explaining cultures in fiction
So, you have a story you are writing, and it is set in an exotic setting with foreign cultures, and you’re scratching your head, asking yourself: How do I go about telling my readers about this place or culture that they may not understand or know? The answer is simple: Show, don’t tell.
One of the biggest mistakes that writers do when they write a story based on a foreign setting is telling the reader everything–much of this mistake comes from a legitimate concern: I’m afraid my readers will be lost if I don’t tell them what’s going on. Well, not quite. As writers, we cannot underestimate our readers’ ability to comprehend. Now, that’s if we write clearly, and well enough to not confuse them. Ultimately, it is up to us.
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club dwells heavily in the traditions and cultures of China, old and new. But not once in the entire book does she tell us any textbook-facts regarding her setting and the traditional practices of her characters. But yet we, as readers, understand every single aspect of the book. At the end of the book, her readers will have lived and experienced life as Chinese in China and America. How does Tan masterfully explain a foreign culture without explaining? Well, she doesn’t. Her characters do what they need to do to move the plot along. They say what they are supposed to say. They wear what they should be appropriately wearing.
By painting her setting with words, Tan’s narrative takes off beautifully without effort. There is no need to explain. Tan merely shows you how Chinese eat, how they talk, what they think, and how they react to things. And before long, we, as readers, will have learned a culture without being explained to.
The same can be said of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings volumes. He does not need to explain a culture to us, he merely shows us how things are done, from Gollum’s speech patterns to the Hobbits’s eating habits. He does not need to explain what elevenses are or the fact that the Hobbits’s calendar starts on a Saturday and ends on a Friday. But readers know this culture as much as they know their own. Why? Because Tolkien describes everything through dialogues and idiosyncrasies.
Perhaps the biggest example of the perfect explaining of cultures without explaining is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Believe it or not, this series is heavy on British culture and traditions, from school regulations to casual conversations. For example, Rowling throws out the word prefects without having to explain what they are. She doesn’t tell you, she shows you.
As writers we should let our readers discover and explore everything themselves. The correct way is to show our readers the world and culture in our books and let them find out for themselves. Give them the opportunity to ask important questions, and let them answer those questions themselves. Don’t worry about explaining everything; focus on telling your story instead, and trust me, your story will be 110% much stronger and powerful if you do.
Christopher Loke, Executive Editor for Jolly Fish Press, has made a splash in the writing world with his powerful and touching novel, The Housekeeper’s Son. This novel explores how far a mother can go for love. The answer? Murder. The Housekeeper’s Son is available as a hardcover and e-book through all major online retailers near you. Follow Chris on Twitter and Facebook for updates on his signings and events.