Stories and Culture

Three Warriors

Stories are shaped by the culture they come from. You can track changes in a society by looking at the changes in their stories. See what kind of person a culture casts as the hero of their stories and you will see what kind of values that culture holds.

Yes, there will be individual variation, but it will be limited.

Stories also shape culture. The stories a child experiences when they are young have a huge effect on their view of the world, what the consider to be positive values, negative values, all of that.

It’s a feedback loop, but one that changes over time. See, the stories you experience as a child may set your values, to a degree, but it’s not just the formal one. It’s not just the kids’ book with the boring, bland storyline. No, it’s the stories you hear in the schoolyard, the ones your friends tell around a campfire at night, the ones your parents don’t know you hear from them.

All those stories together shape you, and there are more stories than people think. We call some of those stories history, because that’s what history is, a series of stories that we think are true. In aggregate, those stories are maybe even more influential than the ones we think of as stories… although I could see arguing it either way.

The history ones are however fascinating, in that they shape how we see ourselves, the identities we establish for ourselves. There is one country where the story goes like this: “There were threats on every side, and we beat those threats back. Then we wrested control of our own destiny from our overseas masters at the point of a gun. After that we expanded by beating back the wilderness, killing the threats to us at gunpoint. Threats everywhere, but by being vigilant and strong we were able to defeat those threats and make this nation the greatest in the world.” Sure, that narrative is mostly lies, but then again, aren’t they all?

Very close, in fact sharing a border with that place is another country. The creation myth of this country is “We got here and made friends with the people who already lived here. We set up trade and built settlements. We expanded from that place, growing as we did. We were resolute when we were invaded, but never invaded anyone else. When we wanted independence we asked nicely and it was granted.” That narrative is also mostly lies, but then again, aren’t they all?

These two stories have established the character of these places, and most people buy into them. On a subconscious basis, we follow these narratives. Americans as a whole are brash, combative, loud, aggressive. That’s how they are seen around the world, and many of them take pride in that image.

Us Canadians on the other hand, we believe in the image that we are polite, friendly, inoffensive. We include people, we make peace with people. That’s our image around the world and we take pride in that image, at least many of us do.

I have known Americans who are the politest, friendliest, quietest people you could imagine. I have known Canadians who are intolerant assholes of epic proportions, who will fight someone before they say please, who would rather die than apologize.

In the end, the myths we create aren’t who we are, they are just the stories we tell, and any individual might be different than their stories, but we still tell the stories.

A common mistake writers make, especially in terms of fantasy and science fiction, is to make the people in their stories be their cultural myths. Have every person from this country be this way, every person from that country be that way. It’s a form of shorthand for world-building, and it’s boring.

Instead, try to think about the cultural myths in your own world, and then try to see how that idea could extend into your fantasy world. Maybe the society is known for strict ettiquette, but the character you just introduced is kind of rude, maybe they are polite, but they secretly long to just throw politeness and rules to the wind and be themself. Maybe a confrontational people has a character who’s scared of conflict, and that person might even be on the surface much like the cultural myth, but inside they are nothing like that, and maybe every person from that culture exists somewhere on the spectrum from beyond what is considered their cultural norm to the exact opposite.

You will build richer worlds that way.

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