Ravencon Panels (I’m Not Doing): Daily Life in Fantasy Settings

This is the second part of a blog series about panels on the upcoming Ravencon panels, specifically the ones I didn’t sign up for that nevertheless look interesting.  For a more complete description, see the first post here.


The (draft version, so if you get a hold of the program book and the description is different, it’s because things have changed between now and then) description of this panel is “Economics, food and where it comes from, spiritual systems, laws – all things that impact our daily lives but often get glossed over in fantasy world-building. Let’s take a deep dive in building daily lives in fantasy worlds.”

This.  Is.  A.  FASCINATING.  Topic.  Had I seen it when the sign-up sheet was sent out, I would have signed up for it in a second (it was easy to miss, mind you — the sign-up sheet included almost five hundred panels, some of which were miscatalogued (there will not be five hundred panels at the convention; about three out of every four panels didn’t make it to the final list).  There were probably other panels I would have loved to do that I missed, but of those that made it to the schedule this is the one I regret not seeing the most).

Now, there is a term in writing fiction called “worldbuilding,” which refers to establishing the rules of your fictional world.  Figuring out the daily life of your characters is all worldbuilding.

There are a lot of factors to consider before you can even start to come up with a character’s daily life.  Is your fantasy novel in a real world setting?  If so, the key is researching what daily life was really like in that setting.  Simple (well, not really, but at least simple to say).  If not, you have several questions you need to answer (because no one else will):

What do you want to use as your fantasy world’s tech base? This is important because it can effect… well, everything.  A Roman-era tech base might give you flush toilets (of a sort) but you might not have had pasta (as we understand it today, anyway).  A medieval farmer would practice crop rotation; that is, he would have his farmland divided into three sections, one left fallow while the other two grew different crops; a Roman-era farmer also practice crop rotation, but would only have two fields (one fallow, one with a single crop).  An early-mid 20th century farmer would still be practicing crop rotation, with any number of different crop fields and nothing left fallow, but in some of those fields he would be growing crops that he knows would restore the nutrients in the soil (thanks, George Washington Carver!)  A late 20th century farmer might, however, move on from crop rotation to use specially formulated fertilizers that would do roughly the same thing.

In my fantasy books, I want as much flexibility as possible, so I generally have a policy that any technology is fair game… unless it requires electricity, modern chemistry, or gunpowder to discover it and\or make it work.  This means I can have characters using flush toilets after eating a large pasta dinner, if I want.  But I could also restrict myself to only those technologies that were available in specific places during specific eras… which means I might have a culture that could eat pasta, but then would have to go in the woods rather than at a flush toilet.

Is your fantasy world in a dark ages (or has it recently emerged from a dark ages)?  Then it’s possible that your characters might be required to live one way, but might find or use artifacts from a more advanced version of their same culture.

I use this in my own books; the world of The Kitsune Stratagem is still emerging from a dark age society, and a lot of technology (and the entire field of magic, but we’ll discuss that later) has been lost and is slowly being re-discovered; for example, they have ancient roads they’re trying to maintain, but until recently they didn’t know how they were built in the first place.  Towards the end of In Forgery Divided I show that my (other) fantasy world has also experienced a dark age, and while the events that caused it ended some time before there is still evidence of it:  The characters have to travel using transportation from an ancient Dwarven tunnel system… using steam-powered mining carts (which didn’t exist in the real world until the 1830s) that the modern Dwarves aren’t able to re-build.  The only way to get to that system involves a steam-powered lock very similar to something Hero(n) of Alexandria developed for pagan temples in Ancient Rome… a technology that in rea life, from what I can tell, was lost even before the dark ages began.

Technology isn’t the only thing.  Do you have multiple fantasy races?  Is there some degree of inequality between the races (or sexes, or whatever… but that’s trending towards a political discussion, and I want to keep politics off my blog)?  Well, you can justify anything in this regard, if you need to, but you need to make this decision before you start writing.  You can’t go three hundred pages in your book with your male human and your female dwarf fighting side-by-side, drinking together, meeting royalty together, etc. with nary a word about their differences, and then suddenly the inn won’t allow your female dwarf inside because “we don’t serve their kind, here!”  Not unless you’ve moved your characters into a new culture, which might have different rules (but then you need to establish the rules of THAT culture, instead).

Then we start moving into style.  What do things look like in your world?  Borrowing from the real world makes a lot of sense, but takes a lot of research.

Take architecture, for example.  You can’t say a building uses Tudor-style architecture if there were no Tudors in your fantasy world; you need to know the buildings are (usually) waddle-and-daub built into timber frames.  And you need to know the consequence of the material you’re using; if the buildings are built using “pink” bricks, your characters are probably living in an iron-rich area.

Alternatively, you could create your own construction material, but you still need to know some details about how it works.  In the aforementioned In Forgery Divided, I introduce the idea of Ancient Elves making buildings out of giant crystals.  How were these crystals formed?

Well, “magic” could be one way to explain it, but it wouldn’t explain why they STOPPED using crystalline construction.  So instead I decided to look up how artificial crystals were formed in real life. There are several processes, including some that have been turned into educational kits for children, but I needed one that worked for larger crystals.  I found one that required a high-temperature smelter that would be ideal; I didn’t know everything about it, but I did learn enough of the broad strokes to design a similar process… using dragonfire.

Would it really work?  Well, there are no real-life dragons, so that’s hard to say, and I didn’t go into the details in either my study of the real life process or the process I “invented,” but I had enough details to make it plausible.  All you need to do is make the “scientific” process plausible enough that your readers buy it (and your more educated readers don’t complain) and you’re good to go.  Still takes research just to make it plausible, though.

You don’t need to explain everything (though you need to know it, just in case it comes up), but it’s probably a good idea to explain the more exotic details of your world.  And there are a LOT of details to consider:

Architecture (a character living in a two-floor Tudor-style house intended for one family would have different home-life issues than a character living in a communal long-house)

What and how people eat (Victory!  Time to party!  So, what dishes will your heroes likely be served in celebration?  Or how skilled would a spy need to be to infiltrate the castle as a cook?  And do they eat food by hand, using forks, using chopsticks, or something else?)

How everyday people view and enjoy art and music (Tolkien showed this by interspersing ballads — both in English and in his own constructed languages — throughout all his books.  A number of other fantasy writers have followed suit, with mixed results)

What would your hero drink? (not everyone drank just beer or water.  There’s wine (you need an environment where grapes or similar fruits can grow for that), mead (made from honey; means there are bees common in that part of the world, and that honey is cultivated.  Yes, Vikings loved mead, so that meant there must have been Viking beekeepers.  If you just pictured someone in a horned beekeeper’s hat, you probably found that concept as amusing as I did), rice “wine” (arguably more of a beer-process; rice wine would mean rice, which means rice patties, which can effect the terrain and limit or effect the battlefield if armies come marching in), hot chocolate (and the type of hot chocolate; the type of hot chocolate Montezuma served to his guests is more like coffee than the hot chocolate of today), tea (again, has agricultural implications), milk (what type of milk-producing animal is likely to be living in the area, though?)… I could go on.

Government matters, even if your characters never interact with a single member of the government or enforcer of its laws.  A feudal system would affect characters based on their class (like medieval England or Japan; peasants were most likely serfs, which effects their ability to move around legally and means they had little or no money.  That’s not to say there were no freemen, even in feudal times.  Freemen usually had money, businesses, even land and so forth, and could travel at will, but held no titles, and they could lose their rights if they lost their property.  A noble or knight’s retainers might also have social status equal to or greater than normal free men, but again had no hereditary titles.  Knights were both landed and landless, with landless knights (or ronin… well, in very rough equivalencies) having a low status about equal to freemen and landed knights (or samurai) having a high status about equal to a semi-autonomous governor, and then the full-on lords and nobles (or daimyo) who employed the knights (or samurai) and were almost de facto equals in power to the kings, shoguns, and emperors themselves), a republic might change a character’s status with the populace depending on the circumstances of his or her birth (citizens at least theoretically have rights; there are codified laws and a council of some kind — often consisting of citizens — who can make and change those laws.  But these laws usually only applied to citizens; a non-citizen girl might be attracted to a man simply because he is a citizen and can therefore give any offspring they have the rights of citizenship), direct and absolute monarchy\dictatorship (in which case, the bureaucracy that maintains civil order is probably weak… but enforcement of laws that the king cares about is probably swift and strong, because otherwise the king is going to lose power very quickly), a “constitutional” monarchy (which often has some of the same elements as a republic, but may maintain the elements of  social stratification of the feudal system), or… well, democracies DID exist (see ancient Athens) but, outside of Athens itself, rarely survived for very long in the Ancient world.

What industry supports the village\city your characters are in?  It may be easy enough to come up with a job your character does in the village, but villages don’t usually sprout up in the middle of nowhere.  Were they founded in a militarily strategic location (and if so, why was this site strategic militarily?)  Are they a fishing village (means a waterfront)?  Are they a farming village (in which case the decision on the government matters, because farms with a bunch of serfs or slaves to maintain them can grow different crops than a single farmer overseeing a field he owns and runs himself)?  Are they centered around a specific natural resource (gold, iron, silver, etc.  Heck, several of the more wealthy cities in prehistory were centered around salt, believe it or not; a phenomenon that continued for millennia)?  Were they formed as a trading outpost along a major trade route (in which case, what is being traded)?  Etc.

Religion.  Your characters will have some.  Is your culture monotheistic, polytheistic, anamistic, spiritualistic, etc., etc.  Do they worship at central temples or in home-based shrines?  Atheism would probably not be the norm in a fantasy setting (although there may be some other form of “ism” if, in your fantasy world, your characters believe there was a god but he is dead).  Are there holy days, sacred rites, etc.  If you bury a body, what is the method of the funeral?  In fantasy novels, these sorts of questions come up all the time.  Even if you don’t need them for a story element, it helps to have an idea of what sort of religions your characters practice to determine their motivations (a scene where my characters are appealing to their god(s) or otherwise worshiping in their religions has never come up in either of my fantasy series; that said, I have several details in mind about what the religions are like in both of them, whenever one of my characters must face a moral choice.  So if the religious practices of these characters ever come up, I’m covered)

Fashion.  Even soldiers and mercenaries didn’t walk around in armor all the time; when not in armor, did your fantasy civilization wear tunics and pants?  Togas?  Kilts?  Kimono?  Do your characters typically wear hats (a common uniform component, even when not part of armor)?  Are these clothes made of wool, cotton, silk, linen, leather, or something else (don’t ask.  Well, if you really need to know)?  Learn the properties of these cloth types, and how they may cause your characters problems (or how to avoid turning them into problems, if you want to streamline things); linen wrinkles easily, wool would typically be uncomfortable in hot environments, cotton and silk have environmental challenges, and leather requires a lot of maintenance.

How cosmopolitan is your society?  Your hero may live in a trading town of Tudor-style buildings, drinking lingonberry wine, eating stew, wearing a buckskin leather hunting outfit while trying to come up with a law proposal for the town council, but if a stranger wearing a kilt, with the smell of mead on him, comes into the room offering to sell him a ton of his liege lord’s chalk, how strange will your hero think this guy is?

Does your world have magic?  If so, how would that change the way your world has developed.  Is the prevalence of magic the only reason no-one ever developed gunpowder or electricity?  Is magic fairly common, or incredibly rare?  Are people who use magic feared, hated, beloved, worshiped?  Is magic used for everyday things like cooking, cleaning, etc. (after all, we’re talking “daily life” here), or is it only ever used in exceptional circumstances?  How does magic even WORK in this world?

I’m sure there are things I haven’t thought of (in fact, I’m sure of it; I’m posting this blog a day late, and there were things I was thinking of including last night that I can’t think of right now).  The key thing is that, to come up with a daily life for your characters, you must think everything through, and make sure the decisions you’ve made work together.  A person living in a desert is unlikely to eat fish all that often, unless he’s on the coast.  A religion that makes the displaying naked bodies taboo would be very hard to work with inside of a communal longhouse (where EVERYTHING is done publicly.  Yes, even that!).

And if you’ve made it this far, through all the walls of text, you’ve… just barely scratched the surface of what you need to think about for daily life in a fantasy novel.  It’s a big, broad topic, probably worth a whole series of blog posts on its own.  Enough that there are whole books on the topic.

A few recommendations for further reading:

(For Free)

Roman Dress

Sengoku Daimyo

Rosalie’s Medieval Woman

The Viking Answer Lady

(For Bookstores\Libraries)

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diane Wynne Jones

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lovers Food Guide by Krista D. Ball

Lobscouse and Spotted Dog:  A Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey\Maturin Novels

Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (and Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, and Myths

1001 Inventions That Changed the World by Jack Challoner

The Prairie Traveler: The 1859 Handbook for Westbound Pioneers by Randolph B. Marcy

Old-Time Farm and Garden Devices and How to Make Them by Rolfe Cobleigh

Book of Old-Time Trades and Tools

And many, many more.  These are just the things I could find on my shelves or in my bookmarks after a few minutes of checking.  If I really wanted to make a comprehensive list, I would have hundreds of bookmarks and thousands of books listed.

Like I said… maybe this is a topic that deserves a whole series of blogs on its own.

Edit:  Comments closed due to spam attempts.