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

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

  1. Velka

    Velka Sage

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    I'm using the idea of Phoenician culture in my novel; seafaring trade, some of the same exports, basic government structure, geography, etc., but there's also dwarves, trolls, elves, assassin guilds and plumbing.

    I think it's helpful to have something to start as a foundation, but don't let it limit you into accurate historical representation. It's your world to build as you see fit.
     
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  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I've just started a new historical fantasy titled Half-Sisters, which covers a variety of civilizations in pre-colonial Northern Africa. The Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Malians all play a primary role in what I've written so far, but the timeline and characters are all fictitious.
     
  3. Artemadoris

    Artemadoris Dreamer

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    Ah, I share your pain. For my story, I engaged in extensive research of early Anglo-Saxon culture, language structure, and mythology–it even spilled over into the influences of the Roman Empire before their departure. It became so labor intensive, I lost sight of my initial concept. It was 2 A.M. on a Saturday morning (I was studying Anglo-Saxon grammar for God's sake) when I decided it was best to treat my research as a tool to broaden my knowledge of a world I was using as a reference to create a believable story. I believe that has helped me focus my efforts and has helped me distinguish between creating a world and mimicking one.
     
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  4. The Afterwriter

    The Afterwriter Acolyte

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    For my own writing, I feel iffy about basing fictional cultures off of real ones because of cultural appropriation. I recommend researching that as well just to see how many ways it can go wrong.

    Do what works for you, but it helps to be careful.
     
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Taken in its broadest form, there are some who consider writing about any ethnicity other than one's own to be 'cultural appropriation.'

    Even taking a more narrow definition, I do not intend to allow the issue to limit in any way what I write about. It's a form of political correctness, which is in term a form of censorship, that tells the writer what is supposed to be OK or not OK to write about.

    This seems especially problematic in the Fantasy context, where a deep source of knowledge and information can be tapped by understanding how real world cultures have developed over time, what their practices have been, and so on.

    Others may have differing views, of course :D
     
    Last edited: May 2, 2013
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  6. The Afterwriter

    The Afterwriter Acolyte

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    I want to have conversations with you.

    I agree; no world is born in a vacuum (irony intended). If it's a form of political correctness, there is no universal list of "good versus bad," which leaves it up to individuals. Am I right?

    I definitely need to put more time into researching cultural appropriation itself; perhaps my understanding of it is inaccurate or ill-informed, seeing as I've just learned of it. However, I've always spent far too much time on political correctness, and I doubt that will change any time soon.

    Fascinating. You bring up a good point; I'm glad I posted that. Thanks.
     
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  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    It looks like different people have pretty widely differing views of what it is, so I expect you'll find some people you tend to agree with and others you feel take things too far. An interesting topic, either way.
     
  8. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Question: how important is it for a fantasy world to be medieval if its not urban fantasy?
     
  9. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I always understood cultural appropriation to mean claiming someone else's culture or ethnicity as your own, as if you believed yourself an authentic representative of whatever culture you lay claim to. White people claiming Native American identities and making up stories about descending from "Cherokee princesses" come to mind for example.
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    That would make more sense, Jabrosky. But I've seen that extended to even writing about another culture. The argument goes that by writing about a culture that doesn't belong to you, you are to some extent holding yourself out as someone who is capable of representing that culture in fiction or whatever, and as the author you've had to take that culture upon yourself to write those stories or those characters. At least in many cases, it doesn't have to do with the author claiming to be something they aren't, it's merely a characteristic of the work itself.

    Needless to say, I don't agree with that viewpoint. I have representative of a variety of cultures in my work, and if someone doesn't like it for that reason, they can get bent :D
     
  11. ecdavis

    ecdavis Troubadour

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    I think you have to also realize that many times even while researching ancient (or even modern) cultures, you will find a bunch of different experts telling you conflicting facts about the same culture. The more ancient the culture, the more debate you'll find. You certainly can lose the fun of your work by worrying yourself to death about making everything culturally proper. Really, fantasy doesn't need to be historical fiction and yet there is not an author out there that hasn't let his or her bias and personal views on certain things slip into his or her work.
    Tolkien was an expert on Anglo-Saxon history and as a result greatly favored flavoring his work in that direction. It is interesting that he was not too interested in Celtic culture at all, yet the portrayal in the LOTR movies uses a lot of Celtic elements. Yet I know that when I first read his LOTR and Hobbit books, I didn't think 'Wow, this sure feels Anglo Saxon'.

    My point is, a good story usually won't offend a reader even if things are a bit off or bias, as long as it is not a blatant insult at a culture. If (for example) you have Native Americans saying "How! White man speak-um with forked tongue." as they sit in the middle of a tepee in the forest, and you claim in your book, that they are Cherokee, then that would be offensive. But a writer who respects a culture usually shows honor to it, even if he or she doesn't completely understand it and doesn't perfectly 'get it right'. Few non-natives really understand a culture, though many 'experts' think they do.
     
  12. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    As long as a writer characterizes people from different cultures as varied and multidimensional human beings, I would call those portrayals respectful. If nothing else, it shows the writer is cognizant of their subjects' basic humanity, which in my book is the main ingredient for inter-cultural respect.
     
  13. Obsidian

    Obsidian Acolyte

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    Hi new here so I am writing a book and all of the cultures there are influenced by different African cultures. Like how Avatar the Last Airbender is influenced by different Asian and Inuit culture. Many of the different storylines and characters are based on real life people and places. The creators of the show are white however they consulted Asian experts for the making of the show that is why the Chinese in the show is actual Chinese.

    I am African, Nigerian (Yoruba) to be specific and most of the themes in my book are taken from Yoruba mythology and are inspired by specific countries that are very different to each other. What you need to do is to look at some of the basic stereotypes about Africa and Africans. Is the setting of your story based on only one country or a few put together like Pan-African. Asking someone from that culture is also the way to go
     
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  14. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I actually like the idea of a Pan-African civilization that mixes together different influences from throughout the continent. Of course such an undertaking would require researching multiple African societies instead of simply slapping together a few stereotypes of dubious accuracy, but if done right it could lead to an exquisite aesthetic.
     
  15. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I like what Artemadoris said about using knowledge of the real world culture to expand on a world you are creating. I think the best place to draw inspiration is from our own human history. Its beautiful and mysterious. I don't worry about cultural appropriation, since I feel comfortable in the setting and culture I'm writing about. By the time I'm done with it, hopefully what will come across is a world that has resemblance to a world culture with a twist: 1800s Russia, meet Paul Bunyan. :)
     
  16. Trick

    Trick Auror

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    Being nearly 100% Irish I tended early on to stick to my own culture plus that of Western Europe in general. It felt comfortable. I definitely still incorporate it in my work but it became less comfortable and more smothering and through research I have come to use elements from many cultures, some of which are far more interesting to me personally than my own. I guess I've not thought too much about offending people because I tend to never write about a culture as a whole (bad or good) but about individuals who usually don't fit the 'stereotype' of the cultures on which they're based anyway. Anyone from any culture can be bad or good. It's their personal story that concerns me. Now, tension between cultures based purely on the racial bias of characters? That is just realistic and it has entered my work. Typically that would be a villainous trait but a good character can have a reason to dislike or even hate a culture/race too, even if that is due to their own faults and failings. That sort of flaw just makes a character more human, which in some light is sad to say. The truth is not always pretty and characters should never be perfect - who'd want to read about them?
     
  17. Tirjasdyn

    Tirjasdyn Scribe

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    Considering how much world building he did, (he wrote essays on the world he created) it looked just as complicated as the real world.

    Frankly it doesn't matter. You'll never make everyone happy. I use bits and pieces here and there and mold them together to make my world. Jacqueline Carey creates her world as an overlap of this one (you can easily pick out the cultures if you try), Piers Anthony just mapped his Xanth world onto Florida. St. James made his world to mirror 14th century Europe and only added Vampires while otherwise following the lives of historical characters exacly. De Lint created a whole city, so did Stephen King, and put it in America. Tolkien uses all kinds of Scandinavian folklore and mixed it with Anglo Saxon elements. Some fantasy is plopped into history, is put in the future (think Anne McCaffrey), some never crosses this world at all but works like cultures we know.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2013
  18. Bluesboy

    Bluesboy Dreamer

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    I love British history and no culture intrigues me more than the early pagan Anglo-Saxons and that also requires reading up on their original Scandinavian homelands, so that extends to the Vikings as well. I love the oath-based culture, the meadhalls, the ring-giving relationships between lord and their vassals, the lust after reputation of being put into stories of valour and heroism, the cut-throat struggles of the next-of-kin after a nobleman dies and brothers, sons, cousins, all fight for inheritance and it mattered not in the slightest whether someone was bastard-born or legitimate. Their warrior culture was driven by personal charisma and how much tribute and plunder you could gain by constant raiding, which inspired warriors into following you, securing your grip on power. Their craftsmanship and art is so foreign compared to what we see in the world today that you indeed have a feeling that their culture is from another world entirely. Just look up Alfred's Jewel or the things dug up at Sutton Hoo ship burial. Marvelous.

    Old English as a language fascinates me to no end, the character and place names in my world are in that language, but I have pagan Celtic-like and Slavic-like peoples in my world too, the latter two cultures being linguistically more Celtic and Slavic respectively. The mythologies and religions however, are largely different, despite having some similarities with their real world counterparts.

    The pagan Scandinavia provides a good starting point and background for creating strong female characters, because Anglo-Saxon England and Viking-age Scandinavia had women being legally on the same level with men, women didn't have to marry a man they didn't like, they could legally own a business, a property all of their own, they could make wills, if they were abused by their husband they could take the children with them and move out, being entitled to half of their husband's property, and so on. Only in the noble households were women peace-weavers. This pagan aspect of equal rights was toned down when the Anglo-Saxons were Christianised, because Church at that time supported beating of wives into obediance, preached against woman orgasm and all the other integral aspects of a religion of love and peace.

    Of course, I wanted my fantasy to be in a European medieval setting, but it took a hell of a time to find the era I liked the most, the era in which the stereotypes about the middle ages don't apply, the era that has a built-in sense of other-worldliness. In the end, I have a very strong Saxon-inspired culture, but with a lot of poetic licence that makes it something of my own.
     
  19. studentofrhythm

    studentofrhythm Minstrel

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    I would say that it's more important for you to research the geography and the ecology of the area you want to evoke - because pre-industrial cultures are shaped so much by their physical environments. Are you going to have the action take place in a rainforest, a savanna, a desert? Are your characters farmers, pastoralists or hunter-gatherers? How do they relate to other societies nearby? What are the levels of technology and magic (how did they progress to those levels), what are the daily needs and exigencies of making a living under those conditions? Answer those questions and you're a long way to building a culture that makes sense. Then figure out how they regulate sex and death and you're probably close enough for rock and roll.

    As far as language, since there are so many indigenous languages and language families throughout Africa you certainly don't need to copy and paste Swahili (which is a widespread trade language but only in the east). You might not need to do any more language work than make up a few names, and a bit of browsing on Wikipedia articles about real-world languages should give you an idea of how to put together a basic naming language that has similar phonology to an African language . . .

    -or not! You could make it sound like anything, really. As long as it doesn't sound like Anglo-Fantasese you should be just fine.

    What would make such a story more convincing to me would probably be to make up as few names as possible, and use calques and such. For example: "Three days' journey downstream was the High Waterfall, and on the plain below lived the Green Spear People. Deft Needle knew none of their tongue, but her brothers spoke enough to haggle with them for hides and shells when they came to trade every year."

    Yes, you can just use descriptive phrases or adjectives for names, because that's where names ultimately come from. If a reader were to think that made your characters look or sound like American Indians, then that reader would need to learn more about the world.
     
  20. DeathtoTrite

    DeathtoTrite Troubadour

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    I'm a huge fan of history, and it comes out in my world building. I have Celtic, Altaic, Turkic, Slavic, Iranian, Greek, Italian, Dravidian, and Suomi influences. Key is

    1) Don't lean on easy stereotypes. I should NOT read about some emperor of the dragon in the east, featuring Chinese-style bureaucrats.

    2) Mix it up. Will it have a dominant flavor? Sure. But too much familiarity really ruins the suspension of disbelief. A good example is Mercedes Lackey's Mage Wind trilogy. Great story-teller, but the Tayledras are pretty much elves (it applies to fictional cultures too!) and the world lost its uniqueness for me.
     
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