Anthropology and Architecture For Enriching Characters #amwriting

Know what I love? Book sales! Know which ones I love best? Non-fiction. Know why? Characters!

WhoWhereWhyWhether you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, historical, mystery, or non-genre, your characters have to have a setting. They have to have a back story. They have an ethnicity. Even if they don’t have a religion they follow, they come from a culture and a family that’s steeped in spiritual archetypes and spiritual and/or humanist morals (those we would recognize and those we wouldn’t).

Mom and I are currently reading RETURN TO LAUGHTER: AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL NOVEL by Elenore Smith Bowen (pen name of anthropologist Laura Bohanan). In it, as in Gontrin de Poncins’ KABLOONA, a European lives among the people being studied and attempts to be assimilated without completely losing the ability to observe and record.

At one point, Bowen has the insight that people all over the world might feel the same emotions as one another but still respond differently to those emotions; the consequences and implications of their behavior and responses can be vastly different. A man tells her that there’s no point getting attached to women and children because they die so easily. Before she knew the man and his attitude to his own family, she would have thought the statement callous; at this point, she knows it to be a statement of knowledge learned through repeated painful blows.

Bowan is told that she is a grown man’s mother because he works for her and she feeds him. When his wife has a baby, Bowan is that child’s grandmother. The wife is part of the man’s mother’s household, so she his his mother’s wife as well as his; his child is his mother’s child and her grandchild. Kinship isn’t about DNA; it’s about relationships. I could never make something like that up before having read RETURN TO LAUGHTER. Now I can imagine different kinship conventions that the ones I grew up thinking were universal.

I have a book called THE HOUSE: ITS ORIGINS AND EVOLUTION by Stephen Gardiner (copyright 2002) and one called THE TEN BOOKS ON ARCHITECTURE by Vitruvius (written in the first century BCE). Besides providing me with a wealth of details on how houses and communities can look, they tell me something about how the builders — and the people for whom they build — thought and wanted to arrange their personal, semi-public, and public spaces.

I’m not recommending these specific books, although they’re all excellent. I’m just saying that reading about origins, specific cultures, clothing, cooking methods, kinship, and other examples of the specific logic of the everyday, you can think more imaginatively and more deeply about your characters and settings.

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Invent a kinship convention quite different from the one you grew up accepting.



I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Anthropology and Architecture For Enriching Characters #amwriting

  1. Jane

    July 6, 2015 at 10:09am

    Great post.

    I recall in the Tony Hillerman novels, Chee has to determine if a particular female is kin before he can date her, and she is clearly (to an Anglo) NOT related. Apparently, Navaho kinship is traced on the female side, with some other particularities. NB: Both were relieved to discover they were NOT related.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      July 6, 2015 at 10:15am

      I remember that problem. Something about if their animal clans are related, they’re kin, even if they share no blood. Seemed like it was complex for Chee, let alone for an Anglo. SO MUCH STUFF in the world!

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  2. alberta ross

    July 7, 2015 at 6:11pm

    I remember way back during a famine crisis in Africa – late 60s – a refugee male being interviewed and he was so angry the relief workers were concentrating on feeding the babies – babies can be replaced – parents cannot – a child can not fend for itself adults can – so why waste valuable food on the babies?

    It was shocking to hear – I had just finished my child care training but I have thought of his words often and they do make sense – I would still prob try and save the baby but maybe not to the detriment of the parents.

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      July 7, 2015 at 10:24pm

      Along the same lines as the flight attendant telling the adults to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their children. Sensible, but hard.

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