Showing a Culture’s Development
In a historical novel, waves of migration stream into small villages that struggle to become a culture as outside forces change the protagonist (P). But how does a writer Show those forces instead of bore the reader with textbook-style facts?
When Edward Rutherford reveals his characters in his novel Russia, the author uses Show instead of Tell to see how Lebed fights a roving marauder for her son’s life. Later he pits Ivanushka as a man adrift between the need to travel east for trade, or become a priest with the church as the land vibrates from the crossfire of Christianity and Islam.
Writers usually feel the compulsion to setup the background so the the reader sees the full scope of the P’s world. But the amount of details in Russia could put people to sleep.
Telling the background would list the many migrations from the Scythians, Alans, Bulgars to other groups who headed west. The politics would have to be explained from Rome’s fall, to the rising strength of the Byzantine Empire, Poland and Venice. Religion would have to mention the Jewish Khazars and how the Greek Orthodox community struggled to find a place to worship.
The technique of Show puts the reader right into the scene by making the character the focus instead of the list of facts. The facts emerge as the character tries to solve a conflict.
Lebed searches in the forest for her lost son to find the boy in the arms of a migrating Alan. The woman left her small hamlet without bringing any fighting force. The people lived on farming. The village lacked ties to nearby bigger towns where a force could help. Those forces didn’t exist. The power Lebed saw came from the Alan and the Scythian who moved at will in her land.
Rutherford shows the emergence of a version of a political state around 1,000 years later. The character Ivanushka drifts between trying to understand his world and please his family. His trading venture comes not because of an overabundance of his community, but because his Kiev lies between two economic powers. He drifts to think about being a priest as the changing religious forces threaten Kiev with devastation.
In both examples, readers learn about the facts of history, but from the eyes of the character. Usually Show means a technique where the reader sees the specific action of a character or sees an emotion. Telling is a technique where the reader is told a term like “angry,” instead of seeing, “the man’s wrist tightened on the wrinkled letter.”
Rutherford does more than simply link the technique of Show to reveal the people in Russia. He drives the social structure by showing readers the forces around the character.
A culture’s belief system needs to be described for readers so the page-turner understands some characters. Cultures dictate how many see themselves. For example, a law office culture drives many associates to think of having a limited time to prove themselves — either they advance to become partners or they leave.
Rutherford’s Russia shows a glaring difference between Russian and American culture. In Russia, the culture has formed from centuries of lying in the crossroads of Europe and Asia. As such, the fears developed from how they could not control their own destiny. Migrations and invasions pushed many to respond instead of act.
On the other hand, a character in America’s West would display some dominant confidence as the person has seen his culture move across the continent — no barriers whether nature or tribal could stop the flow of expansion.
Those elements play at the tug-of-war that torments some characters. Those conflicts heighten the story but require planning. Details are needed, but Showing rather than Telling gives a bigger punch for the effort.