As an author setting out to create unique fantasy cultures, do you have any recommendations about how to avoid cliches and tropes? I don't want to fall into the pattern of 'medieval based country' 'Asian based country', etc when creating, but don't know where to look for inspiration.
Originality is damn hard, isn’t it?
And the thing about it is, every element of your story has been done before. That’s the hard truth. Somewhere, someone has already written that character or that setting or that plot or that voice…And about 90% of it you could find on a list of tropes. You think, “Well, this idea is an overused trope…so I’ll just do the opposite!”
Well, too bad. That’s a trope, too. And so is half way between those two extremes.
Originality isn’t about coming up with new ideas. It’s about taking existing ideas and sticking them together in new, fun ways.
But it’s also about your writing voice, too. Because you could give two writers an identical list of characters, settings, plot, etc. and they would likely write two very different stories that are enjoyable in their own rights.
So don’t stress out too much about utilizing tropes or borrowing ideas.
Now, that being said. Developing cultures can get tricky because you have to balance several things:
- Familiarity - giving your readers something familiar to relate to is rarely a bad plan and usually helps to give them more to relate to
- Usefulness - abitrary choices that add nothing to your story might be fine for you to know in the background, but can be distracting if they don’t serve a purpose
- Originality - obvs
And you have to do that without crossing into any cultural appropriation. One reason it’s so easy to use medieval Europe as a setting is that a.) it’s familiar, and b.) you will offend literally no one (at least not for cultural reasons).
I find that the easiest way to develop an original-ish culture is to start from the ground up, time-wise. I start with the origin point and figure out a summary of the history that led to the current culture. The motivation, the why behind culture, is often what sets it apart. If you have specific elements you want to have in modern day, then work those in. Figure out what happened in the past that made that thing exist.
Here’s a quick example:
Three random headshot sketches of female characters from one of my worlds. Not a lot of similarity here (they’re all from different tribes) but there is one thing they all have in common. Their shoulders are showing. This isn’t a fashion statement, though honestly two of them might think so (one would know better. lol).
This is a tradition that stuck around from ancient warring times. Male warriors took pride in the bulkiness of their armor, perhaps because it made them look physically more intimidating, but female warriors not only found this practice tedious, they also liked–you know–the ability to freely move their arms in battle. So it became a symbol of fearlessness to leave the shoulder plates off of their armor, sort of as a stab at the men and their insanity. Over time, leaving one’s shoulders exposed became a symbol of feminine solidarity (with female warriors and with women in general) and, eventually, just a thing.
It’s not the bare shoulders that are interesting, but the history behind the style. I think that’s true about a lot of things in culture. And if it’s rooted in the history of your fictional world, not in the history of a real culture that you decided to borrow for no reason, then it tends to come across with that more original spirit.
If you haven’t already, you can check out my brainstorming new cultures post. It gives you some aspects to think about that really help shape society.
Thanks for the ask, anon. Hope that was helpful.