I love fantasy stories. It’s the genre I was almost exclusively raised on, from The Chronicles of Narnia to Harry Potter and beyond.
However, as I’ve gotten older and read more widely, I’ve developed a problem with the fantasy genre. No, it’s not the ever-present tropes or the derivative material, though that’s certainly made many stories stale. No, my biggest issue is with something else.
It’s the world-building itself.
This isn’t a list of what not to do in world-building, because I feel like conversations in that vein leave so much out of the broader picture. If I just say “don’t make a derivative European fantasy world”, that does nothing to point you in the right direction.
Here is what I want to see more of in fantasy:
Varied Medical Systems
Is it just potions? A wave of a magic wand and, bam, you’re cured? If so, I would advise taking a deeper look into developing your medical system. Is it tied to religion or purely science based? What is the basis of the medical system, and why? How did people gather their medical knowledge, or is it completely disorganized? Who gets medical care at all?
Significant Religious Systems
Religion plays a big part in our world, impacting politics, culture, and so on. However, this is rarely something I see in fantasy stories. If religion is acknowledged at all, it’s a relatively universal system with little diversity between nations. That would be akin to pretending only one religion (let’s say Christianity, for example) existed out in the world, and that there was only one sect of it, no less. Think of how different our world would look without that one religion.
Unless you want a neat and tidy and bland world, do something different. Create disagreements, create schisms and religious texts for followers to dispute over, create opposing beliefs, and so on.
Different Governmental Structures
Look, I get it. Monarchies are cool. I certainly use them a lot in my stories, but there is SO much more out there, especially if you’re building an entire fantasy world from the ground up. There are democracies, oligarchies, stratocracies, crowned republics, and so forth. Is it realistic for a world to only have monarchs? How would different countries interact with each other, like for instance a parliamentary system engaging with a despot nation?
Mixed Gender Dynamics
While biological sexes are distinct, gender is very different. It’s a social construct. The roles and rules our society has made up surrounding them are just that. Made up. That’s not to say that they’re useless (which is a whole different discussion outside the scope of this blog), but it does mean that they’re mutable. And why should every society have the same way of looking at men and women, especially in fantasy?
Show me societies where childrearing is of prime importance, where men are the primary healers and teachers, where women have roles in governance and business. There are examples of these things in our own world, so why not in fantasy?
Diverse Source Cultures
Look, there’s a lot more inspiration out there than just Medieval Europe. I promise. Many people draw inspiration from other pre-existing cultures for their works, and there’s more than enough material out there. Ancient Sumer (where my upcoming novella The Stolen Sun takes place), Korea’s Chosun dynasty, Mesoamerican Aztecs, Gupta period India, Ethopia’s Axumite empire, and so on. Spin the globe, pick a spot, and research that area. It’s a big world out there.
Some people may feel bogged down with all of these questions, or that these details are boring. Thinking that way is missing the point.
Thinking about these things when world-building can generate a wealth of story ideas, add flavor and richness to your plots, and set it apart from other stories. It will only serve to distinguish and enrich your creation. I can’t tell you how few stories I’ve read that have variety in any of these aspects.
And wouldn’t it be nice to be original?
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Until next time!