Suggestions For Non-Western Fantasy
The fantasy genre of fiction is largely shaped by the works of JRR Tolkien, namely the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There have been other great works of fantasy that have helped to develop the genre, namely The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and most recently George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. However, despite the variety of different characters and stories offered by the fantasy genre there has been a consistent motif in regards to setting; most of the secondary worlds developed by fantasy is based off of Europe, namely Medieval Europe. Not all fantasy is set in Medieval Europe, but even then much of the cultures and languages of fantastical, secondary worlds are still based on some type of European culture or tradition. Such a fixation is dissapointing when world history offers such a variety of different stories, peoples, customs and cultures, but this fixation is expected in a certain sense because the audience of many fantasy novels are from the United States and Europe, so Western, Medieval Europe will be the most familiar to the readers. Despite of this I wish to list some possibilities for creating Non-Western Fantasies that can create interesting, secondary worlds while being accessible enough to the majority of the audience.
The transition from Western Europe to Eastern Europe is not as dramatic as shifts to other cultures as the two regions have many similarities culturally, economically, and societally, but there are enough unique linguistic and cultural aspects to make such a secondary world feel fresh and original. A good example of such a secondary world is the Witcher video game series which is based off of Polish culture. Such a culture also has the benefit of temporal flexible, just like that of Western Europe, which allows the possibility for fantasy realms to take place in familiar settings throughout history with enough of a unique twist to make the world seem unfamiliar and interesting.
Medieval Japan might be a difficult secondary world to create in the linguistic sense, but elsewise much of the society of Medieval Japan is similar to Medieval Europe. The feudal system existed in Japan with some slight differences, but such a socio-economic system would be familiar to Western audiences, so there will be less time needed more exposition, which allows for more time for story and character. Further, there exists a particular fascination with samurai, so sprinkle in many katana-wielding samurai equivalents and you should be golden.
The specific period I’m referring to is the classical period, before Alexander the Great, specifically the Persian War. Greece was divided up into different city states, which is similar to Medieval kingdoms in a certain sense (No feudal system and the kingdom being limited to a city i.e. City-State) so readers can become familiar with such a setting relatively easily. Further, Sparta and Athens are well-known city states (particularly Sparta) so make sure to create equivalents for these kingdoms and pit them against eachother for some interesting conflict. Also make sure to create a Persia counterpart so it can serve as either a Sauron type omnipresent villain or a Daenerys type threat on the horizon.
People know what Togas are, people know what a senator is, what an empire is, what a republic is, and they might’ve read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, so why not? In all seriousness Rome is the basis for many aspects of current Western culture, so most of the cultural aspects of Rome can be easily explained. Further, Rome is a hyper violent society with armies reaching in the tens of thousands, far reaching campaigns against exotic peoples, gladiator fights (Which have become popular because of a certain movie), slave rebellions, persecution of religious minorities and most importantly political murders! Trust me, after A Song of Ice and Fire you can have unexpected murders and intrigue for days and readers will gobble it up. Also, did I mention orgies and banquets? Toga anyone?
Africa: Mali and Ethiopia
It’s unfortunate that Fantasy worlds are inhabited by predominately white people, so shake things up and create a secondary world like Mali. Mali was a West African Kingdom with famous cities such as Timbuktu. The Kingdom was a place of learning, scholarship, trade, and was wealthier in gold than practically all of its contemporary neighbors in both Africa and Eurasia. Mansa Musa was the wealthiest king of Mali and had an elaborate journey to Mecca for his Hajj. Such a journey could be a great setup for an epic tale of discovery and intrigue. However, if you don’t want to be too controversial by having your fantasy world based off of an Islamic kingdom then you could always pick the Christian, African Kingdom of Ethiopia.
Maya and Aztec Empires
There are warring kingdoms, enormous pyramids, doomsday prophecies (not really but this is fiction after all) and human sacrifice. Many readers will know this culture for that last detail and it can serve for some interesting conflict, but the culture can help to create an unique mythos and aesthetic. Further, the cities can be huge, Tenochtitlan had multiple pyramids, temples and canals, it was the venice of the Americas. The aztecs also had a special group of warriors; the Jaguar and Eagle Warriors, and those can be the inspiration for a class of warriors not unlike knights, samurai or jedi. This period in history has all of the workings for an epic fantasy, just make sure your naming isn’t too unpronounceable.
Just Use the Old Testament
Christ imagery abounds in Western media, and there have been countless adaptations of Moses’ story, but in between those points and before Moses there are some periods rife with conflict and inspiration for fantasy plotlines. According to the Old Testament there was a city destroying God, there were wars between the tribes of Israel and various other tribes and kingdoms, there were great acts of heroism and betrayal. The Old Testament can serve as a tale with intrigue, romance, disasters, miracles, oppression, bigger disasters, city-destroying disasters, and world-destroying disasters. Have fun!
Those are just seven suggestions for non-western fantasies, but in reality an culture can serve as a basis for a grand, epic adventure. However, I chose these specific cultures because of their familiarity, so you won’t get bogged down too much in exposition. If you want to do a fantasy not based on Western Europe or any of the cultures I listed above then go for it by all means, but keep certain things in mind: don’t get bogged down in exposition, make sure the logic of the world is consistent, and make a setting unique enough to keep the reader’s interest. Good luck! May the force be with you on the way to Hogwarts because winter is coming and only Aslan can save us from Sauron!