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Is Originality Even Possible?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by D. Gray Warrior, Apr 30, 2021.

  1. D. Gray Warrior

    D. Gray Warrior Troubadour

    So, I often hear about how fantasy writers should be original, but I find that advice to be difficult.

    I often default to standard Medieval Europe for my settings. I know I can branch out more, but it often doesn't feel the same. I also feel compelled to replicate real life cultures as closely as possible, but trying to make new cultures from the ground up seems like a daunting task.

    How do you go about inventing cultures?
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  2. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

    The premise of my main fantasy world is that most of the (human) folks there are descendants of small groups or individuals who found their way there over the millennia from our world. This has let me do mashups of different cultures--how would these people develop who have a variety of ancestors from very different places? Which gods would they follow or would there be a melding or something altogether new, religion-wise. How would differing social structures not only find coexistence but also adapt to a new world? And, of course, genetics would be an whole new thing too--not much in the way of 'races' as we know them.

    Then I go and throw Faerie into the mix. And actual gods that sometimes take an interest in things. And so my world garden grows.
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  3. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

    Well, to quote Margaret Atwood, "I never make anything up." Yet she's built original worlds where not necessarily original things happen. Handmaid's Tale; Oryx and Crake trilogy.

    For my world building, I start with the story I want to tell. From there, I necessarily must build the kind of culture that kind of story can happen in. And then other elements arise that have to be accounted for. Perhaps the strongest example of that in my own work is what happened here. A character who isn't really a man or a woman has appeared, and now I have to account for not only the existence of this character, but the fact that they hold a very well respected role in their community. What kind of culture would that happen in?

    But there are simpler details than that. If my story includes magic, how does the existence of magic affect the culture? Who uses it? If it's not everyone, what's the role of the magic users? What makes them, but not other people, magic users? How do others see them?

    Details like that build the culture.
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  4. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

    The topic title and what’s in your post are two very different questions.

    But to very briefly address your post’s question:
    I start with the ethos, the philosophical underpinnings of the setting. Like, whether or not good and evil exist objectively. Or whether fate is predetermined or subject to individual will or some combination of the two.

    Then you get to the logos, how the different elements of your setting fit together logically. I find there tend to be four types of logos; world as a machine, world as an organism, world as a narrative and a combination of the three. I can elaborate on this but that would make this already long post way longer.

    Then comes the pathos, the personality of the setting. Like, the tone and focus. That’s the good stuff. That’s what causes a setting to resonate in people. And this is really where originality comes into play. A setting’s personality can be as rich, nuanced and unique as a person’s personality. I think your problem with “standard medieval Europe” isn’t that it’s standard or based in reality but that it lacks a distinct personality of its own. And removing the medieval-ness or the Europe-ness isn’t going to give it a personality.

    Then you get the mythos which would include cultures and mythologies and all that junk. If you got a good grasp on the ethos, logos and pathos then the mythos tends to write itself.
    S.T. Ockenner and Malik like this.
  5. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

    Depends what you mean by originality. Fantasy as we know it takes a lot of ideas and concepts from folklore. You may not be able to avoid re-using ideas and concepts, but what you can and should do is put your own twist and spin on them whilst adding some form of texture and flair.

    As for creating a culture, a setting if you like, what I do is write the story first. Or rather, I write the main scenes and conversations, then start to add the rest of the story. The I add the details and background. Its in the process of adding the details and background that the culture and setting evolves. I add the details by asking a few simple questions.

    Take gold coins as an example. For them to exist and be used they must have a recognised value. So who sets that value and how is that value guaranteed? If some state issues the coins, is that state a republic or a kingdom? How is it ruled and who enforces the laws? How did the coins reach your character? Were they paid, and if so, for what? How does trade work? If the coins are widely used, how do you carry money from place to place? Do you carry cash and risk being robbed or do you use some form of letters of credit? If its the latter, who issues those and where can you cash them? How does trade work? If you buy some wine with your gold coins, where does the wine come from and how did it get to where you are? What does it cost? Where does the gold (and other metals) come from? And so it goes on.

    Swear words are another interesting example. How do people swear? Do they swear mostly using sexual words (as in English) or do they swear mostly using religious words (as in Swedish)? Answering that basic question will give an idea of how people see religion, sex and sexuality. From that you can start to think about how this affects relationships.
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  6. Stevie

    Stevie Acolyte

    I get the bit about having to invent an entire culture as being daunting. Maybe the answer is to focus on the piece of the culture that is fundamental to the story. This might be the division of labour and wealth or the heirarchy of the society or the environment the people live in. Everything else, from what people wear to when the sun comes up, is mainly background. I think as authors we get too drawn into making sure all this makes sense (to us!) and is logically consistant, but unless it plays a part in driving the narrative, I'd make a guess that the reader is not too interested. We should use that to our advantage...

    Trying to think of an example here - Lord of the Rings describes a complex society with different races sharing roads, towns, inns etc. I don't recall anything in the book about how the economy of Middle Earth worked. Or even what they used for money. It just wasn't important to the story. What was important to the story was the history of the land and how the events of the past shaped the present, so there was quite a lot of that in it.

    Hope that makes some kind of sense.
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  7. Malise

    Malise Scribe

    Personally, I tend to world-build first, then research a real-world problem, and write a story about how a real-world problem would work out in the setting that I created. For me, this process leads me to write about cultures and stories that I would call unique to my imagination.

    However, before you worldbuild, I heavily recommend researching.

    The world that I'm currently building is actually based on a history paper I had to write for school. It was about East-Asian and Meso-American ancestor veneration. It's where I discovered that Han Chinese and Native American men wore their hair long for the exact same reason (ancestors), that there was a Chinese Dynasty (the Shang) that conducted large scale human sacrifices like the Aztecs, and that the Mayans had ancestral halls that were very similar to Chinese Taoist ones.

    I also found some Mexican-traditional beliefs to be oddly Dharmic for a culture that didn't have any contact with India. This includes the Aztec's beliefs that the world perpetually going to create and destroy itself (also found in Hinduism), the Mayan belief that the spirits of the dead are inherently benevolent (also found in Chinese Tao-Buddhist religion), and the Mayan, Aztecs, and Han Chinese believed that most common people can only make it into 'heaven' if they took a long journey through hell.

    So I created a world where basically the Meso-American and East Asian underworlds are right next to each other. So, everyone knows that they're the reincarnated dead, on part two their journey into 'heaven', and that ancestral altars are their portal to Earthly realms below. Then I added some Southeast + South Asian aspects here and there in the fictional world, as those cultures have a shared cosmology with East Asia (so can't really exclude them) but don't have a well-defined underworld (so can't really add them completely).

    So now I have a culture within that world that uses Aztec obsidian swords, writes in a Thai-inspired language, and has a matrilineal line of descent (based on Kerala's). Now I create a character from that fictional culture who's basically a reincarnation denier, try to go into parallel-universe Earth to find his 'original' family to prove the reincarnationists wrong. The reincarnation denier doesn't even know what parallel-Earth culture that his 'original' family might belong to. The story pretty much writes itself up.
    Last edited: May 1, 2021
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  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Look at it one way and nothing is original. Nothing is new under the sun.
    Look at it another way and originality is unavoidable. Unless you're copying word for word, you're making up at least *something*.
    Looked at it still another way, any story will seem original to someone and utterly derivative to someone else.
    So look at it this way: don't worryaboudit!

    I had thought, when I started developing Altearth, that I wouldn't have to worry much about worldbuilding, since I start with historical Europe. But I quickly realized that I couldn't have elves, dwarves, ogres, orcs, trolls, gnomes, etc. without building *their* part of the world. How do I build that?

    Two main forces are at work. One: improvization. Think jazz. Medieval European history is the original tune. But I can improvise from that, shifting things around, emphasizing this or downplaying that. There are scores of subcultures across a thousand years and a whole continent of actual Earth history on which to ring those changes. Knowing medieval history (taught it for 35 years), I have a fairly good sense both of what's available and what might fit with what.

    Two: story. I never tried to build out all of, say, elvish culture. Instead, I dove headfirst into writing stories. As the result of what one story needed, I dabbled a bit in elvish history. In another I built out elvish culture (circa 1200) in a couple of ways, and in particular invented the wagoneers. By the time I got to a third story, I had much of my elvish culture sketched out and had even developed some physical features. I still haven't written a story from inside, with an elf protagonist, so there's still much to explore.

    Recommendation? Folks have already hit on both. Research. Write. And there ya go! Easy, huh?
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  9. LCatala

    LCatala Dreamer

    When I cook, I don't invent new ingredients. But because I'm constantly varying the mixes of spices, herbs and other aromatics, the order in which I cook things, the combinations of ingredients… I almost never cook the exact same thing twice.
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  10. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Sage

    There is no such thing as an original idea, there are just ideas that you haven't encountered before or presented in a new way. My fantasy story about magic talking birds sounds really unique, but not so much if you're familiar with Guardians of Ga'Hoole or even Swordbird. When I was little I thought a lot of Eragon was unique and original, but I had never read Earthsea or Pern.

    But as to your question:

    You need to take a good, hard look at yourself and ask you why that is. I assume you're a Westerner, probably an American, and you mostly consume Western media, so to you all fantasy stories are some derivative of Lord of the Rings or King Arthur, which is why things in different settings don't feel the same to you. You need to read (or watch or play) stories made by people from other cultures and see how they utilize their own cultural language and symbols to tell fantastic stories. Places that are not culturally Christian aren't going to have Jesus allegories, they're going to draw on their own mythologies.

    Why do you feel you must replicate real life cultures? Do you think if you deviate too much you'll offend someone? The fact that you're writing a story with magic is going to offend people since that's witchcraft, so you'll never be able to make everyone happy. But you can take things from real-world cultures while being respectful. Islamic art is so different because of the belief that you shouldn't replicate god's creations in art (so no drawing humans/animals/plants), so thousands of years of that has created a totally new visual language based on geometric shapes. Your fictional culture could refrain from artistic depictions of true events because evil spritis could use them for [insert thing here], but they still need to record history, so they create stories that are super allegorical and they have their own language of symbols/metaphors for real things. Now you have a great seed for a setting and even plot hooks (such as adventurers discovering one of those stories is actually quite literal, there really was a giant demon who masqueraded as the king and led the world into a great war). Take something from real life (Islamic art cannot replicate real plants/animals) and throw some what ifs on top (what if they couldn't replicate something else? what if the reason was something other than offending god? how would people work around those limits?).

    Ideas are cheap, I can come up with ideas easily. But what matters is the execution. The most basic, hackneyed ideas can be stunning if executed flawlessly (original Star Wars, it's formulaic Heroes Journey), and the most creative new ideas can flop if it's executed terribly (Jupiter Ascending). Don't stress too much about being as original as possible because, ultimately, no one is going to make it through your book if the plot, characters, pacing, conflict, style and prose sucks. You gotta balance everything.
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  11. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

    Chances are good that, regardless of what ideas you come up for a culture, there is a real world culture that practices it or that someone has thought of it before. That is why so many books will have the disclaimer that any connection to any actual persons, events, locations etc are purely coincidental on the same page as the publication details.

    Most fantasies are set in pre-industrial feudal societies in northeast Asia, the Middle East or Europe with cultures that date from those times albeit with some alterations to avoid the obvious comparisons with real world religions, races and cultures from being made. However, new sub-genres of fantasy are emerging including steampunk, dieselpunk, decopunk, atompunk and urban fantasy. The settings are also changing with fantasies set in Africa and the Indian sub-continent becoming more common which are opening up more possibilities for creating cultures that aren't the ones that have now become cliches.

    For the cultures in my work in progress I experimented with many different ideas but ultimately modelled mine on a mix of southeast Asian and Polynesian cultures. As the physical setting for my story is an Empire located across a huge swathe of tropical islands and huge expanses of ocean it made sense to base my cultures on those located on tropical islands.

    However, researching numerous indigenous and other cultures highlighted a problem. Nearly all cultures work on the premise that most people are heterosexual. As my work in progress is based on the idea that most people are bisexual it required having to work out how that would impact upon everything from marriage to the sort of housing that people would live in.

    What if it was considered perfectly normal for a marriage to consist of four people (two males and two females) because of the belief that a person can't be truly content unless they have both a male and female partner? Now consider how that could impact upon the relationship dynamics in a hero's journey type of story.

    Skip.knox is right: research is important. That way, you can learn about how cultures evolved and changed over time, how the environment and climate helped shaped those cultures, avoiding pitfalls like naming heroes after evil gods or demons or dressing characters in colours or items that would be highly inappropriate within a certain culture if you're basing your culture on a real one.
  12. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Sage

    That's been done in fiction: Ursula K. LeGuin's concept of sedoretu marriage. She wrote several stories exploring how that would work, or not work, and the dynamics involved.
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  13. cak85

    cak85 Scribe

    A few years ago an author to came to that school that I taught at. His advice to the students at our school (which as actually stuck with several years later) was "find your awesome." Meaning take a moment and think about things that make you say "wow. Thats awesome!"

    I took the time to make a list of my awesome -
    spirit magic
    isolated communities

    So now my my story is about a race of sea-faring giants who live on a small archipelago in the ocean and hunt massive sea-lizards. Of course there is some spirit magic. After figuring this part out, I just decided to start think of natural conflicts like "what happens if someone left their islands and didn't come back?" Or "what happens when these giants meet outsiders?"

    So from there my story began to take shape.

    Long story short - my question for you is - what is it about medieval Europe that makes you say "wow that is awesome!" Is it knights and castles? Kingdoms? Politicking? Intense religious dogma?

    Once you figure out what your awesome is you can start putting together a story.

    Another idea is changing a common story trope/arc. For example - my current is story is essentially a "there and back again" kind of story. But instead of there and back again, its basically "there and stay there" story.
    Last edited: May 6, 2021 at 1:05 AM
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  14. cak85

    cak85 Scribe

    I re-read this post and realized how many typos there were haha. I guess that's what happens from posting at night after teaching all day.

    Still though, I really encourage you to find your "awesome!" When you are passionate and excited about a topic it comes across through your writing. Even if you focus on medieval Europe I think that is fine. Just find what you think is awesome about it and go from there. That is part of the excitement and joy of being a writer!

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