Portraying Cultures & Peoples In Speculative Fiction

Normally I only post on Wednesdays (every other), but…I came across a blog from a writer who was new to me and she had a very interesting article that really got me thinking about some things.

I was actually doing a search on Twitter for other writers who are into the dieselpunk aesthetic and found Sophia Martin’s blog by happenstance.  Not long ago she wrote a post on dieselpunk–which, of course, I couldn’t resist.  Though, there’s a whole lot more packed into her post than explanations on what dieselpunk is.

Sophia asks some really thoughtful questions, I think, that could easily apply to all sub-genres of speculative fiction.  A substantial part of her post regards the problem of Orientalism, which she describes as “the representation of [non-western] cultures (most often Middle Eastern, but it’s just as valid for various Asian areas as well as any other part of the world where people are predominantly brown, in my opinion) through the filter of western ideas, desires, opinions, prejudices, etc.”  It has a negative connotation because these portrayals of non-western cultures tend to be heavily romanticized, prejudiced and/or grossly exaggerated.  Sophia also lists some examples of where this has been done, namely in movies.

I started writing up a response to share some of my thoughts, but then I realized it was practically going to be an entire blog post in itself, haha.  So instead of making a ginormous post over there, I decided to just blog about it here in a question-answer format.

Sophia Asks Writers:

“How do you portray a culture respectfully while simultaneously making it mysterious, sinister, and, in many cases, somehow mystical?”

I actually think this is part of the problem: (1) some writers try too hard at attempting to portray an entire culture rather than the individuals that contribute to it, and (2) they automatically settle for lumping an entire culture into “good” or “bad” categories.  The problem is that real-life cultures, like individuals, are way too complex for such simple treatment, so I don’t see why it should be any different in fiction that aims for at least some measure of verisimilitude.

When writers attempt to do these things, it tends to get especially hokey when they develop gross caricatures to represent cultures or focus too much on certain (often superficial) aspects of characters and take things too far—i.e. the writer harps on the same point over and over again in attempt to establish the “otherness” of someone/-thing: “He had an Italian nose…” (Which I think is a terribly lazy description, btw!)  Then the reader starts thinking: “Okay pal, you mentioned his nose several times in the first, second and third chapters.  How many more times do we need to be reminded of his ‘Italian’ features?  What is this obsession?!  We are capable of remembering details, you know.”

That kind of focus is too narrow, imo.  There should be many different aspects about a culture (cuisine, gestures, common verbal expressions used, customs, etc.) and yes, even an individual (quirks, speech pattern, thoughts, beliefs, etc.).  Of course, within the confines of a novel, you can’t list too many of these aspects or else it gets out of hand–yup, that elusive art/design principle of balance.  Still, these aspects should be given ample thought by the writer, and I think peppering–no, that implies superficiality–placing them into a story over time, preferably at different times, and refraining from putting too much focus on any of them in any given scene (unless a plot point hinges on them for some reason) would help alleviate this problem.

So how do you make a culture seem mysterious to a primarily western audience?  Study non-western cultures (especially rare ones)–which may include interviewing and interacting with people from those cultures–to inform your portrayal of said cultures in stories set in our world.  Or, in the case of secondary worlds, use that gained knowledge of other cultures as inspiration in order to derive new ones that will then, hopefully, seem “different” to your target audience.  (Easier said than done, right?)

Those are my amateur-writer thoughts, anyway…

(You know, author Kameron Hurley actually writes some really good posts that are related to this, namely her worldbuilding posts (see Worldbuilding 201: Normalizing the Absurd for an example).  I really think this lady knows what she’s doing and talking about when it comes to creating and successfully portraying unique cultures.)

Sophia Asks Writers:

“But how do you write about exotic lands without othering those people the main characters, who by nature of being dieselpunk characters will be westerners, will encounter there?”

Well initially, when anyone encounters something (or someone) that is unfamiliar to them then that something will automatically be “other” until they can get past the newness and are able to accept it as just another aspect of their reality–or, in the case of fiction, the story’s reality.

But that’s the whole appeal of adventures like in Indiana Jones or Star Wars and lots of other speculative stories.  Viewers/readers are always being introduced to new worlds, characters and cultures that may be very “other” to them, but hopefully, after having experienced the entire story through the eyes of the locals (characters), they’ve gained a better understanding of these things (assuming they’ve been accurately portrayed to begin with) as well as an appreciation for them–lessening the “otherness” and bringing about a sense of familiarity.

Also, I think you could still write a main dieselpunk character(s) who isn’t a westerner, per se, in the same way that there can be Asian-influenced steampunk, for example.  It’s just not typical to see here in the West.

And then there’s the potential for racism—which, if it’s an important part of a story… I mean it isn’t really bad to incorporate it if you’re going for some realism, but it’s different when it stems from a character rather than the author, if that makes sense…  But yeah, I won’t even get into that right now, haha.

In the end, I think all of this comes down to, well, (1) knowing what you’re talking about in the first place, (2) learning how much focus to put on any one thing in a story and (3) figuring out how to tastefully and artfully balance all the elements of your stories—kinda like art.  Though, like with art, measuring the success of the execution of these things is pretty subjective, so what works for you may not work for others and vice versa…

So yeah, those are my thoughts. 🙂

What Do You Think?

Have you encountered Orientalism in your writing projects, or seen it in fiction you’ve read/seen?  How can it/should it be addressed?


22 thoughts on “Portraying Cultures & Peoples In Speculative Fiction

  1. Nice post. I’ll second your implicit questioning of Sophia’s assumptions about the nature of Dieselpunk stories: there’s nothing inherent in Dieselpunk per se, nor in Steampunk nor other iterations of Retro-futurism (nor fantastical-retro-futurism) that means that protagonists need necessarily be of “Western” stock nor, for that matter, do the predominant cultures in such stories need to be modeled on “Western” cultures. That’s an assumption that a given writer may have but it’s not particular to the genre itself. Most speculative fiction genres tend toward the preponderance of dominant cultures represented being “Western”-modeled cultures, but that’s a symptom of historically narrow-thinking. Dieselpunk will find it’s international flavors just as other speculative fiction genres have begun to break out from the molds of Euro/Western-centrism and Orientalism and Exoticization. It takes time and the touch of some truly great writers to force those changes, I guess… or just a sea change in thought. I dunno, but whatever, I think the changes tend to be for the better.

    For myself, and my own approach to the representation of culture: I think it’s important not to be heavy-handed. There’s no point in expository lumps of “Because s/he’s ‘Culture X’ s/he acts in manner ‘X’.” I think, rather, that it’s important to let characters speak for themselves, and the sharp reader will intuit cultural norms based on the interactions of the characters. For instance, in my current WIP the story starts in a place with a culture that is somewhat, possibly mostly, unlike our own. But I try to let the culture show in the way the characters act and interact. The main character, for instance, is a non-conformist. I hope this is clear not because the main character says “I’m a non-conformist” or others labeling her as such. But I have her explicitly considering and rejecting certain aspects of her native culture in some places, and in others not even thinking about them because it never occurs to her to question some aspects of her culture.

    Having multiple characters with different viewpoints of various cultures being presented – and allowing them to react naturally within the context of their own reality is, I think, the best and most honest way to portray those cultures.


    • Great points, Stephen!

      I think this goes back the “show vs. tell” adage. Attempting to give an idea of a culture in purely expository form within a story isn’t going to be very effective for most, if not all, fiction readers. Granted, there will be some description going on, but I, for one, know I prefer to use inference at times to figure certain things out as I go along. Being able to “see” the characters of various groups or cultures or whatnot in action allows me do this.

      For me, that’s been one of the challenges of writing about a main character who is immersed in a different culture than I am: learning first to interpret and render the(ir) world through their eyes. Only then could I feel capable of truly doing their story justice.


  2. One thing I hope isn’t lost in this discussion is that ‘exoticization’ and by extension ‘orientalism’ are not entirely positive things to aspire for. These terms are rooted in the western/colononial point of view. When someone/something is exotic, it implies they/it will always be ‘other’ or an object of curiosity. This is an excellent post on the topic.

    “Having multiple characters with different viewpoints of various cultures being presented – and allowing them to react naturally within the context of their own reality is, I think, the best and most honest way to portray those cultures.” I agree with what Stephen wrote here. No culture is truly homogenous, and people living within them interact with it in varying ways, including rebellion.


    • No, I see what you mean.

      More in reference to the post you linked to: I understand there are various connotations to the word “exotic,” though at the same time there’s nothing inherently wrong with using the word; it usually means “foreign” or “intriguingly different,” which are terms that are entirely subjective to an individual’s personal experience. As far as negative connotations go, that really depends on the context and usage of the word. There’s also a big difference, to me, in calling an object or place exotic vs. an actual person or group of people. If some guy were to call me exotic, for example (lol), I wouldn’t take it in an entirely positive light…

      Also, I agree in that there isn’t really such a thing as a homogeneous people, so trying to present them that way does them a major disservice–fictional or not.


  3. We shouldn’t be afraid of exoticsm. Most people are going to be reading genre fiction for a taste of the exotic. If someone wants a novel set in Manhattan, there’s thousands of unread literary fiction novels for them to choose from. Genre readers want to see another world, filled with wonder, danger and the strange.

    I do think the writer has to do their research and show the culture honestly, but that also means showing it warts and all.

    I think Fantasy/Sci-Fi is a big enough tent that if someone wants to write a story set from a non-western POV, there’s room for that. And I think if someone wants to write it from a Western POV, that’s ok, too.

    Seeing things from a Western filter isn’t wrong. Neither is seeing it from an Oriential filter. What I don’t like is the ‘victim filter’. Being so afraid of offending some group you strangle your own sense of wonder.


    • I am actually going to steer clear of the whole exoticism discussion from the article Theresa linked to ’cause there’s a ton going on in it that I’d feel compelled to ramble on about, lol. But yeah, I pretty much agree with everything else you were talking about!


  4. Questions on how to portray culture came into play for me, these past few days. My WIP features a fantasy race that I’ve written about before, but always from a more human and/or outsider perspective, never from the inside. …until now. It’s forced me to figure out not only how they interact with one another and the other fantasy races running around, but their reasoning behind it. Customs don’t get started in a vacuum, dontcha know.

    It’s been slow going — (I kinda rushed through the outline for this one, because I was just dying to get started on the actual writing; not necessarily a bad thing, it just means I’ve got to take the time now that I didn’t take then) — but really interesting for me, too. It’s making them feel more like a *people* to me, as opposed to just “the antagonist creatures”. Mind you, they’re still the antagonist creatures; that’s the choice they made, and they’re not sorry. But even evil shouldn’t be one-note and skimped over. Giving every element of the story you possibly can its due has an awesome way of raising the stakes for all the rest.


    • Don’t you find that challenging? 😀

      I feel like there’s always so much to consider from so many different angles when creating stuff from scratch… At one point you get things sorted out and are like, “Yeah, that makes sense!” Then you think about it some more and are like, “Wait…what?!” Back ‘n forth, back ‘n forth…

      For me, it’s like this constant struggle between trying to make things logical from the reader’s perspective and making my characters and cultures life-like–because I realize that sometimes the things people do in real life don’t necessarily make any sense whatsoever (to me) and yet it’s still an accepted reality! I start to wonder if I’ll ever get it “right,” lol.

      I’m constantly reminded of that one quote: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” So (inconveniently) true!


  5. I wondered if I might comment on the competing ideas regarding “exoticization” being discussed here. I think there’s a difference between the aesthetic appreciation of something “exotic” meaning that it’s outside the norms of your experience and the type of problematic “exoticization” that results from fetishizing something that’s different for no reason than that it’s different. The former, I think, can elicit the joy of discovery and gaining of life experience. But the latter reinforces stereotypes, most typically in a harmful way. I believe it’s a hard line to walk, to avoid indulgence in harmful stereotypes while still allowing for the exploration of something new.

    With regard to depiction of cultures, that’s part of why I advocate the method I talked about: allowing multiple viewpoints allows for a lot of breadth of experience, both experience of the different and the similar, but allows for a more rounded picture that avoids oversimplification, stereotyping, and fetishizing. (I use that term “fetishizing” to refer to oversimplified negative as well as positive portrayals of the “exotic”. I’ve read plenty of accounts that find just as much harmful in “wise old eastern mystic” stereotypes as in “hordes of eastern barbarians” stereotypes.)

    I just wanted to throw this out there because I think different folks may be using these words in different ways to refer to different phenomena, and that may result in talking at cross-purposes, which muddies the discussion.


    • Hmm… I like how you describe exoticism, and I think it helps to distinguish the different between that and “exotic.” Part of the reason I was hesitant to comment more on the heart of the article was because I didn’t feel like the author had taken the time to define it clearly for readers, & I didn’t want to get excessively nitpicky with semantics and whatnot, haha…but yeah. I can see how fetishizing can be harmful.


  6. I grew up with both Western and Eastern influences, so maybe I’m a little more fortunate in that arena. My current project is Asian-influenced steampunk. I drew on a mix of various myths including Chinese and Japanese. And my main character is Japanese, with a buddy that’s Native American.

    I didn’t do it on purpose, thinking – okay, let’s have non-Westerners be my main characters to break the mold. It just kinda happened that way.

    Also, I don’t really pay too much attention if a book is from a Western or other point of view. As far as racism goes, if it’s appropriate for the story and the setting I feel it has to be there. Humans have a hardwired instinct to be naturally weary of those that look vastly different from ourselves


    • Lucky!

      That’s interesting ’cause in my WIP I pretty much set it up from the get-go as “west” vs. “east,” and even though it’s set in a secondary world it’s still pretty similar to ours, as far as the types of people who inhabit those two hemispheres of the world go. (I have to confess: this kind of dichotomy has fascinated me since high school, particularly after I chose to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India one summer for an English class–one of the few classics I actually thoroughly enjoyed at the time, haha.) I did it intentionally, though, to (1) reinforce certain themes in the story (racism being one of them) and (2) make it easier for people to relate to since there are several different people-groups that are introduced over time, all involved in a bunch of international politicking.

      I don’t know if it had to be that way, west vs. east (coulda been north vs. south, lol), but that’s how it turned out. I think this is partly because I was initially alluding to certain conflicts that’ve happened in our world within the past decade or so without actually realizing it until things were fairly developed…


  7. I’m thrilled that this discussion is going on. I’ve been wrestling with this issue for some time now and reading all of these responses is really helpful.

    Tiyana, like you I started writing a long response here, and when I got to the third paragraph I realized I was basically writing the blog post I’ve been intending to follow up with. So I cut it and will post it on my blog. I hope everyone will take a moment to click through and give me their thoughts there, as I still have questions and concerns, and I really think this discussion is worthwhile.


  8. Very good post.

    I think asking the first question you reply to is a bit like asking, “How can I shave off all my hair and keep my ponytail?” You can’t, that’s the answer. You can’t portray a foreign culture as mysterious and mystical and sinister, but in a respectful way. That is a pileup of stereotypes and cliches and, as you say, no culture (in real life, at least) is that simple.

    Oh, yes, the often-mentioned “Italian” nose. I remember reading a mystery once (and a pretty good one, overall) where one of the suspects was Greek and didn’t speak any English, so whenever he was being questioned a translator had to be brought in. The translator was Greek also, and in every scene where he appeared the word “greasy” was always included in his description.

    Stephen and Theresa made good points about people rebelling against their culture. In my last story, my protag runs away from home and rejects the world she grew up in, but part of the book is showing how much of her home town she brings with her — how many prejudices (and, yes ideals) she still holds. She doesn’t really see this (she is very young), but I think the reader does. She is an oddball where she ends up, and she’s fine with that, but I’m sure the people around her can figure out a lot about where she came from, just from looking at her.

    Some of what I write about is how people react to a culture which is foreign to them, but the point is usually that if they’re finding it to be mysterious, it’s because they’re tourists and aren’t bothering to find out how things work in the foreign land.

    And I agree with Stephen’s point that “I’ve read plenty of accounts that find just as much harmful in ‘wise old eastern mystic’ stereotypes as in ‘hordes of eastern barbarians’ stereotypes.” There are no “good” stereotypes; all stereotypes are reductive and limiting. I saw a very good discussion of that recently, but so far I have not been able to remember where. If I find it, I’ll post a link.


    • Oh yes! I remember Theresa’s post on that. T’was a very good one. 🙂

      For me, stereotypes, like racism, are still very interesting when it comes to worldbuilding and writing stories because they have the potential to add a lot interest. Of course, the stereotypes and racism are coming from certain characters’ perspectives and beliefs rather than some statement that I, as the author, would be trying to make about a particular person/group of people, and I generally use them to create dramatic tension and conflict as well as add dimension to certain characters.

      One of my main characters, for example, is very gentlemanly and suave though also a bit of a closet racist. He is very touchy when it comes to politics, too, which is strongly linked to his racist sentiments, though he usually keeps this all to himself to maintain a certain image. As a result, there’s always this dark side about him just waiting to burst out at any given moment, and occasional little clues about his beliefs will seep out randomly–usually very subtly but sometimes in the form of snide blanketing statements such as “they’re all the same” or “they can’t be trusted”–creating dissonance between him and, primarily, the MC, who is a potential love interest to him but also someone who is very accepting of other races.

      It’s been…interesting writing his character, lol.


      • I can see how that character could be interesting to work with. I have one (a minor character) who is racist (and sexist), but it’s not always clear how much of it is how he really feels and how much is things he says to see if he can get a reaction out of people. If I ever write a story where he’s a more major character, I may explore that.

        And you can also show cluelessness. I have a scene where a teenage girl visits two women she doesn’t know, and she can tell they’re more than roommates, but she thinks in terms of different family relationships, not even considering that they might be lovers (which they are). When she figures this out, we find out that she has a very stereotypical idea of what lesbians look like (and that she’s worried that she has said something to offend them while she was figuring this out).

        She (the girl) is really trying not to appear prejudiced, but she’s aware that she may come across that way simply because she’s led a pretty sheltered life until now.


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