The Fantasy Writer’s Guide To Making Your Culture More Authentic

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As fantasy writers, and creators of marvelous new worlds in the reaches of space, (hiya, sci-fi pals!), one of our chiefest concerns is to deliver authentic, believable, can’t-look-away indigenous cultures. A big appeal of genre is escape; you want to make sure that you’re not accidentally recreating your culture of origin covered over with superficial details.

British Translators Did This To Chekhov

There are several renditions of The Cherry Orchard from the nineteenth century where the characters stride around saying, “Jolly old chap!” and “By Jove, really, my good man!” which are neither accurate in spirit or context to the words of the actual Russian play.

It is possible, and, dare I say, common, to perform a similar Jingoistic production in your fantasy cultures, but the real danger lies in doing so unconsciously.

How Do I Avoid It, Victor Poole?

Your first and best defense against unconscious bias in your culture-creation is an accurate understanding of some different cultures to your own. For example, I’m American, and have steeped myself in Russian, British, and Chinese ways of thinking for some time.

You’ve Probably Been More Places Than Me, And You Have The Interwebs, Fair Reader (And Therefore Most Likely Surpass Me In Worldliness)

Examining the differences between mainland and colonial literature, and cross-referencing that with Australian work, and enslaved islander accounts, gives a broad picture of several different value-systems, built-in prejudices (on the part of several different peoples), and unstated cultural goals. Contrasting these impressions with the heart of Taoist philosophy, and comparing mainland Chinese social assumptions with Japanese and Taiwanese family values, leads to a beginning of discernment between the wild varieties in cultural assumptions, valuations of worth, and internalized pressures. Throw in a dash of Indian philosophy, and reflect that I have so far mentioned only a handful of very brief cultural subjects, and we can conclude that our palette for source material is endless.

If There Are So Many Great Sources, Why Did You Say People Reproduce Their Own Cultures, Victor?

Here’s where I’m going to get all particular. Cultural assumptions are tied into your roots of subsisting energy; what you expect from the world, and what you are willing to give back from within yourself, is determined mainly by culture. Your baseline assumptions of what is reasonable comes from generational inheritance of body carriage, childcare provided in your extreme youth, and the vocal patterns (and therefore energy arrangements) created by your culture of origin. This is, of course, an enormous simplification, but we’ll start there.

Once You Realize That Someone Else’s Energy Carriage Is Opposite To Yours, You Can Create Original Cultures

Turning your own energy carriage upside down can be an illuminating exercise, but a more fruitful endeavor is to temporarily inhabit, in your imagination, the mental and emotional space of another person from a culture different to yours. You probably already have at least one, and possibly many, friends and acquaintances who hail from faraway places. Buried in your subconscious are myriad source materials; what we are talking about today is how to conveniently access them, to ensure that your fantasy and science fiction cultures are not flattened reproductions of your own upbringing.

Surface Details Do Not An Original Culture Make

It is the roots, the unconscious assumptions about life, about value, and about punishment and justice that form the energy ball that is recognizable culture. Once you have absorbed the reality that someone else has completely different unconscious drivers to you, you are in a space to mash into shape a new and genuinely original fantasy (or science fiction) culture.

Examples

Bad Writing:

They came to the edge of the country, and there was no trouble with the border guard, because they were flying too high for the towers to perceive their entrance. It was lucky that the torches that were searchlights had been discontinued after the big dry spell, because the wings of the big dragons would have showed up in the bright light of such fire.

They flew and flew until they at last arrived near the outskirts of her old dwelling place, that ancient pile of rock, the Castle-proper in the new capital of Caldhart, which still bore many signs of the previous culture’s subsistence upon the previously-dry ground.

“How will we sneak into the castle? It’s heavily guarded,” John whispered to her.

Good Writing:

They arrived in the outskirts of Caldhart in the deepest night; the stars blinked above like innumerable eyes, and the shadows of Claire’s dragons flitted like black leaves, obscuring the moon. Claire left her dragons and John in a quiet valley near the great lakes, and flew alone with her own dragon towards the castle. She found Gerard, who was growing quite old and grey, in the war room of the castle.

“Goodness, Madam,” he cried, when she came into the light. He became very still, and examined her from head to foot. “What’s happened to you?” he asked at last.

Remember, Writing Original Cultures Is As Easy As Can Be, Once You Go Under The Surface

Costumes, diet, and traditions are the superficial markers of culture; what determines the shape of a person’s soul are their unconscious assumptions about the value of life, justice and wrong-doing, and the meaning of broad social interaction. Once you turn your mind into the soul of your new culture, your work will become harder, stronger, and much more captivating.

You’re reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My internet’s been patchy lately. The Saroyans have the most original culture in this series; the Slavithe, Talbosians, and Eastern traders are variations on existing themes.

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