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The Pros and Cons of Worldbuilding Using Unfamiliar Cultures

When I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a steampunk novel, I gave myself a few provisos.

Steampunk by HelleanaThe first was that I’d avoid the rose-colored goggles point of view. Many SP authors instil the transition from rural to industrial age with a sense of wonder, and portray the machine as some kind of gateway into excitement, adventure, inexplicable corsetry and rayguns of suggestive design. They tend to gloss over the ugly side of industrialization, and the whole child exploitation/slavery unpleasantness that came along with our transition to urban life.

I wanted to build a world ruined by its technology – not that I hearken back to the days of growing your own spuds and dying of poor dental hygiene at age twenty-four, but the truth is, our shift away from rural life wasn’t one hundred percent fun, one hundred percent of the time.

Second, I wanted to avoid Victorian England as a cultural touchstone. It’s been done, and done well (Colonial America too, tbh). I decided to build a steampunk world based on a culture nobody had really tackled yet – Shogunate Japan.

Basing your fantasy world on an existing culture is hardly a new concept – most modern fantasy has at least some grounding in cultures of the past (albeit with a decidedly euro-centric focus). But being on the virtual eve of my Japanese-inspired fantasy’s debut, the lovely folks at Fantasy-Faction have asked me to rabbit on about the pro’s and con’s of writing a world based on an existing culture that isn’t actually yours. So without further spittle-flecked foreplay, away we go.

Ariadne by *violentcosmosPro: Different Perspectives

Delving into a culture you haven’t been raised in will invariably be an eye-opening experience. You’ll be inundated with new concepts and imagery. Researching an unfamiliar culture might open up story avenues, conflicts, hooks and twists that you wouldn’t have considered if you were writing fantasy of the Tolkienite variety. At the very least, you’re filling your skullspace with interesting factoids that might come in handy during some future dinner engagement. For example, did you know that in ancient Greece, when a boy turned 13, an uncle or close family friend would take the lad up into the hills to teach him the time-honored art of fellatio?

Drop that one on your next dinner party. Guaranteed show-stopper.

Con: WTB Glossary PST

What we think of as traditional fantasy is often an alt-version of medieval England. Concepts like “knight” and “throne” are so ingrained in our cultural psyche, they need no explanation. You don’t need to take the time to explain to your reader what a “Lord” is. They already know how a “shortsword” works. They’re guaranteed to be repeatedly cursing the skies if you use terms like “Daimyo” or “wakizashi” and offer no explanation, even if you write the term in context. You’ll need to explain all these new words you’re bandying about, and some readers tire of that routine quickly. They just want to get to the fireworks factory.

Neon Dragon by Nigel QuarlessPro: Zigging Not Zagging

Because modern fantasy tends to have a heavy western European focus, when a piece of work that strays from that norm rears its head, it’ll stand out like the proverbial… well, you know…

“Different” equates to “intriguing” in the minds of many readers – this is simply human nature. Intriguing isn’t a bad thing for your novel’s concept to be. Just like your eyes are inexorably drawn to the six-foot transvestite in a red miniskirt amidst a sea of six-foot transvestites in grey ballgowns, an epic fantasy novel with nary a king or knight or dragon in sight will probably turn some heads. Your jacket copy promising an entirely new spin on a familiar genre will probably get more people looking at you than “another pretty white girl has adventures in Victorian London, pip-pip, what ho, old bean”.

In theory, anyways.

Con: Performance Anxiety

They’re all looking at you now. This book better be good.

Pro: The Sand Pit

The liberating notion about drawing inspiration from an existing culture but still keeping your world entirely fantastical is that you can take elements of the touchstone you want, and leave the rest where you found it. You’re building your own sandpit after all, and you make the rules. If you want to utilize part of an ancient religion but not use the entire pantheon, you’re free to do so. If you want to utilize cultural or societal structures, religious hierarchy or elements of language, there’s no rule saying you can’t change it, or mix it with other concepts from halfway around the globe. Combining the real with the fantastical can lead you to create truly unique worlds, even if their foundation is one we’re all at least partially acquainted with.

Con: Unavoidable Collisions

Vol hivernal by RemtonEven if you call your world “Not’thureel’wurld” and make it plain that your story is not in any way historical, nor indeed, any form of commentary on the culture that inspired you, if your setting was inspired by an existing culture, particularly a culture you don’t come from, then you’re going to offend somebody. The differences between Tsarist Russia and your fantasy world based on Tsarist Russia can be explained very simply – you aren’t writing a story set in Tsarist Russia. But despite your setting being fantastical, you will be told in no uncertain terms that “you are doing it wrong”. The words “exoticism” and “appropriation” will almost certainly be used.

Most readers will understand you’re writing fantasy, and that your inspiration was exactly that, and only that. Some won’t, and some won’t care. Like death and taxes, this is unavoidable.

Planetary Alignment by Julie DillonThis is not to say that, by slapping a “this is make believe” tag on your work, you have license to do whatever you please. Stereotyping, racial or otherwise, is always a pit best avoided. Simplifying or distilling any culture, fantastical or not, down to a handful of traits simply doesn’t do the complexity of life justice. If you’re going to introduce racial tone into your work, the golden rule is that people are, first and foremost, people. They have hopes and dreams, desires and imaginations, and the amount of melanin in their skins or the shape of their eyes most likely has nothing to do with any of that.

There are certainly other pitfalls to watch out for, particularly if you’re writing the story of an outsider interacting with another’s culture (the Sensei, the Neo-Native, the Magic Colored Man to name a few). If your setting has no “outsider”, these tropes are easy to avoid. Woe betide you if you drop a white protagonist into a non-white culture and have said protagonist start teaching the primitive natives what’s what, or worse, discovering the beauty of the primitive native culture and the evils of their own.

Those antics might win you seven academy awards or give you the highest grossing film of all time, but…

…  waitaminute…

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Editor’s Note: Jay’s book, Stormdancer, is available in both the UK and USA right now! Fantasy-Faction was lucky enough to get their hands on a copy and you can read our review for it here.

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Article title image by Julie Dillon.



  1. Avatar Larik says:

    Fantastic article. Definitely going to check out your book. I’ve been in love with Japanese culture since I first started reading mangas. Now I will be on my way to Amazon to buy your book, and any man, woman, or child in my way will be skewered be beheaded by a combination attack of my katana and wakizashi. -insert bowing-


  2. Avatar AshKB says:

    You’ve raised the issue briefly in the essay, but if anyone else is curious about Cultural Appropriation, some quick googling found several 101 blog posts, and a blog post inviting comment on what is appropriation.

    *goes back to lurking*

  3. Avatar AE Marling says:

    When I read fantasy, I love being taken to the farther shore. To be swept out of my zone of comfort, whisked through new ideas, submerged in new sights and sensations that I never before imagined. I love traveling via words. For those reasons, I prefer fantasy set in non-European settings, and when writing my own novels I searched for inspiration from Egyptian and Mesopotamian settings.

    I am definitely not alone in those yearnings for the new, but, neither, I think am I among the majority. Fantasy introduces many new elements, new magics, new names for things, that for many people it’s too much. The European setting provides a foundation for them, the white bread in the sandwich. I remember Saladin Ahmed (writer of the Throne of the Crescent Moon) saying that he discovered he’s better off calling a sword a sword, even if it had a more precise, exotic name in his setting. I too am sensitive to overwhelming the reader and will often refer to characters by their titles, rather than their fantasy names, and keep the word invention to a minimum.

  4. Avatar Edi says:

    Googling that word was a mistake. *blush*

  5. Avatar Shack says:

    Can’t wait to read Stormdancer. It’s moved to the top of my to be read pile. And different is good. As much as I love traditional fantasy, you can’t have the same meal every time…

  6. Avatar Andrew Reid says:

    I disagree with the implication that a fantasy author, by dint of working in the sphere of the fantastical, cannot be “doing it wrong”.

    “If you want to utilize cultural or societal structures, religious hierarchy or elements of language, there’s no rule saying you can’t change it, or mix it with other concepts from halfway around the globe”

    Now, while it is the author’s world and he is welcome to do whatever he wants with it, it’s important to recognise that, once published, it does not exist in a vacuum. And when the space it does exist in contains a record of racist impressions that employing clownish sing-song voices, one wonders about the wisdom in creating a linguistic quirk (“Sama, please. Enough for one day, hai?”) that creates a rising cadence at the end of sentences.

    It troubles me that this criticism is considered an inevitability, and is therefore something that can be brushed aside. I just can’t help but feel a great deal of “inevitability” could have been easily avoided.

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