In my last post, as sort of a prelude to the complex topic I’d like to discuss here, I talked about ways to create fantasy cultures based on real cultures and the advantages and disadvantages of this method. I’m going to start out this post by talking about such counterpart cultures again, but this time, I’m going to focus on the difficulties of creating a truly original culture and how the common use of counterpart cultures undermines such attempts.
So, counterpart and generalized Earth cultures make up a great deal of the fantasy landscape. The exert an enormous influence. On both the types of stories that are common, and on reader expectations. I’m going to talk about reader expectations first.
Readers expect certain things when they pick up a book. These are based on the cover, the blurb, the author. But also on their past experiences with the genre. If they’re used to parsing and relating to stories and characters in a pseudo-medieval European setting, they’re going to have difficulty relating to a character in a different setting, because setting informs character. Also, writers and readers in the genre have developed a set of short-cuts for conveying various forms of information from the writer to the reader. A reader is familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre, and writers can and almost inevitably do manipulate this familiarity in order to both meet reader expectations and violate them without going into a wall of text explaining the violation.
Both the writer and the reader of high fantasy have an understanding of the concept of the knight. Or at least the version in Europa, our faux medieval European setting in which so many fantasies take place. So when a writer introduces a character as a knight, it’s shorthand for a great deal of information which the writer now does not have to explain with long info-dumps about the history of European chivalry and feudalism. There’s a strong tension in fantasy between world–building and not info-dumping, because for the most part, info-dumps get in the way of the story. You don’t want to drop craploads of information on the reader all at once because it interrupts the story. But you need them to understand the background in order to put the story in context. Why would a fighter give his opponent a chance to ready himself and get on an equal footing when the stakes of the battle are the conquering of the kingdom? Because his culture holds honour as one of the highest moral values. Would sneaking up behind him and stabbing him in the back be easier, have a higher chance of success, and not put the kingdom at risk? Sure. So would shooting him with an arrow from behind a tree. Or two hundred arrows in an ambush as he walks through the forest. But it would be dishonorable. And then he might do the same to you. The same reason why parley flags are honored when it might be so much simpler for one side or the other to just murder the guy.
People do all sorts of dumb shit because it’s “the right thing to do” or perhaps because due to complex cultural values or humans being shitheads, the short-term loss helps uphold a long-term gain. The tension between the obvious solution in the moment and why it might be foolish in the larger context is a powerful way to drive conflict in the story. But teaching the reader larger context is a heavy burden when they don’t have any real previous understanding of it. By using Europa as our setting, we get all that context for free because the reader has previous experience.
The same goes for any sort of counterpart culture. Rome or Japan have a large collection of tropes in say Western English-speaking society. Readers will be familiar with those tropes. So if you want a bit of a break from knights and princesses, why you can take a quick detour through samurai and ninjas. Or legionnaires and barbarians. Sometimes these are just trappings on top of the same style of story. Sometimes these new settings and tropes introduce new things to the story that are really cool. But because even then, audiences have less exposure to various renderings of these tropes or perhaps the real history underlying them, they can be even more stereotypical or empty than Europa fantasy.
And even in terms of world-building they can do the same. The writer has to communicate less technical detail to the reader and they don’t have to world-build as deeply because they have less need to justify their setting. When you just know that knights and princesses and stone castles are real, even if you don’t know how they work exactly, you don’t worry so much about the details. When something is clearly made up and not based on real Earth history, the questions about how things work and would they really work that way given the frame the author has built can become more of a suspension of disbelief killer. There’s a joke that some things are just too strange for fiction. Sure they happened in real life and we have proof. But in stories, most people most often expect a sort of logical cause and effect and that if a thing happens, it has a good reason based in the story or world-building. If something could happen once in a thousand tries based on sheer luck and it happening in your story is an important plot element, readers are much less likely to suspend disbelief than if it happens 754 times out of 1000 in the real world. So your world-building needs to make some sort of logical sense to the reader if you want your plot to hinge on it. And when you have the weight of genre history behind you, readers are far more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt than if you’re the first person doing it ever.
And that’s why fantasy counterpart cultures are so popular. We know from Earth history, our only referent of a real history that actually occurred, that the things thus depicted (sorta, kinda, if you squint a bit) really did occur and function in a world rigidly bound by physical laws. Unlike a world bound only by words on a page written by one dude who probably doesn’t even remember the six credits of world history he took in high school.
And as a very meta example of my point, I have now written two long posts full of info-dumping that I’m demanding you read before I even start talking about what I promised to talk about: how to overcome all these hurdles and actually create unique and original worlds and cultures for your fantasy story.