Series II – Part I – Cultural Norms: Characters & Readers

Welcome to our new series! For this series, we’re straying away from ‘the basics’ and instead we’re going to be looking more at ‘how characters affect their world, and how the world affects the character’ – a writing motto of mine. There will, of course, be lots of worldbuilding involved and a few non-character focused posts along the way. So settle in, get your pen and notepad ready, and see what tickles your creative juices.

The Grotesque, the Desirable

Today, we’re going to be taking a look at social norms that seems bizarre to us – in the form of what your character knows or practices. History is full of disgusting things! ‘Mad as a hatter’ – from mercury poisoning. The knowledge of creating gunpowder – the ‘Swiss method’ for example (collecting urine for potassium nitrate or ‘saltpetre’); dyeing (with urine) and tanning (again with faeces and/or urine). The Romans had communal public toilets – no dividers! Sausages used intestines, the established practice for medicines in Western Europe for centuries was the use of leaches…

So what does your character know/do that is normal to them but perhaps disgusting to the modern reader? What savoury or unsavoury habits are practiced as a cultural norm? How often do your characters bathe? What level and access to technology do they have? Post-apocalyptic settings might see an advanced technological society reverting back to older times. What sort of foods do your characters eat? The offal, organs, fish guts? What is considered a delicacy? What do we do today that might be viewed as offensive by your characters’ culture? Perhaps they have laws of religious purity; perhaps they cannot abide the eating of meat?

There are just a few thoughts for you! Consider what might be grotesque to us, what might be grotesque to them, and see if you can’t add a bit more colour and flavour to your story by challenging your characters and/or readers – if it fits! Perhaps your character (or someone they know) went or are going on a voyage that involves mixing with different cultures. Maybe it can be as simple as smoking – a disgusting habit or a time-honoured ceremonial tradition? Maybe the notion of retaining pets is abhorrent.

Delicacies could include historical and/or contemporary ones: birds nest soup, caviar, whale, dolphin, lobster, quail eggs, civet coffee, various jellied meats, foie gras, chicken feet, black pudding, baked beans, for example. Those same delicacies could cause shock and outrage.

How can you add grit and grime, delicacy and class, to the world around your character?

Have fun! I’d love to hear what you come up with. Until next time.

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