Friday, August 4, 2017

Culture and Worldview, Part 1 (Hannah)

Back in April, I wrote a post asking what the foundation is for your character's worldview.  The thing is, characters aren't the only ones whose actions and beliefs are determined by what they "worship," or what they have devoted their lives to.  Groups of people, indeed, entire societies are driven by collective goals and opinions, ways of life and priorities.  When developing a culture, whether it is a small-scale subculture or an entire nation, it is important to ask what these people hold most valuable.

  • Is there a common religion?
  • Are there prevailing philosophies that drive most of the people?
  • Is there a long-established social structure, like a feudal or caste system?
  • Are certain professions or occupations or positions respected above others?
  • How do the wealthiest or most prominent in society display their prestige?
  • What are the biggest, prettiest, most central buildings in the city devoted to?
  • What do the majority of children dream of being when they grow up?
  • What skills or talents are highly prized?
  • Who provides a highly desired or necessary commodity?
  • What character traits or qualities do parents teach their children?

The answers to these questions help identify or solidify what your society as a whole values.  If you are looking to build consistency in your world, the prevailing values will bleed into nearly every aspect of life, from the way children are raised to what is considered proper behavior to the social structure to holidays and celebrations and beyond.

This post turned out a lot longer than I expected, so I'll talk about my first point today and finish up next time.

1. Deities and Philosophies

The most obvious expression of values is through religion and philosophy.  For example, one glance at the gods of ancient Egypt reveals that there were far more gods related to death than any other subject.  Death and the afterlife was very important to the Egyptians, as evidenced by their massive pyramids and elaborate embalming rituals.  In contrast, Norse mythology shows a heavy focus on war-related deities.  Not only were there so many of them, but they were the most powerful and highly revered.  In fact, the Norse believed that the only honorable way to die was in battle.  The gods people worship say a lot about the culture, but it is also important to look at how the people honored their gods.  Did they make animal or human sacrifices?  Did they build magnificent, extravagant places of worship, or give everything away and live in poverty?  What everyday rituals did they observe to remind themselves what they believed in?

Religion and philosophy would often carry the most influence over society.  In early Greece, people believed different deities were patrons of certain cities.  The people of Athens, for example, worshipped Athena, the goddess of wisdom, craftsmanship, and learning, among other things.  Their city was a center of philosophy, teaching, art, and great thinking, because the people sought to honor their favorite goddess.  Similarly, the Stoic philosophy of Roman Greece swept Greece and Rome and taught that people could attain true happiness by seeking to view the world through logic, ignoring destructive and deceptive emotions, living virtuously and simply, and finding the good in every moment instead of desiring something besides what you have.

Again and again through history, it is easy to see how religious and philosophical beliefs have affected societies and cultures.  Even one person, if he can make his voice heard, can steer the course of a nation by spreading his ideas.  In fiction, it is important to remember the power of ideas, and not neglect them in the development of your societies.

On a related note, it is important to remember how quickly prevailing ideas can change, and take into account people's natural inclination toward new ideas and constant change.  A group of people stuck in "survival mode," as my mom calls it, and struggling to survive, may hold to the same way of life and belief system for a thousand years.  But all you have to do is take a peek at the history of art and philosophy between 1400 and 1800 AD to realize that a flourishing, thinking, creative society can move and change quickly. For another example, think about the last 100 years in America.  From just one decade to the next, how much stayed the same?  Not fashion, music, and art, not opinions on major social issues at home or abroad, not even religious and ethical beliefs.   Fantasy writers have a tendency to set up societies that cling to the same exact values for centuries.  Unless there is a good reason for this, consider how your culture will change with each new generation.  

  • What are the prevailing religious beliefs of your culture?
  • How is loyalty to the deity/s displayed in architecture, practices, and government?
  • What is the role of philosophy in your society?
  • What philosophies are prominent?
  • How have religious or philosophical views changed - or not changed?
  • If they have not changed, why not?

Thanks for reading!
~ Hannah

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Hannah! I love these insights into how religion and philosophy shape a culture and what we can learn about people by studying what they believed in.


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