MisCon 28: Developing Cultures for Storytellers
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Developing Cultures for Storytellers
Panel members: Steven Erikson, John Goff, Ken Scholes
Panel description: In this panel we’ll learn how to develop unique cultures, economies, art, history, culture, music, language, expletives, etc. to fill your stories with juicy, realistic details. We’ll discuss how culture influences your characters, your world, and its history. Come learn from anthropologists, archaeologists, and writers.
KS: There’s rhythm for believable histories. In my five book series, there’s culture and conflict. In the beginning, the protagonists don’t know there’s another culture. That’s a mystery. All stories have their own world. Even in short fiction, you can’t suspend disbelief if you don’t have a culture.
SE: I recommend that beginning writers find an introductory anthropology textbook. Conflict comes from the clash of cultures. Geography dictates culture and history. Between my ninth and tenth books, I went to Mongolia with a group of Russian anthropologists. I observed the differences in culture between Beijing and Ulaanbaatar. Mongolians are bigger than the people in China. In order to understand why Europeans called them the scourge, you have to know that their diet of dairy and protein made them a bigger people. Understand what effects shape culture. Once we had farming, there was a consequence for not hunting food anymore. People started hunting each other–which became warfare.
KS: Is there any anthropological theory you like?
SE: I like the Neo-Marxist model, without the communism stuff. The hunter gatherers became sedentary and developed pastoral agriculture. Civilization expanded and specialized and increased in complexity. And with the industrial age, it all did damage.
Q: Was Mongolians versus Chinese like Romans versus the Gauls?
SE: Not really. The Romans collectively imposed their rule, but the Gauls (and the Celts) fought as individuals instead.
JG: I work for a licensed property so I build on what was already created. I work on Deadlands which is an alternative history of the American West. In this world, the Civil War grinds to a halt without a resolution and we discover that magic can only be used by certain cultures. This can play up the conflict.
Q: How do you view technology changing culture?
SE: It basically improves methods for people to destroy each other. When I was in Winnipeg, I saw some Lakota and Sioux artifacts and some what if questions became a story idea. What if the Sioux had the power to defeat the U.S. army? They would have still been devoured by the dominant culture.
JG: In the game I’m working on, there is a northern tribe that shuns technology and a southern tribe that embraces technology. In the end, it is the southern tribe that loses its culture. If you can visit a place in real life, you should go.
KS: Experience the world if you can. Stories are everywhere. Go places and experience the people. I went to France for my French publisher and I made friends with just my guitar. I let people tell me their story.
Q: I’m trying to figure out what western ideology that may be inadvertently ingrained in my world building.
SE: Ask yourself what rules you used to create the world. What if magic worked? Then decide if the magic is gender based or learned. Removing sexist language is hard, but consider how you created the world.
KS: I used to be a fundamentalist Baptist minister, but it was a slow path to what I am now as a secular humanist. Old preachers are a culture in themselves.
SE: Cultures are not monolithic. There are cultures within cultures.
JG: I also run into that in gaming. Try to be respectful. Call out the differences so players can build on it.
KS: How do you handle cultural appropriation?
SE: I grew up in Winnipeg which had the largest population of Native Americans in Canada, so I must include them. It would be a disservice to excise them. There are people in our country who live entirely different lives. Stealing myths and transforming them is not good.
Q: What’s your opinion on appropriation of myth?
KS: There’s a lot of stuff I had to unlearn with privilege, etc. So I still have to find my own way. Be respectful, don’t exploit.
JG: As long as you are respectful, then it’s fair game. There are a number of Japanese films that are westerns transposed to Japan. Then Italians transposed those films back into America, becoming the spaghetti western. As we grow closer together in the world, there’s a lot of cross-pollination.
SE: Karagawa does Shakespeare in Japanese.
JG: I don’t like The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves where the culture is only accepted if there’s a white dude in it. It’s not respectful. Marketing underestimates the audience.
SE: I recommend 1491 and 1493 for books on culture.
KS: When I had been a pastor, I saw Dances with Wolves and at the time I thought it was the tribe who redeemed him.
SE: When a white man went native, he got a bounty on his head because he was getting a better life. We carry many biases. What would you think if we replaced fifth century Greeks with the Congolese?
KS: I became pro-choice because of Cider House Rules and pro-gay because of Brokeback Mountain. There’s a fine line between outraged enough and not outraged enough.
Q: Save the Pearls is a novel about white people (pearls) subjected to black people (coals). What do you think of inverting race?
SE: Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a book where disease wiped out the European population so the Europeans became slaves.
KS: In The Forever War the protagonist had to adjust when the culture became more gay than straight. It shook me up and made me think.
JG: A friend’s daughter attended a class where they did an exercise like that in order to teach how some people are still treated like second class citizens, but it backfired and made it worse.
Q: If you’re inverting the culture, be careful it’s not too heavy handed. Otherwise it would be more like a photo negative. Look at the point of view of that culture.
JG: Be aware of your biases.
SE: It’s an enormous can of worms with cultural relativism. There are many apologists for horrible things. You have to determine why they’re doing it. If a culture is on the edge of subsistence, they are more conservative. They want to keep the status quo or they’ll starve.
KS: Write with empathy.