Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Second World-Building

A great deal of both past and present fantasy is set in what many call “second” or “other” worlds. These are settings that, for all intents and purposes, are some period of Earth, but a different Earth. The climate, geology, biology, and ancient history are the same as Earth for the most part, but there are plenty of key differences to make it a fantasy version of some time period of our Earth. Much of what many consider classic fantasy prefers to do this in a medieval-type setting. The places, people, and societies all closely resemble a snapshot of a country (or mix of countries) from pre-industrial Europe. I remember one of my college professors joking with me about the settings of all the classic, black-and-white horror films, and he said, “Oh, they’re all set in Europia!” For a lot of fantasy, which shares many of its roots with horror, it is still considered the standard for writers to set their story in some nondescript, old-world version of an amalgamation of European countries.

When I think of second world fantasy settings, particularly for medieval-type worlds, I like to think back on the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode Thine Own Self. In this episode, Data wanders into a village on a pre-industrial world after an explosion occurs during a mission to collect radioactive debris from a crashed probe. This village is very much like what one would expect from a common fantasy setting. The people and their mannerisms, social structures, and beliefs are like those of pre-industrial Europeans, but they also clearly are not. Their dress is similar to Pre-Victorian dress, but with plenty of key differences. The village is a lot like old-world Europe, but it obviously isn’t.

©1994 Paramount Pictures

 And I think that these notions are important to keep in mind whenever second world fantasy writers do their world building. If you want to do a medieval setting, that’s fine, but make sure you do your research on the things you want to incorporate. Bring in what you want to from any culture of your choosing, but above all else remember that while your world may be inspired by and made to resemble a pair of French/German kingdoms in 16th century Europe, your world is not Europe. Be clear that you have invented a second world inspired by these cultures but it is definitely not these exact cultures, otherwise, you’ll end up with readers repeatedly asking themselves, “Is this bad alternate history or just bad fantasy?”