1) RESEARCH. I don’t necessarily think people will neglect this one, but the sources of the research might be questionable. If all you’ve ever really read about South American native tribes are fictional books set in Peru before the Spanish Conquest, and you’ve only watched fictional movies, keep in mind that certain things have been exaggerated, left out, or maybe outright distorted for the purposes of a good story. It doesn’t mean that you have to be completely faithful to history. It does mean that claiming X is true, when the only evidence you have for X is that it’s a convention or fetish common to several stories, is really problematic. (See point 2).
Read history, read reputable books and articles, read social history, and read, as much as you possibly can, the words and works of the actual people involved, rather than Western colonizers or conquerors. For some cultures, this is much easier than others; someone researching Japan, for instance, is not in the same boat as someone researching the Aztecs. But read widely anyway, and cross-reference, and ask questions, and recognize that those few traits that have fascinated Westerners, especially Americans, in general, are not all there is to the people involved.
Where does the research stop? What is permissible to include or ignore for story purposes? I think those are questions that each author has to answer for herself, and possibly answer differently for each individual story, but think of it this way: if you cut research short just for the sake of making something appear “exotic,” or if you do less research because you think that the culture you’re looking at is a homogeneous monolith, those are bad signs.
2) Recognize the stereotypes. The one that’s been on my mind most lately (probably from reading Orientalism by Edward Said) is the idea that “Orientals” are completely cool, enigmatic, and all-knowing. I’m sure you’ve met characters like this in fantasy, often in the nations that have vaguely Chinese or Japanese names. They drink tea, wear different clothes from the Western-based characters, and probably have different methods of fortune-telling and fighting. But they’re all the same in personality. Certainly no hint of cultural difference, schism, change, disagreement, or reality is to be found there—unless one character decides to become the hero’s sidekick, or break away from a family who “just doesn’t understand” his or her desire for power, freedom, and individualism. The society as a whole remains a Borg, much like elves and dwarves can become.
Yeah, you’ve probably seen this stereotype before. Yeah, it’s common. That doesn’t mean you’re justified in using it.
How to recognize the stereotype? It probably won’t be hard as you do the research in point 1. Pay especial attention to the differences between fictional and historical portrayals, and between the words that non-Westerners speak of themselves and the words that Westerners speak of them. It doesn’t mean that every nation, culture, or society is exactly the same. It does mean that the real people are, well, real people, not the neat and tidy ciphers that too often get substituted for characters.
Other possible, and very broad, stereotypes:
-The lazy, dirty Indian.
-The poor, ignorant African—just “African,” of course, because there aren’t differentiated peoples and histories—who treats every white character like a god.
-The highly sexualized and delicate Asian woman.
-The bobbing, terrified, chattering Mexican who falls perfectly into the role of sidekick.
-The dark-skinned cannibal island tribe who are all cruel, all torturous, and all wear necklaces of human teeth.
-The perfectly-in-tune-with-nature, perfectly wise shaman who only exists to give the white characters spiritual advice.
And so on. Again, it doesn’t mean that you can never have a non-Western character who is wise, or lazy, or sexual; the conflation with the role and the stereotype is the problem, so that they become no more than that. And, given the history of the stereotypes at all, it’s at least worthwhile to question why you want your female Asian character to be a geisha, or your male Asian character a master of an obscure martial art vaguely associated with monasteries. Do they really have to be?
3) Get out of Western Europe. This will not cure everything (see point 4, for example), but it’s a start. One possible reason that so many fantasies sound the same is that they share the same country. With the big exception of urban fantasy, most subgenres take place in a temperate zone, with cleared fields bearing a typically Western European agriculture, “wild land” in the shape of deciduous and coniferous forests, rivers of a certain size, a round of seasons that are all about the same length and almost never have extreme temperatures, precipitation in the form of snow and rain only, and perhaps mountains as background.
This ignores the majority of the biomes on Earth, most of which have had humans living in them. Where are the fantasies set in the tundra, the taiga, the dune desert, the clay desert, the scrubland, the grasslands, the jungles, the mountains, the broad river valleys in tropical zones? And, since this is fantasy, why aren’t fantasies set undersea and in floating cities more common?
Switching to such a location will not destroy Western attitudes or cultural influence (again, see point 4), but it will shake the physical aspects of worldbuilding up. The land and the climate influence architecture, food, and clothing. Buildings will have to look different in a climate where their roofs are not being built specifically to resist the impact of heavy rain and heavy snow. What do bread and alcohol look like in an environment where people don’t grow wheat and grapes, because they can’t survive? (This is another matter worthy of research; most fantasy worlds do not have the specialized agricultural science and technology capable of ensuring that all non-native species grow wherever humans want them to). In a tropical environment, what do people wear?
One can, of course, fall into stereotypes this way, too; if you assume that people living in an environment like the Yucatan must build pyramids and eat nothing but fruit, there’s a problem, because it’s more complex than that. But at least it will mean more than unthinking obedience to the idea that every fantasy world is, at most, Western Europe given a light makeover.
4) Remember that the attitudes of your world do not have to be post-Enlightenment British. (They don’t have to echo Western Europe in the sixteenth century, either, for that matter, but the moral code of most fantasies seems at best as old as the Victorian period and distinctly Victorian British or American, when it’s not actually the one twenty-first-century Western humans live with).
What are the attitudes towards sex? Research the culture you want to bring in. People may marry older or younger than is “typical” in the West. They may marry for different reasons. Arranged marriages may not be the norm for most modern white British couples, but they’re more often discussed in the South Asian community living in Britain. And no, that’s not an invitation to include arranged marriage in the book simply so that the heroine can refuse to have one and thus show herself completely superior.
What are the attitudes towards politics? Fantasists tend to assume that Machiavellian principles are the one and only standard to apply. No, they’re not, because they were made to fit a specific political context, and in a different situation—say, one where several small groups of people are living close to one another and consider themselves descendants of the same ancestors or cultural group—the idea of grasping for power and destroying enemies will work against what the situation prioritizes. Look carefully at the political structures of, say, the Iroquois, if that’s the group you’re researching. Don’t assume that oh, yes, all people are naturally selfish and will behave like “people” do, since in this case “people” actually means “powerful Western European white males in a certain political structure heavily focused on rivalry and accumulation of secure power vested in one individual.”
What are the attitudes towards war? Again, most fantasies assume war is inevitable, and at best diplomacy and negotiations are treated like a flawed if noble effort to hold off that inevitable. (At worst, diplomats are treated like cowards, and people who don’t want war are condemned as idiots, while the very prettiest rhetoric goes towards justifying atrocities). But what if, again, what the cultural group you’re studying values is the continuing sense of kinship and history, rather than having one group dominant and powerful all the time? War might still happen, but killing one’s kin could be a last resort rather than the immediate first option.
What are the attitudes towards the future? The Western idea of “progress”—where “progress” is not, say, the growth of a specific kind of knowledge or technology, but much more amorphous and general ideas of “knowledge” and “technology”—relies on a historical situation truly amplified during the British Victorian period and worried about even then. That doesn’t mean a non-Western culture will have no idea of the future. It does mean that it might very well value a different kind of progress, or be intent on achieving it by spreading the resulting knowledge or technology around equally, rather than having a rich elite racing ahead of the rest. (This is the kind of structure LeGuin sets up in The Left Hand of Darkness, where the Gethenians conduct an industrial revolution spread across time, rather than crammed into a few decades, so as to minimize the impacts on their society and planet).
Investigate attitudes, before declaring that Western ones must be inherent to the culture you’re looking at, too, and the only things truly different are a few trappings.
5) Keep the power structure in mind. Said mentions in Orientalism that, while the exact expression of the Western attitudes towards Orientals could vary, the one thing all the expressions shared was the knowledge that the West was on top. The West was more advanced, more powerful, more enlightened, more rational. “Oriental wisdom” could be respected, admired, and then incorporated without substantially changing the mind of a Western listener. Thus “Oriental” cultures could be made exotic and a fetish rather than completely destroyed—but if someone recommended complete destruction, it would come out of the sure and certain knowledge that the West would win any such war.
When writing a non-Western culture, therefore, especially one set in an alternative Earth or otherwise closely based on our world, look sharply at the relative positions of the cultures to each other. Do the Western characters, or the characters from Western-like cultures, consider themselves and their beliefs always more powerful and valuable? They might. That doesn’t mean that you, as author, should agree with them—particularly if you’re writing people from inside the non-Western cultures. This again will just lead to those people becoming sidekicks. Try to get outside the West and see it with critical eyes. That doesn’t mean diminishing the good points. It does mean noticing the faults, which a good deal of rhetoric in our own world works to obscure, excuse, and evade.
And then turn and look at the non-Western cultures on their own, without always putting them in relation to the West. What are their good points? Their flaws? Their completely neutral impacts? Their attitudes? Their relationships with other non-Western groups? This can be refreshing, because then you’re not always putting Europe and the US at the center of the world.
6) Be willing to give respect. Watch how you use your narrative voice. If, for example, it remains completely silent on the subject of a Christian-like religion but begins to sneer the moment it comments on an Islam-like religion or animism, there’s a problem. The author doesn’t have to believe in any religion she’s writing, but she should at least be aware of implying that one is worse than the other, just because it doesn’t resemble the one she grew up with.
Likewise, watch what happens when you compare two cultures to one another. If the culture that hauls people across the ocean and puts them to work as slaves in cotton fields is “misguided,” but the one that enslaves prisoners of war is “cruel, wrong, evil,” the author’s prejudice is showing. Likewise if it’s horrible to sacrifice people so the sun will rise tomorrow, but perfectly understandable to burn heretics at the stake or pull out their nails because they supposedly conspired against the government. If you want complicated ethical situations, you have to let them be complicated ethical situations, rather than implying that torture is always wrong if an Aztec-based culture practices it, but an interestingly sticky situation when a character with an English name is torturing one with an Arabic name. Characters can misunderstand and excuse their own cultures. That doesn’t mean the author should.
Another good reason to practice empathy and thinking of everyone as people, rather than the roles they play in the story: It can help in eliminating one’s own inherent contradictions as an author and actually living up to the attitude one claims to approach the story with.
And so far, it looks like attitudes towards killing and violence is next.