Of the things that annoy me about fantasy fiction, my biggest pet peeve is with stories and novels that lack specificity–specificity of place, time, culture, even ethnicity. The reader is given a default medieval Europe-type setting, filled it with random, unspecified peasant or royal types, no discernible culture beyond “they believe in magic” or “X fantastical creatures/races are real”, but not much else. Yes, there are characters who have personalities and Do Things and are specific, and the plot they find themselves in is spelled out, sometimes in great detail, and all of this is good. But it does not excuse the fact that the author has not done the work of creating a fully realized world, because so much of it is left nebulous, or left for the reader to fill in themselves. And I feel this makes for bad fantasy.
No One Wants To Live In Medieval McEurope
You don’t have to spend too much time talking about What’s Wrong With Fantasy before you find someone railing against the tide of stories and novels based in a faux-medieval Europe/England (because, really, what’s the difference, right?) and how annoying they are. They chafe not only because the “setting” is so ubiquitous, but because it’s so rarely even a real medieval Europe, but land filled with vague ideas about what that setting and time entails. There were kings, and peasants, and people rode around on horses, and wielded swords, and lived in villages, and cooked in hearths, and had bad hygiene (unless they were attractive), etc.
The problem is that Europe, no matter what the time, is not homogeneous. Different countries, different areas within countries, and different cultural groups had different ways of living and thinking and organizing and speaking. There is often no hint of this in the faux-medieval Europe. It’s all just “the past”, anyway, they seem to think. This is a mistake.
The assumption that McEurope is a place and time that I or any other reader can or should immediately identify with is a big one to make. Even if said reader is well-versed in fantasy literature, why does the writer assume that they’ll have read enough stuff with a McEurope background to no longer need specificity of place, time, culture, or ethnicity? This same assumptive courtesy is not extended to authors who choose settings outside of McEurope, such as anywhere in Africa, the Middle East, South or East Asia, South America, or America before colonization. In all of those cases the author is expected to be specific, to create a fully realized world, to explain (in a crafty way). So should authors who use European settings of any time or region.
McEurope isn’t universal, it’s vague and undefined in any sort of meaningful way. It’s a bad place to set a story or a novel. It’s a bad place to even start your worldbuilding from. Just don’t do it.
But It’s A Fairy Tale!
One common argument I hear against the lack of specificity criticism is that the story under discussion is based on a fairy tale/folktale/myth, or is in the style of one, or told in a fairy tale/folktale/myth voice, or other similar variants. No matter which version of the objection you give, it’s still wrong.
Firstly, understand that fairy tales =/= folktales =/= myths. They are distinct, but related, entities. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the differences between them (so go here if you really want to know), but it is important that you understand that some things labeled “fairy tale” are literature–someone came up with a story, wrote it down, and then showed it to others–and some things with that label are actually folktales–stories that came out of an oral tradition and were eventually written down. Most of the stories we think of as fairy tales are actually folktales in written form.
Folktales and myths are specific to a place and a culture and, depending on the variant, may be specific to a time as well. This manifests itself in the way language is used, or references within the tale to what the protagonist does, or even the worldview of the tale itself (the values, the moral, if there is one, the point of the story). That’s why there are so many different variants of some folktales or myths. Not just because they were told orally, but because different elements meant different things in different cultures. Ravens signify one thing in Britain, another in Scandinavia, another in Greece. A man having more than one wife requires explanation from a German storyteller, but not so much from an Egyptian storyteller. Etc. And though the brothers Grimm very kindly compiled a volume of folktales, gave them all a very similar voice, and helpfully edited out the naughty bits, that does not mean that folktales aren’t built on specificity. Folktales are about “The People”. What that entails for any given folktale is based on who The People are, where they live, when they live, and how they choose to be.
Where does the idea come from that folktales, myths, and some fairy tales are universal, then? Or that they lack specificity? Partly it’s ignorance. It’s always obvious to me when a writer only has a surface knowledge of folktales and how they work because they produce a very surface piece of fiction meant to mimic that style. Those writers just don’t understand what folktales are, much less how they work. Another big reason is that many people equate universality with whiteness, and they equate Europeaness (mostly western European, but sometimes eastern, too) with whiteness, and thus assume that any folktale based on culture found in Europe is like any other folktale from anywhere else in Europe and anywhere else in the world that includes people they consider default (read: white). This is a mistake.
As I said, Europe is not homogeneous. And the idea that default/normal = white is problematic, at the very least. But it’s this thinking that leads to missing the specific in folktales, to not including the specific in fiction based on or in the style of folktales, and finally to creating fantasy that isn’t as rich or interesting as it could be.
The Bottom Line
Specificity of time, place, culture, and ethnicity results in better fiction. Characters, like real people, are shaped by the groups they belong to, which is shaped by the culture of that group, which is shaped by the place and time they live in. If you construct a shallow tableau for your character to exist in based on shortcuts and assumptions, the result will be less than satisfactory without a lot of skill on the writer’s part. And if you have the skill to make a character brilliant and interesting from a shallow beginning, think what you could accomplish with a rich and well-realized world from the outset.
K Tempest Bradford is a writer, blogger, and the non-fiction editor for Fantasy magazine.