So in the last post I discussed the major challenges of creating unique fantasy worlds and cultures. The first challenge I identified was the tension between coming up with a new facet of world or culture while not breaking the logical coherency of your world. Every aspect of your world-building exists on multiple axes. The two axes that are relevant to this post are originality vs. familiarity and coherency vs. incoherency. We’re going to need some definitions here:
- Originality: I’m using this word in the sense of departing from your idea of the standard implementation of an aspect of physical laws or culture. So the patriarchy is the example of a gender power structure that is most common in our world. So you maybe want to use a different gender power structure.
- Coherency: I’m using this word in the sense of the different parts of your culture fitting together logically. Say you have a people who live on a river. Their whole livelihood is bound up in the river and it’s natural cycles. And they worship a god who lives at the top of a far-off mountain. Can you make that work as an author? Sure, with enough other factors, such as perhaps they lived on that mountain in the past. But assuming only the information I’ve given you, wouldn’t a form of worship involving the river make more sense? If you live in a matriarchal culture, is it more likely you’ll have a king or a queen as your ruler? If your people live on the coast of the ocean, are they more likely to be known for their sailors or their mountaineers? If they have huge deposits of iron are they more likely to be known for their ironwork or their copper-smithing?
Now, we’re assuming, given the subject of this blog series, that you want to err on the side of originality over familiarity. You’re reading an article on world-building, so I’m going to assume you value coherency over incoherency. (If you write surrealism, maybe not?)
One trick to originality is looking at the axes which we use to judge familiarity. You might think the opposite of patriarchy is a matriarchy, but that only differs on the feature of gender. It’s still following a complex set of assumptions about what power is and how we define who holds it. We have in our world a common concept of a struggle for power between the male and female genders. It’s a single axis alignment of power. If you want to be really original, you might consider altering a different axis. Or maybe two. Or three. Perhaps there’s an equal division of power between genders. Maybe it doesn’t even match our pre-conceived gender roles. Or maybe there’s no gender division at all.
Now, true origianlity would not just be, “okay, let’s have Japan but with a matriarchal power-structure and everything else is the same.” That’s a valid method to create a fantasy setting, assuming you watch out for things like cultural appropriation. But it’s not what we’re addressing in this post.
And there are other power structures or aspects of power structures. Such as do we have a single absolute ruler? A group of rulers? A democracy (of sorts)? How do we decide on who fills these positions? More generally in world-building, you have to decide on your goals for the culture or world and then pick the method to achieve that goal. So you can focus your originality on those aspects, which certainly makes life easier. Perhaps you want everything to be original. A lofty goal, though I’m not sure it’s a good one.
But you can have a fairly original culture by just changing a few aspects. What provides the true originality instead of just being gimmicky is whether or not you let these changes trickle down through other aspects of the society. You have to find the reasons that underlie your new surface structure.
Another important aspect to consider is whether your ground state culture is the average of real-world cultures or those depicted in secondary-world fantasy. So a democracy is more common in the real world than in fantasy, so within the context of fantasy, it might feel a lot more original than you might otherwise expect. Theocracies might be arguably more common in fantasy than in real life, so they might feel less original.
You could look at religion the same way. Polytheistic pantheons are far more common in fantasy than in modern real life. Monotheistic religions might feel very common in the real world, but are far less common in fantasy, despite being present. And Judeo-Christian Gods make up most of the fantasy monotheistic Gods. So even though mono-theism might not feel super original, the way it’s expressed in the world could be. Pantheism/animism is similarly uncommon in fantasy, though we have real-world examples such as Shinto from Japan.
Worship of spirits and gods is the most common state of religion in both fantasy stories and the real world. Rarely do we have supernatural forces acknowledged without worship. Do you often see scientific explorations of the the river and wind spirits in fantasy the same way we look at meteorology in the real world? When looking to create an original culture, one of the methods with the highest ceiling on originality is to find the underlying assumptions in our ideas of both what’s possible and what’s original. We have a big conflict between theism and atheism in the real world religious landscape. But especially from a Western viewpoint, it’s rarely considered that we might have supernatural phenomena acknowledged without being revered. And there are many other examples.
I’ve used examples of religion and politics because they’re very common subjects of “unique” fantasy cultures and I know something about them. You can do the same thing with food or cleanliness habits, art or clothing or architecture. Family relationships, education, values either moral or practical. How they deal with their economy. With their debts or social obligations. Politeness is a fun one.
Next time, I’d like to talk about how to make the aspects of your culture fit together in a way that readers will accept/expect.