Our world is a diverse place. So many different types of people – can this be covered in books? Or do you end up with pages and pages of description that doesn’t move the story along but bogs it down in the authors imagination? It’s a delicate balance between showing diversity in a world, a species, a town. While Verne in 1872 might have gotten away with pages (three pages, one after the other – I counted) describing molluscs in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” not so a present-day author. They will get blasted for telling, not showing. So what’s an author to do?

Diversity is a result of both evolution and social constructs. Both act in various ways to produce people that look and act very differently over quite short periods of time. In evolutionary terms, the colour of your skin might determine the climate your distant ancestors called home. Other features include acclimatisation to cold including skin colour, length of nasal passage to warm air to the lungs, and circulation in the extremities. Or altitude – two different human adaptations are increased lung function in the Himalayas and increased red blood cell capacity in the Andes. A mutation in a population – if a successful one – can rapidly produce a new type of human (or creature) better adapted to their environment.

For much of human history we did not travel around very much. I was enthralled to see a documentary on excavating a 10,000 year old body in the UK. When they analysed the DNA, and that of a local school, the teacher was a distant relative! For 10,000 years his family had lived, worked and died in the same region. The very soil and tress were a part of him. The point is, isolating a population also spreads and concentrates a mutation, so after a relatively short time, one batch of humans on one mountain look different to the valley dwellers.

Social and cultural habits have become a great force in changing how humans look and behave. Consider eating habits, dress, slavery, economic caste systems – all very different and can affect greatly how a population reacts or survives an issue. The current pandemic is a case in point. Trusting science, experience with past diseases and a cooperative and caring society have been instrumental in survival.

For historical fiction authors, even a cursory watch of “Horrible Histories” will provide details on diversity in the past. People revolting, having rebellions, hating others for their colour or envying them their land.  However, some thought should go into viewing the past with present day eyes. For instance, the discovery of tagine style cooking implements on the Antonine Wall indicates a diversity of cultures in the Roman army which can be glossed over.

Fantasy writing is often home to a species diversity that is astonishing. Orcs, werewolves, elves, nagas, fae fairies, dryads – the human imagination regarding monsters is particularly fecund. Yet the tendency to stereotype is an easy out. Are all the dwarves beer guzzling miners? The elves all graceful and addicted to lengthy poems?

A stereotype is a quick and easy way to introduce a character, and one readily pictured by the reader. No need to describe a Tolkien elf – one readily pictures Legolas. For the most part, this can be adequate. Detailed descriptions can be hard to do in an interesting way, and if the story does not need nuances of behaviour to develop conflict, then a stereotype might be adequate. We don’t all have to reinvent the world in each book. But for a good one – you should.

In science fiction, this flat stereotype can be even more pronounced. An entire alien race can be a stereotype – think of Star Trek’s Ferengi as sleazy cheating profit hungry ugly creatures. Or all Vulcans (and Romulans) with the same hairstyle. First contact can be hard – doesn’t everyone look the same?

So a stereotype can be a useful tool to introduce a character. But you want conflict, nuance, motivations. I read that with the LOTR movies, they made computer simulated orcs, giving them a variety of behaviour patterns that helped them react in battle, so it looked realistic. They also noticed one group of orcs took off from the battle – and that was just a computer simulation. What behavioural changes will you see within a population?

Such examples abound. Romans becoming friends with slaves and seeing them as humans in “The Eagle” by Rosemary Sutcliff. In DS9 in Star Trek, the desire of Nog, a young Ferengi to enter Star Fleet exposed a swath of prejudice on both sides. So moving from a stereotype to the individual provides that depth of diversity that creates a great deal more interest in the story. No one can relate to a mass of faceless characters, but they can bond to an individual, even if they live in a galaxy far, far away, or a time long past.

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World Building: Cultural diversity
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One thought on “World Building: Cultural diversity

  • May 23, 2020 at 13:40

    Excellent points to consider. I don’t think any of us need three straight pages to get a feel for the culture, but a little something is good. It’s nice when an author gives us a little to chew on. A diversity to a planet’s cultures makes it feel more real.

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