A story is and must be situated within culture. As simplistic and obvious as this statement is, its importance is by far the most significant aspect of comprising a story, and it often is overlooked in modern storytelling. A plot is merely a timeline – a sequence of events that are linked together. Any child who rambles out a story before bedtime can create a plot, some of them fairly detailed and complex. They will ramble on about a fanciful adventure they had, and though some of the plot points might be incongruent, fixing that is simply a matter of learning how to order a timeline. However, what changes a child’s imagined story into a detailed novel is summed up by one word: Culture.
True of any genre, but perhaps most obvious for historical fiction, characters and their happenings (plot) do not exist in a vacuum. They live within time (which denotes a certain level of development and past history), within a society (which stipulates customs, convention, and continuity), within a geographical habitat (which stipulates what resources/activities/adventures the characters have available to them), and more specifically within a place/abode (which exhibits what sorts of habits and tastes the characters have). Take out any one of these elements, and the story becomes incomplete. It is not enough that a reader knows what is happening in a story (most stories that children invent are, after all, easy to follow), but a reader must also know why they are happening – or better put, how they could happen. They should not know the end of the plot from the beginning, but they should know why the plot is happening in the first place. Why should the characters in the story care about the plot (because if that question can’t be answered, the reader won’t know why he should care)? Exploring a story’s culture is the only way to answer the question. The characters care about the plot because of the lives they have lived up to that point, because of the people/society around them, because of their mannerisms and lifestyles, and even because of the architectural styles that comprise the places they visit and see. Duly exploring the culture of ones characters will bring those characters to reality. Plots bring characters to life, but without culture, they will be too fanciful to be relatable. Culture makes them real, that – knowing what they eat, wear, do, say, how they live, what occupations they do, what art and decor adorns their abodes, how they fellowship – the reader can take on the mantle of the plot at the same time that the characters do.
Your fellow writer,
Joshua A. Reynolds, Proprietor