Dreaming in Character

G.L. Jackson

Communities and Culture


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about communities. We all have them, all move around in them, all inhabit more than one. So do the characters we write. In our minds they might be isolated, but they have a constant background buzz of interactions (unless they’re in a cave by themselves at the bottom of the arctic, in which case they’d probably make a community from the recognizable icicles and whatnot). People are sociable; we’re pack animals. We need interaction.

As a writer, I have to be aware of the communities surrounding my characters. The temptation to write them in isolation can be a strong one and it would be so easy to say I don’t want to have to think about their friendships away from the main characters or leave out bits about where they work or go to school because it seems like too much work. Hey, if it’s too much work for me to imbue the story I’m writing with hints about their lives outside my scope of interest, then I think maybe I shouldn’t be writing those characters at all. Does it mean I’m going to walk them through a day at the office? Hell no, unless the story takes place there. But do I want to know for my own purposes what that office is like? Hell yes, because it informs and molds my character. I want to know the boss’s name, whether my character sits in a corner office with a view of everything or in a cubicle or in a lab or in a classroom. I want to know what time he or she goes to work, who else is there, what time they leave, how long they have for lunch. Luckily for my readers, those aren’t details they need spelled out unless they’re critical to the story. It’s enough for me to know them, so that when my character makes an offhand comment to someone about seeing them at lunchtime (for example, and I know you’re thinking what a thrilling story this must be!), at least I know what time of day it is and where they’re likely to go and how much time they’re likely to have.

Nah, I’m not detail-oriented at all. Except I am. I want my characters fully formed enough so I know their surrounding cast of characters. I want to know their families. I want to know their environment. I want to know how many other people in that environment know them, how crowded it is, what the demographics are. I’m making a long story longer: I want to understand not just the trappings but the culture of their community.

I don’t remember who first told me that to understand a culture we have to understand the language. I’ve studied a lot of languages, both blatant and obscure, and I’m not fluent in most of them but I do get what that was all about. So many discrete pieces come together to make up the flavor of any given culture, and I don’t want to do any of those segments a disservice by discounting them.

Our own personal communities are like ripples on a pond. They start out in nice tight proximity, then widen and widen. Sometimes they intersect. Sometimes they remain separate. But all of them stem from who we are (or in the case of a story, who that one character is). I don’t think I’m the only one who sits around thinking about these kinds of things, and that means I’d love to hear your thoughts on community and culture, and on how you handle those things in your writing.

Author: G.L. Jackson

Writer, reader, amateur photographer. Mostly, I just like pretending to be a different person each day of the week.

4 thoughts on “Communities and Culture

  1. Oh, yes, yes, and yes. One of the things pygmymuse just pointed out to me was just how big the gaps are in Vardin and it’s because of this: it’s a web of different cultures and subcultures interacting, intersecting, pushing against each other, layering under each other. Each of my worlds are the same way. You’ll see the first few stories in any world I start writing in start to sketch out some broad strokes. It’s only as time goes on that I start writing between the larger guideposts.

    Language and culture intersecting is one of my favorite worldbuilding topics, especially because I write speculative fiction where sometimes there is no way around using other languages or a different culture’s appropriation of the same words in the same language to mean something altogether different. For example: hunting. Hunter is one of the four strata of Vardin society. It is used in its sense of pursuit, not at all in its sense of hunting down animals to kill them for food. Hunting represents change, straying beyond the borders of things, pursuing the purposes, goals, and objects that need to be pursued. It isn’t used the way we use it, even though technically the definition is an English one.

    And then subcultures. Yes, the hunters, but also householders, the plain, the rogue, and within those, the townspeople, those of rural villages, those who in practice are under protection of households though they consider themselves plain, the academic communities, the hunting teams, the individual hunters who would never join a team, the scientists, the medical communities and where they overlap with scientists…

    I could go on forever. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. It’s how I think. It’s how I write.


    • Your worldbuilding is something else, practically Tolkienesque in its complexity. And here I am thinking about some surfer and the people he meets on the beach and those he meets on the streets and the ones he hangs out with. But you know, that’s complex in its own right because of the personalities involved (and you know I’m an intensely character-driven writer). My mind just boggles at people who create entire societies from scratch, and you do it all the time.


      • LOL Yours is awesome too! I’ve gotten to understand a culture and settings I have NO other concept of. I think your work is amazing, and we do both tend to literary. My mind regularly boggles at people who ever feel they’ve accurately captured such detailed portraits of reality. I couldn’t do it. I’m too internalized. I’d know I was getting something drastically wrong.


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