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Basing Your Fantasy Culture on Real Ones....?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by celebathien, Mar 15, 2013.

  1. celebathien

    celebathien Dreamer

    One of the questions that has bothered me regards the use of real-world cultures in what a fantasy writer chooses to write about. Here's what I mean:

    I have a short story based in an unknown world that should be recognizable as that of Africa. There are lions, native people, and the like. The language should sound like something they would speak; however, where are the lines that shouldn't be crossed? Or are there any? My fear is that because I'm not of that culture, I might cause serious offense to someone from it by badly representing it. I would never want to do that. I would only want to respectfully utilize cultural elements in a well-told story. It's why I don't use tribal names like Zulu, and why I don't copy and paste the Swahili language in, and why I don't necessarily use the same names of their gods. But it does come with a price in that I feel as if I have to understand these cultures deeply in order to properly base something from them.

    Is this a stupid fear of mine, or is it something that happens no matter what foreign culture you choose to base something in your story from? How does it effect worldbuilding? I'd really like to know.
  2. FatCat

    FatCat Maester

    I'd say unless you're doing historical fiction, don't worry about it too much. It's pretty difficult to make an entire culture with no real-world influence, I'd say worry about what story your trying to tell before descending into the 'realism' of the culture you're emulating. I think that'd just be confusing, honestly.
  3. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    In the past I would often make my fantasy cultures thinly disguised, only slightly modified transplants of real ones. Nowadays I am more ambivalent about that process. I find that the more you try to make a certain fantasy culture resemble a real-world one, the less creative freedom you have when it comes to designing that culture. Very often you find yourself researching the real culture so much that you might as well be writing a historical novel.

    BTW, I love stories with African-inspired settings and characters.
  4. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    If you're not portraying a real culture, change it as you see fit. I'd actually recommend against making it highly similar to one real culture--the differences stand out less if you mix and match.
  5. Nebuchadnezzar

    Nebuchadnezzar Troubadour

    Robert E. Howard used to do extensive cultural and historical research to underpin his stories. He ultimately switched to using fantasy worlds for his Conan stories, etc because he felt obligated to make his historical fiction "correct" and found that was just too much work and was cutting into his writing time. One of the benefits of creating a fantasy world is that things are "right" if you say they're right, so in my view you should take advantage of that.
  6. Devora

    Devora Sage

    There's nothing wrong with using real life catalysts for your story. In fact, i'm writing a novel where the culture of the Dark Elves in it is very simliar to Edo Era Japan.
  7. tlbodine

    tlbodine Troubadour

    The big risk is co-opting a culture in a way that's overly simplistic or dismissive. The thing is, if people are looking for it, they'll find that in basically anything. See, for example, the large number of people who rail on Tolkien for the way all the bad guys invariably come from the East, are "swarthy" (aka, not white) and have culture that's decidedly not European. The Euro-centricness of Tolkien is undebatable, but whether that makes it *bad* is something that I think only gets discussed in certain circles (and a few lit classes).

    As a rule, I'd say: Avoid making your bad guys overtly resemble any real-life groups, especially groups who are already the victims of oppression, unless you have a *very* deft hand.

    Otherwise, go nuts. Mix and match and put together the culture you'd like, a world that suits your needs. A few lions does not Africa make!
    Nihilium 7th likes this.
  8. celebathien

    celebathien Dreamer

    I'll keep this in mind. I'll see if I can't post the actual short-story that I'm talking about with this to my portfolio tomorrow in fact, and see if anyone's interested in poking at it a little. :)
  9. Mask

    Mask Scribe

    One thing that I'm not so keen on, is when they copy and paste a culture in fantasy works. Generally Britain or Japan.
  10. The Unseemly

    The Unseemly Troubadour

    A little something that I would look out for is not to add unconfirmed/stereotypical ideas in your culture. You (or someone up there) mentioned lions in an "African" culture, when in fact, lions were a dangerous creature not tamed as a pet in African culture. I do suppose you get a bit of leeway with fictional writing, as it is, after all, fictional, and you can invent excuses for aspects of that culture, however I'd still be careful on what sort of "stereotypes" your implying.
  11. chaos-in-spades

    chaos-in-spades Acolyte

    I am doing the exact same thing, and I hope that I write it effectively. I'm aiming to explore the good and bad aspects to different civilizations as well as their mythology and religious/political beliefs and adapt it to fit within my novel. I take a lot of inspiration from them and want to pay some kind of homage to them.
  12. Thom

    Thom Acolyte

    I would, first off, avoid speaking of an African culture. Africa is a huge continent, larger than Europe, China and the US combined. It is kind of useless to speak of it as if it is a country with one unified culture. There is a huge difference between the north of the continent and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, or between the Horn and the west.

    That is not to say that you should not base your writing off an African culture, or even multiple. The only advice I have is: research, research, research. And look beyond Wikipedia and Unicef stereotypes.
    The Afterwriter likes this.
  13. Catharsis

    Catharsis Acolyte

    Honestly any fantasy culture will end up being derived to an extent from cultures which exist now or existed at some point in time. You can minimize the direct relationship by staying away from any similar names and such. Most of the work I've done has been fairly eurocentric. As long as you do not pursue stereotypes of each culture however, I don't think it should be much of an issue.
  14. Kit

    Kit Maester

    I wanted to write a made-up culture with a few elements of ancient China thrown in.

    As time went on, I would think, "I want to add______," so I'd do a little research on ________, and where do you think it came from? China. I'd have my character eating such-and-such food, then check the internet, and guess who produces most of that food? China. I'd give my character a musical instrument to play, then do some additional research- where did that instrument originate? Yup, China.

    After having this happen *way* too often to be a coincidence, I had to just accept that I was writing ancient China.
  15. Nightender

    Nightender Minstrel

    Inspiration comes from all sorts of places. If a story is inspired by Africa, wonderful. There isn't enough African influence in fantasy, and I welcome it.

    As far as building a fantasy setting to be an exact parallel for a specific historical location, especially during a specific era, I think we should just leave that to Guy Gavriel Kay. He's entire formula is to build magical parallels to real places and eras as settings for his tales. Going to his extent is tricky, and I don't recommend it to anyone who hasn't done a great deal of research.

    Just stick with inspiration. I think there's a wealth of basic concepts that originate in Africa that are begging to fuel a number of stories.
  16. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I think having a good base of understanding of what that civilization was like is plenty, no need to go super deep unless you want to. A lot of what the world "is" doesn't even make it into the story and its more for the author's consistency, I think. Currently, my WIP is a culture mixed of medieval Croatia, India and Alaska Native cultures. Its a crazy mix but its totally working for what I originally had in mind. I'm taking what I need from each and what FEELS RIGHT...what matches...before I go any deeper. I'd like all this mostly organized before I begin to really write the story but hey, if I need to continue doing research so be it.

    I suggest you go easy with all of this. Have fun reading about the culture(s) that interests you for your work and trust your intuition. :)
  17. Meyer

    Meyer Minstrel

    As others have said, you need to have a strong understanding of the culture you intend to emulate or use as inspiration. A well written and fleshed out people will be much more appreciated than a culture based only vapid stereotypes. I think an important thing to do if using a real world culture as a source of inspiration is to not use one that is over used, such as medieval Japan. Something that is truly alien to western or European sensibilities would be a good source. What comes to mind is Shakespeare in the Bush and how different the Tiv's interpretation of Hamlet was from the typical understanding of it.
  18. celebathien

    celebathien Dreamer

    Ahhh. I see!

    The question came up originally because of a news story from way-back, 2006 or earlier, about a teen girl from one of the more rural areas of Africa being guarded by lions until her rescuers came. She had been kidnapped and beaten and abused by a group of men who wanted to marry her, or who wanted her to marry one of them, and the lions appeared and chased them off. They then stayed by her until the group searching for her came across her and the lions retreated at that point.

    It just sounded like a story out of myth to me, and I wanted to use it in a short story. (Not using real names or anything.) I suppose that's the secondary issue I'm worried about: taking something that sounds too impossible to have really happened (but did) and making it fictional.
  19. Lycan999

    Lycan999 Minstrel

    If you are truly worried about offending someone from the culture you are partially trying to portray from some ignorant blunder you make, the best advice I can give you is do extensive research in to the culture. But I personally do not have any problem using an existing or no longer existing culture and have found many pros to it. If a culture somewhat resembles a culture that existed in our world it can draw readers in with something that is both familiar and new at the same time. It can also give you many ideas for scenes in your story by looking at the mythology and stories told by the culture you are basing yours off of. Besides this, it is also almost impossible to write something and not have it resemble something that actually exist. Just go with it, and add your personal touch. Anyway, this is fantasy writing, not historical fiction.
  20. Eddings was quoted that he used civilizations from our past as templates for the countries/civilizations/races for his Belgariad and Malloreon series. You can see the Vikings in Cherek and Greco/Roman parts of Tolnedra. I think this works to give an author a starting point, but unless that is where you want your setting to be, I would suggest reworking those sources to not seem to on the nose with it all.

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