It’s the fifth Friday of the month, which means it’s time for one of the Patreon bonuses: an essay about the process of worldbuilding, the theory behind it, etc.
Sometimes a secondary world setting is pretty clearly a primary world location and time period with some names changed. I’ve done this myself, with the Memoirs of Lady Trent; Scirland is not quite England (starting with the fact that the dominant religion is based on rabbinic Judaism instead of Christianity), but it’s mostly England. Guy Gavriel Kay has done this a lot, and so has Tamora Pierce. When you’re writing something like this, the process of worldbuilding consists of researching your source, and then deciding which bits you’re going to change.
Building a new setting is different. You’re never going to make anything that is One Hundred Percent Brand New; there will always be echoes and similarities to other stories and the real world. But if you’re not trying to replicate a specific source, then you’re left in a middle zone best described by the French word bricolage.
I usually see this translated into English as “tinkering,” but I think “macgyvering” comes closer. Bricolage is the process of assembling something from assorted bits and pieces. The term been adopted into a wide swath of fields; I encountered it in anthropology, where it’s used to discuss how societies adapt to problems by cobbling together novel solutions from the cultural institutions and ideologies they already possess. In worldbuilding, it’s the process by which you take what you know about different kinds of governments and religions and foodways and clothing and fighting styles and marriage customs, and you pick some out and glue them together into a setting.
This is unavoidable. As soon as you enter the realm of speculative fiction, you’re having to invent new things: social structures that encompass vampires or teleportation technology or the fact that everyone lives on ships in the middle of the sea. And then there’s the worldbuilding we do, not because the speculative element demands it, but just because we like imagining different things. So I decide that, okay, in this story I’m going to have an empire with a deified ruler, a bit like Egypt or Rome, but with a caste system more like India, only I want the system to be a little permeable so let’s introduce an examination system of some kind like China had . . . and what I wind up with doesn’t quite look like Egypt or Rome or India or China, but if you poke at the seams you might be able to guess at the pieces of fabric I used to make my quilt.
So here’s the difficult question: where’s the line between that and cultural appropriation?
One of the major problems with cultural appropriation is that you get writers cherry-picking the “fun” bits out of a real-world society and plonking them down in the middle of a different setting, without any of the underpinnings that supported them in their original home. Maybe I think Japan is cool, so I write something with samurai and katana and ninja, but I’ve decided I want to cross-breed that with Vikings and Aztecs, so I slap those bits of Japan down in a tropical forest populated by tall blond people and I throw in some mead to go with the blood sacrifice or whatever, and isn’t it shiny?
Well, maybe to the writer. But to the people for whom those amputated details are their own culture — people who have frequently seen their culture misrepresented and commodified by people who don’t understand it — the result isn’t so much shiny as painful.
Our lives would be a lot easier if the line between bricolage and appropriation were sharp and easy to spot. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. I can’t answer the question of the best way to do this in a single blog post; I couldn’t even answer it in a series, because the answer is going to vary from writer to writer and reader to reader, and a lot of the most important things are being said by people more on the marginalized end of that transaction than I am. There are a great many essays out there you can go read to explore this issue — I recommend this one by Nisi Shawl as a starting point.
What I can say is that, much as with derivative works and copyright law, transformation can be your friend. Instead of using a thing in an obviously recognizable but amputated form, change it and integrate it with the rest of your setting. Katana are Japanese: no question about it. But the general notion of a heavy, single-edged blade that is usually wielded two-handed is not somehow inherently tied to Japanese genetics. Call it something other than a katana. Give its decorative components, like the guard and the sheath, a different aesthetic. Think about the ideological weight given to that blade in your invented society; if the rest of that society isn’t anything like Japan, then the way those swords fit into the culture won’t be the same, either.
Eventually you’re describing your setting to a friend and instead of saying “they fight with katana,” you tell your friend about this cool sword and the role it plays and when your friend asks what it looks like, you say “sort of like a katana.” Because what you have at that point isn’t precisely a katana anymore, just as the empire I described above is sort of like Egypt or Rome and sort of like India and sort of like China, but in the end it isn’t really any of those things. I drew on the underlying principles (deification, caste, theoretically meritocratic advancement) rather than specific external manifestations (pharaohs, brahmins, imperial examinations). When you do that, you open up space to do things like add another caste or have the examinations serve more purposes than just selecting officials for the civil service, without it coming across as a failure on your part to understand how those institutions worked in history.
The more you understand those underlying principles, the more effectively you can do this. And that’s why I recommend reading so broadly in anthropology, history, and related fields: not only because it provides you with possible inspiration, but because it helps you develop that conscious and subconscious understanding of how societies fit together, and what you have to do to produce a coherent result from disparate parts.