In A World…: Writing Cultural Outsiders Part 2

In A World… is a series of posts about world building, where our contributors share strategies and tips for creating well-rounded worlds.

Welcome back, readers. As I said last week, the goal of these posts is to encourage writers to consider the effects of foreigners on their worlds. On Friday, we examined how incorporating visitors and immigrants while world building can add more depth to your story. Today we’re continuing that discussion with something a little more nuanced: colonization.

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.


When we talk about colonization, especially in YA fantasy, books feature oppression and end with revolution. There is beauty and courage in resistance and those are incredibly important stories to tell, especially now. But today I want to talk about something else: the lasting effects of colonization. The revolution has ended, independence has been won, armies have retreated. Now it is history. What comes next?

Let me tell you a story of my childhood. The first author I remember loving was Enid Blyton. I was probably about seven or eight when my parents handed me one of her books. And her extensive collection of children’s books was probably the first thing I ever binged. I wanted to solve mysteries along with the Famous Five before I wanted to join Nancy, Bess, and George. I dreamed of going to British boarding school at Malory Towers long before I dreamed of going to Hogwarts.

But my parents and I have a very different relationship with the UK. They didn’t understand why I begged them to let me move to England at the age of ten or why I insisted on studying abroad in the UK when I was in college. And I didn’t understand why they didn’t understand. For me, it was memories. It was childhood. And it was what they’d started by handing me that first Enid Blyton, that Jane Austen, that Ian Fleming, that PG Wodehouse.

It took me a very long time to realize why my relationship with the UK was different. For me, the British occupation of India was something covered in history books. Distance, both time and physical, made it into a story. My relationship to British culture was simply that: culture without baggage. It wasn’t so simple for my parents. And that was the difference.

Now my experience with colonization is just one perspective (I’m sure there are hundreds of Indian Americans who are close to my age who would have very different thoughts on everything I just shared). There are many flavors of imperialism, each with their own sets of lasting legacies. But the thing to remember is: the effect of colonization isn’t something that ends. The culture that is left behind, regardless of the fate or future of that country, will never be the same as it once was.

Culture is shared faster than you might think, and lingers longer than you’d expect. It’s easy when building worlds to throw in that mention of ancient wars because history or to say one kingdom was a territory of another because revolution. But dare to dig deeper. There is no shortage of examples in our own world of oppression and occupation. Look at history, but in looking to the past, don’t forget to also study today.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • How long has it been since a country gained its independence? Are there still people alive who remember imperial rule? How many people still remember?
  • If it’s been a long time since colonization has ended (by long, let’s say over 100 years), then who remembers the history? Is it everyone? Bards? Historians? Revolutionaries? Secret societies?
  • Is the main character from the colonizing country or the colonized? Note: think about this choice and why you made it–and be prepared to defend it.
  • What is your main character’s relationship with the other country? Do they love and idealize it because it has cultural elements they grew up with? Do they hate it because they can still feel the lasting effects of conflicts? Or is it somewhere in the middle? A complicated, complex blend of emotions, of love and hate and guilt and sorrow and pain and joy? Note: it’s probably that last one. Your character might not start there, but a realistic portrayal of the effects of colonization usually means exploring a mess of emotions, good and bad. Prepare to do the work–not just the research, but cultivating empathy
  • What is the primary religion of the country? Who practice other religions? Where do those other religions come from? Were there forced conversions?
  • What cultural practices–ideas and music and stories–are passed between the cultures? What cultural practices are lost? Note: think especially about the direction of movement. Culture is an exchange, sure, but think about what specifically in your world moves where. For example, resources usually go to the oppressor; language usually to the oppressed

Language and colonialism

Before I wrap up, I want to take a moment to specifically discuss one aspect of colonialism: language. TIMEKEEPER author Tara Sim had a great thread recently on common tongues and colonization:

Tara brings up a great point: a common tongue is easy for the purpose of fiction because we need the main characters to communicate with each other. But in doing so, don’t forget to think about which language is the “common” one and how it came to be. If you look throughout history, it’s very rare you’ll find instances of languages that are shared across large regions without invasion and occupation.

When discussing language in your worlds, think about:

  • What is the language spoken through most of the country? Why is that language the most common? 
  • What regional dialects exist? What phrases or words are only used in certain parts of the country? Are certain dialects mocked or have stereotypes associated with them?
  • How are other languages perceived? Is everyone expected to speak the language of the majority population? Which communities are required to be multilingual? Note: it’s usually minority group(s) that have to speak more than one language
  • Which sounds might be difficult for a foreigner to pronounce? Do natives find it charming when foreigners attempt to speak their language? 
  • How are speakers with accents treated? Are some accents thought to be attractive? Are some accents mocked? Note: think about why certain accents are treated that way

Writing cultural outsiders is no easy feat. It’s hard enough to build one fictional culture that is complex and nuanced without adding others into the mix. But if you are exploring a bigger world, spend some time thinking about the various dynamics that can exist between groups.

You can answer some of the questions I included in the last two posts, but think even beyond them. Think about which group has the power in each situation, and how the presence or lack of power can expand or restrict choices available to certain groups. Think about what critical perspectives foreigners can provide that might not be obvious to those who have grown up immersed in only one culture.

Whether or not you include the answers in your stories, even considering them can broaden and deepen your world building in subtle and powerful ways. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do as writers anyway? Happy world building, my friends.

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