve never been to France or Sicily or the Holy Roman Empire, but other folks have, and they’ve come back and told you about the French, the Italians, and the Germans. They describe how different French cuisine, mannerisms, routines, fashion, courtship, warfare, and philosophy are, and the same with the Italians and the Germans. They don’t describe–in fact they may not even have noticed–how similar their patterns of life, their religious beliefs and traditions, their family structure, their trades, their form of government, etc., are. In the mind of a medieval Englishman, French, Italian, and German cultures are inherently alien and exotic, because all the stuff that was similar was too boring to report.
Of course, the French didn’t consider the parts of their culture that were unique and different from English culture to be the critical parts of French culture. The French way of life, as defined by the French, revolved around mostly the same activities as other ways of life in medieval Europe. But when the French looked at the English, the differences stood out while the similarities blended into the background, so they also thought of the English in terms of the former, not the latter.
Cultural stereotypes, myths, and prejudices are quickly established since the number of people who directly interact with the other side are few. Both sides paint with a broad brush and in only the colors that seem strange and foreign to them. “The French wear scarves, berets, drink a lot, and smell bad,” says the Englishman (channeling modern stereotypes to make a point), and the other Englishmen nod approvingly, not knowing any better themselves.
Most of that is not true for most Frenchmen, and even the ones that have a basis in truth–many in France do drink a bit of wine with many meals–is not true for a huge number of the French. If you go to France, you might find a few individuals who embody a preponderance of these traits, but the French are as diverse as any wealthy culture, and the average Frenchmen bears little resemblance to the caricature. This was basically as true in medieval times as it is today.
Now swap out the English for fantasy humans and the French for fantasy dwarves. In fantasy, we accept that most, if not all individuals in a fantasy culture embody the cultural traits outsiders find unique: dwarves are all like Gimli, they all grow beards, wield axes, are smiths or miners, like to drink, and take their ancestral clan very seriously. Sure, there might be an individual or two who buck the trend, but they are the odd ducks, probably ostracized to some extent because of their un-dwarf-like behavior, the exceptions that prove the rule.
That’s not really how cultures work, though.
How Cultures Work (according to me)
First, few1 cultures assign internal significance to the physical characteristics that differentiate them from other groups. Chinese culture assigns no significance to their epicanthic folds, other than to distinguish them from other groups. It’s externally significant, but has little to no internal meaning. Dwarves may care a great deal about their beards, but the beards did not become significant internally because it marked them different from their neighbors. Rather, dwarven beard culture happened first, and then became just one of those traits other races found unique and interesting.
1 The exception that proves the rule here, though, is an oppressed culture: an oppressed culture might just assign great significance to the biological or other signifiers that their oppressors use to identify and mistreat them, reclaiming them as badges of honor.
So if you find yourself making a fantasy cultural trait around a physical distinction, like an elven ballet tradition since elves are relatively slender and graceful, remember that elves don’t think of themselves as all slender and graceful. They think of themselves as elves, who may be short, tall, thin, bulky, stout, etc., to their eyes, no matter how other races would describe them. Elven ballet is a perfectly legitimate idea, but it wouldn’t happen because elves are graceful; the most graceful of elves would pick up ballet and it would be very interesting and memorable to other races that are unlikely to match the extremes of elven grace on display, but that wouldn’t automatically make it important to elves as a whole. Russian ballet is a world-famous style, but the vast majority of Russians have never danced ballet and aren’t suited for it just by being Russian.
Which leads to the second point: cultures are not monolithic. Keeping with the Russian theme, most Russians have never given more than a passing thought to Russian ballet. Or to the architecture styles of the buildings around Moscow’s Red Square. Or to the characteristics of Russian vodka compared to other alcohol. Even if a significant minority do think about them, such that they are cultural touchpoints that foreigners will encounter, most Russians do not embody these cultural traits anymore than the French wear scarves, berets, and always have cheese and wine ready. And some Russians reject Russian ballet as insultingly bourgeois, or Russian vodka as cheap and unsophisticated. They might engage in the cultural trappings of Russia, be neutral towards them, or actively reject them.
Similarly, fantasy cultures will have a spectrum and diversity of opinion, even on things that outsiders see as inherent to the culture. Dwarves live underground and their kingdoms’ wealth comes from mining, but only a minority of dwarves really consider themselves born to mine; a lot of them are just there for the paycheck or until something better comes along. Some probably hate mining, and these are disproportionately likely to be adventurers, since they would rather accept great risk on an adventure than take the relatively steady life of a dwarven miner.
The same with drinking, or beards. Dwarves could have an absolutely killer alcohol culture known far and wide, but the average dwarf probably isn’t a connoisseur, he likes his local brews well enough, while the progressives are rallying in the capital for unions and *gasp* prohibition. And how would the clan elders respond to a generation of rebellious youth who started shaving their heads and beards, originally in solidarity with a revolutionary political figure whose beard was shaven for “corrupting the youth,” but which has now just become a style?
Cultures contain multitudes, and the pressures that shape cultural values, practices, and expressions are generally internal or environmental, not comparative. They have to do with the life cycle of the race, the place they live and how they fulfill their physical and emotional/spiritual needs as individuals, families, villages, towns, cities, and nations.
Building Cultures from the Inside Out
When you’re thinking up a fantasy culture, then, avoid starting with “what will outsiders see first?” Instead, start from the inside out: what do wood elves talk about with other wood elves? How are families organized, how is labor divided? What life milestones are celebrated? How are decisions made in the village or town? What functions are essential to an elven settlement’s way of life? What does their spirituality look like? What do wood elves disagree about? How do they resolve conflicts between individuals? Between settlements?
If the culture has cities and trade and specialization, the answers to these questions will probably vary more, as different needs are prioritized for different groups, creating the potential for more conflict and drama. The spectrum of attitudes really starts to extend. Embrace it! Let the dwarven capital actually feel cosmopolitan instead of provincial. Small villages in an area may be a little more homogeneous, though you should still flesh out the conflicts in a village that will be explored, but a city should lean into the fissures in a society dealing with ever-shifting internal and external pressures. It helps you understand the facets of your culture, including what parts outsiders will see first, and it increases potential for great characters and great drama.
The dwarves of Tyr Alona, for instance, were exiled from their mountain halls by a great dragon that took up residence in the ancestral capital of Bhar Moldir and sent his draconic armies to eradicate any dwarves that dared remain underground. Now living on the surface in Kharnumok, the dwarven civilization was under extreme pressure. The more orthodox among them, including many of the clan leaders, believed that they were being punished for straying too far from the traditional faith of the forge god Rapha, and only repentance and religious renewal would restore them to their homes under the earth. In fact, there were some who took this to extremes and terrorized those they deemed insufficiently pious to encourage all dwarves to remember the old rites. While the traditionalists disapproved the extremists’ methods, some sympathized with them. Many dwarves, however, placed the blame squarely on the dragon and didn’t feel their forebears’ religion was particularly insightful on fixing that problem. Some even embraced surface life; fresh produce was a whole new dietary world, and they loved it! They saw a new chapter in dwarven society, opening untold new opportunities that weren’t working in that gods-forsaken mine.
The city of Kharnumok was ground zero for dwarven extremists and reformers. Even if the story that brings the characters there isn’t about the dwarves’ plight, it’s a background element that shows a living culture responding to extreme circumstances. That is simply more interesting than a city that emphasizes a one-dimensional set of cultural traits like a tourist attraction.
What do you think? What fantasy cultures have you found or made that are fully fleshed out and three-dimensional? What about their culture seemed most real to you?