Box of Bones Caste System

Hi friends! So… I’m still doing Nano. Yes, I’ve been behind every single day of the month. Yes, I’ll quite possibly stay that way every single day of the month. But we’re not talking about that.

We’re talking about worldbuilding! So here’s some world building from my current work in progress, Box of Bones. The main characters in this story are from a country called the Grey Islands, a small string of islands poking off the mainland. They have a caste system that I made up mostly over the course of one morning and it is probably stupid, but I’m going with it.

So here it is in all its rambley glory: the Grey Islands caste system! (There’s actually a lot more to it, but I trimmed for brevity’s sake. This post would have been nearly thrice as long if I hadn’t!)

Nearly everybody on the Grey Islands is in some way descended from at least one of the officers or crew of the original ship of first settlers. (Those who are not are not allowed to vote, etc, even if they own a ship. They are considered guests of the Islands rather than citizens, even if they’ve lived there their entire life. The answer is usually to marry into an established line and then your children can have rights.)

People fall into three groupings: noble (veda), high (lira), and low (daru). Each of these is further divided into several classes. Class is very fluid and can even change within a single person’s lifetime. It has somewhat to do with birth, with wealth, with achievements, and with the favor of higher classes.

The three broadest class distinctions (veda, lira, daru) are called a person’s core. The distinctions within that are called scale, and are either high (alto), middle (mid), or low (bas). While it is common enough to move around within a single core, it is rarer to shift from one core to another. The fine distinctions within core and scale are called class and are numbered zero (highest) through three (lowest)- nun, ist, du, and tes. The final marking of a person’s rank is called direction, and is distinguished as rising (rin), stable (kos), stagnant (set), or falling (tol).

Class is highly linked to a person’s status and role, which are both merit based; therefore class, and particularly direction, is more an indication of how you are doing in the world; rising means that you are actively working upward in social ranking by your actions; stable means that you are comfortable moving within your current position; stagnant means that you are trying to work upward but not making any progress; falling means you are sliding backward in standing. Direction has everything to do with a person maintaining or changing class. For the higher ranks, kos is very respectable; after all the monarch (altoveda-nun) is considered kos, since there is nowhere higher to rise. Likewise, within the lowest class (basdaru-tes), there is no tol, since there is nowhere lower to fall.

Separation of classes is called degrees, each class being one degree. Below the royal class (which has its own set of rules), marriage is free within one’s own degree. It is also acceptable to marry someone one degree below or above you. Two is the maximum socially acceptable class gap.

While core is often dictated by birth, scale and especially class are more malleable based on a person’s merits (although there are undoubtedly more opportunities for advancement among the lira and veda than among the daru). Class is often determined by things such as wealth (disposable funds), income (and investments), education, occupation, reputation, etc, and can vary within a family, and even a single person at different points in their lives. Getting a better job can mark you as rin, but selling off your nicer furniture can mark you are tol. Class is highly flexible, and direction even more so, while core and scale are harder to change.

Spouses do not have to share scale, but marrying a lower class person can mark you as falling, unless that person is rising at the time of your marriage. Children inherit the core and scale of their parallel parent (matrilineal/patrilineal), and then typically don’t have a class separate of their parents until they come of age.

Few Islanders are veda, but lira and daru are about equally common. Most Islanders are kos and will remain so most of their lives. Rin, set, and tol indicate exceptional effort with varying levels of success. Rin is glamorous, set elicits gentle commiseration and maybe encouragement, and tol is not where you want to be. Most people would rather stop trying and stick with a nice respectable kos label than risk falling any farther.

About bucking the system: there is a thing called legal death, where a person abandons their caste, clan, and home to live as exiles. Despite being called ‘legal death’, it is definitely in the illegal category, so there is usually a faked death and family hushing, etc. ‘Legal’ in this case just means that the state believes them dead. Since they are dead, they don’t have any rights (even less than so-called guests of the Islands) which leads them wide open to any abuse whatsoever, so they tend to leave the Islands and never come back. This is a step beyond exiling, which itself is a step beyond disowning, both of which would leave the person’s place in the caste system intact.

So there you have it! All the exciting ways they can look down on each other! The MC is a nice respectable upper middle class, with the benefit of not having to think about this stuff a whole lot, but the secondary main is low class and it’s in his face a lot more, you know? Anyway, we’ll be back next week with another reblog and hopefully I’ll be better caught up! Tally ho! *dives at keyboard*

Culture Shocking Your Characters

confusedWhen we got to Portugal, it became very clear very quickly that I was the family translator. There isn’t much to my linguistic skills to merit that position, but since nobody else had learned how to ask where the bathroom is, and I was decent in the bonus language of French, I was the best we had. And really, I did alright- a lot better than I would have guessed. If I really didn’t know how to say something, most people spoke English, and of those who didn’t, nearly all of them spoke French. I learned pretty quickly that the gender of ‘thank you’ matters, an eyes-low desculpa goes a long way when you’re an idiot, and the price was always lower if I asked in Portuguese first. I was practically a local.

Then we left the tourist towns.

We went to a tiny village called Pias where my great-grandparents emigrated from and up a windy little road to an abandoned clocktower that probably matters to nobody in the world anymore but us. As we were walking around the square in the heat of the day (when every sensible person was inside napping), trying to get every angle possible on this clocktower, we encountered a pair of elderly gentlemen sitting flat against a wall in about three inches of shade.

Confident after a week of touring around the country, I nodded politely and said in my best accent, “Boa tarde.”

They nodded back, returning the greeting.

My mother leaned close to me, clutching pages and pages of our genealogy, and whispered, “Ask them if they live around here.”

“Uh…” I racked my brain, trying to remember how to say it. “Com licença,” I started slowly. Normally a hand talker, I knew it was a little rude to point and wave, so my fingers twisted nervously together instead. “Você… um… vive aqui?”

They answered in rapid Portuguese and nodded down a certain street, and my mom pounced with her papers. She had been dreaming of making this trip for most of her life and we were all a little crazy with excitement at the thought of maybe finding relatives while we were here.

And that’s when the little old lady showed up. She came up behind us, a short wiry thing in a black dress and headscarf, mumbling earnestly about something that sounded really important. She came right up to my mother and put her hand on her arm, still talking without pausing to breathe.

My mom looked at me questioningly and I said to the lady, “Uh… boa tarde. Minha…” I trailed off before I could so much as start into introductions or my family spiel. The lady was still talking. And she kept talking. And I had no idea what she was saying. Next thing I knew, she had taken my mother and I both by our arms and was gently dragging us away from the men, and then pushing us back toward our car, still shaking her head and mumbling.

She did not speak English. She did not speak French. I wasn’t even totally sure she was speaking Portuguese. I was in a place I’d never been, being I think thrown out by a possibly angry old woman, and I couldn’t understand a single word she was saying. I was utterly, completely lost and a tiny panicked voice in my head squeaked, “What am I doing here??” I climbed into the car with a sick knot in my stomach that stuck around for hours.

Culture shock happens. Sometimes it’s months into a trip. Sometimes, like me, it only takes a few days before you get that panicky sense that you have no idea what is going on or what to do about it. (Don’t worry, it faded fast and my best Portugal memories all happened in those tiny towns where hardly anybody spoke English.) If you write a story where a character finds themselves in a new culture, adding moments (or prolonged episodes) of culture shock can deepen and enrich the character and the setting both.

The word I most associate with culture shock is disorientation. Culture shock is that feeling of not knowing what to do or say in a cultural context that is outside of one’s norm. It can be experienced in any transition between one social environment to another (such as starting a job at a new place, visiting a significantly poorer or wealthier part of town, etc), but we most frequently associate it with traveling or moving to a foreign country. And although we usually think of culture shock as happening very soon after entering the new culture (which it certainly can!), it more commonly takes place over several weeks or even months.

Culture shock typically has four stages for your character to adjust through, and how quickly they move through those stages varies person by person. In the honeymoon phase (before the shock sets in), the new culture is seen in a rosy light, and the character communicates mostly with people who speak their language and are friendly to foreigners. In the negotiation phase, that rosiness starts to wear off as the character deals with a wider array of people, and the character may experience anxiety as they start to feel frustrated by the more difficult aspects of cultural transition- differences in food access and quality, differences in hygiene standards, language barrier, commission of cultural faux pas, etc. In the adjustment stage, the character gets more used to the new language, customs, and routines, and things start to make sense. Finally, in the adaptation stage, the character is fully comfortable in the new culture.

What most people think of as ‘culture shock’ is specific to the negotiation phase. Some of the signs we most associate with culture shock include homesickness, communication difficulties, embarrassment, information overload, and nervousness. In more severe cases, the character may withdraw from the new culture, leading to a growing sense of disconnection from the world around them.

People who cannot overcome their culture shock reject the new culture and often leave to try to return to familiar ground. At the opposite extreme, some people become so well adapted as to fully accept all aspects of the new culture and lose all connection to their old culture. But in most cases, people fall somewhere in between, accepting and integrating many aspects of the new culture but also maintaining aspects of the old culture, creating their own blend of the two.

Transitioning between cultures is difficult and can be an interesting element of a character’s arc. Writing culture shock into your stories can not only add a new level of realism to your writing, but can give you more opportunity to show readers what your characters are made of, and the struggles they must overcome.

Happy writing!

Portuguese Sample Settings

I had an emotionally exhausting weekend, so there’s not much room in my brain for creativity right now. Fortunately, this week’s post doesn’t require much, and most of the work was done weeks ago. Here are a few additions to the Sample Settings page, Iberian style.

Moorish Castle Cistern, circa 1000

Coat-of-Arms Room, Royal Palace of Sintra, circa 1700

Lisbon Rooftop at Sunrise

Town Square at Sunset, Moura (this one has snails)

(And in case you missed it, I did eventually put up the prison reception setting as well.)

Hope everyone has a good week. You guys are lovely.

Recovery Week! (aka Pictures of Portugal)

Hello! I got back mid last week and we had a great Portuguese vacation! (The only bad thing about the entire trip was that, on our first day there, we received notification that a good friend was lost in the Chatanika River. If you’re feeling flush for it, or just want to leave a message of sympathy and support for his family, there’s a GoFundMe campaign set up for his wife and two small children. Thanks!)

We’ve only been back in town for a couple days, so I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write anything up and so, in keeping with post-vacation photographic tradition, here are some photos. (But I’ll admit it frankly- with this batch, I didn’t even try to find a writing theme to go with it. *pulls at face* I AM SO TIRED.)

  1. The “new” church at sunset (Pias)
  2. Me and some water (Foz do Arelho)
  3. Me carrying all my earthly possessions within five thousand miles (Lisbon)
  4. A big bright castle (Pena Palace, Sintra)
  5. A somewhat smaller, somewhat less bright castle (The National Palace, also Sintra)
  6. Husband breaking things and getting trapped in a bathroom (vegan restaurant in a tiny town on the way to Lagos)
  7. Dude tried to eat my foot first thing in the morning how rude (Salema)
  8. You aren’t in love until you share your first bowl of snails (Moura)
  9. Ghost cat resting in peace (Pias)
  10. Sunset on the roof (Lisbon)
  11. The graveyard of an abandoned church my relatives were probably buried in but we’re not sure because the tombs all got raided for rumored gold a couple decades ago, aka people are horrible (outside Pias)

Creating Cultures

(Sorry I didn’t post yesterday.  I am dying of an exciting new plague [again]. Today’s CYOA was: will I spend the evening posting on the blog, or languishing in a hospital gurney?  I figured posting was cheaper.  If you don’t hear from me next week, assume I died.)

culture

Image from the Anthropology Dept of Drew University. Thanks, guys!

Toward the end of last year’s post Setting the Scene, I mentioned the importance and influence of realistic cultures in a story’s setting.  This week, we’re going to geek out on sociology to create a flexible framework for cultures.

While there’s a bit of overlap between them, there are five widely accepted aspects of culture: symbols, language, values, beliefs, and norms.  When creating your own cultures, try to incorporate something of each of these aspects to have a layered, realistic culture.  If you’re not creating your own culture, but rather writing about a premade one (maybe you’re writing historical, contemporary, fanfic, whatevs), you should also include these aspects to avoid a society that seems more like a cardboard cutout than an actual culture.

But before we get into any definitions, let’s chat for a moment about keeping things appropriate.  No, I’m not talking about your characters’ potty language or sextivities.  I’m talking about keeping your culture in sync with your setting.  It wouldn’t make sense for a language to have forty words for ice if its speakers lived in the tropics.  Or if it does, there had better be a good reason, like mass immigration or cultural appropriation or whatnot.

As we work through each of these aspects (and order really doesn’t matter), keep in mind the climate and resources this culture would develop in.  Don’t make all the houses log cabins if they live on the tundra.  Don’t develop detailed hunting ceremonies for your herbivorous aliens.  Don’t have your country’s national flower be a blossom that doesn’t grow there.  You get the idea.  (But seriously, if there are great reasons, let ‘er rip.  Weird little discrepancies are wonderful, like how California’s state animal doesn’t actually exist in California because settlers and gold panners hunted it to extinction a century ago.)

Values  Although this will vary a bit from person to person, each culture has an ‘average’ set of values that people care about.  Values help to define acceptable behaviors within the cultural group by delineating between good and bad.  Keep in mind that a single character commonly juggles the values of multiple culture groups, such as a character who holds the values of an average Australian (such as egalitarianism) in addition to the values of an Orthodox Jew (such as daily study of the Torah).   For your culture, think about the values that people hold dear, such as freedom, wealth, lineage, etc.

Beliefs  Belief systems are the convictions and understandings that people hold as truth, and are structured upon values.  These beliefs often mirror those of a religion, but can also be purely secular.  Think about people’s beliefs concerning the dangers of GMOs (value of health and safety) or the glory of communism (value of cooperation and group-before-self) or the messianic Coming of Trump (value of success and independence); no matter where you stand on these issues, there are little culture pockets at the fringes of the spectrum with irrational beliefs about whether these things will save or destroy the world, and there is no convincing them otherwise.  Whether your culture has strong ties to religion, or strives to keep itself separate from such things, make sure to have a set of beliefs that factor into the decision-making process of your characters.

Norms  The rules and traditions of a culture make up its social norms.  Norms run the gamut from the practice of ‘folkways’, or things that are expected but not insisted upon (American examples: handshake at first meeting, eye contact during conversation), to the observance of taboos (no pedophilia, no cannibalism, nooo).  Breaking of norms can result in mild censure (an annoyed parent sighing “Kids these days”) to severe societal punishment (imprisonment, exile, execution) depending on the values and beliefs that they violate.  The more precious the value, the more harsh the punishment.  When creating your culture, think of the traditions and social rules that would arise surrounding a high value on knowing one’s lineage, or maintaining a prescribed diet, or raising children to be successful hunters, or whatever values your culture holds, and weave that into the norms.

Symbols  You know how Americans can look at a picture of a flying eagle and immediately start shooting off fireworks and chanting, “USA! USA!”?  That’s because this bird, who doesn’t give a flying poop about nationality, is a culture symbol (as are the fireworks and the USA chanting).  Symbols can be a physical object, such as the cross of Christianity, or a nonphysical act, such as a formal bow typifying Japanese politeness.  So think about what kind of symbols you can work into your culture.  What styles of art, music, architecture do your characters employ?  What significance do certain colors carry/shapes/etc carry?  What goes on the banner snapping in the wind over the troops?

Language  You don’t really have to go out and make up a whole language from scratch- although it is way fun- but have an understanding of how your characters speak.  What words and ideas come up frequently?  What kinds of phrases and idioms arise that wouldn’t necessarily find use in whatever language your book is written in?  Make sure that these language quirks shine through in your characters’ voices.  (If you do want to make a language from scratch, check out Language Building Basics to get started.)

Once you have considered each of these cultural aspects, go back and make sure that they make sense as a whole.  Do the different aspects all support one another?  Are these social norms something a person would actually be willing to live?  Does the culture make sense within the region that gave birth to it (allowing for the natural evolution of human societies)?  And as always, give yourself lots of room to tweak and adjust, since it probably won’t all come together on the first go.

A final note on creating cultures: as with all worldbuilding, not everything you come up with will make its way into the story (hopefully).  But understanding it as the author will lend more depth to your work, allowing for deeper immersion and a richer backdrop.  Plus, I am a nerd and this stuff is more fun than dishes.

Until next week, happy writing!