So, I promised a post yesterday on the challenges and responses to the challenges of creating unique new cultures for fantasy worlds. But as I was writing my draft, I realized I needed to talk about something else first. You see that post was going to be a response to a common trend in fantasy and what I dislike about it. So I realized I should probably go into that trend, what it is, what I don’t like, and what it does do well. On that note:
One of the most common criticisms of is that so much high and epic fantasy is just a pseudo-medieval European setting, with actually quite a few historical simplifications and misunderstandings. Not least of which is because “Medieval” relates to a span of approximately 1000 years following the fall of the Roman Empire in approximately 500 AD to the start of of early modern age in approximately 1500. These dates are rough generalizations, no need to nitpick. My point is that it was a long and complex period over a broad swath of territory, the complexity of which is generally crushed down to knights and feudalism and chivalry. (There has been subversion and counter-exampling of this trope throughout the history of fantasy, but overall, this generalization holds mostly true.)
In order to combat this issue, people began to make more of an effort to use alternate settings than they had in the past. Different cultures and mythologies were incorporated into fantasies in an attempt to ride the wave of pushback against this trope. Which led to the rise of a new over-used trope: Fantasy Counterpart Cultures. (Evil lurks here!) If you don’t want to get lost in the wasteland of TVTropes, this is basically when a for-all-intents-and-purposes real world culture is has the serial numbers sanded off in order to become a semi-consistent “new” culture in a fantasy setting. Most commonly seen with Rome, China, and Japan. Occasionally Egypt and Russia. Making up new cultures, which are both consistent and believable, is pretty hard, I think most would agree. Why not just give a new coat of paint and some sweet new rims to an old ride from Earth? People will be able to grok the basics of the culture from prior exposure.
However, there are a few issues with this method. That prior exposure is likely to be made up of stereotypes, misunderstandings, propaganda, and even occasionally down-right racism. You might think you know all about pharaohs and chariots, but did you know that Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian? (You’re reading a blog about fantasy world-building, so you might, actually.) Most people who aren’t history majors probably don’t. (Did you know bushido was propaganda?) It can also lead to lazy writing as the author relies too much on reader knowledge to hold together aspects of the story or world.
There are obvious benefits to the method, of course. You can rely on reader knowledge, take world-building shortcuts. It’s quicker. It provides an exotic flavor to the world without info-dumps, flowery prose, and intense research and understanding of the world. When well-done, it can be enormously appealing to readers. There’s a great deal of Rule of Cool that can be applied to the story, both because of ignorance of historical facts underpinning the real-world culture that inspires the story and the verisimilitude it provides. That way, the writer can “concentrate on a good plot” or build in-depth characters without all the hassle of good world-building. There are outside rules known to everybody which can be exploited for the writer’s benefit. The shared cultural context, regardless of its accuracy, can be a major driver in interest in the story.
Bushido is pretty cool as an ethic, much like chivalry. And why not? It was intended that way. It allows for a lot of subversion and the creation of moral dilemmas that can provide depth to characters and explain otherwise odd plot developments. The same for Rome. The legions were a unique military construct. The Empire was both inspiring and open to the sort of darkness that makes for good story-yelling. Same for the Norse Gods. And good historical fiction is fucking hard to do. You have to find a story that fits your goals, or fit a story into the ambiguities and cracks in the historical record. All while doing tons of research. Or you could just create a “new” country in a fantasy world where that convenient but historically inaccurate river location just happens to exist, while all the other stuff is the same. Where there’s no inconvenient “fact” to run your perfect plot idea. After all, it’s just as hard to create a new living, breathing, believable world as it is to fit non-existent plots into our real world.
But, I’d argue, it’s a lot more interesting. As I’ll discuss in the next post.