North’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Fantasy Cultures

A respectful observation, fellow writers: real world cultures are distinguished by more than sexual permissiveness and/or “weird” gender roles relative to an already mistaken idea of Medieval European social norms.

With that first sentence, I’ve viciously murdered a swath of stock “exotic” cultures. It shouldn’t be so easy to eviscerate the cultures of hundreds of non-Earth planets with (supposedly) non-Earth humans, but there you are. I have analyzed the genre’s weaknesses, and this rusted-through girder in the understructure of our collective worldbuilding offends my intellect in damn near every book. Let’s address an oft-overlooked point first: why are the first-introduced cultures in (seemingly) every fantasy world ever written just copy-pasted Anglo-Saxon cliches? You see, the problem starts there: the idea that a tiny subset of Caucasians represent something so basic that it never occurs to most authors to write them differently. And once we get in the habit of taking one culture for granted, other stereotypes slide in behind.

You think perhaps I exaggerate. Consider this: the three predominant quasi-European ethnic groups in North American fantasy are obvious rip-offs of Britain, France, and somewhat less frequently Spain. This axes everyone from the Germanic peoples to the Nordic, Slavic, and European Turkic peoples. Vikings don’t count because they’re not actually a separate culture; a Viking was no more than a man from a Nordic culture who decided to go raiding instead of trading. You may be aware this leaves out all the non-raiding bits of Dark-Ages Nordic culture, so they’re still effectively absent. Dave Duncan having the quasi-Russian Skyrria in his Chronicles of the King’s Blades is still among the wildest cultural choices I’ve seen in fantasy, and that’s just sad. As for “exotic” cultures… let’s not talk about what the average fantasy writer does to non-European peoples.

Except Japan. Japan is cool. I like their weapons and armor. Everyone, please stop making them borderline gods. If you must include them, how about a nuanced presentation that really explores, for example, the combative difficulty a Samurai with his shorter stature and shorter katana would experience against a longswordsman in an unarmored fight, or the absolute nightmare his gap-ridden armor would pose when facing the same longswordsman in his nearly-impenetrable plate? Winning this lopsided encounter would be a better tribute to Samurai spirit than any number of Anime-filched cliches, and only required a modicum of original thought. Stop pulling in other cultures with no modifications when your world contains factors that clearly demand modifications to those cultures. No, just mashing two existing cultures together without thought isn’t good enough. Do you care about this world or not? If yes, put a little goddamn effort it, would ya?

Before we go any further, let me just pause the article here to say I really enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire.

Even the vaunted A Song of Ice and Fire goes no further than the Iron Islanders (AKA Viking ripoff culture #296), because it’s not as if there aren’t enough of those generic fucks gallivanting around, and the Braavosi, who I’m going to call “Greetalians.” I don’t care that they live on another continent, they live in not-Venice and have a not-Colossus of Rhodes. They have a bunch of over-dressed ruffians with slender swords prowling courtesan-filled streets separated by canals, looking to duel in the dead of night. They’re just Greco-Venice. Dorne appears to be Hispano-Araby–oh, wait, it’s just early-Medieval Spain then, ISN’T IT?!

Now, lest you think I’m a snide young upstart chucking pebbles at the mountainous portcullis of Castle Martin, he has excellent reason for these choices. So much of A Song of Ice and Fire‘s tone depends on the feeling of a decayed world, perhaps fallen beyond redemption. Martin carefully dripfeeds his audience exactly enough beauty to keep the world bearable. Investing more time into “out there” cultures would undermine the sheer bleakness of the world, which is arguably its greatest narrative strength. Just as importantly, much of Martin’s best material in the series stems from the ruthless extermination of high-fantasy cliches. He can’t very well dissect them if he doesn’t build them into the world first, can he? Lastly, Martin works very hard to give an impression of realism. And unfortunately, a lot of readers too easily conflate familiarity with realism, which limits the options of any author trying to appease them.

The rest of you adorable twitchy-typists don’t have these reasons. When you’re writing conventional high fantasy… well, you see, we’ve already gone wrong. I typed out the phrase “conventional high fantasy” and you read it without a hitch, didn’t you? The fact that we have stock cultures in high fantasy is an enormous problem. Now, yes, there are some limitations on culture if you’re writing humans. If you change them too much, they stop meaningfully resembling Earth humans, and you have to wonder why you made them human at all. Nevertheless, I argue we should have far more wiggle-room with fantasy humans (in fact, my own writing relies heavily on this).

I understand you may be worried about making your cultures too foreign for relatability. Don’t be. First off, this takes practice, and your first few attempts will probably turn out to be a mix of other cultures’ cliches when looking at them after the fact. It’s not ideal, but at least you won’t wind up with excess crazy from day one. Second, you still have your protagonist and supporting cast to parse these things for your readers. If your protagonist is compelling enough, no one’s going to mind that they come from a strange culture. More likely, it’ll add to their appeal. Let’s talk about exotic cultures now: Don’t write them.

Okay, that was cheap, I apologize. I mean don’t set out to write an exotic culture. Your culture-hack checklist should include, but not be limited to, the following:
1. Internally consistent, or inconsistencies are explained and work well with established patterns.
2. Clearly changes over time/influenced by history and surrounding cultures.
3. Is not 100% about any single thing, no matter how cool you think that thing is.
4. Is not perfectly uniform unless small enough to justify it. If there are more than a thousand people in this culture, you’re going to see differences. No excuses.
5. Has clearly defined flaws as well as strengths.
6. Doesn’t do anything that’s clearly unsustainable in the long term, unless you actually want it to be unsustainable and will write about the fallout from said unsustainability at some point.
7. Functions in ways that meaningfully reflect its environment and geographical circumstances.
8. Is not inexplicably superior to other cultures. This is an extraordinarily common problem, so I’m resuming proper paragraphs here.

#8 includes cultural explanations which are patently moronic. Before we go any further, let me just pause the article to say that I really enjoy The Wheel of Time.

I have a major problem with the Aiel in The Wheel of Time who, purely because they lived in a dry, barren hellscape, are able to do all manner of things which would normally require in-depth explanation, and some that can’t realistically be explained at allI’m sorry to tell you this, but harsh living does not grant superpowers. It will in fact likely result in being slower, smaller, weaker, and by virtue of the poorer training inflicted by the first three, less skilled than (for example) a well-fed knight. “Yes, you’re a rich warrior-from-birth but I live in a shitty place,” is not only not a cultural silver-bullet, it’s a preposterous slight on all the humans who survive terrible, dangerous, low-resources environments and–you may have heard–just don’t have great lives. 

Jordan is a good writer, but the Aiel’s combat prowess is unjustifiable nonsense. Don’t do this. The worst part: the Aiel culture otherwise is fascinating and well-executed. Perhaps for you this excuses their ridiculous damage output; for me, it makes it worse. Despite being a well-developed culture with a genuinely interesting history, they usually just function as an ex-machina. “Oh, can’t go there, there’s five hundred Aiel and we only have twice that in fully-armored knights. We’d never win.” Obviously this wasn’t a death blow to The Wheel of Time, nor should it have been, but I’ll have more to say on it later. Again, this direly dry-bled trope pollutes a lot of other works, so I’m thinking of something regarding all the increasingly uncomfortable “isolationist nomads who have somehow benefited from being isolationist nomads” cultures in fantasy. Let’s put it this way: this worked for the Mongols and Huns for one very specific reason which no fantasy culture ever depends on.

Here’s something you must remember: your cultures do not exist in a vacuum. It’s one thing if you have a favorite culture on your planet. It’d be a crying shame if you didn’t; it’s your world, and you should love at least some part of it. Beware, authors aspirant, of a pet culture. Every time you decide to give one more virtue to them that others lack, to let their folklore provide the answer to one more thing instead of bringing in new faces, to make them martially dominant over one more culture, you knock every other people on the planet down a peg. Every time you insist on dragging the reader’s eyes back to a feature you’ve done to death instead of spending time with another city or species, you steal depth from your own world.

Now, at this point, if you’re not ready to gouge my eyes out (cool it, you’re not Nynaeve and you don’t unlock powers with your rage), you may be wondering where the hell you’re supposed to start writing an entire culture. Why… anywhere! Start anywhere you want. Unhelpful? Pick something that compels you. Maybe it’s a location: bogs, say, or mountain peaks. Maybe a musical instrument, a style of dance, an engraving or a fresco, arms or armor. It can be anything at all, though you should strive to pick something unexpected, something you yourself find foreign and odd. But from the moment you pick that first thing, all the others must tie into it. Maybe they harmonize, maybe they clash, but if your first detail is sound, it should be like that first glimpse of an ancient ruin in the depths of a murky lake. You should perceive the vastness behind it from the stark, algal angles branching from the forlorn statue’s feet.

Appropriate to my analogy, that doesn’t mean all or even most of your culture should immediately relate to the first pieces. If you just saw the statue and a basin filled with ancient copper icons of a hammer, rusted over in the depths, you wouldn’t think they had much in common. But if you could clear the waters (and breathe them, for that matter), you would see that the statue clasped a small crucible in a pair of tongs, that copper relics littered the ruin, that deeper within were vast, water-pitted cauldrons and pits which might once have been forges, and you would realize this was some vast smelting facility. You might infer from the iconography that metalworking and copper were vital to this civilization. And if you go back in time, you might find out you were completely wrong on the last part, and the smelter’s owner was just a smug rich prick who liked quasi-religious imagery for his properties.

Real cultures are incredibly complex, so much so that you’ll barely have space to write anything else if you give your own realistic depth. So much depends on offering details that hint at a wealth of others without stating them directly, and this is so obviously situational that I can’t provide a formula for it. I tell you two things absolutely: research Earth cultures. If you think you know enough, you’re wrong. If you think a possibility on your brain is too strange, too sad, or too insane, I guarantee you one real-world culture, somewhere, has something like it. Second, anytime you’re about to write anything by rote pertaining to one of your cultures, stop yourself and ask what it would mean if you changed this one thing. What would need to change about this culture for that to make sense? Eventually, this web of shifting customs will hold a living, breathing people together.

And if you think of something that’s never been seen on this Earth? Well, friend, you’d best work it into your world, because that’s just too impressive to waste.

You've thoughts to offer, dear reader?

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