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For a fiction story of mine (probably fantasy, if I had to categorize it), I've set it in a world that is in some ways similar to Earth, and in other ways very dissimilar from Earth. In place of humans, there's a race of sentient, intelligent creatures that have evolved from carnivores. In doing so, they have retained many traits of their ancestors, and many such traits (including the ability to hunt without anything more than one's natural weaponry) are held in high regard. I don't want to introduce humans, at least not generally.

If you want a more established comparison for the species, though that's not books, I guess the culture of the Hirogen of Star Trek is kinda-sorta similar, except that unlike the Hirogen, the species of my story is not a spacefaring species.

Particularly in this case, this species has morals quite far from what's normally seen in humans. For one thing, threats, even death threats, are far from uncommon in normal interaction, especially between individuals and groups that do not know each other.

What they aren't is savages. They don't go around killing just for fun. They do care very deeply about those close to them. And even when threats are made, the entire intent is generally to ideally not have to back them up with actual action; much of it is ritualized, but it is rituals with the knowledge that one may need to back it up with actual action.

So one individual may tell another something along the lines of "I will kill you", and while this might not mean literally "no matter what else happens, I will end your life", it can absolutely mean something along the lines of "I am ready and willing to end your life, unless you back down and show me that you recognize that I can end your life if I want to". All the above said, if at that point the individual being threatened decides to instead take their chances, then it becomes a fight to clear surrender or to actual death of either; if the individual who made the original threat misjudged the situation, it's their life that's on the line. So while not uncommon, such threats are not taken lightly by anyone involved.

That's all well, as far as that is concerned. But what are good techniques to introduce traits like these to a reader, without turning it into an infodump or making them come across as savages for the less-than-friendly parts?

I'm open to suggestions that only work in certain points of view, as well as general techniques.

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    There are lots of human societies that are familiar with the concept of empty threats to establish dominance without actual follow up. For example, Dueling in Anglo-American Societies was more about being deadly serious about your point that you'd be willing to stake your life defending it... Most Duels were resolved not by the actual Duel, but the person being challenged to bother to show up to the event. – hszmv Jan 15 at 22:19
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    Personally, I enjoy a trope which is common in Terry Pratchett's Diskworld books. Where we observe a custom or practise from the outside. Then learn more about it, and the context sheds new light on it. For instance "Goblins eat their children" is said over and over. We later learn that this only happens when it is not possible for the child to survive, and they believe the child can be born again to the same mother if she absorbs it's soul by eating it. It moves from outright monstrous to tragically beautiful. – AJFaraday Jan 16 at 11:29
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    You had me thinking of the Canim from Codex Alera. – hkBst Jan 16 at 13:00
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    My favorite example is the criminal execution in "Anna and the King", in which Anna Leonowens had become the friend of one of the King of Siam's many wives... when it turned out that this wife was in love with a man from her village, the king was prepared to pardon her for criminal infidelity. EXCEPT that Anna made a show in court about the injustice of the king's whole harem! Then the king, whose authority was contingent on his keeping peace in Siam by being the strongest, lost his chance to offer clemency without appearing weak. ...and the woman was condemned. – elliot svensson Jan 16 at 16:02
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    @aCVn If you don't want the culture to appear "savage" to the reader, then how far beyond what the reader would consider "normal" is relevant. If conduct remains important, during the fight the participants remain in control and limit themselves to just what is required to win, it will be easier for the reader to accept than if it is common to leave your opponent as an unrecognizable pool of rent limbs and pulp. Even if they don't find pleasure in it, if they lose control of themselves in the act, then by definition it is savage and it will be harder to present otherwise. – Mr.Mindor Jan 16 at 20:33

13 Answers 13

30

I think the best tool in your toolbox towards this aim is probably language. A lot of how we view something is in how it is described. The culture you are describing sounds very formal, polite and ritualized, even if the acts they are committing are brutal --not unlike feudal Europe or Japan. So, it's a "duel for honor," not a "revenge killing." In this context, even death threats will be very, very polite.

It's worth noting that this technique is in constant real-world use. The actions of our own country are described with a very different vocabulary than those of hostile countries, and devalued cultures are painted as savages for the same actions that are glorified in favored cultures. When we do it, it's a "limited police action," when they do it, it's "unprovoked hostility." Our "glorious victory" is their "brutal massacre."

In general, I would expect this culture to be obsessed with "honor" --that is so often what we call ritualized savagery held in check by formalized structures, and/or a "civilized" predilection to violence. We may still find the values of a highly "civilized" violent culture alien, but we'll be much less likely to dismiss them as savages.

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    Taking language from diplomacy and applying it to individuals could be a gold mine of material – JollyJoker Jan 16 at 8:47
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Along with Cyn's suggestion, another tool to introduce a cultural element is to present a conflict about it; somebody complaining that a death threat is being misused.

Like being challenged to a duel, not because you insulted anybody or did anything wrong, but just because the more expert challenger feels like murdering you in a duel; say over a land dispute, or even because the challenger is being paid to do it, or has been lied to by somebody else.

When the cultural element is used improperly, that conflict gives you (the author) the ability to construct a scene, an argument, in which the proper usage is described and what is wrong with this challenge is detailed.

This would be a problem for any culture in which ritualized death threats that can be followed up by a ritualized to-the-death contest are allowed. The strong will rule the weak, and sooner or later somebody comes along that doesn't give a crap about the culture, they just want to exploit legalized murder for fun and profit.

Create that kind of scene, and you have conflict, and the reader caring how this issue turns out, because it matters to the protagonist. And you get to detail more than just one element of the culture, you also get to detail whatever processes are in place to deal with this kind of abuse of the system.

  • "the more expert challenger feels like murdering you in a duel" There's a simple solution to this. At least between humans it's often considered dishonorable to challenge a noticeably weaker opponent. If you do that, you lose your status. – user31389 Jan 17 at 12:40
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    @user31389 As I said, sooner or later, somebody comes along that doesn't care about honor, they just enjoy killing. They may lie about the insults received. In such violence-solves-problems cultures, being weak is despised, and not an excuse to be rude or insulting. So what then, when the bully lies and demands satisfaction, and the protests of the weakling are dismissed because people don't like them anyway? Just because the champion can kill you is not license to spit at his feet. I don't think there is a simple solution in this kind of culture. – Amadeus Jan 17 at 12:50
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    They may lie, but if they are known for challenging everyone around them, it will be obvious that they are lying. I wouldn't be surprised if some good fighter eventually challenged the bully, won and got a huge reputation boost for solving the problem. I expect the culture to eliminate such cheating/bullying behaviors in the long term, though of course the bully will likely manage to kill some victims in the short term. – user31389 Jan 17 at 12:55
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It's all about context and the full portrayal of the characters and culture.

My daughter's ballet teacher is a 90 year old woman. Short to begin with, she's shrunk to under 5 feet. Thin and frail, you could knock her over with a mis-aimed breath. One of her favorite statements, when she doesn't like something you've said (for example, that you will be missing class), is "I kill you" (complete with a non-English accent).

No one has ever considered this a serious threat. Not even when accompanied by one of her trademark (light) slaps on the back of the hand. Why? Because the cultural context is obvious.

Your readers don't know the cultural context of posturing for your characters. So you need to show them. Don't explain it outright and don't create an outsider character whose sole purpose is to be the recipient of info dumps.

  • A young person makes a threat and the adults laugh and critique it.
  • 2 people threaten each other and their spouses sigh and go prepare the ritual food/clothing/weapon/hula hoop/whatever.
  • Someone makes a threat and the other person says "you're too drunk, you won't even remember to bring the ___ tomorrow."
  • At least once, the threats and rituals play out in their entirety.

After the first couple of times, the reader will completely get it that these "threats" are common in the culture and that they don't mean what they do in human cultures. Portray these events as completely normal for this culture and your reader will understand.

  • I'm not sure this is exactly what the OP is describing. This sounds like empty threats, or ones that are playful or joking. The OP describes threats that are deadly serious, but that are often not actually carried out. – Chris Sunami Jan 15 at 22:06
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    @ChrisSunami from what I gather, the threats have serious intent. They are an important method of communication. But they are generally not literal. "I will kill you" may mean "I am really freaking pissed at you" but it doesn't seem that it means "I plan to end your life." Though sometimes an actual physical fight will happen. I'd like to hear what the OP has to say but I think my examples within the world work and my real-life example was meant to show an extreme case where a threat of violence is never considered literally. – Cyn Jan 15 at 22:12
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    @Cyn "I will kill you" (however exactly said) doesn't necessarily mean "I am going to end your life", but it can very easily mean "I am ready and willing to end your life unless you back down and show me that you recognize that I can do that if I want to". At that point, if the individual being threatened doesn't back down, then yes, it'll almost certainly turn into a serious fight, for defense or offense, possibly to death. And yes, it could be to the death of the one making the threat, if they misjudged the situation and don't surrender. – a CVn Jan 16 at 9:50
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@Amadeus mentions duels. A crucial fact to the understanding of duelling, mostly ignored in the modern media: it was the seconds' task to attempt reconciliation. So, in fact, asking someone to a duel was a form of ritualised threat, its intent generally to ideally not have to back it up with actual action; but it was ritual with the knowledge that one may need to back it up with actual action.

Since what you're trying to describe very much existed as part of human culture for a considerable length of time, I would present your culture the same way one wrote about duels at the time when they were still being fought. Show the ritual and the limits it sets on behaviour. Show public disapproval when one doesn't act according to expectations, either by not making a threat when they should, or by turning violent without going through the ritual paces first. As other say, show characters respond to behaviour that's normal for your setting as one responds to normative behaviour.

There's a good example in Alexandre Dumas's La Dame de Monsoreau: the Main Character, de Bussy, arrives at the court of Henri III as an ambassador from François d'Anjou. He's repeatedly insulted by Henri's minions, but cannot respond because of his ambassadorial status. Once he leaves, he is free to ask a friend to deliver the challenge. The scene exemplifies the limits ritual sets on one's behaviour: the character cannot issue a challenge in one situation, but must issue it in another.

French language had a word: bretteur. It's a disparaging term for a person who fights many sword duels, not to protect his honour, but for the love of fighting, often using the least excuse to issue a challenge and refusing reconciliation without a fight. This is how musketeers, for example, are portrayed in modern media. It was, however, very much not a positive trait. A similar term could exist in your setting to denote someone who does not act the way society expect, setting the limit on what's "acceptable" in the culture you write about.

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Body Language

Body language and how you narrate the interpretations of this body language can be a very useful tool in portraying a lot of these messages without outright saying it.

Jim Butcher has a series called the Codex Alera where the main character meets another species that is sort of a mix between wolves and humans. These are large creatures that can speak, have their own hierarchy and culture. And as expected they are feared by most people. The main character interacts with them a lot and starts to notice patterns in the body language between them. The biggest factor here is that a huge sign of respect is when one wolf-guy lifts his chin up a little. Just enough to show the throat. This was seen as a sign of trust and respect. A sign that they'd trust their life to the other party.

The main character then uses this information and other hints things that he picked up while interacting with them to gain respect from them (and for survival purposes in a few cases).

Depending on the specifics of these creatures you're making you can try slip in a small mention of body language while the character being narrated is making sense of the world.

E.g. He saw Rubin straighten his shoulders and he relaxed himself, content that the danger had passed.

Something like this then associates straight shoulders with relaxation. Then later on you can use this action to portray the sense of relief and relaxation in another situation without having to say that the character is now relaxed/relieved.

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    Klingons do some weird thing where they grab each other's shoulders and bark at each other, so +1 – Mazura Jan 16 at 13:45
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Have an "authority class"

We have a society that tends to view a certain type of tall, blue-eyed, grey-haired male, in athletic shape for his age, as authority figures. If you've ever been in the upper corporate sphere, you encounter these men everywhere – far beyond their representation within the human population. I call them Cialis™ Commercials because they look like the models and actors in erectile dysfunction ads. There are tiers of power that are more about physical appearance than meritocracy (you only need to talk to them to realize they are not all geniuses of industry). Their perceived virility traits reap rewards long after they left the wild.

Your species might have a genetic or cultural prejudice towards certain males that exhibit certain favorable traits, which are seen as virile, authoritative, worthy, and strong – traits that show they are in their sexual prime. It doesn't mean the entire population is a warrior cliché, but among the leaders and authority figures these traits will be emphasized, maybe even exaggerated, calculated, or used just to display or gain power.

In your species, dominant males fight other dominant males, so at the "top" of the social pyramid there is a leader who is challenged with public displays of representational violence, and ritualized deference. It may be expected that a leader has dominated all the men around him, whether or not those physical challenges were sincere. In situations of absolute power, those who are assured to win may feel the need to show they are not "pretending" with their subordinates, or otherwise justify why they are entitled to real "scores". They also might be roused into a fighting state, much like a cat can be overstimulated to attack anything moving. The general population will consider this "sexy".

…and everyone else.

There will be other members of the society who don't fit this virility archetype, but still behave as if they do. A female leader will be aggressive because that is the expected behavior of leaders. Meanwhile there will be males who aren't aggressive who will inherit power or gain it through intelligence, but still go through the rituals of power, if not the claws and teeth. It's important to have individuals who don't conform to the cultural norm. Their rough edges will help the culture feel more real and interesting.

While most of the society vicariously focus on their leader's virility displays, that's not to say every school teacher and granny is dressing up like a Klingon and swinging a sword. The vast population will relate to authority figures, but not seek to challenge them. Hyenas are all aggressive, but observe strict rules of deferring to "royals", so it won't be like the Star Trek negaverse where everyone is constantly murdering everyone else.

There will be exceptions to the "savage": counter philosophies, religions that reject the "animal" instincts, and scientific rationalism. There will also be pop stars, advertising, questionable TV shows, and juvenile delinquents who all appeal to anti-authority in countless ways that mortify the authority class.

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Such hierarchies are common so should be readily understood by the reader.

When I was a teenager, I had a flock of pet chickens - bantams for the most part. The bantam chicken (rooster or hen) is a very brave animal. I witnessed a six ounce hen chase a twenty two pound cat and that cat ran.

Once the dominance of flock over cat was established, my flock ignored the presence of that cat, often surrounding him and he would seem nervous.

My flock consisted of a few hens and nine roosters, but once the hierarchy was established, they did not fight. The purpose of the pecking order is order and peace and the system works. One rooster was the king of the flock and only challenged once by rising young males needing to find their precise place in the pecking order.

Once I understood my pets, I observed similar behaviour in people. Challenges, usually verbal, were used to establish relative dominance when no other structure (corporate, for example) existed.

In your paradigm, you could have more dominant males claim submissive ones

“Your life is mine. Be useful.”

He quickly dipped his head, thankful for the mercy of continued life. Now he had a powerful protector and he would be his best vassal.

Savage is a judgement made by outsiders. Explorers considered any peoples they met to be savage, but it was simply a failure to understand.

Present your characters’ culture as a collection of traditions that everyone accepts or at least acknowledges.

Duelling, as has been noted, is a good example.

People are still very territorial and will do much to establish territory and defend it from perceived threats.

Your formal death threats would be easy enough to present as ritual aggression. Ritual aggression is easier to control and predict than random aggression.

2
  1. A species of savages are unlikely to be a space faring race

A group of intergalactic savages would likely be a subgroup of an advanced alien species. For example, the space pirates of an advanced species, savages among a highly evolved species.

  1. What you are describing is cultural differences. In old America, the smallest argument could be cause for a duel (maybe your aliens just like to settle things with a duel). In Bushido Japan, a Samurai had the right to cut down any non samurai peasant. (maybe your aliens just see humans as peasants and cutting humans down for any slights(real or perceived) is wholly justifiable.) Or maybe your aliens are space religious zealots. They are just converting the galaxy by blaster fire. Or they aren't like humans at all. Maybe they have a hive mind... They just want to expand to Earth, and the humans have to go (but that doesnt seem to be the direction you are going)

And how you would write them without them coming across as SAVAGES, despite their actions? EASY! Just write some scenes from their point of view. Remember all great villains are heroes in their own story.


Expanded to take into account of the OP's comment.

I can't read your mind. If you are just talking an alien, non human and non-space faring species, on a different planet, and you want to describe them to a human audience..... then you must do a few things.

  1. You have to describe their habitat.
  2. Their biology. What are these creatures. Are they like ants? or more like some kind of earthly mammals? or more like fish in the ocean? how do they reproduce? Sexual? Asexual?
  3. what is their culture like. how do they communicate? Do they have a language? Are they mind readers, where every is an open book to everyone else within a certain distance? Are they hive mind?
  4. What are the important resources to their survival?

without a lot of world building information how can we tell if they are savage or not?

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    Maybe I wasn't clear enough, so I'll try again. There are no humans involved. These creatures are not humans. These creatures are not spacefaring, intergalactic or anything like that. With that out of the way, it seems that about the only part of your answer that actually addresses the question is the last two sentences (and the last sentence is a bit of a stretch) and, if I'm being generous, your comparison to old America and Bushido Japan, but that by itself doesn't really say much about how to present those things to the reader. Can you Edit to expand? – a CVn Jan 16 at 9:36
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    +1. OP is describing the cultural difference of e.g., humans and Klingons. But now, the Ferengi, those dude are jerks; freaking savages that'll sell their own mother. No honor. – Mazura Jan 16 at 13:37
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For me, the simple answer to this question is to not worry about it. Tell your story, which includes the nature of the society in question, and, more importantly, the characters central to the story you are telling.

Their actions will show the savagery or otherwise of the culture regardless of the norms of behaviour within it.

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You can gather from the tone of other replies that the general concept of duelling is not alien at all and there's a danger of readers thinking of your species as just humans in other clothing. Can you think of a way for them to fight it out that's not human? If the entire battle occurs in the form of radio emissions, for example, it won't appear savage or civilized, but just alien. Or perhaps hunting for this species is more a matter of hiding and finding than of threats and killing. Has it occurred to you that fights among the same species is not a necessary trait of hunters but of species that have social dominance behaviors? Rattlesnakes don't fight each other but wild sheep do.

More to the point, you show that they're not savages by having them do something civilized or constructive, tied up with the fighting in a non-obvious way. For instance, a character doesn't fight enough because the Arts Committee is taking up too much of his/her time, and a doctor tells him that it's harming his health.

0

Have them drink tea

Show them going through rituals which are recognizably similar to those your readers will consider highly civilized, and doing so with similar attitudes.

As Chris Sunami noted in his answer, I would expect honor to be important. Any society in which it's acceptable to kill each other is going to prescribe carefully when it's acceptable. But don't overdo it with honor; that's a dead horse.

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You could always try teaching children in the story the difference.

For example: The Lion King. Mufasa describes the ways of the lions quite diplomatically to his son, Simba, and they outright hunt and kill creatures.

You could show a divide of ethics within the culture.

For example: you could have one political party who are trying to reduce the amount of fights, another who are lobbying for designated fighting arenas, or another that wishes for more freedom. Debates between such groups not only build character and show the reader how the culture is instead of telling them, it also provides

You could explain historically how the culture has evolved without losing its roots.

For example: you could highlight how many deaths have been avoided since a particular ruler or belief system has arisen. As cultures adapt over time, it'd be interesting to know what caused the culture to treat fighting and killing the way that they do.

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Study how real cultures have done similar things. Consider how ritualistic warfare worked in many tribal societies in the real world. Many tribal cultures and even a few urban cultures all over the world fought their wars as almost a kind of rugby match. Lots of posturing, but very little actual lethal violence.

Native Americans in the Great Plains and in the Pacific Northwest had the concept of "counting coup", in which the warriors would try to touch their opponent, then escape.

Ancient Greek city-states had frequent wars, but these were almost scheduled. They would go to the same areas at the same time of year, line up in phalanxes, and shove each other for a few hours until one side tired out and broke rank. Yes, they had sharp weapons, but casualty rates were usually very low.

The key point in all of these is that while killing is a possibility, it's not a goal. The goal is to prove one's superiority, not to kill the opposition. So your aliens should be totally willing, almost eager to fight, but very unwilling to kill. Combatants who kill "needlessly" will face social consequences; shunning, missed opportunities due to poor reputation. To make sure these aliens don't come across as savage, make them require a great deal of provocation to kill, even greater than us. Perhaps being assaulted with a possibly deadly weapon is not enough provocation. Maybe they only kill if their opponent continues being violent even after they have conceded defeat.

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