An Essay: Location in Fantasy

I’ve been thinking a lot about locations in fantasy and how choosing or building a setting decides more than just where your characters wake to their powers, tame or slay their dragons, drink their ale, or learn swordplay.

The known default for fantasy has long been British Isles-esque worlds and settings, largely due to the personal backgrounds and professional influences of genre pioneers like George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and so many others. This is in some ways a simple byproduct of the fact that when fantasy split from fairy tales and mythology to become its own entity as a means of entertainment, it did so–and in some ways has continued to do so–in and around the United Kingdom.

I’ll admit that in general I’ve always preferred British stylings for fantasy–the myths are familiar, the aesthetics are appealing without needing much exposition, the culture is at once both comforting and foreign for American and many otherwise non-Brit readers like myself, and the landscape itself is like magic with moss grown on it.

But at what point have we gone back to the Anglophilic well too many times?

The major publishing houses as well as the online self-publishing markets are swimming in staged-in-Britain fantasy written by authors who know little to nothing of the culture, people, history, or even the subtle and not-so-subtle changes between American and British English. What really bothers me is that many of these authors are also uninterested in conducting the research necessary to avoid these pitfalls where possible.

While uninformed writing may be negligent and lazy, it’s not a crime. Ultimately a writer of any genre has the right to the final word on their own story’s setting, characters, themes, values, and language. I do consider it a shame, though, that the depths of so many stories are limited by the author’s habitual dependence on a particular location, style, or culture–especially one they may know little about or may lack the requisite cultural respect to honor its finer, more nebulous points. They rehash material and rely on trappings (top hats and tea) and cliches (“Oh, bother, wot, wot, old sport, old boy?”) instead of drawing on their personal history as a means of conveying true understanding of the culture their characters come from as well as a sense of where they’re going. Even for the most misfit character or the most baffling social pariah, this is something that matters when speaking to the quality of a story.

Now, I at least try to make a habit against being a gigantic hypocrite, so I’ll come out and say that I am one of those Americans staging a fantasy that takes place in Britain, though it shortly moves into other worlds of my own design, drawn from myths and legends originating around the globe.

I have a list of historical reasons as long as my arm for the choice, and I’ve spent months researching in the hopes of avoiding the more egregious faults (if anyone really wants a technical read-out, come at me bro), but despite all the work I’ve put into it, I know that my writing of the story will likely lack much of the cultural pull and authenticity that I want so desperately to pour into it. The reason?

I was raised in Texas and not England.

While I can see and appreciate the Brits’ quiet nationalism and love of hidden depths (just read Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, watch Sherlock or Dr. Who and you’ll see that a common river runs through it), which are in some ways very old-school Texan qualities, I will never know what it means to do anything other than look over the fence (or over the Pond, as it were) at their understanding of what those things mean at the most basic gut level. I may be able to analyze the nuances of their most beloved characters, but I will never be able to generate a character of true, staunch Shire/British depths like Bilbo Baggins or Molly Weasley. There will always be some Texan in whatever character I write, because there is more than a little of Texas in me.

Speaking as an American in general and a Texan in particular (since those things don’t always intersect), I think the larger group of Americans-writing-British-fantasy return to the well out of habit. Since British-style fantasy is the most prevalent, it seems on the surface to be the easiest to generate, but it often comes out feeble and lacking for more reasons than simple plot/aesthetic regurgitation, especially for readers who desire a dose of social realism with their fantasy. In this regard, I’ve come to respect the adage “write what you know” just a little more, whereas I once was content to take it at its most literal value and then throw it out the window to watch it burn up in the literary atmosphere. With fantasy it’s true that you get a little more leeway, but I think sometimes we brazenly take a mile where we would be better served to stick with a few borrowed inches.

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