6) Read history other than medieval history. This isn’t just for writing historical fantasy, since I’ve seen a lot of people who write medieval-like fantasy comment that they had to look up modes of royal inheritance, how a castle was set up, how one fought with a sword, etc. Research can teach you things or give you ideas even if you don’t plan to write based on a particular country or historical period. The problem is that most fantasy authors who become interested in reading history seem to pretty much confine themselves to the Middle Ages.
There is a whole world out there, both before and after the Middle Ages. If you want to stay in Western Europe, go study the Celts, the Gauls, Al-Andalus (Spain during the Moorish conquest), the warring history of Italy after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Go east and investigate the Balkans, the Slavic-speaking lands, Russia, Finland. Go, for heaven’s sake, and study colonial North and South America, or either of them before the conquests. I think I’ve heard of exactly two fantasy series set during the colonial period: Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series, on an alternate American frontier where magic exists, and Paul Kearney’s Iron Wars series, which pictures European-like explorers entering a very different world than the one that the Spanish did. Go to Africa. Where are all the Japanese fantasies, the Chinese ones, the Korean ones?
Granted, there can be some dangers in setting a fantasy in a culture and country that’s not one’s own, but that has stopped absolutely nobody with medieval Europe. (And the authors really should do more research there, since so few of the “medieval” fantasies are at all realistic). Research, research, research. Or start out basing a fantasy on a particular historical place, and you may find that it ends up twisting one step to the side, and really being another setting altogether. It probably, though, won’t end up being a whitewashed copy of England in the 1200’s.
7) Read literature other than (European) fairy tales. Most of the fairy tales that have become endemic to collections—Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, and so on—have inspired retellings and lots of devices in fantasy. This is fine, to a point. However, just like the whitewashed and ultimately lackluster repetitions of pseudo-medieval stuff, fairy tales have caused problems in the fantasy genre.
For example, think of the main actors in most common fairy tales. Often, either peasants or royals, which encourages more of that thinking that these are the people you write about, and no others. Would Snow White’s fate have mattered as much if she were the daughter of a cheesemaker? Probably not. I have read several different retellings of Snow White, including ones that make Snow White the wicked one and the stepmother the actual savior of the country, but I have never read one where she was not a princess. Same for Sleeping Beauty, which is another frequently retold tale.
Another problem is the “faraway and long ago” syndrome. Fairy tales are often switched around from place to place, or don’t have any specific locale. Where is Red Riding Hood’s forest? It depends on who’s telling the story. Again, it’s useful for retellings, but I think it’s influenced people outside that genre. “Medieval” fantasy can feel like Fantasyland precisely because it’s not anchored, because there’s nothing about it that distinguishes it from any other part of that misty realm where fairy tales float about. Done right, this can be a grand thing. Most pseudo-medieval authors don’t do it right. They wind up talking about cardboard characters riding through a cardboard landscape that could dissolve into fog at any second. One forest is as good as another, one city as good as the next. (This is one reason that I prefer interwoven mythologies, whether they’re existent in a real-world culture like Greek myth or made up as Tolkien’s Silmarillion legends were. They tend to connect to real places and to each other, lessening the feeling of a castle in the air).
Finally, it’s hard to get fairy tale language and archetypes just right. A lot of fairy tale retellings leave me cold precisely because the author doesn’t have the trick of making them sound like a new take on a timeless tale. They’re fantasies instead, but fantasies without the world-building skill and unique characterization that even mediocre fantasists in other subgenres strive after. The cloak of “fairy tale retelling” is used to excuse the weaknesses, while not providing any of the strengths that readers should have the right to look for. (One that did not leave me cold was Dennis McKiernan’s Once Upon a Winter’s Night, which is a retelling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and uses all the right language).
At the same time as all of this dumping on fairy tales, I firmly believe that it is possible to get ideas for writing fantasy from literature. Just don’t tap on the same old veins if you really have nothing new to say, and especially if you want to escape from a world of royals and peasants and forests. Go read legends and tales of other cultures, and all the immense, immense range of fiction and poetry written before and after the medieval period. Some of those authors really knew what they were doing when they changed the old tales and made them their own, or merrily alluded to myths, legends, and so on outside of Little Red Riding Hood.
8) Crossbreed multiple ideas, and add multiple unique touches. I cannot tell you how many generic pseudo-medieval fantasies there are out there with just one “touch” or “twist” added onto them. It might be a supposedly unique system of magic (almost everything that Lackey has written ever). It might be the addition of dragons and a vague science fictional setting (most of McCaffrey’s Pern books). It might be magic divided by gender (Jordan). It might be lots of gore and sex (Goodkind). Whatever it is, it hardly alters the generic nature of the world, while at the same time supposedly changing everything. The author seems to have decided, “My world will be indicated by X,” settled on that idea, and clung to it fiercely.
Aside from the fact that I don’t know why just one system of magic or one thematic idea should stand at the center of a world, this doesn’t seem to work for long. The author can write a few good books, but then the thinness of the world starts showing through, especially as the series rolls on. Unless the author can add other touches to the world, touches that make it deeper and more complex and less generic, then the wear of the basic concepts only grows more apparent. The author may start to repeat herself, without even realizing it. If she tries to explore the edges of her world and push them back, often she simply ends up returning to familiar territory, because she’s never thought of what could lie beyond it. The very limitations of medieval fantasy are binding her; since so many authors have worn this rut so deep, often the ones who follow it are afraid of making very many changes.
One way to avoid this is not to depend so heavily on a single different idea. Use multiple ones instead. If a book you’re reading inspires you to come up with a new system of magic, don’t simply hang it on a same-old same-old medieval world and declare you’re ready to go. Why not also create a new kind of society, perhaps influenced by the magic, and set about exploring it? And then you might find that you have to have new geography, too, and new kinds of people, and new professions, and soon a different world is growing.
Ideas can and do breed. I’m firmly convinced that most authors simply don’t go far enough with them. They come up with one interesting one to play with and then dash back to the medieval world and shut the door after themselves. Try combining a few ideas and creating a new world-setting instead.
9) Choose other centers. To some extent this is a reaffirmation of point 4 (about trying to choose different heroes than the peasants and the royals), but this ones applies mostly to institutions. Even in medieval fantasies where the author chooses to spend time concentrating on the peasants alone, the monarchy is important and never far from anyone’s mind. At least half the time, it seems, the author pulls the dirty trick of making it more important than the reader realized by dumping royal blood in the peasant’s background. Or there’s a church, and while it might be distant the priests are in evidence. Or there’s an order of knights that kind of hover in the background and then swoop in when the hero needs them to rescue him. And so on.
Why is it that when authors start thinking in terms of groups of people important to the story, it always seems to be priests and knights and mages who act within the rules and constraints of a medieval society?
Live a little. Come up with people who exist outside those bounds, or who wouldn’t have been able to exist at all in a normal medieval place. Perhaps they’re women. Perhaps they’re from a place distant enough that normal medieval methods of travel wouldn’t let people reach it. Perhaps they’re a truly hidden or small group, so the majority of people don’t think about them, and they suddenly introduce themselves into the story and cause utter chaos. (This is relatively rare in most medieval stories, where the actors are not only usually known from the beginning but predictable by the sheer nature of the setup). Perhaps they were the very ones who turned a nice, normal, medieval society on its head and scared it into a new form; a middle class might be a good choice for this.
Whatever they are, don’t start assuming that the people important to your story need to wear crowns or cassocks or armor. It once again cages you in the most common plotlines before the writing proper even begins.
10) Name things. It may be simply the books I’ve read, but the pseudo-medieval fantasies seem to be the ones that wind up with the most awful and generic names. The South Lands. The Hollow Hills. The Black Mountains. The Great Swamp. The North Coast. The Big Sea. And on, and on, and on.
Give things unique names. For that matter, give people unique names; pseudo-medieval fantasies often just decide to name characters things like Jon, James, Peter, and so on because it’s simple, even though the culture itself may have no reason to produce English names. Choose combinations of sounds that appeal to you. Come up with names that sound as if they could be related to each other, or possibly mean “Black Mountains” and so on in the language that they’re in. Many authors are understandably wary of inventing a whole tongue, but this article can tell you how to invent a naming language with just a couple words for people and places. (If you get intimidated by the linguistic discussion, just scroll down till you see the charts).
And who knows? Name enough places things like Alondian and Cirdaa and Vlesten, and your world may cease to be medieval on its own, because those names suggest different geographies and societies.
Not sure if there will be a third part to this rant or not.