There’s nothing wrong with medieval Europe. In fact, I love it. I’ve studied it, re-enacted it, and fallen totally in love with the period. But there are other periods and cultures, and they deserve their share of the limelight when it comes to fantasy settings, though that isn’t to say I’m totally ready to kick Europe to the curb just yet.
So while I’m still a little emotionally attached to medieval Europe, I have striven to incorporate other cultures into my world in order to spice things up a little bit and give some cross-cultural representation.
1. Double-check that your cast isn’t all white. (You should really be doing this anyway, and if you aren’t, you need to re-examine your writing on a whole different level than this post can provide.) It sounds very obvious, but this is a basic measure that can pull your writing out of the stereotypical medieval European setting. And yes, it’s definitely true that there were many people of color living in pre-modern Europe, but it’s a sad fact that it is never portrayed this way. Adding color to your cast can brighten your setting and make it stand out from the traditional portrayal of medieval fantasy, not to mention that it gives valuable and greatly needed representation to the POC community. The greatest pitfall that writers fall into when doing this is throwing in token characters or adhering to stereotypes. For me, the easiest way to make sure I don’t fall into this trap is to subvert the assumption that white is the default. The right way to represent people of color could take up another entire post, so I won’t go into the details here, but the bottom line is to check yourself and check your prejudice, and if in doubt about whether something is offensive or not, check.
2. Mix up the nomenclature. Everything in your fantasy world probably has a name, from your cities and towns to your characters, and more often than not these names all have a very European feel to them. One of the best ways that I’ve found to avoid this is using inspiration from foreign languages. It’s so easy to plug a word into google translate and scroll through non-romance languages until you find a translation that resonates with you. You’ll probably have to modify it some, and arguably, you probably should, but just this simple step is an easy way to give your nomenclature roots in something outside of our traditional conception of Europe. Some of my favorite languages to use are Croatian, Latvian, Maltese, Malay, and Malagasy, but these have just proven to give the best results for the feel of my current WIP.
3. Explore different religions. Even if you don’t call it Christianity, your monotheistic religion with the same governing principles is screaming of traditional medieval Europe. Even if you don’t want to go to the trouble of inventing an entire pantheon of gods (though I recommend it; it’s a lot of fun), there’s a lot you can do to incorporate elements of other cultures into your world’s religion. Religion is at the core of a lot of life’s major ceremonies, and diverting those from the ones we experience in our own Judeo-Christian world can do a lot to change the perception of the setting. Arranged marriages, spells and curses of voodoo, mandated regular prayer, and so much more can be used to enhance the religion in your world, especially in the ways in which it permeates daily life.
4. Change the viewpoints and value systems. There are a very typical set of prejudices that go along with traditional European society, and along with them a very distinct set of values. I believe that it is in human nature to be cruel and prejudicial, but there is no reason that a fictional society’s prejudices have to be the same as our own society’s. Why should their hate be on the basis of race, sex, or sexuality? There is no reason. There are a thousand different ways that people can despise one another, and as long as you can come up with a logical progression of events that would have led to the beliefs, there is no reason why you as a writer cannot invent your own, and doing so will set your society in stark contrast to medieval Europe.
5. Do your research. There is such a rich wealth of cultures out there with incredibly diverse practices, beliefs, and traditions. Broaden your horizons and cast out a wider net and discover what non-European cultures have to offer your work. Just make sure to double check yourself and avoid using anything that could be considered stereotypical or offensive. But when done right, representation of other cultures is not only helpful to our society, but makes for a more interesting read.
For more information, visit these helpful links:
Yes, There Were People of Color in Pre-Modern Europe
Off the Beaten Path: Non-Traditional Fantasy Settings
Using Non-Western Influence in Fantasy