Monday, December 5, 2016

Worldbuilding: The Spectre of the Familiar

Last month I did a Reddit AMA in which was asked the following:
When designing fantasy cultures, how do you create enough 'alien intricacy' to make them breathe? Every time I try, it seems like a core of some real world culture with a few nifty traditions and rituals tacked on...
Which is a damn good question.  My answer, in part, was the following:
I'll admit I still struggle with that. I mean, we are saturated with the familiar, and that's hard to escape from. Even when you think you've crafted something unique, you'll still have readers go, "Oh, this culture has element A, element B and C, and that means they are really the Prussians."
To expand on this: any time you're worldbuilding a new culture, you're going to be informed by your knowledge (and preconceptions) from our own world and history.  You can do your best to file off the serial numbers, but your own biases will be there.
But, more importantly, your readers biases will be there as well.  Most of the time, this will be something they use to ease their way into your new cultures.  They'll latch onto a familiar element and connect it to another and use that get their handholds to pull themselves to the stuff that's more out there.  Which is fine-- that's how you hook your readers in.
If you really created something truly alien, it would be almost impossible for your readers to wrap your head around.
Now, where you can get into trouble is if you do it lazily, and just make a culture an unmistakable "X with the serial numbers filed off".  Especially if you're touching on something with a marginalized culture.  You will get your lunch eaten over that, and you can't just say "Oh, but it's a fantasy world, it isn't really that".
However-- and this is a big however-- remember that the readers are bringing in their biases.  So someone saying, "Oh, this culture has element A, element B and C, and that means they are really the Prussians." or such-- it doesn't mean they're right.  They've connected dots and found their own picture.  And if that picture is something they're going to get angry about, well... you're probably going to have to take a few punches to the nose.
For example, let's say you have created a fantasy culture in a story and you've included, let's say twenty different cultural elements about them.  Now a reader takes elements 1, 2 and 3 and goes, "Oh, this is really X".  But elements 4-20 have nothing to do with X.  Many people will go, "I guess this culture is kind of like X but with these differences."  But a few will go, "This writer is doing X but has ALL THIS OTHER STUFF WRONG and CLEARLY didn't do the research!"
And what can you do about that?  Nothing.  You don't hit back-- rule one about criticism.  You take that and see what you can use to learn and change.  And part of what you may learn is there will always be a portion of readers you're not going to please. And that's OK.
I've done some updates in my Appearances page for 2017, and I've got two things in the Austin area this week.  On Thursday, December 8th at 7pm, I'll be part of the "Novel Night" presentation at Malvern Books with Amanda Downum and Yasser Bahjatt.  And on Saturday, December 10th at 2pm, I'll be part of the WRITER SIGNING EXTRAVAGANZA at Dragon's Lair Comics & Games.  If you're in the Austin area (or can easily come to it), come on over and say hello.

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