Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.31: Cultural Setting as Conflict

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

In this episode we talk about how to put characters in conflict with their setting, and how to structure our work so that these conflicts arise organically rather than feeling mandated by plot.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and master by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Make an entire planet of you. Now create a trading post where people who are NOT you must find ways to interact with the world of yous.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: To some extent, every story has some aspect of characters in conflict with their setting. Consider conflict as either a desire to move or resistance to being moved. Also, I don’t like the way this is built, and I want to change it. A.k.a, ideals in conflict with reality. Immigrants are automatically in cultural conflict. Children of immigrants, growing up, face a challenge between what their parents want and what the culture around them teaches. Nobody represents 100% of their culture, we are all slightly in conflict. But don’t use this as the main conflict, use it to make the characters more well-rounded. Start with a character in friction with their society, then let the main plot smash into them. Cultural conflict may not drive a story, but it often grounds us in the character. One story archetype is the person who doesn’t fit saves society. Consider sensory writing — what senses show the conflict of character and culture? What are the standard conversational moves that the character doesn’t know? Casual or respect? Use conflict with your culture to add layers to the plot and enrich your story.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 31.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Cultural Setting As Conflict.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mahtab] I’m Mahtab.

[Brandon] Cultural setting as conflict. A little preface here. This is using my definitions for worldbuilding. I define physical worldbuilding as all this stuff that exists if human beings or sapient races weren’t around, and cultural setting is all the stuff that they create. I think I announced that last month, too. But just so you know, when I say cultural setting for this particular podcast, we’re talking about all of this. Religion, linguistics, economics, all of this stuff. We want to talk about how to put your characters in conflict with their setting, and with their culture. Obviously, this is one of the great ways to tell a story. In fact, I think every story that I write has some aspect of a character in conflict with their setting.

[Howard] I think the easiest place to start with this is to look at the conflict as either a desire to move or a resistance against being moved. For instance, if you are a member of the wealthy class, you do not want wealth to be redistributed, because that is moving you into a different place. If you are impoverished, perhaps you want to move into a different class. Those two work within whatever framework of the culture may exist. I mean, whether it’s economic or gender or racial or multi-species or whatever. I want to move or someone is trying to move me, is one of the easiest ways to define the conflict. The other big one is I don’t like the way this is built. I want to change it so that everybody can move. Or nobody has to move. Or something.

[Brandon] Right. Putting your ideals in conflict with the actual reality of the system.

[Mahtab] You know what, the very fact… Just from personal experience, the very fact that I’m an immigrant in Canada is straightaway a cultural conflict. Because there are certain things that I’m used to doing in India, there are certain traditions that we follow, certain norms. But take that out and put me in a North American setting or a Canadian setting, and all of a sudden, I want to follow certain things, but I cannot. So, I mean, just… For example, I love cooking Indian food. When I first came to Canada and the winters were cold, I would cook with the doors closed. I would be smelling like a day-old samosa. Maybe a week-old samosa. Then you’d go out into the world and you would have people just kind of… I was nose blind, but people would wonder, “Does she not know what she smells like?”

[Howard] What is that smell?

[Mahtab] It took me a while. I mean, I had to get onto an elevator with someone who was a lot more fragrant than I was till it hit me. So, the fact is, I can still cook Indian food, but even in the midst of an Ontario winter, I have to have all the doors and all the windows open… Not the doors. All the windows open, proper ventilation, and then… So it’s just like… The fact is that you can have conflict if you just take someone who’s used to following a certain cultural norm, put them in a different setting, and that’s it. Also, with kids growing up. When, especially, the kids are young, the parents are not very well educated or not very well integrated into a certain culture. They are still holding to the old norms, whereas the kids who are growing up are now influenced by the culture they are growing up in. They are treading a very fine line between what should I follow, because this is what my parents want, and this is what my friends and teachers and everyone are doing. It can be huge. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of teens go through a lot of anguish because of that.

[Dan] There was a really cool movie a couple years ago, and I can never remember the title of anything. Sorry. That was about a group of Korean American teenagers, all of them first-generation Americans, who went to like a cultural summer camp. Their Korean families are like, “You need to know about our culture from back in the old country, so you’re all going to go to this thing.” It was just fascinating to watch that whole dynamic play out as they were trying to embrace their roots while also staying true to who they had become. There is a lot of cool compelling stuff that can be pulled out of this.

[Brandon] Is it called Seoul Searching?

[Dan] Yes.

[Brandon] I just googled it for you.

[Dan] Seoul Searching, Seoul being the pun. Ha ha ha.

[Brandon] I… It’s interesting to think about this, because nobody 100% represents all aspects of their culture. None of us do. Which is this weird thing to think about, in that there is this nebulous sort of culture, right? Whichever set of culture… Religious culture or whatever. Society. There’s nobody that is that thing. We are all not aligned exactly to everything in that culture. So we’re all going to be slightly in conflict with our culture. There’s not a person who isn’t. We’re just going to be in conflict with it in different ways. I think as writers, sometimes, we want to make this the main conflict of the story. Sometimes it’s appropriate to do so. Sometimes this is what our story is about. But I think in every story, these sorts of things are what’s… Are the sorts of things that are going to make your characters become well-rounded and feel real. People often ask me, “How do I make well-rounded characters?” Our kind of cliché but true response is don’t write them to a role in a story, write them as they are and make the story kind of come along and make things messy for them. I think this is one of the ways you indicate this is these characters are going to be having friction with their society and culture, even before whatever the main plot of your story is comes along and smashes into them.

[Howard] It’s not uncommon… I say it’s not uncommon. I can’t actually think of any examples off the top of my head. But you have a protagonist whose motivation is I want to fit in with my family. Or I want to get a promotion. It’s very cultural, but then they are thrown into an adventure that has nothing to do with fitting in with their family or getting a promotion. At the end of the adventure, they have changed or their family have changed or the corporation has changed, and they have the thing that they need. So the cultural conflict there is not necessarily what’s driving the story, but it’s what’s grounding us in the character.

[Dan] One of the books that I talked about last month, A Memory Called Empire. Like I said, it’s a political story and it’s a murder mystery, but the main character is an ambassador from one tiny nation who has gone to this massive Empire. What’s fascinating about her attempt to fit in is that she loves their culture. So it’s specifically kind of has this subplot in there of you’re the big evil empire that’s trying to consume my little nation, but I love your art, I love your stories that you tell, and I watch your TV shows all the time. It added a really interesting dimension of that cultural conflict.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and do our book of the week.

[Mahtab] Right. So, the book of the week that I’d like to recommend is one that has been written by yours truly. It’s called Mission Mumbai. This is a story of a friendship between two boys. One of them is an Indian, Rohit Lal, one of them is an American, Dylan Moore. They have a friendship that is based on their love of reading fantasy novels. But it’s a very fragile friendship. When they take a trip to India, that is when they realize that there is a certain amount of jealousy involved. Their friendship is not as strong as they expected it to be. But one of the reasons that I love having written this story is that I take someone from a North American culture and put him into the Indian culture. Which is just as alien as having gone to a totally different place. I give both the boys certain problems. It’s only when… Their friendship is stretched really, really thin, and it’s only when both the boys decide to put aside their own issues and help one another is when their friendship becomes a lot stronger. So it’s a coming-of-age, it’s a friendship, it’s a loyalty story. But it’s also a fun way of exploring India from your own room.

[Howard] Less expensive than plane tickets.

[Mahtab] Absolutely.


[Brandon] Awesome.

[Howard] That’s Mission Mumbai.

[Brandon] For this podcast’s second half, let’s kind of try to drill into the why… Or the hows. The nitty-gritty details of how to use conflict with culture as plots in your stories. I’ll give an example. Oftentimes, I notice that in films and in books, one of the things you do at the beginning is show the character not fitting in as a method of showing what their kind of arc is going to be. They’re the person that doesn’t fit into their society. Taking classic Disney movies, if we look at Mulan. Mulan doesn’t start with her out sword fighting. It starts with her not fitting into the society of gender roles and the marriage rituals and things that she’s expected to participate in as a way to reinforce that she’s kind of outside her culture. So that when she leaves to go do something very different from what someone in her situation would do, you believe that she would do this. Because she obviously doesn’t quite fit in. Then, the whole story is about this idea of the person who doesn’t fit in being the one who saves the society. You see this used a ton. It’s a really great story archetype. It’s used in Dragonlance, it’s used in a lot of different stories. It’s one of those ways you use someone in conflict with their setting in a small way to inform your entire story.

[Howard] We talk about sensory writing quite a bit. Mahtab, you described the way you smell when you’ve been cooking. The smells of things, the colors of things. When you’re uncomfortable with a culture, if you’ve been dropped someplace where you are not comfortable, which of your senses are uncomfortable? Which… Where are you feeling the conflict? Is it because it’s too loud? Is it because it’s too quiet? Is it because it doesn’t smell like you want it to smell? Is it because the flavor of the food that makes you comfortable just isn’t available anywhere? Is it because you’re one of those people who is genetically unable to appreciate cilantro? Because there’s a group of people for whom cilantro is just terrible. These sorts of… And Indian food, which I love, and I love cilantro too, has lots of cilantro in it. So you got this whole class of people who are genetically unable to appreciate the thing that you cook, Mahtab. Those senses are a great way to ground us in a character’s fitting in or not fitting in. How much you love the smell? How much you love the color? How it feels like being embraced to all your senses?

[Mahtab] One of the things that I also felt or experienced when I came here is that there is a whole unspoken language which is just by looks and gestures, and some things that are… I mean, just to give an example. Whenever you start a conversation, now, I’m not saying that it’s not done in India, but over here you discuss the weather a lot. In India, all you have is rain and heat.


[Mahtab] So you really do not open a conversation with, “Oh, we’re having a really nice day today.” So when I was doing sales and I was on calls, I would be like, “Hello. I’m calling from so-and-so and just wanted to talk to you about XYZ.” I was told, “Nonono. You’re supposed to talk about the weather,” and this and a TV series going on or something. Or a little bit of the news. So, the thing is that in terms of making the story or the character a little bit more layered, it’s not just the sensory, which is very, very important. But it’s also the unspoken stuff that the… The norms that the culture that you’re in follows, which is not quite what you do. So there are lots of clues that you have to pick up which are not… Sometimes, may be told to you, but sometimes you just have to observe. It took me at least a few years of observing, or being corrected or being told that this is what you’re supposed to be doing. Again, I had no idea about time zones. I remember calling someone at 6 o’clock in the morning from the East Coast to the West Coast…


[Mahtab] I’m like, “Hi.” He says, “Do you know it’s 6 o’clock?” I’m like, “Why did you pick up the phone, then?”


[Brandon] When I went to Korea for the first time, the thing I kept getting in trouble with is, Americans can be very casual with how they give things to one another. Which is nothing… Something I hadn’t ever thought about. But, in Korea, a lot of people expect you… If you’re going to give something… Just, like, if you say, “Hey, pass me a roll,” that you’re going to hand it and present it to them as a gift, with two hands.

[Mahtab] Two hands, yes.

[Dan] Two?

[Brandon] Two hands, and kind of respectfully. Whereas Americans, we’d be like, “Hey. Roll!” I did that to someone. They’re like… I’m like, “Hey. Roll!” And threw it. They were like hugely offended. This was a teenager my age, but that is just not something you do in that culture. It was one of those things I had to really get used to. The kind of casualness versus respectfulness.

[Howard] I have to remember not to ask anybody to pass me the bread in Nebraska.

[Garbled] [without having my eyes open. Boom!]

[Dan] Just throw it at you. The Asian market where I shop, even the receipt. They will pull it out. They’ll rip it off the thing. Fold it, and hand it to you with two hands. Because that is how you’re supposed to do it. One of my very favorite cultural stories is a TV show called The Americans. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that. It’s Soviet spies, sleeper agents, living in the United States in the 1980s. So every episode has like an espionage story, but the overall story it’s telling is how do these people who are like trained, practically brainwashed to hate America, how do they live and fit in and look and act like Americans.

[Howard] I grew up during the 80s. I would not want the job…


[Howard] Of fitting in in the 80s. Oh, man.

[Dan] It’s just a really compelling thing. They’re doing a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about. Where they will confront situations where they would do something the way it would be normal to them. Obviously, they have been trained in American culture, but it comes off wrong. Or they react the wrong way to something and they have to remember, “Oh, no. I’m American. I have to treat this like an American, not like a Russian.” It’s just really, really interesting, and really well done.

[Howard] There are a lot of cultural dialect sorts of things, whether it’s jargon or just dialect things. In the UK, just now means immediately prior. What was that noise? A bookcase fell over just now. In South Africa, just now means really soon, about to happen. Yes… Not really soon, but kind of soon. I’ll be there just now. I’m on my way, I’ll be there just now. Are you in a hurry? Okay, fine, I’ll be there now now. Okay, I like now now as a construct. When I first heard it, I thought, “Well, that’s brilliant. That’s a great way to say ASAP.” But these sorts of things, if you don’t… I don’t want to crossover too much into the language discussion we’ll be having later. But there have been a lot of times, especially online, where all participate in an online chat about a game and realize, “There is a jargon here.” Somebody just threw a string of characters, and they are very clearly making a request, and I do not know how to respond, because there’s like six acronyms in there.


[Howard] And I don’t know what any of them stand for.

[Mahtab] I would just like to say here that conflict with your culture is important, but don’t make that the focal point of your story. Just use that to flavor it, to add layers to the plot which would make it richer. But don’t make that the focus of the story. Because that would be too kind of clichéd or stereotyped, and you’re just going to end up going a very predictable path. But use that to just enrich the narrative.

[Brandon] So, we’re out of time on this, but we will come back later in the year and do an episode on worldbuilding culture and mores, so you can look forward to that. I have our homework this week. I’m quite tickled with this one. I want you to clone yourself and make an entire planet of clones of you. I want you to decide what the culture would be like if everyone on the planet were you. Then, I want you to create a trading post with this planet where people off world who are not you have to trade with you and what they have to go through in order to make trade deals with an entire planet of you.


[Howard] There’s going to be a war, and my planet’s going to get wiped clean…


[Howard] Very, very quickly.

[Dan] The galaxy will decide we can’t let this planet hang around any longer.

[Howard] Nope.

[Mahtab] I am going to try that prompt.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.