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?”


  1. A good point, though some readers don't grasp (or care about) the difference. Many of the "medieval" touches we see in fantasy are not really all that medieval either, or at least, they often incorporate things that didn't exist until pretty late in the middle ages. Large castles or palaces with lots of private rooms (each with its own fireplace), for instance, or the cozy village tavern didn't really exist until quite late in the medieval period. There are lots of misconceptions about what life was like in the European middle ages, actually. Perhaps this is because they lasted 1000 years and Europe is a decent-sized continent.

    And while I'm fond of medieval and renaissance fantasy tropes, it's really cool when someone writes a fantasy novel that's based on something other than a medieval-ish northern Europe. I've read some so-called gunpowder fantasies lately. Also, the books by NK Jemison and Saladin Ahmed are great examples of fantasy set in made up societies that more closely resemble African or Middle Eastern Cultures. Kate Elliot's Spritwalker Trilogy is set in an alternative Europe, but it's more like the 19th century, and history has unfolded in a way that made for a much more racially diverse and integrated society. Oh, and there are intelligent dinosaur people too. I recommend it.

  2. Thanks for the comment. And I agree with you that most readers don't care about how chronicity of the details so much, nor should they really, if you think about it. That is why I wanted to emphasize that when writers are doing a medieval world building, they should keep in mind that unless they are doing historical fantasy, you're only responsible for creating a medieval feel, not full medieval accuracy. And just as writers should pay attention to the details that were important to the time, they should pay just as much attention to the details that make the world they are creating their own invention.
    And thanks for mentioning about the other options writers have available for other world fantasy. There is a great big world out there for us to draw our inspiration from.