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Is Medieval Europe Really Cliched/Overused?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by D. Gray Warrior, Sep 17, 2020.

  1. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

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    So, something's been on my mind for awhile.

    We often here how overused Medieval Europe is overused as a setting to the point it's dull and predictable.

    I think there is merit to that statement, but I don't entirely agree with it. I think the probably isn't Medieval Europe itself, but rather the same settings being rehashed over and over. Or the same few cultures being reused.

    I noticed that most of the time, the setting (or at least the main kingdom wherever the protagonist hails from) is based on Celtic or Scandinavian Europe. Yet, there's a whole continent to draw inspiration from.

    You have Slavic fantasy like the Witcher. It doesn't feel all that different from a traditional fantasy setting to me, but the Polish flair is what makes it interesting. Though, admittedly, I haven't gotten very far in the game, so I could be sorely mistakened.

    I think a Greek/Byzantine setting would be very interesting, or Moorish Spain. Alternatively, there's Romania if you want an Eastern European setting where people speak a language descended from Latin. Good place for vampires to hide.

    There's also the Uralic cultures of Finland, Hungary and Estonia. Or the Baltic cultures of Latvia and Lithuania.

    In the Balkans, you have Albania.

    And of course, there's also Italy. I'm not too familiar with Medieval Italy, but I do know Renaissance Italy was divided among various city states and small countries. Some were republics.

    I'm sure there's a lot more of Europe I missed or failed to mention, but I think this should at least be a good starting point.

    What are your thoughts?
     
    Dark Lord Thomas Pie likes this.
  2. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

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    The Italian city states—both medieval and renaissance period—as well as the northern European more-or-less-free cities such as those of the Hanseatic League have definitely been a source of ideas for me. I like the variety they can add to the stock medieval world (which, to be sure, had plenty of variety anyway). I kind of put cities of that sort on the edge of my Donzalo books, in which I aimed for sort of a central Europe in the Late Renaissance feel. Though completely different!

    In another series, I chose to come at the medieval concept from the other end, that is, go for the feeling of the end of Antiquity, the whole fall of the Roman Empire/beginning of the Middle Ages bit. But again, not actually set in Europe or in our world. 'Inspired by,' as they say. Most of my other stuff is neither 'European' nor 'medieval' in any sense.
     
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  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Guy Gavriel Kay has done some of these settings. Jacqueline Carey used France for her Kushiel books. I've seen at least one Breton book. And Byzantium has been used for years. There are perhaps more examples than you might think, but I take your point. If we look at the big sellers, they are heavily British Isles with Scandinavia a distant second, and everything else trailing far behind.

    We have an international crowd here. For those natives of not-British Isles and not-North America, does more fantasy appear in your homeland? For example, are there more fantasy novels written in German that use Germany as a model? My own WIP starts in Sicily and travels to Germany, using 13thc as the temporal context. One of my challenges is trying to figure out if a Catalan elf is more like Catalonian humans or more like German elves.

    BTW, the Similar Threads below will give you quite a few responses to your comment.
     
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  4. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

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    I hail from New Zealand. Both here and in the Pacific Islands there is a rich mythology which is mostly oral as pre-European societies had no written language. Even here it's very rare to see any fantasy novels set in this part of the world. Most fantasy novels tend to be set in pseudo-medieval European settings or the Dark Ages, a smaller number set in the Roman or Byzantine Empires and the remainder tend to be set in feudal China or Japan. Most of the fantasies set in feudal China and Japan are written by Asian writers whose books are very popular with the growing number of Asians in this country (around 15% of the population now).

    Thus, I can understand why so many people think that too much fantasy is set in medieval Europe. And I am one of them.
     
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  5. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Inkling

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    I don't think the medieval European (ME) setting has been overused. And that's even without going into the whole "there's a 1000 years and a whole continent and not just England in 1250" discussion.

    My reasons to come to this conclusion are:

    Setting doesn't actually matter all that much. Of course, all else being equal, an amazing, unique setting will enhance novel and make it stand out among other books. But if I had to chose between an average setting with great characters and great plot and great setting and average characters and plot then the characters and plot win over the setting each and every time. So it doesn't matter as much that the setting is generic, and some stories may even be better for it (since you can only spend so much time on developing everything as a writer, I'd rather have better characters then better setting).

    There is a lot of depth that can still be explored. You can get some wonderful conflict in a true, deep feudal setting with different camps of noblemen and the messy international politics with half of the wars being a family argument grown out of proportion and migrating groups of people and raiders and what have you. And not a lot of writers go that deep. Looking at the stories skip.knoxskip.knox is writing (though I haven't read them, just what he describes about them) is a good example. It's taking a specific part of ME setting and history and going deeper. It gives fascinating stories.

    The setting which is overdone is not actually ME, but it's the hollywood version of ME. This ties in a bit with the above point in that there is a lot more to explore out there. But it's how people think the medieval world looked like. And most people got that knowledge from movies. It's a writer being lazy and not thinking things through. It's a writer needing a simple and quick backdrop for a story and not needing to have everything be different.

    There is value in the known. Some readers like different. They want unique, weird worlds, where everything fits and has been thought through to the nth degree. But other readers like reading about a crazy adventure story set in a fairly standard world where it's easy to learn the rules of that world. Also, it's much easier to simply have a king, dukes and barron and knights, castles and guilds and stuff. Everyone knows what they do. And sometimes the story doesn't require more depth in that area. And you could invent a weird government system. But if the story doesn't need it then that 4 page explanation and those weird titles might make the story worse, not better.
     
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  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    No one suggests that the modern world is overused in modern literature. Or that cities are overused in detective novels. Or space is overused in SF. <g>

    If you're a reader, read what you enjoy. If you're tired of ME novels, then read something else.

    If you're a writer, write what you enjoy writing. If you're going to use an existing culture(s) as inspiration or model, try to learn more about them before writing. It will help.

    I really don't think the issue runs much deeper than that.
     
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  7. I would not write in a different setting for the sake of writing in a different setting.
     
  8. joshua mcdermott

    joshua mcdermott Troubadour

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    I may be the outlier here but I do think, in terms of marking out an area that may capture interest and give your writing something special- that people may be drawn to, you may want to consider doing some serious research into a fantasy world build based upon an era and area/culture that has not been over explored.

    There is inherent danger in this if you are not a descendent of that culture- as you may be appropriating in ways that can be offensive. Thus the need for clear research and perhaps not straying too far from your own heritage- maybe a few degrees and not a full 180. See Mulan for an example of trying to create a Chinese fantasy written by a bunch of white people and directed by a white person. And it's sort of terrible and no one in China wants to see it. So if you are a white person, like me.... you either should not do it or do it very very well. Which means a lot of work.

    So after all that: I'd say look at yourself and your heritage, whatever it is, and use that first! Then once you have written well and maybe even established yourself, then branch out. Like Guy Gavriel Kay - oh we all wish we could write like him.

    For my book I actually am writing a non-white protagonist, but since my daughter is such, I sort of have cast the character as perhaps a future her. But on the surface even writing a story from the point of view of a non-white, in America (its a modern fantasy) as a white person has its inherent pitfalls.
     
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  9. Nighty_Knight

    Nighty_Knight Scribe

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    I understand what you are saying, but the reality is even though we learn and know a decent amount of our own heritage, I ultimately don’t know anyone who lives in the Middle Ages and it’s only research and pop culture that allow us to make of it what we can. Same can be said of using other cultures as the basis for a story. Also, why using fantasy cultures that can be inspired by, but really are our own creation. Like using a China like culture, but throwing a very different spin on it and making sure the readers are aware it is not China. I think it is okay as long as there is a clear separation.
     
  10. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    No, it isn't.

    Feudal Europe may be overused or cliched, but even that only feels overused because everybody uses the same tropes instead of exploring the wide variety of feudal relationships and systems there were. And of course, once you move beyond feudalism, you have centralized monarchies (Byzantine Empire), tribal monarchies (10th century Croatia), federations, confederations, and so on and so forth, most of which are not really used all that often.
     
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  11. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    There is no such thing as an idea that has been overused or cliché. What makes the difference is what you do with it. There's an old example of two stories, both about an orphaned wizard named Harry who must face down a wicked magician with an affinity to snakes. On the surface, they look almost identical. Dig deeper, as one should, and entire worlds open up.

    There is no cliché. There is no overdoing a setting. There is only the author's voice and what they choose to do with it.

    (There may be no such thing as overdone, but there is underdone. There's a whole world of inspiration out there that is routinely ignored.)
     
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  12. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I think a lot of the “overuse” is brought to the table by readers and expectations. Feudal? Maybe I’m reading the wrong stuff, but how often does an author actually define the political system as feudal (even in its most basic defintiion) other than a few titles that set expectations? Manorialism on the economic side? People see castles and titles and a few visual cues and begin to make assumptions. Of course, I may be totally off base.
     
  13. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >Of course, I may be totally off base.
    You are not,

    though you do have a good lead and might be able to steal second on a curve ball.
     
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  14. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    The way I run these days, it better be a ball in the dirt, or maybe a pitch that finds the mascot, heh heh.

     
  15. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Personally - and I’m sure I’ve said this in one of the many previous threads we’ve had on this issue - I prefer writers get weird and go full alien in their settings.
    I’ve always seen Oz as the first true fantasy fiction setting and I kind of wish that was more the standard than Middle-Earth.

    But I guess if a writer wants to make a standard “medieval Europe” setting, that’s fine too as long as they have a worthwhile story in that setting. I think fantasy writers have an issue with putting in-depth and “original” settings as a higher priority than in-depth and original stories.
     
    joshua mcdermott likes this.
  16. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Oz is awesome. Spencer's Faerie Queene is better, and much older. I think we've carried the weight of fantasy with us for longer than we think. For example, The Tale of Genji.
     

  17. There's another one?
     
  18. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Bad wording on my part: I should have said something to the effect of first modern Western fantasy setting that exists (for lack of a better term) “beyond” a single story.
    Either way, that’s a minor point and I was just pointing to it as an example of the more unusual direction fantasy settings could go. What setting came first or is part of a better story is irrelevant to this thread’s discussion
    I could’ve just as easily pointed to Wonderland and it would still be the same point.
     
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  19. joshua mcdermott

    joshua mcdermott Troubadour

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    It comes down to power really and who has the power in the particular situation- so its almost impossible to make blanket statements.

    Similar to how it's perfectly fine for two adults to have relations, but what happens when those relations are with a boss and a subordinate, or a teacher and student, or a master and slave.. a colonizer or colonized? What do you feel if a White Englishman writes a story in India, using Indian characters, using Indian culture... and makes 10 million dollars because they, by their privilege, have the resources to get published and its their vision of India and its people and cultures that then is presented and translated all over the world?

    This is not rhetorical, it happens all the time.

    Now, we are working in Fantasy, but we are not working in a vacuum- and the nature of art is to reference and steal and recombine in new ways. But that does not mean we should not be careful and respectful when we borrow or base anything on a culture not our own.
     
  20. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

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    I'd love to write a story set in an unconventional setting like Oz, or at least read more stories with similar settings. I recall reading somewhere that the inspiration was that the author was trying to create an "American fairytale," which I find to be a really intriguing idea.
     
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