What Makes a Compelling Story, Pt. 3

(Part One: Character Development || Part Two: History & Geography || Part Four: Tension)

A Sense of Culture

Oh, this is a tough one.

It affects YA authors, who tend to be considerably older than the people they’re writing about.

It affects fantasy/sci-fi authors, who are responsible for creating something that feels new and different but still relatable.

It affects modern-day, in-this-world authors, who must force themselves to observe real life without forcing their opinions of how life should be (which makes any story feel less real).

It affects everything. But it isn’t impossible to do.

a. What this DOESN’T mean

It doesn’t mean grabbing cool catch phrases or inventing a ton of new words (file under the Neat But Not Required category). It doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel including every name-brand clothier (or sword-maker, or cheese-wheeler, or ray-gun manipulator).  You can do that, of course – some people do it and do it brilliantly. But you don’t have to be that detailed.

It doesn’t mean every single “cool” adult goes to clubs.

It doesn’t mean every single “cool” teenager says “like” and “fuck” and has piercings.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you can slack off, either.

It doesn’t mean stereotypes.

You absolutely cannot rely on those. I know this seems like it should be obvious – except too often, it isn’t.

Stereotypes feel unreal because they are two-dimensional, and people – even within the confines of culture – always have more dimensions than that.

Is your elf blond? Does your teenager yearn to be part of the in-crowd to the point of betraying current friends when popularity comes calling? Is your lead heroine feisty but in serious need of male brawn to get her out of trouble?

Here’s the thing. Stereotypes fail to connect with the reader because they are two-dimensional, and people – even within the confines of culture – always have more dimensions than that.

Can each of those scenarios work? Surely – but only if enough unique details are added that these “typical” facets are part of the whole, not the defining characteristic.

b. What this DOES mean

Cardinal rule: however similar or different your story’s culture is to the one in which you live, it MUST be relatable. Cultures have societal structure – somebody, leads, others follow. Someone is a criminal, someone else administers justice. Someone is a teaching unit, someone else is a student. No matter how foreign or alien your culture is going to be, it will have elements that ring true with your readers.

Someone is going to be poor. Even if they don’t lack physically, they will lack in some other way. Someone will be more popular than others. There will be music unique to that culture, phrases that mean things to them because of their media.

However similar or different your story’s culture is to the one in which you live, it MUST be relatable.

You know how we quote Monthy Python? Your culture will have something like that – some strange reference, quote (“that’s what she said!”), that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to people OUTSIDE the culture, but will to them. And they’ll use those things.

Why wouldn’t they? You and I do all the time, every day.

Here’s an example: in the Harry Potter universe, in Order of the Phoenix, Rowling described one of the most awesome moments in all her books: Fred and George, the mischievous and jocular twins, decide they’ve had enough of increasingly totalitarian education, and decided to leave in style (they made a firework that “resolutely spell[ed] out the word POO.” Come on, that’s awesome).

So what happened in the culture of this Harry Potter universe after that? Whenever kids had a bad day and joked about leaving school, they called it pulling a Weasley.

That is a perfect example of changing, growing culture. Of your characters being part of a world that lives and breathes and evolves. Don’t be afraid of it. Culture is your writing friend.

Real people feel the same things, want many of the same things, and are fully human. Talk to them. Learn their culture. Don’t be afraid.

Yes, you have to make your characters sound their age. Yes, you have to be aware of the decisions people make in terms of food (here come the spices again – I must be obsessed). After all, unless you have a culture with a massive import/export/grocery store system like America’s, it’s easier and less expensive to only use spices grown in your country or the country next-door.

How about the pleasures of international music?Having exotic things at our fingertips is something we take for granted, and is a very modern convenience. It simply didn’t exist before.

None of this means culture has to be anything less than fun to develop.

Need to know how teens talk? Volunteer to work with some. Chaperoning a lock-in or two will give you a lot to work with.

How do the very old communicate? They had a different culture, education, gender expectations than we do. So go to a retirement home and listen. (Heaven forbid you might talk to someone.)

How do policemen actually talk? Go to your local precinct and ask permission to speak to a few cops (I did this. Sometimes it goes better than others, but keep trying).

Make friends of a different sexual persuasion. Make friends from a different religion. Just talk to people. Remember the lecture on character? Real people feel the same things, want many of the same things, and are fully human. Talk to them. Learn their culture. Don’t be afraid.

I know, this sounds like *gasp* work. But here’s the thing: culture is all around you, and it is EXCITING. The more you take it in, the better you’re going to write, and the better a person you’ll be.

A Sense of Economy

a. What this DOESN’T mean

You do not have to have an entire system of monetary values completely worked out down to the last penny (or knut). Though it helps.

You do not have to know precisely what imports and exports are happening, any more than you do in the real world. Though it helps.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot you do have to know.

a. What this DOES mean

You do not have to have an entire system of monetary values completely worked out down to the last penny (or knut). Though it helps.

You need to know what kinds of funds your characters have, and how far it will get them.

In the cartoon Futurama, there’s a brief joke where the characters are watching The Real World, and in this fictitious episode,  the participants of said Real World are living on the Sun. The first joke is, of course, is that they’re screaming because it’s HOT.  The second joke is this: “You know how much an apartment that big would cost on the Sun?”

We have jokes like this. We’ll watch a movie wherein some schmo who has no job is living in New York, upper East Side, in an apartment that would hold about six actual low-rent apartments in Manhattan. And it’s sort of funny. It’s just put down to silly movie people not knowing how real folks live.

It’s awfully hard to get your reader to BELIEVE your character’s situation if you make that kind of mistake.

Average teenagers cannot afford first-class tickets to Greece on the spur of the moment, no matter how much they need it. (Thank you, Rick Riordan, for making it difficult for Percy Jackson to travel to L.A..)

Your average middle-class family won’t be eating out every night of the week. They couldn’t afford to.

Your very wealthy person? Chances are, they’re not driving a Civic. But if they’re poor? Chances are, they won’t be driving a Lexus – if they’re driving at all.

Let’s take this into fantasy-world again: your average, low-income person would not have the very best sword/tricorder/wand/personal transportation unit because those things cost money.

Economy determines where your character lives. It determines what they eat (remember the spices?), how readily they have power and gasoline (or horses or dilithium crystals or whatever other power is required for travel). It determines education. How many possessions they have.

Economy determines where your character lives. It determines what they eat (remember the spices?), how readily they have power and gasoline (or horses or dilithium crystals or whatever other power is required for travel). It determines education. How many possessions they have.

Even in a utopian society, economy determines a lot. One author who did this extraordinarily well is Divergent, by Veronica Roth. Roth established an economy based on a completely different way of life than the one in which we now live, including supplies, including rich and poor, including the concerns of children who were facing decisions that determined what would be provided for them – and yet it’s relatable enough that it doesn’t need a ton of exposition.

In Conclusion

World-building. It ain’t easy. But it can be fun. If you need help with something like this, read. Read sci-fi. Read fantasy. Read modern non-paranormal YA (if you can find any). Start to get a taste of successful world-building, and try to identify WHY something feels off to you when you read it. Learning what’s wrong will help you to do what’s right.

There’s gonna be a another part to this series.

Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Compelling Story, Pt. 3”

  1. Just finished reading your three part blog on what makes a story compelling, and can’t wait for the next instalment. You raise excellent points, especially the culture – knowing the character’s history should dictate so much about who they are and what characters see. First time to your blog, and I’ll be back. (hmm didn’t mean to sound like Arnold 🙂 )

    1. I’m so glad you got something out of it! I look forward to seeing you around here again. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

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