It’s been wayyyy too long since I last posted, and even longer since I posted something other than a blog tag. I could blame the fact that the Coronavirus goings-on have turned my brain completely upside-down, but that’s really only part of it, so… Regardless of the reason, I apologize for totally disappearing. :P
Anyway, I got a writing question from one of my newsletter subscribers last month and it was on a topic that I find really fun: mixing cultures. I had several tips on the topic, so I thought I’d adapt the advice I gave to the subscriber into a blog post and share it with y’all. :)
Let’s say you have two characters from different cultures who come together in some way or another. Or multiple characters from different cultures who all came to live amidst a culture that’s new to all of them. Or any other sort of situation that pushes multiple cultures together. This can be a super fun thing to explore, and it can provide some awesome insight into your characters and world. But how do you do that?
1. How does your character view their own culture?
What does your character like about their culture? What do they dislike? Which of the culture’s values do they agree with or disagree with? Is keeping tradition important to them, or do they like assimilating pieces of other cultures into their life, or some mix of the two? This will essentially create the foundation for your character and their interactions with the culture(s) that’s new to them.
2. How does your character view each new-to-them culture?
Similarly to your character’s thoughts on their original culture, what do they like or dislike about each new culture? Which of the cultures’ values do they agree or disagree with? What might totally clash with their original values and cause conflict? Do they envy some of the aspects of another culture? Do they look down on certain traditions or customs that are different from their own? And are any of these things legitimate “can’t just agree to disagree” issues, or do they just come down to strong personal preference?
How do these views affect your character’s interactions with people who are natives of the new culture? How do they handle disagreements on values? Are they things that strain the characters’ everyday interactions, or are they only points of tension when they come up specifically? Or is there some mix? (For instance, if they impact how open one character is with another, but they don’t cause any surface-level tension.)
3. How do they feel about mixing cultures?
Does your character cling to the traditions of their original culture? Do they seek to stay separate from the new culture(s) they’ve entered? If so, are there any pieces of the new culture that cause them to struggle with this decision? Maybe values of the new culture that make more sense to them than the values of their own, but that they don’t want to admit for fear of compromising who they are?
Or do they embrace the new culture, either in part or in whole? Does the new culture have any values that replace the values of your character’s original culture? (For instance, if a character has always felt stifled by the traditions of their own culture and they find the looseness of the new culture freeing.) Are there opposing values in the two cultures where the character appreciates both and has to choose between them or struggle to balance them? (Maybe they like the traditions of their own culture and the spontaneity of their new culture and they have to decide if they want to let go of some traditions and keep others, or cling to their traditions because it’s what they grew up with, or find some other solution.) Basically, how much do they accept the shared culture and how much do they try to stay separate from it?
4. How much freedom does your character have when mixing cultures?
There are other, practical details to consider, as well. Can your character adhere to traditions from their original culture if they’ve moved locations to wherever this new culture is? Or is the difference in location such that they have to adapt or even let go of some traditions and customs? Maybe a certain food eaten on special holidays isn’t available where they are, or maybe they have a tradition of visiting a certain place on a certain day and they can no longer make the trip, or maybe a material used in a certain ceremonial dress is more rare wherever they are now. How do they feel about those possible restrictions? Do they adapt the tradition with what they have? Do they go to the extra work of getting the food or going to the place or getting the material because it’s so important to them? Do they resign themselves to letting go of the tradition/custom?
5. Consider ettiquette
Another thing you could work in to make inter-personal dynamics even more interesting could be to explore some of the everyday etiquette of each culture and see if any of them clash. For instance, in the real world there are places it’s rude to completely clear your plate and there are other places it’s rude not to. Or traditional greetings in one culture could be offensive gestures in another.
Bonus: Have characters strive for different balances
Not everyone views a culture (even their own) the same way. Even within families, views can be very different. What if your main character is willing to accept a lot of the new culture but her mother is bent on remaining separate and keeping as much of their original culture as possible*? Or what if your character’s best friend embraces a facet of the new culture that the main character finds repulsive?
*This example is pulled from my story Caithan in Short Story Collection vol. 1
Hopefully this post gives you some ideas for mixing cultures in your stories. What are some of your favorite things to see in stories where cultures clash or blend? I’d love to hear your thoughts down in the comments. :)