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Building Culture – Families

Part of world building is creating culture. Your people have to have a culture unique to their place in their world. Even if you are writing in modern America, it’s important to notice the influence of culture on the choices and assumptions that your characters make. However, since culture is a huge subject that spans several BA programs, I’m going to pick just one little piece to discuss today: Family.

Who is in my family is one of the first questions that a child asks, often even before they have full command of language. It’s one of the ways they, we, organize the world. There are many layers of us and them. Family is the closest layer of us. In some ways, family may seem easy to define – they are the people who live with us. In some cultures, family extends in all directions. In some tribal cultures, family is everyone in the tribe, with only status distinctions for mated couples. Though not all cultures recognize a long term mated commitment the way that we do. For them, men and women come together, do their thing, and the resulting child may never know who their father is. Other cultures consider family based on the mating pair and their children. Other cultures base the family on a patriarch or matriarch, Elders who are genetically linked to all of the other members of the family. For some, mothers and daughters are in one family while fathers and sons are in a different family.

What’s so important about family? Just about everything. As the basic unit of “us”, the family can influence everything from what kind of education you get to who you spend your adult life with. In some cases the family may choose for you what kind of job you will do. Most importantly, it will determine who you fight for and who you fight with.

In traditional cultures, such as China or Japan (I’m thinking back to times before globalization happened), a child didn’t dream of being anything other than what the head of the clan wanted them to be. We may think of that as cruel or horrible, but they didn’t think anything of it. It’s just the way it was. Oh sure there were some who wanted to do something else and a subset of those who actually defied their family and did something else. They were considered outcasts. Even our Western History is filled with that sort of thing. In Medieval Europe, especially for boys, you were born into the family business. If your father was a baker, you would grow up learning the ways of the oven and how to tell the difference between good and fine flour. On the other hand if your father was king, you grew up learning about politics. By the time you were an adult, your education would leave you suited for nothing other than what your father had taught you. Amazingly enough, girls had a little more flexibility as they would grow up to be married to a guy who was going into his family’s business. Although she didn’t have a choice in that matter, and really being a wife was pretty much the same business regardless of what your husband did – though the wife of a king did get nicer clothes.

As long as that was all that people knew, most of them just accepted it. Many of them still do. It’s what they grew up with, it’s how their parents did it. Naturally that should be better. The truth is that people are generally rather conservative and will follow tradition just because it’s easier than thinking up something new for themselves. In modern times though, people don’t have to think it up for themselves, they just have to look around and see all kinds of examples for how to define their family. That’s why here in America and around the globe, young people are modifying their families. They are picking and choosing the best that they can see from all the representations in the media.

In my own life, I have been part of a family that included me, my sweetie and my three cats. Soon we are going to be joined by two more adults, a child and another cat. My sweetie and I will still maintain our exclusive relationship in certain aspects, as will the other couple. Beyond that, we will be one unit – four adults, one child and four cats. There are some in my circle of acquaintances who think that I’m just being weird entering into this kind of family. To them, they can’t think beyond the two parents and kids version of family that is considered traditional. Never mind all the benefits of outnumbering the kids by that much or having that many people capable of adding money to the household budget. Or the number of hands that will be available for those big projects that need to be done from time to time. There are bound to be some down sides too, like who gets to shower first in the morning and finding time for those exclusive bits. All the possible sticking points in a traditional family will get magnified by the sheer number of us.

Imagine now a culture in which this was the standard form of family. Two mated couples joining together to raise the children. How would that affect the rest of society? Some things that I would think (and feel free disagree, create your own culture and write about it) are that we wouldn’t see the modern reliance on daycare centers, even as society moved toward the modern era. No matter how you slice it, have 3/4 of the household employed is easier to make ends meet than only 1/2. Even if you are that low on the income scale, it’s easier to arrange work schedules so someone is always home for the kids. Houses and apartments would be bigger for the most part, to hold larger families. There would be two stages of single. The one we all know about today when a person is looking for a mate, and the second when a mated pair starts looking for another mated pair to merge with. That could make for some interesting dating scenarios, not to mention a lot more opportunity for the “singles” web sites. I would think it would also push society away from self-centered thinking. In a traditional couple, you (theoretically) get your way 1/2 the time, but with four adults that drops to 1/4, maybe less for all those times when compromise gives a solution that is no-one’s way. Bringing in the extended family become much more like hosting an army with four sets of in-laws that come in sets of four themselves. I suspect this might end up with less reliance on extended families. It’s hard enough to get my small Minnesotan family together for the holidays, I wouldn’t want to think about trying to coordinate with all those in-laws.

That is just one possibility. There are a million more. When building your world, keep family in mind when you are thinking about the cultures of your people. Play with different styles, because here on Earth we didn’t come up with just one way. Your world will be far more complete, and your story will have more interesting points of conflict if your characters come from different standards of family.

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