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Presenting invented hybrid cultures

The Big Peat

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Something that comes up in my critiques on a semi-regular basis (and apologies to anyone who has critiqued and said this if it feels like a get at - it emphatically isn't, this is me reflecting on a wider writing issue that transcends any one piece of text) are comments that amount to "This doesn't feel faithful to the historical inspiration I think it is taking from."

Nine times out of ten for me this is deliberate because there is no single historical inspiration. I think it does the fantasy genre (and SF genre for that matter) a disservice if we solely confine ourselves to cultures that were. As such, I seek to create new cultures. Cultures that reflect a number of different world analogues. And I know I'm not the only one who does. Jordan's Aiel are Celtic desert nomads who fight like Zulus, behave like (I think) Japanese, and have social structures drawing from the Apache and Bedouins. And Celts. GRR Martin's Dorne is a mix of Spain, Palestine and Wales. And so on and so on.

So - beyond general comments of liking them, disliking them, how you do them, etc.etc. - how do you present them so that people get that this is what is going on? Is there actually any quick way that people will understand what's going on?
 

Ihe

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I think it does the fantasy genre (and SF genre for that matter) a disservice if we solely confine ourselves to cultures that were.
I agree.

My instinctual answer is that I wouldn't present it in any special way. I don't think a genre writer should justify his/her made-up cultures and races in any way. If you do, you'll be pulling the reader out of the story. If the mix is within the realm of possibility (and in fantasy practically everything is), there should be nothing to complain about. The critters :LOL: might have something to say about it, but most of the readers probably won't care where one draws from as long as it's internally consistent.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Well, cultures develop the way that they do for a reason ... or more accurately, a whole bunch of reasons, but there are usually a few reasons that are more central to the shape a culture takes than the other reasons. Some elements of seemingly unrelated cultures can be mixed, because they don't contradict each other's central principles. Some can't, because they do.

Fantasy readers are usually willing to accept all kinds of exotic combinations (some don't, of course, but most do) but what they find very difficult is accepting something that looks like a contradiction or an inconsistency. Just mixing cultures because we think they are cool can end badly. There has to be some compatibility or it rarely works. That compatibility may not be apparent on the surface, you may not even know where it lies yourself, but if you really feel strongly about a particular combination, it is likely that you are instinctively aware of the reconciling element (or elements) whether you are consciously so or not. But if you are consciously aware then you need to emphasis whatever it is in such a way that readers recognize: "Oh yes. This seems odd on the surface, but it actually works." If you are not consciously aware, if it's just that the instinctive sense of rightness is there, then you need to find its source, and when you do, then you'll know how to reconcile things for readers.

If you never find it—though if this is a combination that has really captured your imagination I doubt this would prove to be the case—then maybe you were trying a little too hard to be different and not hard enough to create something with internal consistency.
 

The Judge

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But culture doesn't arise in isolation. It comes from history and geography -- a country which is continually fought over is going to have different culture from one which has been at peace for hundreds of years, and elements of one might not work in another. A well-wooded country will be happy to use copious amounts of timber for firewood, and therefore will roast large joints of meat; one that has few forests or a rule against cutting trees down will develop a cuisine in which food is cooked with the minimum amount of heat, eg by cutting food into tiny pieces first.

Why, for instance, when both the Japanese and British have a history of flower arranging, did they develop Ikebana and we didn't? I'm no expert, but I imagine it's connected with their religious beliefs, and a cultural sense of -- for want of a better word -- neatness, of wishing to produce perfection, which is also connected to their art and things such as the tea ceremony. So if a writer mixed Ikebana-type arrangements with a culture which is slovenly in all other respects, for me it would jar terribly. That's not to say a specific individual within a slovenly culture can't practise Ikebana, but the idea of its being widespread would strain suspension of disbelief.

So, for me, a mix-and-match approach would only work if I'm convinced the writer has taken the trouble to understand how and why the specific cultural elements have arisen in one particular environment and not in another, and therefore which will feel true if transposed into a wholly different place.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Or since you used the term "hybrid" I'll put it another way:

You can breed a Great Dane with a Pomeranian (if you can get past the obvious physical challenges of the mating—or use artificial insemination) and get viable and fertile offspring because even though the Dane and the Pom don't even look like the same animal, they are, and the chromosomes line up.

But if you breed a donkey and a horse—which look very much more alike, but actually aren't where it counts—you get a mule. A mule may be a lovely and useful animal, but it's sterile. You don't want to create a fantasy world that is, at some deep level, sterile.

But also, when readers say, "this character wouldn't have done that" or "people don't act that way" what they really mean is, "you haven't convinced me they would act that way." And sometimes it takes just the tiniest detail added—if it's the right detail, one that may already be there in your mind but never made it onto the page—to convince them utterly, but without that detail everything, as far as they are concerned, falls completely apart.
 

dwndrgn

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Or since you used the term "hybrid" I'll put it another way:

You can breed a Great Dane with a Pomeranian (if you can get past the obvious physical challenges of the mating—or use artificial insemination) and get viable and fertile offspring because even though the Dane and the Pom don't even look like the same animal, they are, and the chromosomes line up.

But if you breed a donkey and a horse—which look very much more alike, but actually aren't where it counts—you get a mule. A mule may be a lovely and useful animal, but it's sterile. You don't want to create a fantasy world that is, at some deep level, sterile.

But also, when readers say, "this character wouldn't have done that" or "people don't act that way" what they really mean is, "you haven't convinced me they would act that way." And sometimes it takes just the tiniest detail added—if it's the right detail, one that may already be there in your mind but never made it onto the page—to convince them utterly, but without that detail everything, as far as they are concerned, falls completely apart.
This is only peripherally related to this conversation but your Great Dane and Pomeranian example reminded me of a book I read that I could not enjoy in the least because there was a hybrid that I felt (or the author didn't convince me) wouldn't actually work. It was a meld of a humanoid and an insectoid - for me the physical systems in use wouldn't be compatible and to this day I have zero idea what the book was about but am still annoyed by the 'hybrid' that ruined it for me.
 

The Big Peat

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And sometimes it takes just the tiniest detail added—if it's the right detail, one that may already be there in your mind but never made it onto the page—to convince them utterly, but without that detail everything, as far as they are concerned, falls completely apart.
Here be the crux - what is that detail that persuades people that the chromosomes match, that the elements have risen in a different manner from which they originally did but yet in one that makes sense?

I guess this is really mostly a question about exposition, but with most matters of exposition I'd hint first then answer questions later. If I hint with this, I seem to get "huh" and I understand that, because at first the details seem incongruent. Should I only bring up the conflicting elements of the culture when I have time to explain them?
 

Jo Zebedee

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Here be the crux - what is that detail that persuades people that the chromosomes match, that the elements have risen in a different manner from which they originally did but yet in one that makes sense?

I guess this is really mostly a question about exposition, but with most matters of exposition I'd hint first then answer questions later. If I hint with this, I seem to get "huh" and I understand that, because at first the details seem incongruent. Should I only bring up the conflicting elements of the culture when I have time to explain them?
I think... this is always tough. But your world building should feel so solid nothing feels incongruent. Maybe there’s something that makes one or other stand out as odd - that a quick explanation might clear up - and then it’s worth asking why they might seem odd to the reader.

Do you have an eg we could see?
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Well, it depends on the story, doesn't it? But sometimes it's a good idea to hint at the reconciling factor before it's needed. If it comes in a timely manner, sometimes all you need is a sentence or so. The right sentence—shoot, sometimes the right word—at the right time can accomplish more than pages of exposition. It can allow readers to subconsciously put the pieces of the puzzle together as they go along reading, and they don't have to stop and think, "Wait a minute! How could that work?" They like the story and they like themselves for figuring it all out with only small clues.

Years ago, I attended a one-day seminar on writing fantasy novels (excuse me those of you who have heard me tell this story before) taught by Tad Williams. One of the exercises he gave us was to split up into groups of three and each group was to take two very different ideas and build a culture around them. We had a very short period to build our culture. Half an hour? Fifteen minutes? I don't remember, but it wasn't very long. And then each group was expected to be able to answer any question that was posed by the others about that culture. Sounds impossible when we didn't have days and weeks to build our cultures. But the trick of it, as my group quickly learned, was to be able to extrapolate from the principles we had laid down during our time. Of course we had to think rapidly, but one or the other of us answered every question that was thrown at us.

So I think the answer is how you go about combining your ideas at the beginning, whether you think about all the ramifications. Some stories you can just get on with and build your world as you go along. But this sort of hybrid thing, I believe, probably takes a good bit of time spent on world building in advance, because the better you know your world, the better thought out it is, the better you know what readers need to know and when they need to know it.
 

CTRandall

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But the trick of it, as my group quickly learned, was to be able to extrapolate from the principles we had laid down during our time.
I think Teresa hit the nail on the head. You need a set of basic characteristics for a culture--climate/geography, philosophy/religion/government, individual rights and responsibilities. Real-world examples can help inspire these characteristics but a simple physical mish-mash (Mongol warriors living in igloos and riding trained musk-oxen into battle to the sound of bagpipes) won't be convincing. But a nomadic, arctic culture that depends on musk-oxen for almost all of their food, clothing and tools (including their favoured musical instrument!) that descends like a plague of locusts on the golden fields of the civilized world at every opportunity, now that is almost believable. Maybe. If you've had a few drinks, fallen down and hit your head.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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That's a good example. I'd believe it, @CTRandall, without having to hit my head.

I think what it comes down to is being able to see patterns within cultures and environments, and therefore being able to see where they intersect and what pieces you need to show in order for readers to discern the rest of the pattern—without having to think about it, because if they do that they've left the story—finding the details that are most suggestive of the whole.
 

sknox

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How do I present it so people know that's what is going on? That's an interesting question. Readers will often misinterpret--much depends upon how much historical understanding (and misunderstanding) they bring to the story.

For example, I do not read the Dorne culture the way The Big Peat does. I don't read it much of any way; I tend to take stuff at face value. But I'd be willing to bet another reader might come up with some other mix of cultures *they* see as going into the Dorne Hybrid. I can talk about what I do when concocting my own cultural mixes, but I can't speak to how that gets understood by the reader.

I have a question in return, though. Why do you care? That is, why would the author want to know that their particular elvish culture is influenced not by Japanese but by Korean culture, blended with a touch of American Indian? Just to grab an example at random.

One circumstance has been mentioned--when a reader (ok, let's face it, this counts mainly with editors and reviewers) disbelieves the mix in some way and criticizes the work for it. But does that come from an inept hybrid, or from some more fundamental problems with characterization, pacing, etc.?
 

HareBrain

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But the trick of it, as my group quickly learned, was to be able to extrapolate from the principles we had laid down during our time.
Yes, I think this is it. If I can briefly bring my own stuff into this, some people have commented positively on my worldbuilding, but I think much of its apparent depth comes from just this thing Teresa's talking about. All the cultures in the books are formed around where they lie on a spectrum between two poles that in the books' mythology are the two serpents, but which also bring in sky/earth, definition/dissolution, mind/matter, etc. What I did then was draw on parts of real-world cultures that matched those, while bearing in mind geography etc. Everything started from that basic opposition.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Yes, I think sometimes people get themselves in trouble by being too complicated at the beginning. But if they start with a simple premise—an opposition like yours, or the conflict arising out of a recent migration or conquest—and allow it to naturally build in complexity (which will happen if they start following all the threads in the pattern, there is no need to force it) then the whole thing hangs together so much better, while at the same time acquiring its own unique and unexpected shape and structure, more intricate than anything they might have imposed on it at the beginning.

On the other hand, they may be doing all that already, and as someone suggested earlier, the only people to find anything objectionable might be critiquers and betas (after all these people are brought on board to discover potential problems, and who can fault them for being diligent?)—while readers who buy the book may find no fault at all.
 

Dragonlady

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Why does there seem to be cultural conflict, and is there an easy way to explain it? Is it a conflict within their culture that a remark by a character can ease ? For example, in mediaeval europe people followed a pacifist religion, and used it to justify war. This is a very human thing to do, and simply the way they interpreted their religion to fit their culture as it suited them.

The culture of my wip is pretty much mediaeval, influences of the middle east/eastern mediterranean (including geography) and ancient Roman attributes, like a pantheon, and bathhouses, that I don't think stand out - and an attitude to government that's all their own. The culture has changed over time, and there is more than one religious group in the nation. Elements are related to different real world cultures, but I don't think the resulting culture is conflicted.
 

-K2-

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Though a novice at this unlike the rest of you, 'culture building' has always been at the core of any F/SF work I have done. Whether the highly detailed barbarian culture I developed in 2000-03... to my latest work, post-apocalyptic dystopian near-future 2019, I always start a single way.

A. In general what do I want it to be like in the story B. Where does that specific culture begin. Once I have those two items, I then generate a history from point-B to point-A. As I work on the story, when ideas pop into my head as to how I want the current culture to be, I then work out a reverse evolution along that specific point/line of thinking from A to B... and so the culture grows.

What I don't do is, determine I want it to be like X-Y-Z real life cultures, then try to force them to work. Point-B might be very real life, but point-A is my own, always fictional-- BUT... The growth and evolution between those points, however, is logical/predictable/historical (as in examples as to why a culture changes), and I must invent events in that history that dictates that evolution. Those points are remembered, because, they will also affect each line of development (language, traditions, customs, lifestyle, religions, etc.).

By doing it that way, not only do (I feel and as I've received in feedback) those cultures come off as very real and logical, but they also seem to have a depth and most of all, each aspect supports all others.

In a sense, what I am actually doing, whether I'm starting from cave-men to modern man (point-B), is generating a possible/real alternative history. Reason being... I don't want to 'suspend disbelief.' I want them to come off as a real possibility.

If I do that, then the background (revealed or no) is rock solid, and the story becomes nothing more than a minor story. Just like real life.

EDIT, Addressing the original question: The way I present them so folks know what is going on, is I reference that culture building I mention above and give reasons as to 'why' this particular thing is happening in the story. As an example:

In my latest work, in pastoral areas/zones, I've made it rather clear that there are no modern utilities (electricity, gas, water, sewage) though the infrastructure is still there. I've also developed a ecosystem condition where the surrounding rivers are now highly toxic (contact or ingestion). In one particular PA/Z, unlike the rest, for X reasons there is not even sporadic water supplied via the existing infrastructure. Etc. etc. etc...

In any case, when it rains in every pastoral zone two events take place that have defined the cultures. 1. Water collection for drinking is paramount. Water collected (how varies due to each region's situation) is for drinking ONLY, period. Clothing is government supplied, so discarded at each new rain (never gets washed).

Everyone in pastoral areas (which only single adults live in), verbally warns of a storm approaching, and that is passed on. Each layer/stage of a storm is announced (high wind/debris, dust, mud, blessin/rain, lightning). At wind everyone takes cover where they stand, dust they all strip, mud they brace then scrub, rain they rinse and bathe (communally in Sector V-8), lightning take cover and must share available space remaining undressed (and/or flooding in section V-8 they must get above the floodwaters)... all of that is like a massive choreographed display.

Finally, because of the need for drinking water and the importance of storing it, bathing and so on, the first law of the pastoral residents is the 'truce or peace.' Anyone committing a violent action toward another is instantly set upon by the balance of the population with fatal results. Naturally, that gets us to X point and now the people bide their time other ways with the constant and prevalent crime at zero.

SO, by having one rain in the story, a whole lot of culture/society/traditions/laws/climactic conditions, etc. is demonstrated (with little single sentence blurbs as to why). However, it all makes sense, has reason... and from that also supports and generates other cultural aspects (how would life change living shoulder to shoulder?).

That's why (to me) building off of those historical precedents in the story is so critical. Everything works together and though I then simply tell the story, it hopefully all seems reasonable and plausible.

K2
 
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Brian G Turner

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The problem with using cultural reference points too blatantly is that it invites a whole load of cultural baggage and assumptions with it. So while the pieces specifically presented by the writer may fit together fine, all that extra stuff behind it may end up conflicting in the reader's mind.

Perhaps it would be better to suggest using cultural references like spices - in small but measured doses. In other words, the fantasy writer uses cultural influences to flavor their writing, but then clearly develops beyond them into something recognizably their own and unique.
 

tinkerdan

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I think a key here is one that has been said before and bears looking into again and again; and that is that this is fiction this is fantasy and it might be important to establish that at the very beginning of the story by somehow establishing the things that make that culture least recognizable as any existing cultures in reality.
An important thought that comes to mind is that it is very difficult to delve into created culture without coloring it all with what we know. And what we know is often tainted by things that are less than real. What I mean is that, depending on how much fiction we've been exposed to we have these sources, history and culture as taught in school and our own personal history and culture we grow into and the influence of media that contain often tainted views of history and culture in terms of propaganda and or what some people these days call fake news. Add to that the sensitivity of certain cultural groups who are resistant to having people outside of their culture delve into their culture for fear that they intend to appropriate or misappropriate their culture in a way that will somehow damage their culture by blending it with some new subculture resulting in a loss of their cultural identity; and for this reason you have a potential for some cultures being impossible to fully represent unless you are within that culture.

In a nutshell--your culture might well be based on a misappropriation of a misappropriation unless you have done a serious amount of research and perhaps have someone from within those cultures to guide you. Which is why it might be best to first establish that any resemblance to those cultures is mostly incidental by establishing the alien nature of your fantasy culture at the beginning of your narrative. Then as you get further into the culture you will likely begin mirror other cultural aspects while attempting to create relate-able characters for your reader.

For instance--if we try to make ants relate-able we may have to humanize them with recognizable human characteristics in a way that might involve a lot of license and a lot of work. If it were dogs it would be somewhat easier because some dogs think they are human. If it were cats it would be almost equally easy, though tricky; because in this case some humans think they are cats(that's what cats think anyway).

However I also think that once again--depending on how much reality you are trying to put in your fiction, this might be another area where you could over think things and waste a lot of energy and time. No matter what you do you are open for some criticism. And sometimes that criticism can end up being what generates greater exposure and more sales, though it could hurt, I still think that getting many reviews with some scathing criticism is much better that no reviews at all to measure your work.
 

The Big Peat

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How do I present it so people know that's what is going on? That's an interesting question. Readers will often misinterpret--much depends upon how much historical understanding (and misunderstanding) they bring to the story.

For example, I do not read the Dorne culture the way The Big Peat does. I don't read it much of any way; I tend to take stuff at face value. But I'd be willing to bet another reader might come up with some other mix of cultures *they* see as going into the Dorne Hybrid. I can talk about what I do when concocting my own cultural mixes, but I can't speak to how that gets understood by the reader.

I have a question in return, though. Why do you care? That is, why would the author want to know that their particular elvish culture is influenced not by Japanese but by Korean culture, blended with a touch of American Indian? Just to grab an example at random.

One circumstance has been mentioned--when a reader (ok, let's face it, this counts mainly with editors and reviewers) disbelieves the mix in some way and criticizes the work for it. But does that come from an inept hybrid, or from some more fundamental problems with characterization, pacing, etc.?
The Dorne example I grabbed from what Martin's said went in actually; myself I wouldn't have got Palestine, although I would have got some type of Arab culture.

You're right though that there's no particular reason an author should care about what's being discerned and when using certain cultures, he has more or less no way of making it clear either to the average reader anyway. A lot of readers won't be able to tell the difference between Japanese and Korean, or the various South-East Asian countries, or various Arab cultures etc.etc. And that's okay - its all about whether the reader believes it makes sense, not whether they can see where everything comes from.

I think... this is always tough. But your world building should feel so solid nothing feels incongruent. Maybe there’s something that makes one or other stand out as odd - that a quick explanation might clear up - and then it’s worth asking why they might seem odd to the reader.

Do you have an eg we could see?
Last couple of critiques I posted... which iirc, you read without commenting on that particular issues. Lots of other issues, but not that one!

Its mainly words that suggest things that don't stem from one culture or cities that have elements of different time periods. I'm beginning to suspect the answer is to hold back on certain things at the beginning where I can't give a quick explanation without ruining the flow, unless "But here on the border mountains, where people from a dozen tribes came and went, people didn't tend to ask questions" is considered a quick explanation.

Well, it depends on the story, doesn't it? But sometimes it's a good idea to hint at the reconciling factor before it's needed. If it comes in a timely manner, sometimes all you need is a sentence or so. The right sentence—shoot, sometimes the right word—at the right time can accomplish more than pages of exposition. It can allow readers to subconsciously put the pieces of the puzzle together as they go along reading, and they don't have to stop and think, "Wait a minute! How could that work?" They like the story and they like themselves for figuring it all out with only small clues.

Years ago, I attended a one-day seminar on writing fantasy novels (excuse me those of you who have heard me tell this story before) taught by Tad Williams. One of the exercises he gave us was to split up into groups of three and each group was to take two very different ideas and build a culture around them. We had a very short period to build our culture. Half an hour? Fifteen minutes? I don't remember, but it wasn't very long. And then each group was expected to be able to answer any question that was posed by the others about that culture. Sounds impossible when we didn't have days and weeks to build our cultures. But the trick of it, as my group quickly learned, was to be able to extrapolate from the principles we had laid down during our time. Of course we had to think rapidly, but one or the other of us answered every question that was thrown at us.

So I think the answer is how you go about combining your ideas at the beginning, whether you think about all the ramifications. Some stories you can just get on with and build your world as you go along. But this sort of hybrid thing, I believe, probably takes a good bit of time spent on world building in advance, because the better you know your world, the better thought out it is, the better you know what readers need to know and when they need to know it.
I like that exercise! And, with at least one of the worlds in question, I could do that (and have kind of done so with Dan Jones at points). The trick is for me to realise when that question will be going for the reader's mind.

And you're entirely right about the first paragraph.

Yes, I think sometimes people get themselves in trouble by being too complicated at the beginning. But if they start with a simple premise—an opposition like yours, or the conflict arising out of a recent migration or conquest—and allow it to naturally build in complexity (which will happen if they start following all the threads in the pattern, there is no need to force it) then the whole thing hangs together so much better, while at the same time acquiring its own unique and unexpected shape and structure, more intricate than anything they might have imposed on it at the beginning.

On the other hand, they may be doing all that already, and as someone suggested earlier, the only people to find anything objectionable might be critiquers and betas (after all these people are brought on board to discover potential problems, and who can fault them for being diligent?)—while readers who buy the book may find no fault at all.
I have had no complaints on this score from my beta readers actually; they wish I showed more of the world, but it all makes sense to them. So maybe this is all about nothing anyway - but I figured it best to ask questions and listen to answers rather than to assume everything was all right.
 

OHB

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I stated in my crit of your latest story that I found it confusing to have both Chinese and Native American cultural references. The reason is because you hadn't yet established the setting/world. The story opens in the woods, but there are many different kinds of woods, so this didn't give me a clear sense of the setting. You then mention a leopard. Leopards live in Africa and Asia--very different environments--so I still didn't have a clear picture. Then, you mention a character named Father Hu (Chinese) and that the Hunter's son wears moccasins (Native American). Since these are two cultures from opposite sides of the world and very different environments, this just added to my confusion. I didn't know you were trying to convey that there is a hybrid Chinese-Native American culture in your world. If the cultures are blended, I would expect them to have blended names for both people and objects. Hu is Chinese, but shouldn't his name reflect both Chinese and Native American (which tribe, by the way?) culture instead of just Chinese? The same with the moccasins. By using such distinct terms, you're drawing lines between these cultures while also trying to have them exist as one in the same environment. It's a bit of a contradiction. Unless these cultures were originally separate, and then due to a refugee crisis or something, they ended up together in the same place and are still in the process of blending, I can't see them being that distinct from each other.

I hope that cleared things up. As I mentioned in my crit, I find the story interesting and would read it.
 
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