In the Fantasy genre, fictional people are in abundance. But what about fictional peoples? I’m referring, of course, to societies; to culture.
In previous posts, I outlined some of the methods that I’ve used to transplant real-world wildlife into Fantasy settings in new and original ways. In this post, I explore the human element of the equation; namely, the creation of cultures, ethnic groups and (for lack of a better word) races in fantasy fiction. As an example, we’ll take a look at the Cru.
“Their creation lore tells of ancestors who were born below the earth and ventured above ground to see the sky. They fell so in love with the sky that when they tried to return home below the earth, their eyes could no longer see the way. They became trapped above ground, and their home was lost to them.” – from The Fallen Odyssey
Cru is a simplified version of the name of a (fictional) ethnic group within the world of The Fallen Odyssey. The people self-identify as A’cru’u’ol, which means “the trapped people”. The Cru subsist mostly on animal protein, keeping bison, cattle and sheep as livestock.
Far from your typical stock fantasy society (usually poor farmers living in hamlets clustered around an urban center), the Cru are migrating herders who practice transhumant pastoralism.
A quick note: Transhumance is not to be confused with the nomadic, tribal lifestyle that might come to mind. Rather, transhumance deals with a seasonal migration of a community from one, specific semi-permanent residence to another. During the winter months, for example, the Cru live on grassy, lowland plains where temperatures remain cool– usually staying above freezing. When summer comes, they migrate into the fertile, high-altitude valleys in the mountains to take up residence in dwellings of wood and sod; an ideal lifestyle for their animals.
“Finally, the approaching riders came up the rise and slowed their galloping steeds to a trot. Both were men, and both rode without saddles. Hanging over their bodies were thick furs… Although their faces were woolly with bristly beards, their heads were shaven completely bare. Their eyes were large and wide and seemed to glisten as if always close to tears. Their skin was the rich brown– almost black– of fertile soil.” – from The Fallen Odyssey
Ruled by a council of elders, the Cru religion centers around prophets– individuals gifted with visions of the possible future. The chief responsibility of the council is to interpret these prophecies and determine appropriate action. At the core of their belief system is the notion of the central mountain– a concept borrowed from the Plains Indians of North America (and sometimes using a hoop as the metaphor for all worldly visual and physical experiences).
“Within the Cru community,” said Zechariah, “sensitive individuals are trained to become prophets. They are religious leaders who live apart from the rest of the Cru, on a hidden peak within the mountains. They call this peak the central mountain, and they consider it the central point of the world; the axis on which rotates the planet, the stars, the galaxies, all of time and space. Somewhere beneath this mountain is their ancestral home; the utopian world which they left long ago and cannot return to, except in death, when their souls rejoin God under the mountain. But the concept goes a step further, in that everyone carries their own central mountain with them. Every person is the center– the rotating axis– of his own worldly experiences. In other words, every man sees the world from the summit of his own mountaintop.” – from The Fallen Odyssey
For as exotic and imaginative as Fantasy worlds can be, it continues to be a genre where cultural diversity is noticeably lacking. Eurocentrism seems to have a perpetual stranglehold on it. Thankfully, some series have given important roles to more traditional cultures (like the Dothraki people in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, or the Mud People in Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule and its sequels).
Although world-building can be fun, writers should be careful not to go overboard. In developing the lifestyle, religion and physical characteristics of a fictional culture (or race), it can be tempting to create and create and create, and write and write and write. But as interesting as the creative process is, trust me when I tell you that nobody wants to read a self-indulgent ethnography of your fictional culture. Like the central mountain of Cru mythology, there is a central point to every story. Stray too far from it, and you risk getting lost in the wilderness.
“You are your central mountain, and with it, you are always home. But remember: the strong man forges new paths, carrying with him the peace of the knowledge that while he may plan his way, the spirit guides his feet.”