1) Use a fairly broad range. Opposing just two cultures makes it easy to fall into the trap of assigning one as the Good Guys and one as the Bad Guys—especially if these cultures have a long
What schisms might these cultural groups have—religious, linguistic, geographical? What shared histories might connect people who now regard each other as competitors or enemies? (Geographical barriers are good for this one; a group that has “always” lived on one side of a mountain range or an island could easily have come from the same place as another, but short human memory plus the difficulties of crossing back and forth in a world without advanced transportation technology has effectively separated them). What ideals might have started out alike and then split apart under the influence of different thinkers, settlement patterns, governmental systems, natural disasters, and invasions? If you’re worried about your ability to come up with enough differing cultural patterns, start out with a few simple, broad ones, and then tweak them endlessly.
I think that writing like this gives the author a personal advantage, too: if she knows that her characters have a shared history far back enough, or if she’s done some conscious worldbuilding instead of aligning everything around one principle—whether that be Good vs. Evil, or “This is the culture that treats their women right, and this is the culture that doesn’t”—then she’s more likely to feel sympathies on all sides of the debate.
2) Hypocritical, deluded, and self-deceiving characters are glorious to work with. Banish those characters who are Wrong in some very obvious way from the beginning of the story, have everything in the world shout at them when they commit a mistake, and figure it out in five seconds flat. They aren’t your allies here. At best, even if they start off not 100% correct, they become that way once they learn about the “right” culture. I dislike them, the dumbass impediments to a complicated story.
However, there are many characters who can become incisive, insightful protagonists, quite able to give your reader a picture of the flaws of the alien cultures they enter, so that no one can accuse you of writing a utopia…and then make remarks that reveal their own cultures are truly no better, except that they don’t reflect on that any more than they reflect on breathing.
Some specific examples, admittedly simplified:
-A woman from a matriarchal culture who is indignant about the treatment of women in a patriarchal culture she visits across the ocean, and yet, while lamenting the lack of freedom for female artists and single women in the foreign country, never thinks to question why, even in her own homeland, a woman’s social reputation depends on how many children she bears. (Matriarchy literally means “rule of the mothers,” after all).
-A patriot who burns with indignation at the foreign culture that conquered his country—which itself used to be a conquering empire.
-A character horrified by the violent and bloody excesses of his neighbors across the river, who sacrifice a child every day so the sun will rise. Of course, killing as many people as there are days in the month so that the moon will come back from darkness, which his own culture does, is just common sense. But because that takes place only thirteen times a year, and anyway it’s only those fast-breeding peasants they take the victims from among, it’s a lot easier for him to ignore.
-A soldier who hates the fact that her unit has to serve under That Foreign Inquisitor the king has hired. Of course, when she tortures enemies she’s captured in the field for killing her sisters-in-arms, that is only just.
Your characters can be wonderful people and yet fail to see everything clearly courtesy of the Cultural Diversity Ray™. It takes courage to write people like this, but not, I think, any more than comes from writing a character who commits a morally ambiguous act in the first place.
3) Embrace relativity. Moral absolutes are common in fantasy, though not as prevalent as they used to be. (I hope). The character may have to learn better, and he may be confronted with choices which are personally agonizing because, say, doing the right thing leaves a friend in the lurch, but it’s still clear what the right thing is. And in a case with varying cultures, there’s generally a moral code underlying all of them which the author can trot out to prove that People Are Really Alike After All, Because Everyone Agrees That Murdering Children Is Bad.
It really helps if you can embrace relativity and step away from the absolutes a bit. Construct solutions where the right thing is not so clear. Give the characters choices that will both have very good outcomes—and very bad outcomes. Choose other conflicts than simply “individual vs. society,” because in those we always know which side we’re expected to come down on. If you have an omniscient narrator, use him/her/it to make remarks supportive of each side. If you write tight first- or third-person from a character’s viewpoint, enter fully into each person’s beliefs while you’re writing them, rather than heaping all the doubt on one protagonist, not because it makes sense for her to have them, but because she’s a member of the “wrong” culture and you have to “redeem” her.
Relativity drives some people crazy, I know, because of things like: How do we get any practical action out of it? And: How can I ever stop asking questions? And: How can we possibly get a permanent solution?
Try entering the mindset while writing that practical action, though possible, will always be fraught with difficulty and that signs of divine approval
It’s not comfortable, I know, and it’s difficult to write. But this will sterilize those pesky moral absolutes that claim one culture in a built world must be absolutely correct the way that nothing else can. If no cultural construct or ideology is always good or always true in your story’s universe, then none cannot match objective reality, which means none cannot be 100% right.
4) May your mistakes be fruitful and multiply. Or, in other words: Use the good consequences of mistakes.
Of course mistakes should have bad consequences as well; that’s why I want authors to let their characters make them, to show they’re not perfect in every deed and thought. But mistakes can be used to benefit the character, or at least the story, in a portrayal of cultural clash—and not by introducing a clumsily contrived Grand Epiphany.
-A mistake can result in other characters changing their opinion of the one who made it—which might, in turn, show up more or less attractive sides of both themselves and the cultures they were born into, support, or represent.
-Think about the reason your character was mistaken in the first place. When it’s a case of cultural clash, most authors restrict it to something small like not knowing the table manners, or (hi, thing Limyaael does not like) have the protagonist interfere in something like an execution or ritual child abuse to show how right she is and how wrong the culture that performs the execution or ritual child abuse is. However, perhaps they are wrong because of assuming that the standards of their own culture apply to everyone. This can be useful, entirely understandable, troublesome enough to serve the plot and embarrass the character, and overturn what may have seemed an earlier case of one culture being entirely universal because the protagonist thought so.
-A mistake can make the character more thoughtful, hesitant, and willing to listen. This is always a plus in a story where more than one society is struggling to make its voice heard.
-Imagine that your protagonist is not just a normal visitor to this other country or culture, but holds a fairly high position. Negotiations, diplomacy, and even possible wars can start from her mistake, and this gives her an excellent reason to be involved in the action and to feel guilty over something she actually, if accidentally, did, rather than angsting over nothing.
-The mistake can justify explanations from kind people who wish to heal the protagonist’s rather massive case of Dumb. This gives you an opportunity to illuminate what could have seemed byzantine or alien earlier.
-The mistake can prompt lies from sinister people who wish to exploit the protagonist’s rather massive case of Dumb. After that there is, you guessed it, more plot.
5) Think about people thinking of others. There should be stereotypes of other cultures in your world. (Because no one is all-knowing and 100% correct, remember?) But the stereotypes need not be eliminated after just one casual encounter in which the protagonist somehow abandons everything she’s believed in from birth, or, worse, confirmed as true. Instead, you can think about how they influence the perceptions, and thus the actions, of the members of cultures towards one another.
Does your protagonist rest comfortably in what she believes is an intellectual superiority over strangers in her country because they speak her rather complicated language haltingly? Perhaps the strangers who’ve met her are confirmed in their stereotype that all people of her nation are rude and smug and smirk all the time.
Does your protagonist of the goddess-worshipping, Luddite religion just know that all people in cities are dirty, fanatically in favor of technology, and worship a male God? When he goes to the city, perhaps the street urchins recognize his disgusted looks, target him, and offer to give him a “natural” bed for the night in exchange for most of his farm produce—and said “natural bed” turns out to be the holding pen behind the slaughterhouse.
Perhaps your protagonist is highly educated. Among her reading, she’s learned that every single female child of the peasantry is beaten and brutalized by the men in her life. She therefore rescues a peasant girl and brings her home—and is completely confounded when the girl cries for her father, and accuses her of being a slaver who kidnaps children.
Sound fun? Relativity helps. Assuming that all cultures in your world have their own a) proportion of flaws, b) proportion of intelligent people, and c) subjectivity helps even more. At least make sure that b) and c) are not all concentrated in just one culture.
6) Be aware of the power dynamics. This applies especially if you’re writing empires. The empire that conquers other peoples will theorize about those people, coming up with reasons to explain why they were conquered. Among the more popular used in our own world: they were weak; it was God’s will; they deserved it for [insert cultural practice here]; they had some natural resource the empire can use more effectively; they’ll be taken better care of in dependence than independence; the conquest was not really that bad, because we let them keep some of their own religion/culture; look what horrible things they did with their freedom; it’s the law of nature; it’s right because it’s in accordance with [insert vague prophecy here].
The conquered cultures will think different things about the empire. They may not be free to spread those theories, especially if they are living in occupied cities and villages. Some will accept the empire’s explanations and internalize them, or mix the ideas of the two cultures.
Just remember that the empire’s explanations are not the only ones that exist, and they may have a substantial amount of propaganda, distorted information, and outright lies mixed in. That doesn’t make the truth of the conquered entirely right, either, but neither does it make it nonexistent.
The next rant is slated to be on turning idealistic characters gray, and should be up in a few days.