Thursday, December 21, 2017

Give Your Fantasy Nations A Personality

France. Germany. The United States. North Korea. Iraq. Chances are good that, as soon as you read the names of these countries, an image sprang to your mind. Not only that, but the image probably turned the country into a kind of anthropomorphized version of itself. You know, America is a big, aggressive guy with heavy boots, and is probably packing an oversized pistol on one hip. France is an elegant woman with dark hair sitting as a sidewalk cafe sipping coffee. North Korea is a plain-looking, humorless man in a white button-down shirt with straight, dark bangs. Etc., etc.

Now, these images are stereotypes of the nations in question. However, the fact that you can immediately create that image shows you have some working knowledge of the country in question, and there are several touchstones you have with them. If you're creating fantasy nations, then you need your readers to be able to do the same thing with the information you give them. Otherwise you risk seriously losing your audience's attention.

"And so the Ephrendior-" Wait, are they the traders or the river pirates? I don't remember.

Provide A Handhold For Your Readers

The nation of Herrantia was formed in 300 PrA., after the fall of the Korruscanti Empire. Found west of the Shirrai Mountains, the League of Doggal banded together in order to form a single, cohesive nation after the Grassland Wars left the populace decimated. In the time since then, Herrantia has risen to become a member of the Dragossi Compact, and has signed the Black Sea treaties in order to remain at peace with its neighbors.

You see that paragraph? It's bad fantasy writing. The problem is that a lot of authors think this kind of entirely made-up encyclopedia entry about their countries makes them feel more realistic. They have dates, map coordinates, and a snapshot of all the political alliances this nation currently holds... but it doesn't actually tell us anything about the nation itself. What is it known for? Who are its people? How would we recognize someone from that place? Are they feared? Reviled? Well-loved? Are they peaceful or violent? These are things we should know.

Herrantia was birthed from the blood of a fallen empire, and it came into the world with a sword in its hand, bellowing a bone-chilling war cry. Little more than herdsman and raiders, surrounding peoples soon learned Herrantian cavalry were a devastating force on the battlefield. Mercenaries and war lords, it wasn't until the tribes were pitted against each other by foreign masters that they said enough, and forged their own nation from the spoils of war. Though Herrantia is wealthy now, in both coin and land, its people have not lost the sharp edge that got them where they are today. But, as the old proverb says, war feeds a glutton for a day, where peace will satisfy a man for a lifetime.

While a little longer, the evocative language here immediately gives us an image of a young nation that isn't very far removed from the battlefield it was forged on. While peaceful and respected now, Herrantia is definitely nouveau riche in terms of a world power. Add in the fact that they were known for their cavalry, and readers can immediately form an image of this nation. A sort of Mongolia under the khans, after the empire was forged and prosperity was widespread for those beneath their rule.

Use Your Ciphers With Care

One of the most basic ways we illustrate our nations is by giving them a representative character in our stories. For an example of this, you need look no further than the Belgariad. Practically every member of the main cast is from a different country, and every one of them is the Ur-example of their nation. While this is technically functional as a storytelling tool, it can also be problematic. Especially if you want to present the characters in your worlds as varied, and to avoid stereotypes.

Those Argonians... kinslayers, the lot of them. Wonder how there are any of them left, really.
A good way to get around the whole "person as representation of entire country/culture" trope is to use the items, religion, and other associated parts and pieces of a nation's makeup and history rather than making the entirety of a character into the cipher. It's also helpful to focus on things that are truly universal (or nearly so) in a culture.

As an example, say it is tradition in Herrantia for every adult to be armed. Whether it's a dress scimitar worn at court, or a work knife stuck through the sash, bearing a weapon is a mark of adulthood and respect in their culture. As such, Herrantian steel is held in high regard by warriors, and it might be a symbol of deep apology, or of great trust, for a Herrantian to offer you their weapon. It symbolically means they are willing to place themselves in your power while being unarmed, and at your mercy.

That's one, little part of Herrantian culture, but it could easily be one of the things they are most known for. And since it is a cultural quirk of the nation, it is less problematic than focusing on behaviors that might vary from person to person. Because while not every Herrantian may be a skilled rider, knowledgeable in the ways of horses and livestock, or particularly resentful of being at peace instead of at war, that quirk identifies someone as part of that culture, and gives readers an easy-to-remember thing about Herrantians.

Be Memorable, But In A Good Way

If you want people to remember your made-up nations, then you need to make them distinct, immediately recognizable, and your readers will need a touchstone to let them know who you're talking about. Avoid boring, overly-detailed descriptions with a lot of dates and meaningless names in them, because without context you're just going to frustrate your readers. Lastly, think carefully about who or what you're using as a cipher to explain this nation to your readers. Because while giving your countries personality is a necessity, you don't want to go too far and spill over into crass stereotyping, or making a nation of hats.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. If you would like to check out some of my other work, then head over to my Vocal archive. If you want to help support me, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and consider becoming a patron. As little as $1 a month makes a big difference, and it will get you some sweet swag as a thank you. Lastly, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

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