We all know what a fantasy world looks like. It generally has elves and dwarves, or something roughly equivalent. In climate it resembles western Europe. In technology? About the 14th century. In politics, monarchy is the absolute rule(r).
The Lord of the Rings was so influential it created an entire subgenre, of which my favorite is Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion (read it for ace rep).
And then it twisted in with Dungeons & Dragons. And we ended up with this idea of a fantasy world.
Thankfully, the 21st century has seen a strong move away from it. (Look, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s overdone).
I’m about to release a book that has no elves, no dwarves, and at least one democracy, which is a casual norm. Cities have mayors. They’re elected.
So, how do you go about moving away from what western fantasy was for a while?
Leverage Your Culture
One of the best fantasy novels I’ve read recently is Tomi Adeyemi’s beautiful YA work Children of Blood and Bone. The book has been optioned by Lucasfilm and Kay Oyegun is attached as screenwriter. Her world is based off of west Africa.
If you aren’t white, if you aren’t from western Europe or America, if you have indigenous descent, then Adeyemi’s book demonstrates how important and beautiful it is to create worlds from those cultures. And while not a secondary world fantasy, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning is another great example.
But what if you’re white…
Look to parts of Europe other than the UK and Scandinavia! Naomi Novik’s Uprooted is a distinctly Slavic retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. What is there in your own family tree that you can use?
Science in fantasy? No way! But the fact is that a little bit of well-applied science can go a long way.
Think about what kind of solar system your world is in. A Song of Ice and Fire portrays a world with two seasonal cycles. Martin has promised to explain how this works when it’s not a spoiler any more (unfortunately he’s writing at about the pace of a glacier in winter), but it could be a binary system. More likely it has something to do with an exploded moon.
Designing at least the basics of the planet your fantasy world is on can give you ideas for how to make it different. Is it warmer than Earth? Colder? Drier? What kind of sun does it orbit? How do these things impact the human population?
You can also apply science to your fantasy races. For example, a race of intelligent plants that needs to consume food to create extra energy probably would go for the potato chips (salt) rather than the candy (they create their own sugar).
Don’t forget, too. Your world has plate tectonics, earthquakes. You can design a map that doesn’t look like Europe. Maybe your world only has one continent. Maybe it is a water world with only strings of islands and merfolk are the dominant species.
But make it make a certain amount of scientific sense and you ground the reader…and move away from “Just like Medieval Europe except with magic.”
Martin has said that the explanation for Westeros’ wacked out seasons is magic.
How has magic really affected your world? You don’t have to go with the trite “Because they have magic technological development has slowed down.” I’m thinking here of Max Gladstone’s wonderful Three Parts Dead and sequels, where gods are literally hired by cities to run the technology. It’s a world that feels much more steampunky and Victorian, but less British than most steampunk.
Think realistically about how the level of magic you’ve added to your world affects how culture develops. Rare magic might have little impact at all. Common magic, though?
And what about magical resources? How do those affect the development of technology. How do you mine that magical ore?
Don’t just make magic an add-on but weave it into the world. How does it affect medicine? Transportation?
Oh, and don’t forget the gods. If they interact with the world they probably push society in ways they want. Possibly contradictory ways if your world is polytheistic.
Now, if you really have the inkling to write something in the strong tradition of Tolkein, then don’t let me stop you. There’s still a market for it; I think some people find it comforting.
But if you want to be different, consider the above. (And also don’t forget you can combine elements of different things).