In A World… is a series of posts about world building, where our contributors share strategies and tips for creating well-rounded worlds.
Usually, when we talk about world building in fantasy, we’re thinking about building one specific culture and how your characters move around within and interact with that culture. Today (and on Tuesday), I want to talk about something else: interactions between different cultures.
Countries—even fictional ones—don’t exist in a vacuum. Whether it’s because of trade or war, it’s normal for neighboring populations to come to share languages, religions, and customs. And these foreign relations can really shape a country in unexpected and permanent ways.
Over the course of the next two posts, I want to encourage writers to consider the effects of foreigners on their worlds. I will be talking about three groups of people—visitors, immigrants, and colonized—and how considering them can help broaden the scope of your world.
A few notes before we dive in:
First, for the purposes of this post, I sorted foreigners into three categories: visitors, immigrants, and colonized. These are broad generalizations that ignore nuance and specificity of experience.
Second, this is intended to be a jumping off point with some questions and thoughts to get you started. Each one of these topics is big enough to warrant a separate post dedicated to it. This is in no way a comprehensive list, and is not meant to replace more substantial research into individual cultures and experiences.
Being a visitor is something that almost everyone has experienced at some point in their life. Maybe you’ve never had the opportunity to explore a new country with new cultures and languages, but think about the last time you went to a new friend’s house.
Think about which rooms you spent your time in, which areas you got to see, and what you did there. Chances are you spent most of your visit in a common area, like playing board games in the living room or having a barbecue in the backyard. Maybe they offered you a tour of the house, but even if they did, it was likely you only peeked into the rooms unless you were explicitly invited inside. Maybe they served fancy drinks and offered you platters full of decadent snacks. Overall, their house was probably clean and tidy, with no dishes in the sink or unmade beds or laundry that hadn’t been put away.
Is that how they always live? Maybe. Maybe not. But it was the version of their house they wanted you to see.
Countries are really not much different from that. Tourists and visitors only get to see a tiny sliver of a particular culture, usually things at the surface. Food and clothes, dance and music, art and jewelry. Visitors usually only get the cleaned up, polished versions of culture—things that are fun and colorful and easy to sell. Visitors come looking for a spectacle, and countries usually deliver that.
So when you’re building your world, think about what things visitors get to see—and what they don’t. Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What specific attractions—whether they be sites or experiences—draw people to your city or country?
- Which areas of the city or country are considered popular with tourists? Why?
- Where are the visitors from? Is there one neighboring country that many people visit from? On the flip side, which countries do visitors rarely come from?
- How do the locals feel about visitors? Are they fascinated or repulsed? Do they seek them out or avoid them? Do they idolize or mock them? Note: this attitude is probably negotiated on an individual basis with each outside culture; citizens can love visitors from one country but not those from another
- What languages or accents can be heard in the more touristy districts? How do the locals communicate with the tourists? Do they use hand gestures and signs? Do they expect visitors to speak their language?
- How do the locals cater to the tourists? What stereotypes do visitors hold that the locals might exploit for profit? For example: many of the more touristy streets in Scotland have people playing bagpipes because visitors expect bagpipes when they think of Scotland
Immigration is a tricky thing to write about. There are so many factors that play into it that it’s nearly impossibly to state definitively that anything is the immigrant experience.
The immigrant experience, just like any other experience, is something that every individual wears differently. So much shapes us into who we are. There are positive encounters and negative ones, there are micro-aggressions and outright offensive comments, there is culture shock—and maybe most surprising of all, reverse culture shock. And it only gets even more complicated when you begin to consider different subsets of immigrants, including refugees, those forced to emigrate against their will, and established diaspora communities.
But the one thing to keep in mind is that immigrants are trying to establish a life in a new country. And often that means they have to adopt the practices of the majority groups. They can—and will—have their own communities where they can keep alive the traditions of their home culture. But most of the time, in their schools and workplaces, they’ll adopt the languages and clothes and histories and stories of their new country. And often, immigrants will blend cultural traditions of their country of origin with traditions of the country where they’re making their new lives to create a separate, third culture.
Here are some questions to consider when building worlds with immigrants:
- What bureaucratic systems are in place to restrict or stop immigration? Which group(s) might be most affected by these systems?
- What is the monetary cost of immigration? What communities might these costs be prohibitive to? Note: speaking from experience, every step probably costs something, including travel documents, visas, interviews, the path to citizenship—if there’s even a path to citizenship
- What rights and responsibilities are offered to immigrants? Which ones are denied? Note: if your country is a democracy, voting is always restricted to citizens—and maybe not even all citizens
- What are the jobs that immigrants perform? Where are those industries located? How does immigrant culture shape or define that industry? Note: your immigrant populations are probably clustered around those industry hubs, which will affect local culture too; for example, think of the Silicon Valley
- Which aspects of immigrant cultures become accepted or celebrated by the majority? Which practices or beliefs are immigrants forced to give up? Note: surface level things (clothes, music, art, food) are usually eventually accepted or at least appropriated
- Which immigrant communities were forced to assimilate? Which were forced to stay separate? How does that factor into the ways they relate to their culture of origin?
- What kind of systemic oppression exists against different communities?
Intercultural communication is a difficult topic, to be sure. As you can see, there are a lot of things to consider—and we’re barely scratching the surface of these topics. There’s no one way to do it and every circumstance is different. But I hope these questions will help you think about how you want to approach incorporating multiple cultures in your own worlds. Be sure to check back in next week when I’ll be discussing the third topic: colonization.