This is one of the things I have the most trouble with in my own fantasy worlds, as I don’t want them connected to Earth most of the time but I do want to be able to understand how, say, a gender-equal society would have developed if feminism in my world didn’t happen like it did on Earth.
A lot of this is simple and obvious and you can punch me for even listing them. On the other hand, sometimes it isn’t taken into account.
1) Know what physical objects, by existing, imply certain ideas.
This is the very simplest of the simple. Your people have glass? They must have a glass-making process. Yes, it might be magical, rather than material, it might be in another country rather than their own, but the glass got there somehow. Perhaps it is the Magical Disappearing Glass that your characters at one point accept as normal and at the next claim they’ve never seen before (see point 2), but that is just bad, lazy writing, not a sign that the glass-making process doesn’t exist.
For a published example of forgetting this very simple rule, there is, as Yoon Ha Lee points out with many spoilers, Melanie Rawn’s second Sunrunner trilogy, where the characters live in castles and yet have no idea how to fight siege weapons, or even what they are. Right, then. I suppose the castles got built because they looked pretty, and no one has ever attacked them? (Although, considering the way people conduct war in that world…)
If you’re really not sure what basic ideas people would have to have had in order to build, bake, weave, or construct certain things, do a little research. Most of the time, it’s very simple. And most of the time, creating a gross exception, the way Rawn did, is not even the fault of a lack of research; it’s the result of an author grabbing onto a certain plotline like certain death and then refusing to surrender it because, well, because it’s Cool! Or Dramatic. Or something else capitalized.
2) Decide what your main characters know about certain ideas, and keep it consistent.
The last few days, I have been reading Dawn Song by Sharon Green, because I absolutely could not help myself. It is like a trainwreck in slow motion, complete with a heroine so beautiful that apparently men just can’t stop themselves from trying to rape her, idiotic shows of “spirit” on the part of said heroine, and thinly disguised rants against Christianity.
But that’s not the part I’m here to rant about, currently, though this book has enough material to create a dozen examples of what not to do all by itself. The point is this: The heroine comes from a culture where men and women regularly and casually sleep with one another. In fact, she claims at one point that “Having sex lets you put the physical aside for a while, at least long enough to be aware of the other factors involved, and then you can really know if you like a particular person” (73).
What’s wrong with this as an attitude for a fantasy culture? Nothing. Except that, earlier in the book, the heroine—let’s pretend that I am not giggling madly to myself as I use the word—didn’t pick up on the sexual innuendos anyone made, and didn’t understand why a noble of her mother’s court wanted to marry her, and was incapable of grasping that a few of her sisters were talking about sex.
Did I mention that she just happens to be a virgin, so that, even though she comes from a culture abounding in sexual experience, she can have her first sex with her One True Love? But, of course, you probably already knew that.
When you decide on prominent attitudes in your culture, especially towards sex, please stop trying to have your cake and eat it too. Just because Green wanted her heroine to be innocent and clueless and giggle like a child at some points of the book, and then be a sexually knowledge virgin at others, doesn’t excuse that massive, gaping inconsistency. There’s no point of transition, either, as the heroine is clueless about sex just a few days before she makes that statement on page 73. It makes my head hurt, and it is part of the reason that I am probably going to finish the damned thing, just to see what else can possibly happen that might top that.
If you’re really, really uncomfortable writing about a certain topic, whether that be racism or slavery or sex, then no one says that your protagonist needs to have strong beliefs on that point. Just make sure that his or her knowledge or lack of it stays consistent, for the love of large vine-ripened red tomatoes.
3) Remember that, however “enlightened” your characters are, they don’t need to match the audience in all the particulars.
Again with the simple and obvious: Your character might live in a gender-equal society where women have no vote, because no one has a vote, since it’s not a democracy. Or there might be a society where premarital sex is fine as long as it’s homosexual or doesn’t result in children, but if you get pregnant or get someone else pregnant, you had better get married right away and fast, since children are believed to need their true birth parents. Or there might be an educational system in which children we would call “gifted” are never held back, but their “average” peers don’t get the education they need, because they’re left to keep up or fall by the wayside.
I think this is the best solution for not creating worlds that are full of main characters who appear to have been transplanted from New York City this month and let fall into the middle of a world full of minor characters who all grew up in England two centuries ago (or perhaps were culled from the author’s memories of high school bullies). Write someone who’s a believable racist or sexist? Might be impossible, might make your audience really freaking uncomfortable even if it is possible, at least if they’re supposed to cheer for these people. (At the same time, it’s often possible to write someone prejudiced in favor of smart or beautiful people, and this is, somehow, perfectly acceptable). Create people who might have beliefs on the same wavelength but are not clones of Western twenty-first-century humans? Perfectly possible.
Like I said, very simple. Very plain. Very easy to get lost in the morass when the author wants to make a society wrong except for the protagonist, who has conveniently escaped infection by all the “evil” around him or her. The poster child for this is probably Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden, who grew up in a society of murderous, torturing, matriarchal dark elves, and yet emerged believing that both murder and torture were wrong and having no problem regarding himself as the equal of females. It’s hinted that his father and sister had similar beliefs at one point, but his father surrendered to the pressure of the society around them and his sister let them fade away completely. Drizzt just happens to be different, so he can be a hero.
Stop it, please. Know what the dominant attitudes are in your society, by all means, and make your protagonist an exception to them if you want to. But at least know the reasons he’s an exception. And a variation on those attitudes, rather than having him believe the complete opposite of them—especially when those completely opposite beliefs just happen to coincide with what the audience is likely to value—would require less suspension of disbelief, and would probably make a more interesting story.
4) “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Newton would put it.
In other words, your female protagonist working for a more gender-equal society does not have to come up with the idea of feminism all on her lonesome. Nor does she have to be surrounded exclusively by shallow bitches and chauvinist pigs who don’t understand why she wants to not “act like a lady.” (These days, the moment a heroine says, “But I don’t want to act like a lady!”, I put the book down. Nothing original has been done with this since the first one).
Why? Why not have her participating in a feminist tradition, drawing on the ideas of other thinkers, challenging the common attitudes of society towards women because she can see reasons to do so in similar ideas? Many early U.S. feminists had also been involved in the abolition movement, and saw no contradiction in arguing for the rights of women when they were also arguing for the rights of people of another race. Many American and British feminists writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries acknowledged the influence of Mary Wollstonecroft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. They didn’t grow their ideas like Athena out of their heads. They didn’t have to.
The same thing can happen with ideas in a fantasy world, and probably should, since quite apart from the problems that arise when you make your fantasy protagonist a unique genius, there’s the problem of point 3 again: If everyone around her believes something different, where the hell did she get these ideas? See what happens when you create a few geniuses in the past, in other fields than just magic, where ancient, powerful wizards who created new spells and new wastelands are often acknowledged as common. Of course, then you get into the difficulties of tracing the origin of those geniuses and how their ideas interacted with others and influenced their descendants, but it avoids the trap present in point 3 neatly.
It also makes your protagonist less Special-with-a-Capital-S. And I am all for that. I want more ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances as fantasy heroes, rather than people who are extraordinary because of something inborn, which other people are never going to have a chance to share or grow into. And author-granted genius without an origin counts as something inborn.
5) Be aware that complicated ideas can have very humble origins.
An excellent illustration of this is Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark, which I read recently and liked (other than the Obligatory Romance, but I have learned to tune those out now and think about thematic elements until the paragraphs about love at first sight and destined babies go away). The story is told as a mixture of the protagonist Jenna’s story, legends of her people, stories from other groups, songs, and academic, “present-time” essays discussing the legend of White Jenna. At one point, a song references thirty-three warriors whom Jenna leads to battle.
There aren’t thirty-three warriors, but there are thirty-three children whom Jenna rescues. The book is full of distorted echoes of Jenna’s story like that, some nearly intact and only being missed because of the academics’ bias, some blown out of proportion by legend-makers. That Yolen goes both ways, rather than simply pointing to the ignoring of her heroine’s destined true glory by stupidheads, adds immensely to the book’s appeal.
If you’re not sure where and how the idea of human sacrifice took root, or where and how the opposition to it grew, seek out some humble origins, some mistakes, some misinterpretations of legends, and see what you find.
6) As always, remember to put brakes on the magic.
The spread of ideas in our world was helped enormously by the spread of technology, especially the printing press and other inventions that aided communication. With technology, however, there are innate limitations: scarcity of materials, cost of transportation, the strangleholds of trade, tendency to mechanical problems, pollution, and so on. Magic doesn’t generally have them, which becomes a problem when the author has magic taking the place of technology.
If you have magic in your world that helps in the spread of ideas, or in the creation of them—someone invents a new spell to take care of all the household chores, so what happens to the servants?—then you’re the one who has to invent limitations for it. I’m interested in the fact that almost no magic causes pollution, if you don’t count a few rare spells that blow up and create the occasional magical wasteland. Why not? Why aren’t there more nasty side effects, even if they aren’t smog and dirty water? What about ordinary human greed, such that just because someone invents the spell to take care of all the household chores doesn’t mean they’ll freely and cheerfully teach it to others? What about interaction with previous ideas? I don’t buy the idea that a gender-biased world would become gender-equal just because someone invents a spell that would let men get pregnant. People would need time to adjust to the magic, if absolutely nothing else.
And, of course, if you’re writing a fantasy without magic, you can’t use this solution. I currently am trying to figure out a plausible sequence of events that would let part of my world become gender-equal without magic and without advanced technology to replace “women’s duties.”
Next part will be on creating a tissue of ideas to interact and fuel societal attitudes—something I really enjoy both writing and reading about, though to get there takes both time and patience.