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I was writing in my book when I decided I wanted to add some interesting characters into the mix (like an Irishmen, Chinese, Russian etc). But I hit a wall. You see a big plot point is that the Earth was… lost. Now it doesn't matter how it got lost it just did (pick one if you want: Death Star, Alien Invasion, Black Hole, forgot where I parked it etc), humans still managed to expand across the galaxy with hundreds of worlds colonized. The thing is not only is Earth lost, but it is also mostly forgotten as well (the government may be to blame here and a few hundred years). So I have been having a hard time thinking up a way for the readers to know what culture the character is, without referencing anything to do with Earth. This problem sounds simple (and probably is) but for some reason just telling the readers the character is "Irish" just feels so unnatural (but it could just be me).

So the question is this: How do I Explain the Culture of a Character Without Referencing Anything to do with Earth?

I have brainstormed some ideas:

  1. He’s Irish because he is Irish (being your culture is more of an identity then where you come from no matter how many generations have passed, you were born from an Irish family therefore you will always be an Irishman even if you forgot there was an Ireland).
  2. Using an evolved term for their culture (like for Chinese I use Xin or for Russians I use Russko, to made it sound more new).
  3. Your faction is your culture (who they allied with makes them who they are, like even if you look Irish and have you an Irish accent, if you join say the redcoat faction you are now a redcoat (bad example if you are Irish)).
  4. There is no such thing as culture anymore (even if you sound Irish, or look Chinese no one will pay you any mind about it, so I can only use character traits and details to describe who they are).

I hope this doesn’t sound too silly of a question to make and I hope I'm making sense as to what my problem is.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do the characters remember or know about the traditions and lifestyle of their origin? $\endgroup$ – GiaFil7 Apr 29 '18 at 8:45
  • $\begingroup$ @GiaFil7 yes and no you would remember (most) of the traditions and lifestyles of your culture but you would not know why it was just something your people have all ways done $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Apr 29 '18 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure there is a real problem; rather you're imagining one. 1.: Do you hit a block when writing about characters introducing to each other or describing others to others (still in the book)? OR did you hit a block when describing them to your readers? If it's the latter case, then why would you not use references to established cultures and what not? $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Apr 29 '18 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ @ dot_Sp0T Me having a block is not the case, it was more like i dug myself into a hole with the earth gone point and that I wanted to do it right. Getting rid of that plot point will not do either. I have designed the characters I wanted to put in already I just did not know how to address them. I was using the describe the character part well it was when I wanted to put in the traits that belonged to their culture is when i hit the wall example he had red hair and an odd accent, I think he’s Irish? you see the problem yet or how to explain someone that's part Asian group but thanks anyway $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Apr 29 '18 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ @SealBoi And yet Battlestar Galactica posits that we do not recall our race's origins because someone went to lengths to make us forget. There was a report just yesterday on the brainwashing of North Korean students by a teacher who escaped: "They knew computers but not the Internet. They knew science but not that man ever walked on the moon. And I wasn't allowed to tell them." There are many ways for Earth to be forgotten. $\endgroup$ – SRM Apr 30 '18 at 13:24

10 Answers 10

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How do I Explain the Culture of a Character Without Referencing Anything to do with Earth

Short version : Forget labels, think personalities.

Suggestions : write with arbitrary labels (X, Y, A, B) and fill them in later with actual words or expressions. They're a distraction from characterization.

People have (and probably always will) identify themselves with the people, locations and events that are most significant to their personal identities - that shape them.

So I'm from farming stock on Alpha Sigma B. Or I'm a lawyer on Luddle's Planet. Or I'm from the Colariton Sector and we don't hold with Kings out there. Or Jeff was from Beta Anarcis C and you know how touchy they get about the whole Federation thing out there - don't get him started on it. Or Chen O'Reilly was from Findalis, but honestly hated the place and found the more easy going liberal tone of Catchall more like a spiritual home. Or Hui didn't regard himself as being from anywhere anymore, nowhere felt like home, least of all where he was from. Or Jacie was a nice guy, but he never did get over that fling with Kendel and it left him slightly soured with people. Or Treona was nearly back to her old bright self after a long recovery from the accident.

Earth? Who cares? A myth lost in the past.

We care about what happened us and we identify with those things. They define us.

One thing : please don't become another author who insists on snowing me down with lengthy biographies on the characters. Characters can be painted without those irritating formula passages (sometimes insanely long) explaining every little thing to us. We don't need all that detail. We need to know what's important and in many ways the slow reveal of getting to know a character bit by bit (as you would any person) is more entertaining than the "dumped in my lap in one big dollop" approach some authors use.

Writer's exercise : write a three line description of everyone you know. Keep trying until you recognize them in what you wrote. Write the persona down, not the biography.

Expert writer's exercise : One line. :-)

And no cheating with ultra long lines.

if you look Irish and have you an Irish accent

Earth is long lost and people still have Irish accents? No chance.

You are wedding ideas to your existing world, not the one you are creating. If you can't step into the world you create, how can your readers?

You need to forget labels.

Incidentally, I am Irish and I have no idea how anyone could look Irish. We don't really have a look. :-)

what culture the character is,

Character's have personalities, not cultures. Write personalities.

I, for example, am Irish, but that does not tell you anything about me.

I consider myself a European. Think you know more about me now? Not really.

So let's try this: Stephen. When I thought of him all I could see was a quiet man, with a fierce internal anger driven by some unknown fire that on rare occasions would flash out and become focused on some poor fool who stepped on one of his sacred cows, and then he disappeared into background again.

What do you know now? Better? Better than labels about factions and locations?

It's not that the labels and factions and locations don't matter, it's that they're just secondary detail to a character and useful to construct a plot in a political sense. Stephen might be from Ireland, but do you know whether Stephen would race to Ireland's defense on help to tear it asunder? Or be indifferent? And if your character defended faction X in scenario A, does that mean they'll defend it in scenario B?

Question: Tell me where Han Solo is from and what his culture is? Does it matter one iota to the story? Where is Sam Spade from?

Location and culture are kind of "default settings" for humans. But we rapidly grow our own identity that isn't typically focused on those things.

You're getting stuck on labels, not people.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for effort and sorry if i was coming across like i just use people as stereo types (far from it) it was just that i wanted to add interesting people into the mix but did not know how talk about them without fall into my own pit fall. "Characters have personalities not cultures" very true in fact that's where most of my effort goes into and i don't lumped all the people into one group. My characters are more defined by their actions then where they can from I was only using Irish as an example not as a point of interest I was just trying to simplify it for everyone by using only one name $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Apr 29 '18 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ I think Battlestar Galactica did a great job giving personality, some cultural differences and, yes, stereotypes to the 12 colonies (which were 12 planets) without directly referencing any of Earth's cultures. This quote from Gaius Baltar could be a good example. $\endgroup$ – xDaizu Apr 30 '18 at 12:25
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    $\begingroup$ "Incidentally, I am Irish and I have no idea how anyone could look Irish. We don't really have a look. :-)" -- when you are immersed in a particular spot, you become blind to similarities. I've visited Ireland, coming from a more multi-cultural place, and it was eerie (or maybe eire?) how much more similar people looked. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Apr 30 '18 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Yakk More similar ? To what ? What aspect of "looked" do you mean ? $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 30 '18 at 13:14
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    $\begingroup$ The editing of spaces out of my answer must rank as the most idiotic thing I have seen in a long time. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Apr 30 '18 at 13:45
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I don't see the problem really, just give some details of the different groups as they come into the story, giving more detail depending on their importance.

"Don't trust the Betelgeuse Federation, they're the worst pirates you'll ever meet."

"The newcomers red hair marked him as a Crossman, not exactly a common sight in the orbital mining colony. Everyone looked away hoping not to attract his attention, once a Crossman got started their religious moralizing could go on for hours."

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    $\begingroup$ so you would go with a mixture of most of the options but abandon the traditional earth way of saying their cultures... interesting $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Apr 29 '18 at 10:07
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I do not disagree with the other answers given here, but here's something for you to consider: for 2000 years, the Kingdom of Israel was gone. Conquered, sacked, a large number of its people exiled and living all around the world. For 2000 years, Jews continued to self-identify as the people of that lost land, and to yearn for Jerusalem. Israel was no more, the Roman province of Judaea was no more, but Jews remained Jews.

It doesn't matter that Earth is gone. If a group cares enough about preserving a distinct identity, such an identity can be preserved. Even in the face of adversity, and in the face of deliberate attempts to assimilate the community in question. (Inquisitions, forced conversions and all kinds of adversities did not cause the Jews to disappear.)

The question is rather whether any particular group would care enough about preserving a distinct identity. If they do not care enough, you will have a great mixing of peoples, old cultural identities disappearing and new ones emerging to take their place, preserving a mix of what their different forefathers were. See AlexP's great answer on that score.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an interesting point. People take comfort in history, in knowing where your people come from. It's a powerful way to construct an identity for a group. In times when such an identity is needed (such as persecution and/or diaspora) then people will cling strongly to their history. $\endgroup$ – Ynneadwraith Apr 30 '18 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention, some identities may split or merge. An example from fiction that I feel handles this particularly well is Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books. Many of them center on a planet called Barrayar, and the people of that planet definitely have a distinct "Barrayaran" identity. But it becomes clear, some ways in, that the people who initially colonized Barrayar were primarily French, Russian, and Greek (IIRC), and this is reflected in physical descriptions of Barrayarans as well as the names of cities and soforth on the planet. $\endgroup$ – autophage Apr 30 '18 at 19:21
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Most ethnicities are changeable and have limited timespans

Let's look a few thousand years back, and see what's left of the ethnicities of that time:

  • The Romans are gone. Latin is a language, dead as dead can be, first it killed the Romans, now it's killing me, as they say. Of all the peoples who speak Romance languages, only the Aromanians, the Romanians and the Romansh continue the name, and nobody would confuse a Romanian with a Roman.

  • The Gauls are gone. No Celtic-speaking people uses a named derived from Gaul or Celt.

  • The Samnites, Sabines, Phoenicians, Iberians, Phrygians, Egyptians, Numids, Dacians, Thracians, Illyrians, and so on are gone.

  • The more recent Visigoths and Ostrogoths, Vandals and Gepids, Cumans, Khazars, and Dalmatians are gone.

There are exceptions; for example Greeks and Hebrews have been Greeks and Hebrews for a very long time, and one can assume that they will continue to be Greeks and Hebrews for one or two millennia.

Even when a name endures, the reality it covers often changes over time. The original Russians were the people of Kiev, but today the people of Kiev consider themselves Ukrainians; originally, the Scots were Gaelic-speaking people of Ireland and parts Scotland, but today a Scot is an inhabitant of Scotland, and the vast majority of Scots speak English or a closely related language; the original Bulgarians were a Turkic people, but now the name is used for a Slavic nation; the names of the ancient Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians have been reused wholesale for the people who inhabit the modern countries, regardless of whether they consider themselves as members of unified nations or not; the same wholesale reuse has hit the names of the Longobards, Saxons, Normans, and Britons.

Quite often, the meaning of an ethnonym depends on the point of view of the speaker; it is common for an ethnonym to have one meaning inside the nation, and quite another outside. For example, I am Romanian; inside Romania, a Romanian is a person whose native language is Romanian, and this includes people from Romania, the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine, Serbia and elsewhere, while excluding people born in Romania or the Republic of Moldova whose native language is something else; that is, we make a clear distinction between a "Romanian" and a "citizen of Romania". The same goes for "Russian": inside Russia, there is a clear distinction beween a "Russian" ("russkiy") and "citizen of Russia" ("rossiyskiy"). And I bet that it also goes for "Chinese", "Irish" and so on.

In conclusion, if you want to have Irish and Russians and Chinese, go for it; it would probably help if there were political structures called Russia and China, which is not unconceivable, and some sort of shared cultural tradition for the people who call themselves Irish. For the Russians of the far future, you may also consider positing a great Orthodox Patriachate of All the Russias.

By the way, the "truly ethnic Chinese" are called Han. Xin would invite readers to say /ksin/ instead of /ɕin/ (sort of "shin") and make a catty association with the Kzin.

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  • $\begingroup$ I doubt the Kzinti name is entirely coincidental, it's a little too on-the-nose for that. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Apr 30 '18 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ "Greeks and Hebrews" - There is a difference between someone calling themselves a member of a group and having ancestors actually being in that group. It is just a name. A culture remains a culture only in isolation, otherwise it becomes something else. $\endgroup$ – Eric Apr 30 '18 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Eric: Are you saying that the modern Greeks don't speak a language descended from Ancient Greek, or that they are not the descendants of Pericles and Aspasia? And "ethnicity" and "culture" are not synonyms. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 30 '18 at 17:42
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Do not tell. Show your readers what your characters are.

Have in your head a plausible lineage for a given person such that they would still have recognizable ethnic traits.

In the book Hiero's Journey the author makes reference to Hiero's long straight hair inherited from his Amerind ancestors. It plays out that he and many like him are descended from Canadian Indians who somehow sidestepped the apocalypse.

I am reminded of my answer to this question: Physical qualities to distinguish an insular group of radioactivity survivors? where I propose that a Kyrgyz group emigrates together and then circumstances keep them together.

So: you picture the characters yourself. If you write: "This woman is Irish" that is kind of a lead balloon. Instead, as the story unfold, mention her red hair. Demonstrate her quick wit which she got from her pa - although she notes that she stays clear of drink. Have her say a prayer before a risky endeavor and when asked to explain she says it was taught to her by her mother, and then offers to teach it. This character probably does not know she is Irish but by the color touches you add in the course of the story your readers will come to think of her as Irish.

Have your Ashkenazi character throw in some Yiddish here and there (always helps a story). Your Yoruba person could have tribal scars and he runs his finger over one on his cheek when he thinks.

It is like drawing a brick wall. You do not need to draw every single brick. Draw a group of bricks here and a group of bricks there and your viewer will create her own brick wall from your suggestions.

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    $\begingroup$ "your readers will come to think of her as Irish." Or maybe they won't. Regardless, it gives you (the author) a source of inspiration for more color touches on that character, touches that (being based on a real culture) are probably more plausible/connected/compatible/consistent than made-up stuff. As such, they are useful even to readers who are not at all familiar with Irish culture. $\endgroup$ – Jens Bannmann May 1 '18 at 5:54
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I don't see how it is an issue.

Just becasue they have forgotten where the term russian came from does not mean they do not have russians who identify as russians. Russian cultural can survive even if Russia is forgotten. How many people in the US don't know anything about their ancestral home but still identify as scottish or french, ect. Cultural practices can stick around long after their origins are long forgotten.

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You can create histories and culture for each species, race and ethnicity. Think Tolkien for an extreme version of this... Or look at Dune for a space themed book with different races and cultures.

Have multiple worlds been colonized and lost since Earth past from memory? If so, evolution to adapt to different worlds would create physically and culturally separate races (or even separate species). “You’re ancestors were from the Trappist system? Clearly not Trappist-1C! You must have Trappist-1E genes given your...”

Do some have new best friends from domestication of an alien life form? What can this new pet do?

Perhaps another species is in symbiosis with a type of alien life form. It doesn’t have to be an intelligent life form... What benefits are exchanged in this symbiosis?

Has one species of humanity even been domesticated by advanced aliens, then abandoned? What technologies do they have that they don’t even understand?

Does another considers it essential to terminate all alien life before terraforming a planet due to an alien caused plague in the far past?

Have some been in constant war with each other over the millennia?

Even if humanity never colonized another planet different ships would become different environments over time. Mutations on one ship would not occur on others, a historic event on one ship may be unknown on others, etc...

Which world(s) and ship(s) your ancestors came from would make up your race and culture.

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    $\begingroup$ i have actually put different races of humans in my book. In fact I was fine doing them over doing groups that had earth origins because they were my design therefor easy for me to add traits to them and their own origins that fit them well. (Some of whom may become a question for another time) $\endgroup$ – Creed Arcon Apr 30 '18 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ Unless you have a set of humans that remained in cryogenic stasis... then all of humanity would have evolved beyond the standard earth model. If they did remain in stasis and just came out, then you have all the old races and cultures available too. =) $\endgroup$ – Christopher Klaus Apr 30 '18 at 4:42
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Many extant cultures are already named for largely forgotten and no longer existing peoples so what you are proposing is not a new situation.

To give a couple of examples: the English are named for 'Angeln' from which the 'Angles' came. 'Angeln' is a region now on the German/Danish border. The French are named for the 'Franks', a collection of Germanic tribes that living on the Rhine. The names persist long after they people are no longer connected to either the original land, or the original people, except in the most tangential of ways.

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Class/culture, I wrote a post-diaspora human civilisation, a long while ago, that was based upon/descended from a small and culturally divided diaspora population. The diaspora itself caused the lasting collapse of Earth's economy and environment so there were no new migrations. The moneyed groups who paid for the ships off Earth "hired", read drafted, large numbers of labourers from economically disadvantaged nations. There continues to be a vast disparity in political and economic power between the owners and their staff, to the point of outright slavery on some worlds, and the divide is visibly linguistic, ethnic and cultural as well as the underlying class disparity. The upper crust cling to their individual cultures through exaggerated accent, costume and manner, and the cosmetic enhancement of distinguishing ethnic characteristics. At the same time they forbid their service classes the same markers and since there tend to be consistent master/servant pairings, for example the French ships took a lot of North Africans, it becomes self-reinforcing, you are your class which is also your nationality and your cultural identity, and most place you're stuck with it like it or not.

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Apart from the literal way of emphasizing on cultures' archetypes without the direct reference (don't know how to better describe what @DanClarke proposes), could it be possible in your story that there are in fact distinctive colonies based on Earth's cultures? Like, but not necessary this explict, the Ol' Erie Settlers of Andromeda Wherever and their lasting conflicts with the British Space Empire of Nexttothere? I found that expats tend to come in groups...

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