View Full Version : Trying too hard to avoid cliche?

03-18-2013, 07:28 PM
I was thinking about how to make a fantasy world that didn't rely on strict counterpart cultures. Problem is, I tend to think in terms of counterparts, possibly since I spend more time thinking about geofiction.

I realized that my goals could often be achieved by separating aspects of a culture or nation. For example, if I want the world to have a Rome counterpart, what I really mean is that I want a large, expansionist republic with above-average infrastructure. I don't mean I want to duplicate their religion, architecture style, etc. A nation can be very different internally and fill a similar role in the world.

But what of trying harder? Inspired by my sword-and-planet dream world (http://www.cartographersguild.com/sci-fi-modern-mapping/21109-how-create-temperature-gradient-e-w-rather-than-n-s.html), I was still thinking about ways to avoid the "barbarians from the frigid Northlands". I thought, "I want an Arctic nation that can stand up to its counterparts from the south".

Then I realized how implausible this was. And it showed something about why I don't find making low-tech fictional worlds fun: there's not much freedom, because people have to work within the boundaries imposed by nature. In this case, as usual, it's agriculture. If you live so far north agriculture is marginal to impossible, you can't support a large population density. You're even worse off than usual in terms of supporting workers who don't supply food. Barring unusual biology, advanced technology or magic not available to others, the polar civilizations can't be a match. And then I remember why. In terms of alien planets, I know that "extremes" are subjective. They're seen from the perspective of what climate a species is adapted for. But humanity began in East Africa, near the equator. As long as I'm restricted to working with humans, polar climates remain extreme.

- Max -
03-18-2013, 08:01 PM
Not sure to understand the whole thing (bad english :( ) but you seem to think of a fantasy world regarding human real life/history standards. So you're setting yourself the limits of it while your only limit should be your imagination. For me the interest of fantasy worlds is that you can broke those limits to create something strange/new/unusual and such. Cliches in fantasy just comes from a few lack of ability of imagining something different. Just my two cents (again sorry If I misunderstaood the post)

03-18-2013, 08:11 PM
Hmm... I don't know much about your world, but being "low-tech" doesn't mean people wouldn't be able to live on a polar climate. I mean, if you are considering a fantasy world, it could have magic (Does it have?), what would solve most of your problems, cuz magic can be explained just as "Thats magic!!". Of course maybe you don't want magic, or at least not something so "not scientific" basing everything on magic.

In this last case, well, we would have to consider what is "low-tech" for you. I mean, like some folks said on another post when discussing about sawmills and smiths and technology: Tech comes usually from accidental discovering, what usually comes from the needs of finding new things. So maybe you could consider a watermill "low-tech", but for others civilizations it would be a f**ing-awsome-great-thing that would save its life. I'm not saying that maybe your north polar men have invented heater, no, but they could be a tribe of nomads, barbarians, what in this case could live on cold region, but traveling from area to area looking for better climate and more food, yet they wouldn't go farther than a specific area, cuz they know to the south there are enemies of something like that.
Another option is to just move them a little bit to the south. Byt his, I mean a area still cold, but an area that on summer has no snow, so that they can grow plantations, and so food. An are they would have to produce lots of foods on summer so that they would have enough to get trough the cold winter. An area where they don't have cows, but Buffalos, or Llamas - or basic any other cold region animal. In places like that I could see a civilization growing up, maybe not as big as the Roman, but still one with the wish to conquer souther lands, so that they could live all the time with good temperatures.

I don't know if its that what you were looking for, I actually didn't understand what your question was about exactly.

03-18-2013, 08:25 PM
(This was written before your post, Counlin. I'm letting it stand.)

That's the point. For any fantasy world I create, I set limits. In this case, "no non-human intelligent species" (that might be better adapted to cold) is one.

Without a reference frame, it's no fun for me. I want the familiar feel. This is, as I said, why I like geofiction, and it's why my principal (long-stalled) fiction project is pulpy science-fantasy. If I want to play with, say, Aztecs, my first choice isn't to make a world with an analogous culture; it's to work in alternate history or fantasy set on Earth, where actual Aztecs exist(ed).

Back to the "powerful Arctic civilization", this is related to another of my musings: how to make a truly anti-colonial world? That is, not just one seen from a perspective unsympathetic to the colonizers, but one where empire-building wasn't practically beneficial? The problem is that the real world isn't neutral to empire-building; it favors it. For a world to be even neutral to it, it has to have something that, relative to the real world, creates a bias against empires. For example, there must be negative economies of scale.

And both of these ideas came from something I heard about Dungeons & Dragons. That is, that people in its world are, on average, richer, better educated and more socially mobile that real medieval or ancient people. And I wondered "Can I make a world where that makes sense? Where, in a time before guns and steam, people can be wealthier than they were in reality?" And I realized the importance of the agricultural productivity limit. Without technology (or mass-produced magic used like technology), there are some things easy to imagine changing, but some harder. For example, I know of various fantasy ways to reduce disease and increase life expectancy (Purify Food and Drink wouln't be an unimportant spell in the ancient world...), but what I really wanted was a world that didn't have to be 90% farmers.

03-18-2013, 08:30 PM
(Now this is replying to the newest information.)

My point is that I was trying for something more northern than your standard Viking-analogues.

You hit on (and missed) the point when mentioning nomads. I'm talking about civilizations too far north for agriculture. Then they have to be nomads, and they can't match the temperate nations. Not staying in one place -> no mining -> no metals -> Stone Age forever.

There was a reason I had no vision of what this civilization could look like. Within the parameters I want, I don't think it can exist.

03-18-2013, 08:41 PM
But considering the place you said :
Not staying in one place -> no mining -> no metals -> Stone Age forever, plus a polar temperature, I would say you want something like Antartida or Greenland, or even north of Russia, where there are no people living permanently till these days, what means that living on places like that on a medieval era would be basically impossible. If there was mining at least they could have some sort of trade agreement with another faraway civilization, trading metals for food by sea. But with nothing, being on Stone Age forever I really can't see anything working on a "close-to-medieval-aged-earth" world, unless as I said before you introduced magic on it, than it is a whole different thing...

03-18-2013, 08:51 PM
Underwater volcanoes create a warm area in the north. In addition to better than expected production on land, it's also a great area for fishing. With the food from the sea, various small city-states have risen. Their dependence on the sea has led to them becoming the best ship-builders and sailors, leading to strong naval power and far-reaching trade.

03-18-2013, 09:22 PM
The problem thinking in big empires is because usualy we take the earth experience as reference. The realms in our world take the religion as reference, everthing come after this. Big empires kill in name of god, big religious empires start to tell about god plans and take the ppl folloing the same reasons. The economic and politic can not avoid from religion, because liking or not the faith is the main power to manipulate the people.
Look something like Avalon, all empire of is moving about a religious war around Camelot. Now comes the the point where i really like. Remove religion from the heart of ppl and start to think about survive or just power. The world of Mad Max or Waterworld, where the empires are strong, given wut they can compare, but still ruling some area.

Like Coulin said is prior think how they will survive in the ice, farms can be a problem, probly they will hunt meat moving one place to other. I believe magic will not change the goals, since they are looking for survive. Nomads people just go to some place, if it is occupied they kill and use all sources before move again. Till someone appear and start to tell about evolution (nature or political).

03-18-2013, 09:32 PM
This seems like an interesting thread with a lot of great ideas flowing. Regarding Max's comment, (and not wanting to sound too academic) I think the question of fantasy v realism is the biggest philosophical question for people who make fantasy maps/worlds. Now, plugging my own comments, I started a post called Tips for Worldbuilders where I attempt to address some of these issues. I personally don't like the 'that's magic' approach - it just seems kinda lazy.

The title of the thread is about avoiding cliche. Again this is my personal opinion but I think the key to avoiding cliches is through developing the cultural traits of a people. As I suggest in my thread, if you start with one cultural thing, and then you slowly add to it and evolve it, you will eventually have a fairly 3-dimensional culture that feels complete and is much more original. I think that if you do that you can have a nation that is essentially Aztec (or whatever you're going for) but which is also unique, and you might find it takes you in paths you don't expect.

I also think it is absolutely possible to create a world different from ours without resorting to cliches like magic or familiar cultures. In realistic worldbuilding you have to stick within the parameters of plausibility (that's the fun of it), but that doesn't mean you cannot invent things. For example, perhaps smelting and smithing are difficult in an arctic climate; why not make something up that can be a substitute. Perhaps there are fossilized trees which, when sharpened up (using stone tools) become as hard and sharp as steel. No magic involved, solves the problem, and it is completely plausible (since it is a fictional place it is impossible to be 100% realistic, so what you're aiming for is plausibility and enough detail to cover up the mistakes). In addition, you have a spring-board for a culture: these fossilized trees are obviously important to the people, so perhaps they have a ritual for retrieving it, or somehow it is associated with their mythology etc.

My main point is that you have to be inventive in worldbuilding, and it has to be as plausible as you are satisfied with, but it can be done. There is no reason to accept cliches. It is probably always possible to invent a way around these problems. Even if you have to stay within the parameters that Max mentioned, the invention of a plant/animal/mineral/phenomena/ideology is perfectly acceptable, provided it is plausible. I'm interested in this topic, and, as time permits, I'll be watching to see where it goes. Hope my thoughts are helpful.

03-19-2013, 10:59 AM
Hmm, I can see ways of your ideia working, and based on all the information here you could build something very plausible with no magic involved.

I could see a civilization growing on a polar area, yet it would need some specific help of the enviroment. I would first include the rdanhenry's ideia, because indeed a underwater volcano area - we could even include geisers - would be like an oasis in the desert (and a polar region is basically a desert, except it is REALLY cold, instead of hot). This would make the area better for living. With this, you would have to think, there are not many plants that survive on a polar region, I mean, only some pines survive on north of Russia, for example, but your world is not earth, and your world doesn't have the same plants and animals Earth has - and TheHoarseWhisperer gave a good idea - so maybe it could have a plant capable of surviving on extremely cold regions, or even more than one, what would give the people there seeds/cereal/grains, or fruits, or at least wood. Of course the people would have to make a canals to the hot water get irrigate the plantations, and probably would need lots of care with the plants and stuff. The people could even have built a system to have plantations over the hot water - there are some ways, but you would need plants like rice which can grow with lots of water instead of dying like what happens with most plants.

Surviving in so cold regions would demand meat, of course, so they may have buffalos or Llamas, or another animal of your world that provides meat, wool, and maybe milk. Fish could be easly fished from the water next to the city. Fire can be come easily if you have pines, its sap (blood, I'm not sure what is right, used google translate) is extremely flamemable. With some mining - maybe an iron mine somewhere next, or faraway, from the city - they could have iron to make objects for both defense and plantation.

Remember, your world is not Earth, unless you want, so maybe it has no Tigers, but it has Ululos, which is a three headed cat 7 feet tall that eats oranges. Like what TheHoarseWhisperer said, you are looking for plausibility, not realism.

03-23-2013, 02:39 PM
I love the idea of a far north civilization who uses the sea - as in, whole guilds of seafarers, from the seaweed harvesters (whole complex ecologies of sea plants and small shellfish, creating all the nutrition they woud need) to the whalers (or whatever large, blubbery creature could provide a host of other uses when triumphantly killed) to the hunters of slippery seal creatures that provide the skins for clothing, drums, waterskins, etc, to specialists mining the ocean floor for minerals and other goodies that serve the civilization. On land there are "ranchers" who grow millions of mouse sized furry creatures in bins, use their body heat for warming greenhouses, and then eat them in mass quantities. They disdain the poor teeth and flabby musculature of those grain eaters to the south, and regularly send maori style raiding parties to scatter the weak tribes living nearby. Generally speaking in biology, there is a tendency for animals in the northern range of the species to be larger than those in the south, so maybe these folks are huge, and flabby from mass consumption of fat. Smooth white skin, tattooed with squid ink, carrying obsidian spears and with bright blue eyes. I like the idea that underwater volcanos cough up minerals, and probably their theology is based on the gods that live deep under the sea. Volcanic rock signifies power, and heat=status, so the richest and most powerful folks flamboyantly waste heat, and are skinnier, since fat=survival here. They have priests of the light (summer solstice) and of the dark (winter solstice) and the whole culture revolves around the sun, essentially becoming more vicious and warlike as the sun fades, to essentially vampiric in the long months of whole dark, but then undergoing extensive rituals of fast and redemption throughout the spring to enjoy a few months of great wisdom and compassion in the summer. This is when their books are written and children are born, and then trusted monks hide the trappings of the "light" civilization away when the descent begins in the fall.

03-24-2013, 05:16 PM
Before totally accepting your premise, of avoidance of cliches, I'll note that use of parallels is only partly laziness. It's also shorthand, abbreviations, symbology. If your story (game, whatever - you're telling a story one way or another!) is focused on, say, politics, or interpersonal relationships, or anything other than the revealing of an imaginative setting, well, the setting becomes just support material. Put another way, if you make the reader think too much to piece together all the unique elements you're stringing together into a plausible whole, he won't have energy left to follow the plot.

The best alternate worlds and unique settings I have read have been *background* for a good tale. Maybe over the course of multiple stories or an arc of books there will be enough explanation to fully show the inventive genius of a setting, but maybe not.

Now, it's a decent idea for the AUTHOR to have a good picture of how his world hangs together -- that drives all manner of detail, of interesting twists, of things happening that maybe wouldn't happen on Earth. That's delight; long drawn-out explanation of the myriad uniqueness of even a welll-thought-out world can be instead drudgery.

Now, if you want a polar civilization that's not merely predatory, but can at least stand on their own better than Earth's Norse raiders could, then you just tweak the basic necessities. Everybody's got to have food... maybe there are some fairly *easy* ways to get food in the frozen north on your planet. Millenia ago some since-fallen civilization stored its surplus food for later in hermetically sealed containers in the natural icebox of high latitudes. Your northerners could literally mine food, as they dig up the ancient c-rations and MRE's. Maybe as they dig for food, they stumble across valuable minerals that fuel their industrial development. Maybe the planet has scads of necessities fairly easily mined in the northlands and the tropics and temperate zones are geologically poor... instead of mule teams pulling borax out of a desert where otherwise people would choose not to live, you have musk-oxen teams pulling wagonloads of anthracite. Or copper. Or asbestos... Maybe your mid and low-latitude folks are beset by hyperactive lightning storms or active volanoes, and fireproof cloth is worth its weight in... wheat?

One need not be totally self-sufficient to not be parasitical; way too many fantasy nationbuilders want their people to have every advantage - kind of a misplaced parental prosperity wish for one's offspring. Rather, storytellers and worldbuilders should impose limitations, should create deficits, and should plan shortages - the better to force trade, conflict, smuggling, inventiveness, and all manner of goodness in the repertoire of a storyteller. So maybe your northerners (or polar southerners! Don't leave off the south pole!) do have the logical lack of agriculture -- they could be wealthy in other ways, and able to trade with myriad warmer peoples for necessities.

Agriculture need not be fields of waving grain. Tunnels of fungi could provide either human food, or a base link in a food chain that gets your people some animal protein. Think "what would bring food toward poles?" Well, how about polar waters being spawning grounds? Pick your species from herring to whales - seafood could well swim right up to your kitchen doors. Birds... penguins maybe? All the animal based diets you think of DO have plants at the base somewhere; in the Arctic it just might be algae and plankton in the depths, instead of tree leaves and grass like in my neighborhood. How about a religion that has shrines in the frozen wastes - make travel easy enough, and hordes of pilgrims bringing offerings could supply a fair bit of food.

Slip a little further from human-based systems, and you could postulate races literally mining food in the Arctic. A petroleum-eating race would have cut short any discussion of an Alaskan pipeline from Prudhoe Bay... coal definitely has stored energy; maybe the evolutionary stage of your cyberfolk is a steampunk-ish level of coal-fired automatons with difference-engine brains?

Maybe ALL your planet's middle latitudes lack trace elements essential to your people's well being; by bitter experience they've found out that those comfy warm regions are *death* in a few short years (decades, centuries, whatever). Maybe your planet has virulent diseases or insane amounts of insects, which the cold of the poles is the only defense against. Maybe all the mid- or low-latitude land is low coral atolls, and typhoons regularly wipe mankind from those delightful vacation spots. Or maybe the only slightly sub-arctic lands are the ONLY places things like mosquitoes and gnats thrive, and those are part of your peoples' reproductive cycle; journey equatorward for harvesting some grain (maybe on land tended by slaves and convicts?) but always returning home to the ice where one can raise a good family and where the hearth warmth is more... Personal than that enervating general heat of the sun of the equator.

UV. Maybe your people NEED a lot of ultraviolet and your planet has long-term polar ozone holes that let more in. Low-UV latitudes allow some dread skin parasite to flourish, or permit some nasty predator species to flourish, so only near the poles does one find relative safety. Or your people are adapted best for the long nights and days of extreme latitudes' summer and winter, if you have a decent axial tilt. Malaria may be 100% fatal for your folks.... there's a reason to stick to icebound territory. Or switcheroo - the whole planet is icebound or ocean and only the ozone holes, ground radiation, coal deposits, and some volcanoes make the poles even remotely habitable.

In any of those situations, say ALL of your worlds' cultures live near the poles and raid the temperate zones for (naturally occurring) resources and food - that way there's no easier life to generate a "higher civilization" to compare with.

03-29-2013, 11:37 AM
Maybe the polar civilization is doable, so let's focus on one of my other goals. (This isn't for the same world.)

Anti-imperialism. The reason this is so hard for me is that my ideology (moral absolutist, pro-technological, believer in radical reform = anti-cultural-preservation) is basically imperialist. But let's get past that and address the practical aspects.

The Roman Empire increased trade in Europe to a level not seen again until after the Renaissance. Empires can promote economic growth.

No, I can't get away from the ideological and emotional aspects, since the whole point of this exercise is to make the empire unsympathetic. Not on a character level, though, but on a level of "makes conditions worse for its citizens".

And that's what's so hard for me to imagine. I don't think I could write this in a way that wouldn't be all Noble Savage (one of my most hated concepts) or Good Old Days (another peeve). That is, the only ways I can see to make it work are to use real-world wishful thinking and make it right. "You're growing out of touch with nature, and are becoming unable to use its magic."

03-29-2013, 12:11 PM
(my 1st post here) I think to have a realistic/possible polar culture you must have an abundant food source that produces large surplus to allow warriors aswell as farmers. This is how civilisations began in Middle East with wheat grain and in Mezo-America with corn. Some kind of cold loving lichen or fungus could grow incredibly quickly that would produce sustenance to feed large numbers of people when harvested. (Think this is how the Drow Underdark cities are explained in D&D?) The other things that could help this civilisation are huge sea fish stocks, geo-thermal heating (sort of mentioned earlier) which could help the lichen/fungus to grow? and discovery of the only large mass of metals on the planet in the polar region - iron ore/gold etc.
Food is the No.1 thing to hold a people back in "barbarism" - the Innuit and Lapps never had empires because they were too busy making enough food and surviving.
I quite like the idea of a Polar civilisation and may add this to my D&D campaign based on the above. I already have groups like Norsemen and Balt/Soumi types, but this is the next step north!

By the way the idea that the Romans created trade across Europe and it died when their Empire fell is wide of the mark. There is large amounts of evidence of pre-historic trade across Europe - amber from the Baltic in ancient British burials, gold from the Middle East etc, and the 'Dark Ages' are a total myth. Roman Empire's fall reduced trade but it didn't go down as much as people think.

Cheers and good luck with the Ice people,

03-29-2013, 09:03 PM
Triplicate, I think you're right that our world - and, more probably, our Darwinian concept of survival - favours empire building. The fundamental goal of all peoples is to survive, and, after that, to prosper. This will often result in exploiting others who are weaker, and hence an empire is born. This is a logical approach, and it is very difficult to step away from this particular paradigm. That doesn't mean it is impossible to find some way to create a plausible anti-colonial/imperial world.

One of the biggest factors is terrain. I know that geographic determinism has gone out of fashion, now, but I think it nonetheless has some merit. Look, for instance, at Papua New Guinea. The high mountains of Papua meant that many peoples were isolated from one another. You mentioned 'negative economies of scale' - my recollection of economics is a bit rusty, but I would presume that this means it costs more to maintain an empire than the benefits it offers. In Papua, it would be necessary for an empire to have soldiers posted in every valley to maintain control, and so the cost of maintaining the empire is high. Unless you have some trade good that makes it worthwhile, it isn't likely such an Empire would exist (not to mention the simple difficulty of acquiring that empire in the first place). Other examples can be found elsewhere - the Pacific Ocean (there were empires in the Pacific - from memory it was Tonga that built an empire but it may have been a different archipelago - but you can see why it would be difficult to build and maintain such an empire); the Sahara Desert; the Amazon Jungle; Australia. Another aspect of the cost-effectiveness of Empires can be seen in the decolonisation of the 20th century - this proposition may be controversial, but my understanding is that much of the British Empire was given independence because it was financially prudent to do so. Perhaps in France, where the vestiges of Empire were fought for, it remained worthwhile keeping it.

It doesn't even need to be a resource-poor terrain. I am not particularly familiar with American history, but I am not aware of any pre-colonial empires in North America (US and Canada). The Sioux may have roamed across a huge expanse of territory, but they were empire-builders; the Iroquois, from what I've heard, created a confederacy that was presumably voluntary and gave each member advantages and disadvantages. Examples exist that demonstrate that imperialism is not automatically present in any world populated by humans.

So, my original point in this thread is that you have to be inventive, but you also have to be plausible. Based on what I have said above, I would say you have the framework for worldbuilding without empires.
- Darwinism means that survival is the goal of a society; what if survival is better served by being cooperative rather than competitive (i.e. Iroquois, Swiss cantons, European Union)? what if survival is more likely in a non-
confrontational way (i.e. the casualties of conflict are increased through having no effective medicine, evenly matched sides)?
- economics: what if it is not economically viable to occupy/exploit someone else's people? What if it was easier/safer to rely on mutually beneficial trade rather than raiding and conquering (I think the Phoenicians might be
an example of this - they had an empire, but it was not one of conquest but trade; no-one was coerced into trading with them; people traded because they wanted what the Phoenicians offered)?

You can see that those two paradigms are very interconnected - the best decision economically is also the one that is best for a people's survival. Hope these comments help

Oh, and Smithy, you are right that there was lots of trade in pre- and post-Roman Europe, but the Roman Empire also facilitated trade. The appearance of a single currency, a single language, good infrastructure (roads, ships etc.), political unity and stability (the advantage for a trader of not having to go through a dozen kingdoms to reach his destination, getting extorted in each one of them), all make for increases in trade, and can be seen in many empires (even the Mongols). After Rome, the networks that had been created still existed, but many of the above advantages disappeared. The Dark Ages may have been a myth, but, as they say, there's a kernel of truth in every myth, and I think it is true, here, also. Stability declined, to different extents in different places, but a general decline was nonetheless present. But otherwise you're right - the effects were not as drastic as past historians believed.

06-02-2013, 02:15 PM
Hey there. I just want to add something which has not been discussed yet. The core problem of creating an uninteresting fictional world is just what you other guys have been mentioning. Darwinism. Clichés like different biological races, for example. But what about human nature? When building a society we are used to humans settling for resources or because of some "Evil" in what ever direction or thanks to the great terrain. But think of this. Imagine a group of travelers, nomads which are planning to stay in one area just over night, but end up staying there alot longer and thanks to speculations regarding food and substitutes for metal and such, surviving wouldnt be a problem. and by surviving i mean building a society.(Oops, darwinism) Perhaps a certain folk drink and eat air.

Now, to "human nature". I'm talking about behavior. maybe things like though you would "love" a person, because of a life changing happening, you could betray those you love. You all know this, personal success and so forth. what if human nature was not about development of collective society. What if it was about something else. I think that by changing human nature as well you open many doors. Which is good. Because avoiding clichés is ALWAYS a good thing and sticking to them gives you unecessary cliché bits.

It's also important to decide where the focus of the storytelling lies.

If you make the reader think too much to piece together all the unique elements you're stringing together into a plausible whole, he won't have energy left to follow the plot.

06-05-2013, 10:24 AM
I think even if something STARTS as a cliche (northern seafarers, aka Vikings), that doesn't mean it will stay that way.

When I'm working on lore or backstory, I like to start with a strong recognizable theme. Then I start going through existing connections and I usually discover I have to change the Vikings a bit. And another bit there. Before long they still have a strong theme but the parallel isn't obvious.

Putting details and adding unusual interactions helps.