The Role of Anthropology in My Writing
I like worldbuilding. I like to play worldbuilding video games, I like to delve into the deep recesses of table-top RPGs and the worlds and rules and laws that they create. That’s what I’ve done here, on this website and in my first upcoming novel: I’ve created an alternative universe, a universe that has its own rules, its own tropes, and social mores.
I have Anthropology to thank, and to curse - but more on that later.
Close to half of my schooling was in Anthropology, specifically the Anthropology of Religion. If anyone knows anything about religion and its effects on the society in which it develops, it spreads out and inculcates itself into every aspect of life. I’m not talking about the big three in the West, but the religions of all places, everywhere.
The field of Anthropology, more than the field of History, has helped me develop this new world. In a broad definition, Anthropology is concerned with the study of a people living during a very specific time during their cultural development. This means everything: their rituals, festivals, customs, and above all, their beliefs and practices of them.
History concerns itself with broader strokes. A nation’s rise to power, wars, and the important personages that make those things happen. Both have their place, and both can and should be used in tandem to suss out the complex chain of events that lead towards, well, anything.
But it’s Anthropology, now, that I’m drawing upon, because it is so detailed and specific about the day-to-day interactions of people with their surroundings and each other. Those details (and often the implicit understandings that go along with them) provide a framework and rules to follow. Once that framework is in place, all I have to do is plug in characters, and the cultural rules will (should) influence their actions.
The way I am, I want to know the rules about everything; and the addition or subtraction of one rule, or part of a rule, has a cascading effect on almost everything else. And that’s the curse. The need to have those rules written down, to have the problems that they cause solved in realistic ways, and to have a clear line of change from where it is now, back to where it started, and forward to where it will (might) go. I’ve spent as much or more time designing the world as I have writing stories inside it.
Throw into that some alien cultures, personalities, and conflicts, and I often became stymied. It happens less often, for my imaginary culture seems to have hit a critical mass inside my mind. Now it runs without much extra input from me, and even throws out its own rules and solutions from time to time.
My current hurdle is the creation and formatting of a more exhaustive glossary for the novel. I didn't think that it would be difficult, or take very long to do, but it is turning into a whole project in itself. I didn't realize how much the society had inculcated itself into me. Each entry yields yet another concept that I must define, which yields two more and on and on.
In a way, it's great. It means that I have internalized this imaginary world and that I ken it in a way that goes beyond just the surface level. I just have to make sure that I don’t lose sight of what’s real, and what’s make believe.