In Depth Fictional Cultures

Whether the colorful backdrop or under the microscope, culture can create fantastic engagement for the audience. Detail the many dishes in a feast and watch me start in the kitchen to form and indulge in those same treats. For the audience a habitable environment is made of interlocking components which can, in appearance, exist on its own accord and where that becomes most obvious is how a society acts. To accomplish this requires a well-devised culture.

To separate this goal from the stringent disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and psychology it helps to think of culture as an offshoot of worldbuilding for a storyteller’s mindset. Take a blank page, add a spark of an idea, and mold it over trial and error into something cohesive. You have a cool sounding sport where two opposing teams jump along a field of high, narrow poles and attempt to move a ball from one side to another. It might not fit perfectly once on paper but it was so awesome in your head you immediately could envision how a game would play out. That’s fine.

Like worldbuilding start with the ground up. What kind of landscape would justify a people developing this kind of game? If the place is as flat as Kansas who’d think of throwing up a bunch of sticks and jumping upon them? Flat ground, flat sport. Mountainous terrain would be far more attributable to the required balance and fleet footedness which would aid in both the sport and simple movement. It’s nothing grand or fantastic but it makes as much sense as having an expansive plain be traversed through long derations of continuous running or horseback riding.

Further up from the soil is the environmental biome. Mountains? Check. Wood? It can’t be high up in the Himalayas because of scarce lumber resources and it wouldn’t be the best thing to jump around on icy or avalanche prone peaks. Mountain goats can scale cliffs but they often chose their next leap with care. Sans patience and the cold from real world examples I find the best fit to be New Guinea. Plenty of trees and comparatively little snow. Also I recall from accounts of fighting there in World War Two that the natives were adept at climbing the mountains and jumping atop rocks in the rivers.

Games typically derive from either real-world circumstances distilled into a competitive format like shooting a bow at a target rather than an animal or they have religious symbolism like the Mesoamerican ballgame which represents the movement of astronomical bodies. If the people are used to fleetfooted movements then the wood poles could be stand-ins for rocks jutting out of a river. Fall and be swept away. It makes for good practice in developing real world skills. The ball could just be a fresh kill especially if wrapped in hide. A man needs to bring home the bacon.

Then comes the question why, why would people bother with this game? Well, why do anything? Boredom. This thing is fun to do and fun to watch. The logic doesn’t have to be ten layers deep or rooted in cold calculation. People get bored with nothing to do so they make up games with what they have around them. The materials to play this game were ready at hand and were merely thrown together forming the basic principles of the game. I don’t know how anyone wins yet but I can guess they score a point by placing the ball into a raised container or carrying it past a to a certain place. Fun games need win conditions.

With the game slightly more fleshed out the focus can broaden onto the peoples who’d organize and participate in it. What does this game mean to them? Is it a simulation of a common battlefield and thus serving as a substitute for war? Possible, especially if the population isn’t sufficient to be repeatedly stunted through the ravages of war. But if the population was sufficient the game could serve a communitarian and religious aspect. Getting the family together and cheering on your friends and neighbors makes for a fun Sunday (or Sunday equivalent). The circus component of bread and circuses. In a – respectfully – more primitive society the religion will likely have strong nature analogs in the moral teachings meant to explain their environment.

The teams will be six on six with one on the attack with the ball and the other defending. The attacking team wins if they get the ball to a final row of poles in the back of the defenders’ side. But the game can’t be over so soon so make it only a point towards a winning amount or time limit. The attackers fail if the ball is stripped, intercepted in flight, or falls to the ground at which point the ball changes sides. To liven it up let’s bench one of the attackers each round making them always the underdogs and place one of the defenders behind the attackers. He’ll spur quick action and tighten up the rounds.

For a religious parallel the game could be a stolen brilliance archetype where mortals acquire the fruits of Gods (i.e. Prometheus). The ball could be painted gold and manifest knowledge taken from the peak of a great mountain by a band of noble warriors. The climax of the escape comes on a river where the warriors must cross upon stones to carry all knowledge past the Gods’ clay monsters while avoiding a giant crocodile approaching from behind. If all knowledge is dropped into the river it’ll disappear and if consumed by the crocodile it will be lost forever. Once past the clay monsters all knowledge can be shared with the warriors’ village preventing the Gods’ from containing the spread lest they destroy every creature which offers them tribute and praise.

This parallel makes the outnumbered attackers the de facto heroes of the game. Over-focused defensive play will draw boos from the crowd. Who wants to see a 3-0 Super Bowl anyway? The players then must wear clay masks (perhaps vision obscuring) when on the defensive and the crocodile a fearsome toothy cover over his mouth to disincentivize cheering for him. Only one attacker need cross the line for only one warrior in the tale returned to his village, the rest succumbing to the clay monsters and the crocodile. This state of play encourages decisive action, teamwork, and sacrifice, all morals sought to be passed onto the spectating children as they cheer.

At this point the game is mostly a matter of well-spitballed worldbuilding but the bridge into culture comes in how the game and society impact each other chicken-and-egg style. As the story is told what was once a pastime or part of an exercise routine becomes a game. A champion of the game goes on to be a great warrior and is venerated by the community, his image reproduced in paintings and pottery. Babies are washed with water poured from a pitcher bearing that champion’s image to promote strength. Over time the exonerated characteristics lead to higher degrees of aggressiveness and self-sacrifice from every member of the community. Facial coverings are seen as evil. Stalwarts, cautious individuals, and even those calling for patience are seen in the same negative light denoting weakness.

Culture is like worldbuilding what’s important to a group. There’s a lot of Socratic whys to throw around and ripples with each new element upon the existing ones. Sometimes it’s rooted in the practical limitations and ignorance of the time and sometimes it’s the whim of what a single powerful individual sees as cool. Often symbolic of a bygone era and equally often the lens through which people see the world and inhabit their own.

If you’re attempting a sociological story – perhaps the most difficult type of story to write – you’ll need this game example ran over twice more in editing to get everything from the players’ full dress, pre-competition ceremonies, and the build of the arena then combine it with at least a dozen interlacing aspects of the society like the game to make a base foundation for your fictional culture and then within it set aside room for subcultures and external and internal pressures. An introduction to gunpowder will severely alter how important a combat sport is to the proxy warfare aspect of the game and fortify an old school toughness image for the remaining players.

It’s demanding on your brain and time. If you’re just passing through a place in a couple chapters I don’t blame you for using that game along with a few wisps or suggestions of culture like a single meal’s food and drink. But if your entire story takes place in one city you’re going to need to walk the streets ahead of the reader painting as you go.

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