You know when you’re reading a fantasy or sci-fi book and there’s a fictional, made-up culture that… doesn’t seem quite so made-up? Like it’s based on a real-world culture, maybe just a little too closely? Yes, you do, because it’s nigh ubiquitous. I have mixed feelings about this trope. When it’s well done, it can work really well narratively, when it’s subtle and/or sufficiently respectful that I don’t feel skeeved out reading it. Other times, when it’s done by a less skilled writer, you get, well, Israel in space. I can’t say I blame authors for using this; other cultures are really interesting and it’s really enjoyable to learn about them. And besides, it’s surprisingly hard to think of things that have never existed in any form in human history. I just wish that more authors would handle this device with more care.
Let’s start by comparing three fantasy counterpart cultures that do basically the same thing in very different ways: the Bazhir from Tamora Pierce‘s Tortall books, the Fremen from Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the Dothraki from George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. These three groups are all based, to varying extents, on ancient Arab and Bedouin tribes plus or minus some other influences thrown in by the author. The Bazhir are “Arab” mixed with some Saharan Africa tribal stereotypes, while the Dothraki show a lot of traits of the Mongols in the Genghis Khan era. The Fremen are basically just straight up Arab because Herbert intended Dune to be a direct metaphor for the Middle East. They also all (initially) serve a similar narrative purpose: the white main character says “look at these primitive savages” and then lives with and learns from them and becomes a better person because of it.
I could go into detail about how obnoxious it is that all these very obviously Arab counterparts are used specifically for the purpose of teaching the white protagonist a lesson, considering that they seldom serve much of a purpose beyond that besides exotic set dressing. But I don’t have to, because you’re all smart people and you don’t need me to explain why that’s problematic, right? Right. I would like to say that Dune contains the most blatantly annoying white savior complex of these three. Paul Atreides becomes space!Jesus in a couple of different ways – he’s fulfilling both the Bene Gesserit breeding program for the Kwisatz Haderach AND a Fremen prophecy of their messiah. On the other hand, Alanna genuinely learns a great deal from the Bazhir, respecting them and their ways (after some humbling experiences). Danaerys’ story with the Dothraki is actually almost the opposite of a white savior narrative, with her bringing a hell of a lot of death and destruction on her people. Later on, there’s some implications (especially in the show) of her white-savioring the people of Slaver’s Bay, but that in many ways also represents her slipping into a darker moral ambiguity, becoming even less of a heroic archetype.
You know how I mentioned earlier that it’s hard to invent something from scratch in a cultural context? Playing in to that, there’s also a sense (at least on my part as a reader) that the truth is stranger than fiction. There have been many times where I’ve read something in a book, assumed it was invented, and only later realized that it was something based on the real world. And when I considered myself a fiction writer, I frequently felt like nothing I could make up could compare to some of the crazy things that exist for real. One of my favorite Discworld books, Lords and Ladies, makes reference to a circle of mysterious, ancient stones where the border between our world and the fairy world is dangerously thin. When I first read that (at approx. age 13), I think I had assumed that this was just another made-up thing, some bit of world-building on Terry Pratchett’s part. Of course, there’s all kinds of standing stone circles throughout the British Isles (on which that part of the Disc is heavily based). The myths and legends surrounding those circles vary greatly, but it’s not too farfetched to believe that this could be one of them. And of course in the movie Brave, Merida finds herself bewitched by one of those very same circles in her quest to follow the wisps.
I do have a deep love of all things Scottish (or probably more accurately, intended to appear Scottish), I’ll admit. This is yet another reason I love the Discworld dwarfs, because as much as they’re based on the “classic” dwarf, they’re also pretty Scottish in a lot of ways. Brief digression here, but one of the best puns in the Discworld books (and that says something because there are so many excellent ones) comes from a transliteration of a Scottish thing – the Stone of Scone (pronounced scoon, not like the baked good). It’s a big old rock that monarchs would sit on for their coronations as a throne. Of course, the Discworld dwarfs, with their upside-down worldview, see lower things as better, so a throne that the king sits upon would have to be a special thing indeed. And there’s so many mentions of lethal dwarf baking being nearly indistinguishable from rock and revered as a sacred art. Of course, OF COURSE, Pratchett gives us then the Scone of Stone, the ceremonial throne of the Low King. You might need a minute to think about how many layers there are in that joke, let it sink in a bit. I don’t even know how a person thinks of that. Sorry, I had to go off on a tangent about that, because wow I love puns.
In a way, a vast majority of popular fantasy, especially medieval fantasy, is a kind of cultural counterpart to Europe, and to England in particular. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – Europe has a long and varied history, some very diverse and interesting cultural traditions. Unfortunately, a lot of authors (probably subconsciously) use this as an excuse to whitewash their creations. When the aforementioned movie, Brave came out, there was the usual chorus (repeated again with Frozen) about the lack of people of color in the movie. Not one of the main characters, and probably none of the background characters either. They’ll defend this with cries of historical accuracy, because “there were only white people in medieval Europe!” This is preposterous, because on the one hand, there’s literal real historical evidence of there being many people of color in Europe all throughout history and on the other hand – these stories aren’t a literal history. This is a made-up story in a made-up version of Europe. You could make it anything you want. You could make it entirely people of color and it wouldn’t be weird, because people of color exist, while witches and magic ice powers and dragons do not. This kind of argument for “accuracy” is just ignorant and lazy, and I do not like it. This is yet another reason that Rat Queens is so excellent – because the author and artist explicitly rejected this type of nonsense, a large portion of the cast is non-white and it’s great.
At any rate, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do fantasy counterpart cultures. The right way is a few things: 1) Respectful – the author has to have done a lot of serious research and has to have a genuine admiration or deference to that culture. 2) Creative – just ripping off a culture in one fell swoop and transplanting it somewhere else, giving it a different name is lazy and that’s all there is to it. 3) Subtle – seriously, draw from multiple sources, don’t push things in your readers’ faces, use set dressing in moderation, and trust that your audience will figure out what you were going for. If you can’t do that, you need to assess your skills as a writer and your commitment to the story you’re telling. And what’s more, if you think that including people of color and doing your research is unnecessary, or pandering, or would “distract from” your story, you need to reassess your values as a person.