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I have been thinking recently about this question and interested to hear some thoughts and opinions. It's not so much a technical worldbuilding question as a question about the 'right' way to worldbuild.

I'm in the planning stages of a fantasy story based on real history, from a country/region in Asia, late 1800s and into the 20th century. It's a history that I'm really interested in and that I would love to share through fiction as it is relatively unknown. I have also lived and worked for a few years in the country in question, so I feel like I could paint an accurate picture and avoid any harmful stereotypes. But I am not from that place or culture.

What I am wondering is how close the fantasy should be to real history; should it be close so that the parallel is quite obvious, even with place names inspired by the real locations (much like the Poppy War book), or should it be only inspired by the key events but otherwise a completely fantasy creation?

I have read some articles lately that criticise work that too heavily draws from cultures that don't 'belong' to the writer; or that cherry pick or exoticise certain aspects. (A specific example would be The Tiger's Daughter by Rivera). That's why I'm wondering how closely my fantasy world should reflect the real history it is based on, given that it is not my history or my culture. But it is really rich, interesting and fairly uncommon, and I would much rather write this style than the more common medieval style fantasy.

It's also a concern that I have magic systems in my ideas, which are somewhat built on existing religions/practices, and I don't know if this is OK. One example is a group who use tattoos believing they will grant protection (a real belief and practice), and while it doesn't work for most of them, one character finds that it empowers and protects him 'magically' (due to a particular mineral that he mixed into the ink). I could see how people could call this out for exoticism if the fantasy world is a close parallel to reality; less so if the fantasy world is more distinct fantasy.

I could just create a more fantasy world that uses unique cultures, religions, etc. to avoid any potentially unsavoury comparisons, but it would mean moving away from the original histories which I'm inspired to write about and share.

I'm sure some people will say don't worry about it, and others will say it's potentially offensive. I'm just trying to strike a balance. On the one hand, I have seen some reviewers saying that naming fantasy places based on real life locations is lazy and 'badly concealed'; on the other hand, if you want people to know that you have been inspired by real history and want to lead readers to learn more about it themselves, isn't it a good idea?

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    $\begingroup$ This would seem to be an opening for a discussion of opinions rather than a focused question - and so is off topic here. You might have more luck with this specific question on Writing, our sister site, please take their tour and check if your question's on topic before posting. $\endgroup$ Sep 27, 2021 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because this series of questions (you're expected to ask only one question) is not about worldbuilding, but about the philosophies and techniques of writing. As such, it belongs on Writing, not here. Please note that experienced writers use everything from their personal knowledge of a culture to "harmful sterotypes" to achieve their writing goals - and there's always someone who will be offended. Write first. Worry second. That's what editors are for. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Sep 27, 2021 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because it falls into Writing and not Worldbuilding $\endgroup$ Sep 27, 2021 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ (1) First of all, there are no "cultural histories, traditions and practices" which are truely "your own", unless you invent them out of thin air. (Or you happen to be Louis "I Am the State" XIV of France, or the Czar and Autocrator of All the Russias.) (2) Lots of people have written historical novels set in foreign countries, some of them with great success. For example, Alexandre Dumas's Three Musketeers (part of which is set in England), Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, etc. (3) Think of it in reverse. May a Chinese writer write a story set in New York? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 27, 2021 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ If you dont link the fictional one and the real one too hard and then make it insulting, no not really. I dont get too upset about people portraying my country as a weed smoking drug haven with a bunch of windmills in it since its such a charicature it just doesnt really hit home anymore. Make sure that you portray the people in the culture as people. They arent all exactly the same and may have differing interpretations of the same culture. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Sep 27, 2021 at 13:17

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I have some thoughts on this.

'Cultural appropriation' per se isn't a problem, that's some nonsense.

But outsiders tend to be ignorant and make ignorant mistakes, e.g. mashing up two dialects in an incorrect way that sounds dumb to anyone who knows better.

If you consult with an expert/historian/local, and it passes their reality-check, then I don't think it's problematic.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the advice! $\endgroup$
    – JP90
    Sep 28, 2021 at 3:38
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You're on the Right Track

I'm not surprised that a writer even has to ask this question; but I am saddened. Worrying about the PC mob and their reaction du jour can make for timid art.

You have an advantage: you know the culture and lived in it. That gives you an outsider's insider's authority to speak as it were. If you add to this practical experience a more thorough research into the local history, culture, folklore, religion, social norms & deviations you're position will be much the better. At least in your case, I would not worry about your project being "problematic".

Speaking to anyone else who reads this: if you fancy some element of a foreign culture and think that's enough to write a fantasy set in that other culture, think again.

Some Thoughts:

  1. How close? This is really a matter of dealer's choice. Consider a continuum with Historical Fiction at one end and Pure Fantasy at the other. Somewhere in the middle are genres like Historical Fantasy and Allegorical Fantasy and Fantastic Drama / History. I caught a whiff of magic, so maybe your choice is actual Fantasy? Dare I hope your chosen region is the Philippines? Wherever it's located, names and persons are completely at your discretion. Names, characters and personalities are as well.

    I'd only counsel that the closer you aim for Historical Fiction, the closer to reality your characters & places have to be; the closer to Pure Fantasy, you can pretty much imagine what you will.

  2. Do not let yourself and your art be dictated to by critics. Write your story and let it stand on its own. Critics are given too much power: after all, they only write their own opinions. Just remember: the critics hated LotR, Brave New World, Philosopher's Stone, Grapes of Wrath, etc. I'm not saying you'll write a classic, just saying that critics get paid way too much attention.

  3. Magic and religion. This is a fair concern which may require you to write closer to Pure Fantasy than Historical Fiction. The religion side of the question is easy to tackle: you need to study. There are a zillion and one books and resources out there that can give you the basics and the in depth understanding of every religion ever practiced from Atheism to Zoroastrianism.

  4. Magic can complicate matters, which means you'll need to plan better. What kind of magic are you considering? For example: real magic, like Harry Potter or Star Wars; ceremonial magic, like the systems of Levi and Crowley; folk magic. You'll want to understand how magic and religion coexist within your chosen culture. If your choice is real magic, then you'll want to consider the ramifications of having a novel force of nature interact with later religions. NB: this is something that JKR most assuredly did nòt do in the HP series.

  5. What, me worry? I'm among those who say 'don't worry about causing offense'. This is because "offense" is an emotional state, not a rational reaction. If people become offended and can never articulate a solid reason for their offense, chances are good they are just letting chemical emotions and feelings overrule their reason. You respect their opinion, thank them for their comments and move on. If someone become offended and can bring out of that emotion a rational response, then you've got someone whose reason rules their passions. This is a person whose opinion you can respect as objectively rational. This is the kind of person with whom you may consider writing a serious response to -- an explanation, a declaration of artistic choice, etc.

    Lots of historical and near historical persons and events have been fantasised. Just off hand I can think of Morgan Llewellyn, who fantasised many historical and legendary Irish figures. I don't know what the critics said about her work, and frankly don't give a fiddler's fart for whatever they did say. Having read the source materials (mostly in translation, once in the original language), I can only say that I enjoyed the retelling.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot for your advice and encouragement. Not the Philippines - the focus is Myanmar and life before, during and after the nationalist uprisings, told from the local perspective. I'm definitely on the fantasy end of the scale, so I guess that also does give more freedom in terms of worldbuilding. Your point 4, the magic will be 'real' magic - and the fact that you highlight JKR makes me think this is definitely something that writers need to think about. But if magic system is based on real beliefs/practices, is that good for highlighting/reflecting reality or bad for exoticising it? $\endgroup$
    – JP90
    Sep 28, 2021 at 4:16
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problematic

harmful stereotypes

I have read some articles lately that criticise work that too heavily draws from cultures that don't 'belong' to the writer

; or that cherry pick or exoticise certain aspects. (A specific example would be The Tiger's Daughter by Rivera).

how people could call this out

Use of these specific terms indicates you have perhaps been under the influence of a particular ideology lately. Please shake it off. All these criticisms simply come from people who have no talent, so they instead seek to take down the work of others who do, and to dictate how others will write and what they will write about, under the guise of some fallacious pretexts. This is about envy, power and revenge, nothing more.

The pretexts themselves do not matter. Their goal is to be offended, and they will find a reason to be offended no matter what you do. Likewise, the rules they set for you are naturally impossible to follow. This is done on purpose, so that you can later be blamed, attacked, and canceled.

To make matters really clear, since they went woke, infinite money printing machines like Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Marvel comics, etc... managed to lose money.

I'm just trying to strike a balance.

It is not possible to strike a balance between readers who want a good story, and people who want you to prevent from writing a good story.

Now, from your question it is obvious that you are really interested in the culture in question and motivated to write a good story. It sound like you already know exactly what you want to write, but perhaps you are holding out from doing so by the fear of offending the woke bigots. Please don't! It really feels like you have all the answers already but are hitting a block due to not wanting to offend.

Your customer is whoever will buy your book. The correct use for woke bigots is free publicity and marketing.

If you feel you need to get some aspects validated, get advice from someone from that country, someone who lives there and knows the history in question. If you speak the language, you could sign up on local writing forums. Obviously, under no circumstances should you ever listen to the advice of anyone who has a degree that ends in "Studies".

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for that encouragement. You're right, I know what I want to write but am just holding myself back at this point. I will go ahead and write it and see how it goes. $\endgroup$
    – JP90
    Sep 28, 2021 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ Excellent! The whole thing is best understood as a magic spell of confusion. The wokémon points a finger at the target and says the incantation, "*ist" or "*phobe" or whatever, and the target rolls on the floor and apologizes. Very effective! It's a way to use your own altruism against you. The accusations themselves are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that they are effective. It saves a lot of time to just mentally substitute all of these with "generic accusation of heresy from the woke cult, lol" $\endgroup$
    – bobflux
    Sep 28, 2021 at 8:49

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