Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn. One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.
What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy. I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.
So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe. Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots. And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting. Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in. Etc.
And that’s understandable. They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on. Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take. And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?
The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world. What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods? Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings? And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?
I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.
1. Industrialization is one such plot. It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk. The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts. Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution. Control of data and information drives many of the plots. Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it. Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.
2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were. You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era. During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class. You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class. Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.
3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues. The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity. The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries. Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence. The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain. The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination. Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point. So is the ability to trade. Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in. British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.
4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries. The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion. Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.
5. Resource management is another common source of tension. Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value. All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.
6. Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points. Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society. The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.
7. Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict. Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel. So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US. Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories. US influence pre-war on Afghanistan. Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.
8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp. Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.
And there are many more things than what I’ve listed. Almost infinite sources of inspiration. Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.
In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:
1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.
2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.
3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.