Of Trees, Roots and Culture


I’ve been in a bit of a writing slump this week with my novel and wondering why I haven’t felt motivated to work on it. At first I thought maybe it was because I have been really busy and a bit stressed because of big changes in my personal life. And while that may have been part of it, it wasn’t the whole picture. I realized after sitting and thinking on it a bit (and maybe after a beer or two) that my characters seem boring, flat and one dimensional. I had my outline for my story and my character profiles. I know what color their hair is and what their deepest, darkest secret is. I know where they are going next and how they are going to respond to a question that is asked of them. So what’s the problem? The problem is this. I don’t know the whys to it all. Why do they feel this way? Was it something that happened to them as a child? If so, what specifically is that thing? Why did that traumatizing, embarrassing, or exciting event happen to them? What kind of society do they live in where something like that would occur? What kind of religious practices to they engage in?

It’s important to have culture set up for your world, because it’s the little things that give life to a story. Really it needs to be to the point where you can stand there with your eyes closed and picture the tavern where the heroes are sitting and drinking a hard earned pint of ale or visualize the ritual where they stand beneath a tree to swear an oath to defend a wall in the middle of an icy wasteland. Why do they do these things? Do you feel excited for them, relieved with them, overwhelmed for them?

What kind of difficulties or excitements do they encounter other than the typical badassery of questing and such? Do they come across an entirely different race? Ents, elves, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, demons, and the like. Do they have language differences, like the between those in the Westeros and the Dothraki? Do the people they encounter engage in strange rituals like the worship of clocks? (The Claidi Collection, anyone?)

I had begun writing some ideas on how I want my world to be set up but I didn’t think I needed to figure EVERYTHING out immediately. To some extent, I’ve been able to carry on just fine without having my complex world set up completely. But then I hit a turning point and I was stumped as to why these people don’t get along, and why my main character was just being dumb. (Because literary characters DO have a mind of their own. Just ask any writer.)

I hadn’t figured out what makes my heroine’s culture different to make her so upset by the changes she encounters in the extreme one that is forced upon her.


I love this quote I found about culture and history, mostly because it involves an analogy of tree roots. If you know me at all, you know I’m obsessed with trees. So in case you missed the point of the quote in relation to what I’m talking about here, it’s that our story needs roots. It needs the depth that comes with a rich backstory. Even if all of those details are not shared in the book, it helps to create rich characters. If there is no depth to the world around your characters, even their exciting actions and words will fall flat.

Think about some of the most epic fantasy books of our time, or really any good book of any genre for that matter and you look at the depth of the backstory. There was a whole lot of time and energy put into that, and honestly a lot of it probably didn’t even make it to the final cut of the book.

Just look at The Lord of the Rings. (Tree) Ever hear of The Silmarillion? (Roots.) If you haven’t, it’s a ridiculously detailed backstory of the history and culture of Middle Earth. It’s intense. Now, not every story needs something quite that involved but that’s just an example to show how much back story and crafting a complex world can affect how good a book or series ends up being.

As for me, a bit unfortunately at this point, I tend to most enjoy the types of books that are complex and keep you guessing. The kind that have rich backstory where they mention something in book one and in book three they’re like, remember that one thing we said? Well, BAM! Here it is, in an awesomely complex twist. Yeah, I just shocked the hell out of you! Mind blown, mission accomplished!

So I figured some of my culture and history roots out and now I’m doing a bit better, but sooner or later I’m going to have this issue with each and every character big or small in my story. I need more, a lot more to make my tree into the majestic one I envision. So it’s time to sit down and get to world crafting! (No, I don’t mean the MMORPG, although that would be fun also but a bit counter-productive to writing goals).

How much time have you put into your back story? Does it need something complex or is it one of those simply beautiful things? Where did you pull your ideas from? Please share!

(Also, photo credit goes to my awesome brother! Thanks for the amazing picture!)