1) Why are they wandering? Sometimes, the answer will be obvious enough not to need another mention. If these are nomadic hunters who follow the reindeer herds, then of course they’ll need to move camp when the reindeer do. If these are immortals living among mortals (though I want to hear a “why?” for that), they’ll need to move on when people start noticing that they don’t age. If this is your typical angsty shapeshifter, he’ll need to move on when people start noticing the absence of sheep on full moons and the blood under his fingernails.
But what about others? This ranges from the raggle-taggle band of gypsies in their caravans to the “magical family who keeps being chased from town to town” cliché. Rarely are they going to echo the negative things the people around them may believe (though see point 2). What kind of legend do they have of their origins? Why do they move?
This is a place where you can have some fascinating fun creating legends, especially those really fun ones that inhabit the buffer zone between myth and history. Were they driven out for a crime? For having some talent that everyone else didn’t? (Though please, please, please, please, please, none of the “they made us move on because they were jealous” stuff. That horse is so dead it’s ashes by now). Are they the chosen of a wandering god? There’s no law saying that what they believe has to be 100% right, and this could be a good candidate for the “mysterious secret of the past” that the hero will try to figure out. Just once, I’d like to see a “mysterious secret of the past” that involves one small group, not world-spanning ancient evils that don’t rank much higher on the Threat-O-Meter than bedtime snacks for Nyarlethotep.
2) The relationships of the settled people and the nomads don’t have to be negative. This seems to be half reflection of the typical reception for gypsies in our own world and half stern, dogged fantasy author commitment to, “If two groups of different people are in contact, they cannot ever be peaceful, never ever.” But unless you’re going to deal with the historical Romany—which can be done well, as Robert Silverberg did in Star of Gypsies, but requires a ton of research—there’s no need to make your own world’s nomads faithful mirrors of them. Perhaps here there are no superstitions about the nomads kidnapping children, or, if they make a regular circuit through several villages, anxious parents know that they’ll drop the child off in the next village and get him or her sent back with someone. Perhaps there are no fears of thievery. Perhaps the nomads provide some essential trade or service that the settled people would be poorer without, so even if not everybody likes them, the Powers that Be come along to whack anyone who causes trouble with the pointy stick.
This can work on a wider canvas, too. Got a settled culture and a hunter-gatherer culture living in the same world? So long as they don’t intrude on one another, things could be perfectly amicable. Yes, it might well be a problem if the farmers start cutting down the forest and driving away the animals that the hunters rely on, but in other cases, the very strictures of the environment itself are going to prevent something like that. The life of a reindeer hunter might have a romantic appeal to a young man who’s farmed all his life, but there aren’t going to be settlers venturing north to try and plant crops in the blowing snow.
And no, their trade, or relationships, or contact, or whatever name you give it, doesn’t have to be 100% lovey-dovey happiness, either. I’ve just never seen a relationship like this (that I can remember) in a fantasy novel that wasn’t 100% strained and negative, except for the hero/ine who of course realized how perfect and noble the nomads were and ran away to join them. Historical references were stripped out of our own world and plopped down in the fantasy one with their guts dangling, yet no attempt was made to explain why the settled people thought these nomads were thieves and stole children. Explain it, or don’t use them.
3) The gypsies/wanderers don’t have to be fortune-tellers. Here is what seems to be a typical bildungsroman story of the hero having his childhood in a quiet village. And then here come the gypsies. They set up camp on the outer edge of the village, and they wait.
For what? Why, for the hero to come and have his fortune told, of course!
The fortune-telling scene is non-optional if you have gypsies, and so are at least three of the following:
Tarot cards (lovingly described)
Brightly colored wagons
Weirdly smelling incense
The fortune-teller refusing to tell the hero what the hell the cards/ball/tealeaves are saying.
The fortune-teller freaking out because the hero has a fortune so powerful/terrifying.
I skim the whole darn thing, because they usually read like the author wrote them in her sleep. Hell, for all I know she did. “Hmmm, I want an early night tonight—I know, I’ll stick the fortune-telling scene in there, and then I can get some rest and write at the same time!”
Look hard at your gypsies. Look honestly. Is the only reason they’re there to provide a fortune-telling scene?
If so, expand their role or cut them out. There are other means of getting your hero’s grand destiny across, ones that will be less stereotypical. And having a set of wandering fortune-tellers (who often vanish when the author is done with them, never to be heard from again, even in places where they would seem obvious candidates for inclusion) appear solely to flatter your hero is cheating. It’s as bad as just making the country a monarchy so the hero can be a king—ah-ha, caught you!
4) Try making the gypsies really different. Dark-skinned human wanderers are usually the only gypsies in an author’s world, whether by accident or design. I can just about accept this in a historical fantasy, even as I wonder whether the events that started that world’s equivalent of the Romany wandering would really be the same when so many other things are different in this alterna-verse. But they don’t need to be either of those first two, really.
Why not make the wanderers pale-skinned? Probably because the vast, vast majority of human fantasy characters are pale-skinned, of course, and so pale skin isn’t “exotic” enough. In a story where the author wants to emphasize similarities over differences, though, or show how fixated people get on the tiniest of things, making the gypsies “white” (or dark, if the people around them are dark) could be an interesting move. Just look around at our own world. People certainly haven’t had trouble hating others with the same skin color over something as tiny as the way they pronounce a word.
Also, what about other species? Wandering elves, for example, or dwarves. There is one good consequence from having so many fantasy species stamped with a template in authors’ minds thanks to a heady combination of Tolkien, D&D, and bad knockoffs of both: try to force one species into a slot usually reserved for another, and it’s liable to make the author’s preconceptions hit the brakes. Why not gypsy dwarves? Well, because it’s hard to conceive of dwarves traveling about in wagons and telling fortunes and dancing around fires, that’s why!
And? So? Find a way to adapt the vision, or make them something else.
Thinking about wandering elves, I realized how strongly I tend to associate elves with a sense of place, of permanence, despite all the unwarranted fading that they do in a lot of fantasy books. The stereotypical elves stay in one forest or mound or fairy kingdom all their lives, unless they go adventuring with the raggle-taggle band in which they’re Token Elf. But why? Think it’s hard to justify a band of immortals traveling for years around a human country? Come up with a justification that fits, and I bet it’ll be a doozy.
5) Nomads can destroy the status quo. They usually don’t. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t.
One example is when the cultures do cross and the hero/ine, usually of the settled people, usually initially scornful of the nomads, starts being exposed to their culture. He or she is usually absorbed almost at once, and when the nomads leave, he or she goes with them. Not for him or her those shallow sticks-in-the-mud at home! They’ll just dance under the moon, thank you very much.
Why go for such a boring and easily contrived resolution? For that matter, if there’s suspicion, mistrust, even outright hatred on both sides, why is it always so easy for the hero/ine to fit in with the nomads? And no, put the crystal ball away, try giving these people a good reason to take him or her along without the “I see that you are powerful and we must help you achieve your potential” nonsense.
What’s going to happen if the hero/ine has loving parents who want their child back? A spouse? Children of their own? (Not that that would come into play very often, because I would venture to say that something like 90% of fantasy protagonists are unmarried, unless they’re in a book that’s part of a series). If the nomads regularly travel between towns, that’s one town they’ve just earned themselves a bad, bad reputation in, or, at worst, can’t return to and trade with. Aren’t there going to be people who would feel a bit bad about that?
So here’s your chance to portray true, boundary-crossing love, and a hero/ine who’s really torn between a life on the road and one left behind. Don’t make one life so awful that it’s an easy choice. Use this situation to shatter the status quo.
On to the other commonly used trope, the half-gypsy child whose mother is a villager and whose father was the love ‘em and leave ‘em type. Usually, everyone hates her. Woe. Then she does something heroic, and the villagers instantly accept her, or she goes back to her father’s people and is instantly accepted, hooray.
Bastardy in general could be treated a lot more subtly than it is. And here’s it’s biracial bastardy—probably—and the child might easily have to deal with suspicions that she’ll be just like her father someday, and slack off on work or run away. Show her struggling against those suspicions (and make them suspicions not jealousy thank you very much and goodbye). What’s it like to walk between two worlds? A heroine who decides to take what she wants from both of them because neither is giving her anything would be much, much more fun to read about than the angsty woman who waits for them to give her things.
And clothing next.