Hi, I love your blog a lot and it has helped me immensely with my work. I have a worldbuilding question for you.
I have been working on a fantasy series for a while now. And I have the basics of my world already plotted. I wanted to create a fantasy world with no humans, different species (and I have made sure that every species has different races).
I wanted to create an Earth-like place, where modern times look like they do now but have high magic and fantasy places and buildings. The world also has technology. I also wanted to make this world mostly bigotry free (with major society conflicts based on nobilities wanting to go back to a king system and class wars).
The problem is that I have not seen many, if one at all, stories like that and sometimes I get a bit unsure on how to put my world in practice. Do you have any general advice on how to make a modern-looking fantasy with no humans?
My idea was to use Elves as the species that is most like humans and have them have races that reflect some humans ones. But beyond that I am a bit stumped on the question of should I use cultural aspects of Earth in this universe? Is making my Elves the human equivalent just making humans with pointy ears?
It sounds to me like you’re feeling a little intimidated or overwhelmed.
First, having a unique world is a great thing. I understand it’s scary not to have examples of what you’ve done out there, but it’s being different that will make your world stand out and attract readers. I can think of one world that is a bit like yours, though it has humans and bigotry: the world of Crescent City. Oren did a worldbuilding review of it that might provide you with food for thought.
Reading between the lines, it sounds like you want to represent a diverse array of real races and cultures in your world, but you’re not exactly sure what’s okay to do. I think that if you have real-world technology like cell phones, then it would feel pretty natural to bring in real-world races and cultures. After all, you’ll almost certainly be bringing in your own culture, even if it’s invisible to you. A big mistake worldbuilders make is trying to map real-world races or cultures onto fantasy species, but you’re not doing that. As long as you have Western whites among a fantasy race I don’t see why you should avoid having individuals of other cultures.
However, this is somewhat beyond my area of expertise, I think you would benefit from the advice of someone more knowledgeable. I recommend heading over to the Writing With Color tumblr.
As to whether your elves come off like humans with pointy ears, that’s up to you. If you don’t want them to come off like humans, you’ll need to give them some characteristics that set them apart from humans.
Best wishes with your world!
Okay, I’m taking your advice and writing a story in a modern world that is similar to but not identical w/ Earth. Like Crescent City or Jade City. So I’m making up cities, countries, etc.
My question: Would it be weird to use modern Earth names? Robert, Jane, Carlos for first names and Smith, O’Leary, and Goncalves for last names? Or should I make up names that sound almost but not quite like regular names?
And how do I handle names for the various ethnic groups? Should my character who’s from that world’s version of Japan (which is not called “Japan”) have a Japanese name?
– Dave L
Hi Dave L,
Generally for settings like that, authors try to use names that feel like modern Earth but aren’t quite the same names we use all the time. Often that means either using names that are uncommon (Bryce from Crescent City is an example), or changing modern names just enough to make them feel a little different. I also think it works to use the uncommon nicknames or long forms of names that are familiar. So for instance, instead of “Jane” you might go with “Jannie.” Future scifi settings often try to strike this balance, so you can probably get some inspiration by looking at scifi names.
There’s no way to guarantee that names from other cultures are right without the help of someone who knows the language and culture. Without help, I think the best you can do is look for names that are in use but uncommon. I certainly wouldn’t try to modify them. See if you can find some usage over time charts – those will give you an idea of what time period the name might be associated with. You definitely don’t want their equivalent of baby boomer names.
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Comments on How Do I Include Diverse People in a Fantasy World With Modern Technology?
Both of these asks are interesting to me as I have done similar world-building on my current project. I absolutely love Writing With Color as a resource.
Some advice in using names from cultural backgrounds you are not familiar with is to try and make sure you are familiar enough with the basic pronunciation and general feel of the language those names are based of that you can confidently use them. This not only relates to how the name sounds and what they might mean but also how they are used in general. How acceptable is it to shorten names or use nicknames in conversation? How are names ordered? In some cultures what might be considered “last names” in a western context go before “first names.” In what context are certain names used? In some cultures it might be considered odd to use someone’s last name even in formal contexts while in others it would be rude to use someone’s first name if you did not know them well. I think it’s well worth using a variety of diverse names if you have diverse representation, but it does take a bit of work to make sure you are doing it right.
The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison, 2015) is one book I can think of with no humans. There are elves and goblins but no other species. I really liked the way she thought about how the characters’ big pointy ears might betray their emotions, and how their complicated politics would work.
Thank you for answering my question