You’ve heard enough rubbish about so-called “cultural appropriation,” which doesn’t exist. Instead, let’s talk about cultural inspiration, baby!
By this I mean real-world cultures and historical periods that inspire fictional settings.
The obvious is “Medieval European high fantasy.” I completely understand why this historical period has inspired such great works, but it’s a little played out. Maybe it’s due for a fresh resurgence, but that time isn’t now.
Some of the most interesting inspirations I’ve seen are in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Each nation has a rough historical 18th century analogue. Andor is clearly England. The autonomous Tar Valon is a mix between mythical, quasi-utopian Avalon and Washington D.C. Illian is like seafaring Italy and Greece. Tear is Spain. Shienar is feudal Japan if it were in Scandinavia. The Seanchan are clearly the imperial Chinese . . . but with southern drawls. And so on. Jordan did a great job of taking bits of the real world and twisting them to make unique fantasy settings.
I haven’t read Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, but it seems to take place in an age of exploration era involving pirates, so count me in. I don’t know if they have a direct historical analogue, but this setting is unique, relatively underused, and right up my alley.
The first game, for example, seems like a typical medieval European setting, except you quickly realize it’s based specifically on German folklore. Lots of people saying “Ja,” discussing trolls and kobolds, and there’s a Baron instead of a king. The second game is in an Arabian Nights inspired Middle Eastern setting. The third has an incredibly underused African setting, taking elements from Egypt, nomadic warrior tribes of the savannah, and lost jungle cities and putting them all together. The fourth game is in a Slavic-inspired realm–think Transylvania with elements of Russia. And finally, the last game is in an Ancient Greece-inspired Island kingdom.Not only are the settings inspired by the real world, but so are the characters, monsters, mythology, and some plot points. For example, the Slavic ogress Baba Yaga menaces the hero in two of the games, and the third game involves shapeshifting magicians, a warrior tribe the player needs to become a part of, and Egyptian-style gods.
This brings me to my next big point: Underused cultures I’d like to see used as settings for novels. I’ll share settings I’m interested in, have used in as of yet unpublished stories, and ones I plan to use someday.
Of course, no one has a monopoly on these, so feel free to use them at will!
- India. Indian culture provides such a rich blend of mythology, aesthetics, and exoticism, at least to Westerners, that it’s amazing it hasn’t inspired more stories. Think about the different eras, rulers, architecture, religious practices, and other cultural considerations that could be used to craft a memorable setting for a story.
- Early 19th Century France. Ever since I read The Count of Monte Cristo, I fell in love with Marseilles during the time period Alexandre Dumas set the story in (1815-1839). The strong seafaring flair is of course a huge personal selling point, but I love the clothing, the swashbuckling, and the romance. What a great culture for further stories!
- Crete. I have a whole outline for a series about an ancient order of wizards on an island inspired by Crete circa the Venetian occupation, when what we now know as Greece was caught between the British, the Italians, and the Ottoman Turks. Crete in general, from the Minoan era to the kleftes and andartes fighting the Ottomans, to the mountain runners delivering messages during the Nazi occupation, is a fascinating setting that combines elements of what you know about Ancient Greece with a very old and proud warrior culture . . . that loves to drink and dance. And always carries knives, at least if the stereotype from other parts of Greece is true.
- Africa. Yes, I know Africa is a gigantic, diverse continent. But damn, aside from Ancient Egypt, not much of it has been used for a fictional setting that I can see. From ancient cities on the plains to the landscape, the tribes, and the myriad cultures, Africa provides a rich vein of storytelling material. I mean, storytelling is a huge part of many African cultures. It’s a match made in heaven.
- The American Old West. There is so much potential here. Beyond the Wild Arms series of video games, a Star Trek episode, and parts of Stephen King’s typically half-developed and undisciplined Mid-World in the Dark Tower series, how has the old west not been grafted on more fantasy settings?
What real world culture do you like as inspiration in stories you’ve read? And writers: what real world cultures do you like to use?
PS Never forget that the idea of “cultural appropriation” is bullshit.
For a story that’s a mix between Ancient Greece and Hyrule from the Zelda games, check out my novel A Traitor to Dreams. There’s even some other mythology thrown in for good measure. And sign up for the mailing list for more discussion, updates, previews, and exclusive content.