What if your family member made a choice that could damage your reputation or limit your opportunities for life?
This is what my character Katryl faces in my work-in-progress, The Firewing Chronicles.
As I write the Firewing Chronicles, I am reminded that much of what makes it into fantasy these days is a repackaging of modern ideologies and perceptions (one of my pet peeves). However, I enjoy taking historical or just different cultures and using them as inspirations for my fantasy cultures.
(Note: This doesn't mean that if I base a fantasy culture on Japanese culture, I will get every aspect of Japanese culture correct. This is still a fantasy story, people.)
To illustrate the divide between the modern view and the more historical view of culture, let's consider the sub-plot I am currently writing.
Katryl is about to turn sixteen and, according to her culture, that is when the elders of her House give her a special name that signifies her acceptance into her House. If named, she is entitled to all the rights, privileges, and powers of her House--some of which are significant. (Sorry: No spoilers here!)
Problem: Katryl's mother shamed her House by marrying a foreigner after Katryl's biological father died. This means that, without divine intervention, Katryl will never have a name among her people. It will be like she never existed, like her father died childless.
Not so bad, right? I mean, she can still live amongst the foreigners that she has grown accustomed to.
This is where our modern thought process doesn't comprehend the rootedness of other cultures.
See, in our culture, many families are broken, so there is little identity in family or heritage. If a parent says something we dislike, we have the option to disregard them and the culture backs up our independence.
Not so in many other cultures around the world. Family is a big deal amongst many people groups. Defying an elder isn't just uncomfortable; it's downright dangerous. The entire culture backs up the tradition, not the rebel. Your family heritage--who your grandfather was, what your father does for a living--is very important to your social status and opportunities.
We also don't understand the power of association. In our world, if your uncle is a drug dealer, that's a sad thing, but it doesn't reflect on you. No one expects that you'll be a drug dealer too.
In other cultures, historically, what your family does is all important. For example, in some cultures, if a young woman gets pregnant out of wedlock, her whole family is showered in shame. Suitors might look askance at her unmarried sisters, even if those young ladies are well-known for their propriety. The available sisters might never marry as a consequence of their one sister's shame. And the unwed mother herself might have very serious consequences.
Yes, your sister, your brother, your father, your mother could literally mess up your chances in life. Redemption could be hard-earned, if it is earned at all.
So when Katryl's coming of age approaches and she questions whether or not she will be named, she is not just wondering if she'll be accepted. She is wondering if she'll ever get married, have children, gain an inheritance, learn the secret powers and knowledge of her people. She has a lot to lose if her mother's transgression is not overlooked. Her own merit is irrelevant in this matter.
Thus, while Katryl struggles to find some compelling reason for the elders of her House to name her, I struggle as an author to communicate to the reader just how serious this matter is in Katryl's culture.
In your own experience or research of other cultures, what cultural difference is most surprising to you?