It seems like every time I turn around I meet an aspiring writer who is working on a fantasy. I’m not sure what it is about fantasy that makes everyone love it so much and want to write it (okay, if I thought on it enough, I’d be able to figure it out… but that’s a post for another day).
Right now I want to talk about world building and creating a culture for your fantasy story. It’s one of the most important areas of the planning stage, but one feel a lot of beginning authors fail in.
Here is a list of stereotypes I see a lot and ways in which you can fix them:
Everyone Speaks the Not Only the Same Language but Also the Same Dialect
Why is it that in fantasies everyone seems to speak the same language? Like, all the elves speak the same language, and the humans can all communicate with each other, and then the fairies have their own way language too.
In reality, this is far from realistic. After all, we have how many languages in use in the world today? A quick Google search offers an approximation of 6,500. Out of that number, 2,000 of those languages are spoken by less than 1,000 people. I’d like to read a story about the girl who comes from a dinky little village and only speaks a language a handful of other people speak. That would be cool!
And, if you don’t want to mess with other languages, take a look at all the different regions in the US. Sure, we all speak English, but not only is it a completely different form of English that the British speak, but we don’t even all speak it the same. Where we’re from will determine the dialect we speak. I mean, go ahead, ask a group of people from different places in the US what the fizzy drink is called and take note of the answers. Is it pop? Is it soda? Coke? Soda pop?
Diversity is a Matter of Class, Not Race
Why aren’t there more races in fantasy? How come there are just elves or dwarves or humans? Why aren’t there races among them? Again, look at the world around us. So many people. So many different people with history and culture and stories. Why do we sell ourselves short when creating a fantasy world?
We can create an entire world of different races and people. Did you get that? You have the potential to create an entire world. A whole world. And instead, we sell ourselves short by going, “Yup, they’re humans. They have one history. One culture. One language.”
Even you don’t want to go crazy with the culture thing, there should still be diversity. After all, take a look at the Normans and the Saxons. The Russians and the Ukrainians. The Chinese and the Japanese. All cultures that an outsider might say were very similar. We might even go so far as to confuse the two. But they also hated each other and the thought of being mistaken for the other was (and still is, in some cases) an insult.
There is One Religion and All the Good Guys Adhere to It
If you take a quick look at the world around you, you will see people never agree on anything. If they did, there wouldn’t be a reason for political parties or different religious denominations. Even within cultures you will find people who disagree or want to change things. Take a look at the different Amish sects. It’s human nature to go against the norm. And yet, in our fantasy worlds, everyone who is on the right side agrees and then all the bad guys agree with each other. It’s as simple and black-and-white as that.
But that’s wrong. I mean, Christians, look at all the people in the world who are “good people” but aren’t Christians. They would never do anything to harm another person or go against the strong moral code they live by, but they’ve rejected the truth of Christ. Does that mean we have to classify them with the bad guys? Because they wouldn’t agree with the hero’s beliefs. Or, have to have them convert to that belief by the end of the book. They just don’t understand. Or they haven’t been presented with the truth. Once they see the hero, well, they just can’t help but get saved.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of good people in the world who won’t ever get saved. And, sad as it is, it’s the way of things. I never want to stop fighting for a person’s soul or just accept this as fact, but in my writing, I can’t be realistic and have everyone who is fighting on the side of right believe what I do. Even if my hero is the best Christian anyone has ever seen, I can’t make everyone he touches believe in Christ. Everyone Christ touched didn’t believe in him.
Everyone Agrees on Everything
Along the same lines, but getting off the subject of religion, how many young adults do you know who agree 100% with their parents? Even the ones who love and respect their parents like nobody’s business. How many of them believe every single thing their parents do and plan to raise their children the exact same way their parents raised them?
I’m willing to bet not too many. You might know one person. If that. Because even the best of parents fail or get things wrong. And, while I agree with my parents on a lot of things, there are things I will probably do differently when I have kids. Why? Because I don’t agree with them. Whether that makes them wrong or me actually isn’t the issue here.
The point is, cultures change and adapt. All too often we have one character who wants something different for their life while the rest of their world is content to go about their daily lives happy as can be.
I’m not saying every child in your story needs to rebel. But, people always want more. They want the best for themselves and their children that there is. And, the man who packs up his family and drags them halfway around the world, seeking a better life, and the man who keeps plugging away, day in and day out, refusing to uproot his family, are often both working out of the same desires. But, that doesn’t mean that the man who plugs away is content with the way things are. That doesn’t mean he wants it. But, he’s doing what he feels is right and best.
In your culture there should always be differences. There should always be people who disagree, even on the little things. Politics. The proper way to treat a wound or have a baby. Whether it’s right to pay taxes. And, again, this should not be a matter of good guys on one side, bad guys on the other. Maybe the guy fighting to overthrow the social structure of the world, believes in paying taxes for some reason. It could happen.
The Only Social Issues are Ones that Relate to the Story
Abortion. Gay rights. Feminism. The separation of church and state. How many of these social issues affect your everyday life? I’m willing to guess that you don’t have to deal with every single one of these every single day. Sure, you might have to deal with one of them because you and a coworker are in disagreement. But all of them? Every single day? I think not.
But, you have an opinion on all them, right? Even if you have never known anyone who has even considered having an abortion, you have an opinion on whether it is right or wrong. And whether or not you’re a feminist, you have a clear opinion on the issue of women’s rights.
Because there are always more social issues than the ones we’re dealing with. I may devote all of my time and energy to one cause, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion on other causes. You don’t have to deal with a million social issues in your story. But, let your reader know they’re there. We tend to add this element to our stories that if the hero succeeds in fixing this one issue, then everything will be perfect.
But, maybe the hero is trying to stop the slave trade. Does that mean that women aren’t ever treated poorly in your story? Does that mean their faith isn’t being persecuted too? Does that mean once all the slaves are free, life will be perfect? Just because a hero chooses one issue to fight when there are many in his world, does not make him weak, but indeed, stronger, because he is willing to taking things one step at a time and not get overwhelmed by the idea that he will never be able to fix everything.
Social Issues are the Government’s Fault
Along those same lines, why are social issues always the government’s fault? Have you ever considered maybe they haven’t passed a law concerning women’s rights because they’re too busy trying to stop the slave trade? Like your hero, the government can’t fight every issue at once.
Not saying you can’t have an evil government. Because if you want to, go ahead. But, keep in mind that it is cliché so you might want to try doing something different.
The Government is Simple and Straightforward
This one always cracks me. Like, have you never studied any sort of government ever? In fantasy, there tends to be a king or queen in charge of everything and sometimes they have advisors and stuff who they never listen to.
Which is actually kind of lazy, like the author decided to skip out on the worldbuilding part and instead of actually creating a believable government, they were just like “The monarch person rules everything.”
Take a look at the American government system. We have a president and a vice president. We have the senate and congress. We even have rules on a smaller level, governing the states and counties and cities. Seriously, the whole thing makes me head spin sometimes. And, that’s just the American government system. Don’t get me started on Britain, or ancient Greece, or Rome, or anywhere else for that matter.
The point is, the more complex the government, the more realistic, and the harder the task for the hero. Which is good. You want him job to be hard. If it was easy, who would want to read your book? And there are so many different government types, creating one would be fun, don’t you think? Again, whole world at your fingertips. You can do whatever you want.
And, I’m kind of running out of room with this post so I’ll end here. Keep an eye out for Part Two next week.
Oh, and if you’re looking for some great questions to help you with your worldbuilding, you should check these out as they have helped me a lot in the past: http://bethisad.com/conculture/questionnaire.htm
And, in the meantime, I shall see you all on Friday!
How about you? Do you agree or disagree with me about these stereotypes? Was this helpful in anyway? Do you have anything to add that I might have missed?