European Fiction and the Concept of the Familiar

  • Readers generally want to be familiar with the setting of a story; when you write in an odd setting you ask your readers to trust you more than normal.
  • Setting your stories in a new or strange place can set you apart from the general flock of fantasy writers.
  • The world you write in must be both coherent and cohesive; if it is not, your readers will struggle.

The other day I was talking with my mother about writing when she brought up the criticism that my stories lacked realism.  Since realism is one of the things I strive for in my writing, and push other people to do so as well, I wanted to know what she meant, were there any specific examples she could give me, I have to admit that I was a little bit defensive.  After talking for about half an hour we finally realized that what she was objecting to was not a lack of realism in my writing, but a lack of familiarity, she wanted  European stories.

Sir John sets out on his quest for the grail. Dragons, pricesses, and golden cups await.

My mother was comfortable with a fantasy story about a knight named Sir John of Glasgow riding out on his Clydesdale to slay a dragon and rescue a fair maiden.  A story about a samurai named Anteisei Sanjiro joining a group of ronin in order to avoid the destiny prophisied for him by the shrine maidens, however, was not to her liking.  This is something which we, as authors must consider.  Now I am not telling you that strange names or foreign cultures are bad — you will never see an armored knight on horseback in one of my stories — however, we must consider the reasons we have for using them before we do so.  For instance, I am tired of European fiction; I rarely read it and I cannot bring myself to write the stuff.

A great many current fantasy stories have a distinct European feel to them, J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, R.A. Salvatore, the list goes on.  The reason for this is obvious, we live in a western culture and have primarily European origins, we are familiar with European terms, names, philosophy, and concepts.  European fiction is easier for many people to read because it is a world with which they are already familiar, the addition of magic and dragons isn’t such a big deal.  When you write from a different perspective, say an Oriental or Native American setting, you, as an author, are asking your audience for more.  Not only must they suspend their disbelief in magic et all, but they must also shift their cultural perspectives to that in which you are writing.

Really, all Sanjiro wants is to avoid killing his wife.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, it may (probably will) lose you readers but as long as you are aware of this and make the choice to use a different setting for a good reason then you should go ahead.  However you must be true to your setting, if you are attempting to write in an Oriental setting then make yourself familiar with that land and culture.

What are ancient Oriental peoples like?

What do they eat/read/wear? (For instance you would have no books in your story, instead writing would be done on scrolls)

What was their culture like?

Their religion? (In all likelihood you will not have a monotheistic religion)

Their philosophy, music, art, and plays? (An oriental setting might have Noh drama instead of opera for instance.  Also, for an Oriental setting you could read The Art of War, A Journey West, The Hagakure, A Book of Five Rings, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms to get an idea of the setting, philosophy, mindset, and worldview of ancient Orientals.)

How are they named? (In an oriental setting one of the things you need to decide is whether you are going to keep with oriental tradition and place your characters’ surnames before their given names or westernize the setting by placing their surnames after their given names…e.g. Anteisei Sanjiro [oriental] or Sanjiro Anteisei [western])

What does a family look like? (It was not uncommon for ancient orientals to have multiple wives, even today in some places in the Orient men who can afford it are expected to keep both a wife and a mistress)

How are children raised, educated, disciplined?

How do people fight? (Traditional oriental armor is less extensive than western armor to allow the amount of freedom necessary to employ their traditional styles of combat)

"You know what. Let's sacrifice one more princess just for good measure. Never can be too careful with those storm spirits."

Furthermore, as a fantasy author, you are creating a cohesive and coherent world in which you characters can live and act, a world that goes on around your characters and without your stories.  This is one thing which Steven Erikson does very well, his Malazan Book of the Fallen introduces a coherent world in which his massive cast of characters live and act.  Sometimes what the characters do helps to shape the world, sometimes it has little, if any impact on the world as a whole.  Ultimately, however, you get the sense that the world is much more than just the characters themselves.  There is more to the world that you haven’t seen, and, because of this very fact, you want to see those parts of his world even more.

Whether the world we create is reminiscent of medieval Europe, Warring States Era Japan, or the empire of the Olmecs, this is something we must remember.  The world is a large place and there is always more going on in it than what our stories can portray.  Give your readers a sense of that world, a feeling that there’s more out there over the next hill and maybe, just maybe, in your next story they’ll get to see what’s beyond that horizon.


About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on December 18, 2010, in Fantasy, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Story, World Creation, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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