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Diversity in fantasy settings

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Sat May 19, 2018 3:53 pm
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StellaThomas says...

(PSA - I am often woefully inelegant. I do not mean to be culturally insensitive - anything but! If anything I say offends, please let me know and please know it's not my intention <3)

Sometimes, when I go to a foreign country and see beautiful things that are very different to what I might see at home, I feel a strong urge to somehow include those things in my writing, and they make me wonder if I could somehow "transplant" one of my stories - usually set in northern European-type settings - to a setting with warmer climes.

But then I think... no.

Take, for example, if I wanted to write a story set in a country with rice paddies and rice terraces. I then have to write a climate where rice grows, and a culture that grows around rice as a staple (rather than bread or potatoes). Dress changes. Eating habits change. And realistically, skin tone changes (because of that Vitamin D/folic acid equation). Culture changes, to a culture that I don't understand and would feel uncomfortable writing.

So I suppose my question is this: to what extent can you mix cultures? Can you create a Russian type palace and court, but filled with black courtiers? Can you write an Asian setting with elements of European culture? These are fantasy universes where, supposedly, we can suspend disbelief - but can we?

Basically, for me personally, I'm very aware that I'm a white European, and white Europeans make mistakes all the time in trying to represent other cultures in literature. And while naturally having a diversity of authors writing a diversity of settings is ideal, writing yet another European fantasy to add to the pile doesn't seem much better.

Often you hear advice regarding writing characters of a different race to yourself, or differently abled etc that you're perfectly entitled to write that character, but not to write a story about their experience of being that thing. But how does this apply to fantasy settings, where the whole world could be outside of your culture? Do you have free rein, because the world is made up? Or is it still very much a "stay in your lane" situation?
"Stella. You were in my dream the other night. And everyone called you Princess." -Lauren2010

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Sat May 19, 2018 4:18 pm
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Vervain says...

Honestly -- as a white American, so I am not an authority on the subject whatsoever -- what I do is I don't... try... to write the Real World equivalent of the fantasy culture, if that makes sense? It probably doesn't and comes across so wrong, so let me explain a little.

I have one novel where the setting is similar to China ~1100 CE.

Am I doing a hell of a lot of research as to the tech and what was developed and what it would have been like in China around that time period? Yes. Am I transcribing the history or the exact culture of China and plopping it into my fantasy world? No, because it's not China -- it's a fantasy setting with similar climate and geography, and similar (but not exactly the same) cultural and linguistic development, among other things.

Not to mention that a lot of the nations and states that were a part of China or contributed to their culture don't exist in my fantasy setting.

Another setting: A place vaguely similar to Wales; a place vaguely similar to the Iberian Peninsula (plus France); a place vaguely similar to the Arabian Peninsula. None of them are exactly the same as their real-life counterparts, though they recall influences of said counterparts.

When I'm writing fantasy, I'm not writing historical fantasy -- I'm building my own worlds. Some, like the two above, draw directly from real-life cognates and require finagling to fit into a world without some of their neighbors or with different cultures. But it's fun! It takes a lot of time and effort to make it fit, but in the end you have a rich culture that lends itself to representing the true diversity of a world.

Also remember that European culture itself can be very distinct -- there are a lot of different cultures that blend together to create it. The two I see represented most in fantasy are British/English cultures (for which I blame Tolkien and Arthurian legend) and French/German cultures (usually if it's a fairytale retelling of sorts).

I've never really seen a lot of Iberia, or Italy, or the Nordic countries. I've never seen Eastern Europe in the fantasy I've read. Obviously we shouldn't claim to know more of these cultures than the people who live them day by day, but we can do our research and try to have settings that represent something other than Germanceland.

We can also make conworlds (constructed + worlds) with few or no real-world cognates, but that takes significantly more time and effort than using cognates and shifting them here and there to make it fantasy. I have one conworld that I've been working on for four years and I don't know if it'll ever be complete enough for me, but I do know that I will one day finish the novel set in it.

Also! You don't have to go into detail on everything culturally different in the novel, of course. Ideally this is all "normal" to your characters so, in-character, you would have no reason to justify your Russian court of black courtiers or anything else. It would be normal to the world. If there's an explanation that occurs naturally inside the text, that's fine, but don't worry about going out of your way to justify it. (Do have some sort of explanation ready if someone asks, of course -- even if it's just "that's the way the world is" -- because people will most likely ask.)

Don't write insensitively, but write bravely.
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Sun May 20, 2018 2:49 am
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StellaThomas says...

@Lareine - thanks for the answers!

I suppose, to an extent you are right that you don't necessarily need to offer an explanation. For instance, my novel Unruly is based in Samina and the Merle Archipelago. Samina is a Germanic mainland. The Merle Archipelago was once a great ancient civilisation like Ancient Greece or Rome but resembles the Caribbean in structure and climate, and is populated by black and white people with no distinct "ruling" class. In my mind this is just because it was abandoned for a thousand years and then whatever settlers ended up there just ended up there. That doesn't come up, they just exist. As for how the Caribbean climate is next to the German one... magic? Warm currents? Does it matter?

So I do think that as long as it's just their normal, it doesn't matter. And again I agree that when you're writing a fantasy world, you are *not* writing that actual country so it technically shouldn't matter if things don't match exactly- because you can always point out that it wasn't your intention to write a real world culture.

I suppose I'm always just nervous of criticism that I've seen already-published authors get. For instance, Leigh Bardugo who wrote the Grisha trilogy which is - in fairness- a *very* close Russian style world, came under fire for a) not using patronymic (sp?) names correctly. She reasoned that a) this wasn't Russia, this was Ravka and b) she wanted a simplified naming system (because come on we've all read Tolstoy and know how much you rely on that Dramatis Personae if you aren't used to people having many forms of one name), but still people were upset and frustrated that they felt she had appropriated their culture. The other, vaguely more bizarre and probably less reasonable complaint was that she had called the King the Czar, but as that's a term that initially came from "Caesar" and this is a world with no Caesar that it made no sense. To me, I think it was a perfectly reasonable choice for her setting - though I do always worry about using ostensibly Biblical names in European settings where there's no Christianity and thus no reason for someone to have a Hebrew name (James, Peter etc seem safe enough but it's places like Rebecca and Leah and, I don't know, Miriam ;) that I get stuck on!)

Maybe I'm just not creative enough xD

I love your statement of "write sensitively but write bravely" - I want that on a plaque somewhere! I suppose that, realistically, you're going to step on some toes. There is always going to be someone who finds whatever you write offensive or problematic and the challenge is to get past that and just write the best story you can.

I'm still very nervous about the concept of mixing or borrowing from several cultures to create a new one. I'm reminded though of Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton (great series), which combines Arab culture with the Wild West. It makes sense in so many ways, the harsh landscape, lawless isolated places, and she blends Arabian mythology seamlessly into a world of iron and steel. I suppose that's the challenge, to find the elements that work well to enrich your setting and work well with each other to create something new.

Sorry, all of this is just musing, not really drawing conclusions or responding to you at all because I'm a rambling beast xD
"Stella. You were in my dream the other night. And everyone called you Princess." -Lauren2010

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Sun May 20, 2018 5:35 pm
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Rosendorn says...

The key to blending cultures for me is a similar geographic environment. Because culture is built from the environment at its most basic level, if you don't have that you're utterly doomed.

(I read a pitch where a guy wanted to put Georgian architecture into ancient China, completely ignoring Georgian architecture isn't earthquake proof and China gets a lot of earthquakes)

I blend a lot of cultures for Cat Steps; I have Mughal, Nepali, and Hindu. The trick with that is I'm writing about an area with a lot of overlap in cultures already, so the mix is pretty natural.

The thing about writing in fantasy is, people don't realize they've put just as much work into getting Europe (English/French, let's be honest) settings right. This guide breaks it down quite well.

The reason people don't realize it is because English/French settings are so ubiquitous they feel natural. They're the main subject of history class study, after all. They're already the backbone of fantasy. They're everywhere and people have absorbed the details required to make it feel relatively fleshed out by the time they start writing.

Writing another culture requires you put that time into learning those details consciously for different cultures. It feels awkward and strange, but the reality is you've already put in the work for learning about Europe. The details are out there to learn about, it's just a case of finding them.
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