IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE IN FANTASY STORIES

Writing and reading books in the fantasy genre is one of my favorite things to do. Maybe it’s the limitless possibilities that come with the genre, but there’s something so intrinsically cool about building a world from the ground up and thinking about how it works. Do they have giant six-legged beasts they ride to work in the morning? Do they get bouts of rain so acidic that it melts rooftops that aren’t properly insulated? Does their monetary system revolve around singing, and those who sing best are the richest?

There’s a lot that goes into creating a story, especially a high fantasy story…but maybe that’s just my bias showing. With high fantasy, you as the writer have an opportunity to toy with language, different races, jaw-dropping geography and awe-inspiring architecture. The world you build really is only limited to how much you can imagine.

During this process of thinking and building and creating, it’s important to put an emphasis on culture. That’s because a lot of the time, culture is what will impact your story and determine your character’s reactions to the events happening around them or to them.  

Pondering the importance of culture in a fantasy story is a pseudo chicken-and-egg scenario. Do you mold the story after the culture you’ve created, or do you change the culture to fit the story? Which should come first?

It’s an interesting conundrum to ponder. But I would argue that the sooner you establish your world’s culture, the sooner you can work out the kinks in your story. An arc that revolves around a girl who wants to work hard and become the first female dragon rider might not make sense in a matriarchal society. Or a boy who refuses to marry might not be a good point of conflict if marriage isn’t an important cultural ceremony.

But before delving any deeper, let’s examine what comprises culture, exactly. It’s a term often thrown around by eager travelers wanting to ‘immerse themselves in the culture of the place, you know?’, but a nation or country’s culture is an intricate knot composed of different elements.

In its broad term, culture refers to a people’s religion, art, literature, beliefs, and customs. It’s the cuisine, the language, social habits, music and customs of a subset of people. It’s the essence of a nation and defines or alters their world view. In effect, it becomes the lens through which they see the world.

Culture should be the backbone of your worldbuilding. You’ll want to think deep and hard about what your world is like, and how the culture has shaped the people who live in your story.

And don’t forget – cultures often vary by region or families. So it’s helpful to think of how to incorporate different cultures, and how they may clash or align with others included in your story. Not only does it make you look good as a writer, but it also serves as fodder for plotting and story structure.

When thinking of the story I wanted to tell with the Sapeiro Chronicles, I gave a lot of thought to the region’s politics and how it influenced or affected people’s view of their leadership. I also gave great thought to how their magic – referred to as Kerai, is part of the social fabric. This made me in turn consider how to weave it into the myths and legends of Sapeiro, and think about how the relationship with this magic differs per family. Thinking of these different worldviews was instrumental in teasing out how the different conflicts would present themselves, and made for a much more engaging story.

When done well, culture can be a driving force in a story arc. It can be the initial conflict, the resolution, or even the conclusion of your story. Culture is a powerful tool to leverage in your narrative, and you should absolutely exploit it for the purposes of your story.

THE IMPORTANCE OF A BAD FIRST DRAFT

Writing is stressful. It isn’t this blissfully serene activity, where writers spend their days on high-backed chairs sipping a perfectly roasted cup of coffee while story arcs magically plot and write themselves.

No. every word choice is agonizing. Every plot twist takes time and preparation to, well, plot.

From the second draft to the fourth (or fifth, tenth, or how ever many it may take to get to a final), stress levels are high as you boil down the words to their most perfect form, and strip away any imperfections within the narrative arc.

But here’s the thing: a lot of writers stress about this in their first draft. And that’s a bad thing. You may be asking yourself: “but shouldn’t my first draft be the best it can be so I can build from there?”

Here’s the short answer: no, it doesn’t.

The longer, more elaborate answer is that your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect, because perfection isn’t the goal.

No story is perfect, ever, but especially in the first few drafts. The story is still figuring out what it is trying to be. Even if you, the writer, may think you have everything perfectly plotted out and ready to go. The story needs room to breathe and expand.

The only expectation you should ever have of a first draft is to have it written. It doesn’t need to be good. Doesn’t even need to have all the pieces. It just needs to be on paper, and it needs to be finished in the sense that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the first draft, the focus should be on story and making sure the main plot points are all in the right-ish order.  

You can always go back and tinker with the writing to your heart’s content. But focusing on the writing is kind of like choosing an outfit without looking at the forecast: might work out, but you might need to get changed. When you focus on the story, then you can make sure the pacing is good, the characters are where they need to be at the right time, and all the steps are in place.

The first draft is as bad as your story will ever get. It’s all improvement from this point on.

I’m a huge advocate of a bad first draft. My first draft for A Forgotten Past was just under 50,000 words. A few dozen drafts later, and the final was just over 100,000. The first draft was not publishable. Neither was the second or third. I would never have dreamed of sending it to an agent.

And that alleviated a lot of pressure. The stakes were lower. This draft just needed to be done, typos, mistakes, and run-on sentences galore. I didn’t care, because it didn’t matter. No one, short of a few trusted friends, would ever read that monstrosity.

But because I didn’t sweat the small stuff, I was able to get a first draft out in a few short months. And from there, I refined, re-plotted, re-wrote, and edited, edited, edited.

All the writers I know all agree on one thing: it’s a lot easier to edit than to write. Staring at a blank page is awful. The stakes are so high, needlessly so.

But editing is a thing of beauty. You have an outline, maybe not a clear one, but an idea is beginning to form, and it just needs some polishing. Your first draft is the putty that you need to sculpt your masterpiece. It needs to be sculpted and mashed and cut and worried for it to resemble something worth displaying.

Without that first bad draft of A Forgotten Past, I might never have finished the whole book. Or maybe I’d still be writing it. But by hanging up my pride as a writer and embracing a get-‘er done attitude, I was able to have fun just writing and throwing ideas onto a page for an older and wiser version of myself to edit at a later time.

The more time you waste on trying to find the exact, perfect word to describe something, the less time and energy you have on building your story.

And remember: story is everything. Readers will forgive a good book that is written okay. But good writing cannot cover for a bad story.