In my planned novel the main character is essentially from a less technologically advanced society and is learning about the "civilized world" beyond their village. He has above average intelligence, but everything is going to be 'new' to him. It is an entirely fictional world so the reader will also have no familiarity with the world. I do describe his own culture as rich in it's own way.

I thought this could have pros and cons. The reader is also new to the world, but it is a cardinal rule in writing not to get too verbose in worldbuilding detail to the detriment of the story. The drawback is that it may become tedious to the reader to always describe the main character as "amazed" at the architecture or in awe at this or that about the civilized settings of the world compared to their remote village.

My answer so far is to timeskip the acculturation process where the main character learns the standard language and customs while living with a family that is closer to the civilized world. I still planned to write about them being in awe at cities, and certain major sights though as even civilized characters would be. The problem with this may be I also have another possible timeskip where the character is an apprentice in their homeland after a rite of passage.

I still want to properly contrast the settings the main character is passing through with where the main character came from. I just do not want to overdo it. "He was in awe at x." "He had never seen x." "He wondered at the exotic x." Perhaps such usage is fine though.

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    Just thought I'd point out, 'barbarians' was what the Romans called everybody else, because their language sounded like "bar bar bar". They were in no way "less cultured" than the Romans, except that the Romans considered theirs to be the only "culture", and everything else "lack of culture". I take it your character is getting acquainted with a society that's more technologically advanced than his own, and has a different culture? Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 11:04
  • I see 3 separate issues: 1) The character is a prop used to describe worldbuilding. 2) The situation is too repetitive. 3) The character is 1-note…. The way your question is framed, I agree with Galastel, it sounds like he is a "stooge" to tell everyone how magnificent your worldbuilding is….
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 12:04
  • @Galastel It was actually the Greeks who coined the word "barbarian".
    – user29299
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 10:43

4 Answers 4


There is a surviving account of the first meeting between Portuguese sailors and Japanese locals. What's interesting about it is that accounts of the meeting survived from both sides. The accounts go something like this:

Japanese account: Those barbarians! They eat with their hands!

Portuguese account: Those barbarians! They don't have chairs!

You are looking down at your character. You are implying that he is a blank slate, and has to learn everything. Consider instead what his culture is. How do his values conflict with his new society's? What looks like barbarism to him? What does he have that they don't?

A very fine example of this is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. There, John, "the Savage", who has been raised on values imparted by Shalespeare's works, is confronted with a technologically advanced utopia, where the only value is consumerism.

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    As an added wrinkle, a real "barbarian" may not even comprehend something well enough to admire it. Someone wearing coarse homespun might admire finely woven and brightly dyed fabrics. Someone wearing leopard skins and bird feathers might not.
    – Jedediah
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 14:23
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    Brace New World is basically required reading if someone's going to write a book with this aspect. Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 18:27
  • I actually have his culture richly described in it's own right. I only used barbarian as a perhaps inadequate label.
    – Seanchaí
    Commented Mar 1, 2019 at 5:17

+1 Galastel; your "barabarian" might find those towering buildings just foolish, he doesn't automatically see any advantage in them at all, they isolate people, they are hard to climb, you are trapped in them if attacked, and on and on. The same for other technology, you need to understand that he doesn't understand the problem these "amazing" things actually solved in our past, and without understanding what they DO, they may seem to him a frivolous waste of time and effort.

Primitive tribes tend to be relentlessly social people, other people are their whole life, their entertainment, absolutely necessary for their survival. The tribe is their partnership and they spend their day doing their part, whatever that is. They wouldn't like this modern world where people are independent, enjoy being alone, don't talk to each other and are actively unfriendly, always in a rush to be somewhere as if life is a constant emergency. Some of the conveniences might be fun (moving fast, flying, food on demand), but they would probably tire of the amusement park aspect and want some company and normality.

Also you have to deal with human psychology: Amazement doesn't continue; after about 90 minutes, an intelligent person will just accept they don't know how things work, but also will recognize these new people aren't creating these new things with any effort, they take everything for granted, and so should they. An intelligent person will switch from amazement to "exploration and experimentation" very quickly, and learn the basics very quickly. They will be riding the subway within days.

That is the basics of acclimatization; your primitive's amazement will be fairly rapidly replaced by the thoughts, "what useful purpose does this serve, how do I control it, how does it communicate to me?"

Simple things like an elevator will be learned quickly. If he can't read numbers, then remember primitive people that don't rely much on a written language rely on their memory; they have a phenomenal positional memory and navigational sense. So he might not know "27" means the 27th floor, but he will accurately memorize the symbol and the position of the button and the sequence of buttons to push on first exposure.

It is fine to write about amazement and wonder upon first exposure, but it isn't realistic for that to persist for more than a day or two. Then your primitive will likely settle into an analytic problem-solving mode of thought for dealing with his new environment. He will be inured to all new amazements and see them all for what they are -- tools.

And finally, he will likely be pining for his old and more familiar environment, for two reasons. First, because to him, that required far less mental work to get through the day. Second, due to a lifetime of training, he felt emotionally rewarded by the daily accomplishments of his old life, like hunting and killing dinner, connecting and playing or joking with people, the constant physical exercise of walking and working, the mutual admiration society of his tribal peers that produces a tangible sense of familial belonging. All those things have been taken away from him, especially people that understand him well enough to be actual friends.

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    Your answer reminded me of a documentary I once saw about Somali refugees getting resettled in Minnesota (USA). Though far from primitive, the refugees are unused to the material culture of developed countries. At one point one of the families decides they're going to have a party and sets out to buy a chicken and a pot to cook it in. They are initially amazed by the supermarket they visit, but that amazement quickly turned to distrust and even anger. There was no way, they felt, to tell whether these plastic wrapped chickens were healthy and safe to eat. How can you look for clear eyes...
    – Deolater
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 18:53
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    ...when the chicken has no head, feet, or feathers? The pots available were made of unfamiliar materials and were similarly distrusted. They did not assume the the American pots were better by virtue of being American pots. The refugees had plenty of expertise with cooking pots, but only with their familiar cooking pots and viewed these "painted" (teflon-coated, in fact) pots with suspicion.
    – Deolater
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 18:57
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    @Deolater That's funny. Look at all this food! Wait ... is any of this crap safe? Why can't I taste one of these crackers before I buy them all? Why would you kill the chicken BEFORE we buy it? How long has it been dead? What kind of pot is this, it doesn't weigh anything! Where are the iron pots?
    – Amadeus
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 18:59
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    "The same for other technology, you need to understand that he doesn't understand the problem these "amazing" things actually solved in our past, and without understanding what they DO, they may seem to him a frivolous waste of time and effort." See also the concept of Chesterton's Fence. Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 19:00
  • @Amadeus Precisely that! It's almost exactly the same reaction I would probably have to a traditional open-air market. Look at all this food! Are the flies a problem? Why isn't this refrigerated? Where are the hair nets?
    – Deolater
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 19:03

Your scenario reminded me of two movies; Time After Time and The Gods Must be Crazy.

In Time After Time, H.G. Wells takes little time adapting to the technological marvels around him, though he makes a few mistakes. He is intelligent and curious.

In Gods Must Be Crazy, a bushman is on a quest to rid the world of an evil. The technologically advanced culture he encounters (us) he takes for gods, but they are lazy, greedy and speak strangely. He is not impressed with these people who become impediments to his quest.

Your character could come from a society that, as Amadeus and Galastel say, has things that your other culture traded away. Societies make choices, what is important to learn, what is not. In technologically advanced cultures, survival is not something we are encouraged to learn.

It is said that if you have a city dweller who gets lost in the woods - or almost any other natural environment, they are unlikely to survive. They know what bus will get them where they need to go, how to shop for items they need, but they do not know how to build shelter, find food and probably hunt it and recognize what is good to eat and what is poisonous.

If you have a homeless person who this other might have passed by with a thought of pity in this same situation, he is much more likely to survive because he is already foraging for food, seeking shelter that does not have a key and is much less likely to panic.

Your character might see these people as less than his culture - helpless and unable to hunt. He might wonder at the great hunter and gatherer who filled the grocery stores and wonder at their skill. He will be impressed by some things and vastly disappointed by others. The separation of people, the way our lives are ruled by clocks could have him pity these people and need to go home where the world makes so much more sense.


Your story reminds me of an Indian movie I once watched, named P.K. I'd recommend it to you (with subtitles of your language, obviously). It's a story about an alien who looses the key to his spaceship and is unable to go back. The way his adaption and reaction to our world is depicted, would surely be inspiring for your writing.

He is confused about a lot of things, amazed by a few too. But the movie uses a little time skip to avoid repetition of that feeling though. He does explain all those feelings afterwards to a reporter he meets, so it is well explained yet not repetitive.

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