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I am writing a fantasy/steampunk/horror novel, and I'm wondering if mixing different cultures is frowned upon. Specifically, my novel's setting is a mix of Italy, Ancient Rome, and Transalvania/Romania. The setting itself is based off of 19th century Italy, but the names, goverment structure, and empire resemble Ancient Rome.

However, there are vampire-like creatures (who can also control the elements), and the other language occasionally spoken (mostly for nicknames and cursing) is Romanian. The creatures are also very diverse. There are for example:

  • sirens
  • bean nighe's
  • headlsss horsemen (they're kind of like ringwraiths)
  • gods

Is mixing cultures okay, and if so, do you have any tips?

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    What you are doing is called being original. It's not frowned upon; it's something most every writer strives for, especially with fantasy. The real challenge comes with making it believable. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Feb 15 '17 at 1:22
  • First of all, thanks. If you don't mind, would you care to share a few tips about how to make it believable? – Jamie Whitt Feb 15 '17 at 1:33
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We generally have an image in our minds of certain historical periods. This image is coherent, consistent, and harmonious. That is, the technology, culture, and social life are on a corresponding developmental level.

The problem, when you mix what you call cultures is twofold. First, the image you create clashes with the image that we have of a historic situation. And this image that we have is very strong, because we have learned it in school and countless movies, books, and documentaries have reaffirmed it and added more detail. If you introduce something into a historic age that did not originally belong there, it will feel wrong. If you handle the contradiction well, you may achieve wonderful humor, as in the Flintstones example given by Alexander in his answer.

Second, historical situations are instable. History is a process of constant change. For example, there were no guns in the Middle Ages. When guns appeared in Europe, that meant the end not only of the knight, his armor, and medieval warfare, but also as a consequence the end of medieval courtly culture. When you introduce certain aspects of one culture into another, that culture will disappear. We all know what Christian missionaries did to the now-extinct cultures of the world. If you handle this destructive potential well and make it a theme in your narrative thought experiment, as Mark Twain did when he introduced modern technology to the Middle Ages in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, you may achieve an enlightening deconstruction of cultural stereotypes.

The great danger in a naive combination of cultures is an unintended and unvoluntary humor, or in other words, that some aspects of your story will appear to the reader as laughably implausible.


These are general thoughts, meant to be useful beyond the narrow scope of your own question. Whether or not Romanian vampires and nineteenth century Italy, or Italy and Roman government structure clash, you will have to answer yourself.

Personally, I have a very strong sense of the setting of certain elements of folklore and do not read books that "abuse" these cultural origins. Other readers will certainly be more open to fairies in spaceships.

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    "The great danger in a naive combination of cultures is an unintended and involuntary humor" Could not have said it better even if I tried. – Lew Feb 15 '17 at 14:12
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You can definitely use cultural juxtaposition in your work. Readers will appreciate if it's done right.

For example, let's take a look at "Flintstones" animation series, which mixes stone-age and modern culture. Although, strictly speaking, this mix does not make sense, the result is, by most accounts, very delightful. Contrasts between two cultures is seen as funny and intriguing.

On the other hand, there are many works of fiction where authors try to create a society that is a mix, but without much success. The common problem might be that those works are simply not interesting enough, and instead of intriguing, cultural juxtaposition becomes annoying.

So, I would say, as long as you don't get the reader bored, you can mix anything you want.

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What you are doing is called being original. It's not frowned upon; it's something most every writer strives for, especially with fantasy. The real challenge comes with making it believable. There a few questions on this very site, as well as other resources online, which can help you here. However, it all comes down to one very basic thing:

Details.

Details create credibility. If you know the in's and out's of a thing, and that knowledge comes across in your writing, the reader will feel that you know what you are talking about. That the thing being described is real, not just some hazy conjuration of your imagination.

Take a disease that magically turns everyone into zombies. That's hard to take at face value, but if you know that the disease attacks the brain in a manner similar to rabies, but keeps its victims alive in order to use the human carrier to further spread the disease... then you're getting somewhere (seriously, rabies is a zombie-disease except it kills you).

This doesn't mean you drown them in details and technical terms. Using the example above, I could say that the disease secrets a special toxin which masks it from the body's T-cells or something, but I don't need to. As long as I, the author, know how it works, and write like I know how it works, then that sense of knowledge will be in your writing, and the reader will pick up on it. A few terms maybe. Clarification here and there. Only what you need, nothing more. That's all it takes.

Let's take your example. You have Ancient Rome with vampires. The two generally don't mix in people's minds, so you'll have to clarify. Explain how this came to be. If it's always been this way, explain why. Did the vampires assimilate a culture similar to Ancient Rome and have now brought it here? Was the culture Ancient Rome, but the vampires have invaded and conquered? The answers will depend on your story, but the credibility will depend on the details.

I can help you further in the comments or edit if you need more help. Just let me know.

  • Thank you. That was really helpful. I'm not sure if your question about vampires and ancient Rome is rhetorical, so I'll answer as shortly as possible: the gods in my novels are rivals, and they use mortals to carry out their battles for them. One god controls fire, and the other one controls water. The one who controls fire liked the Roman-esque culture and them his powers (including vampire-like "devouring"), and the water one gifted his power to people based off the Greeks. They've been at war since. – Jamie Whitt Feb 15 '17 at 2:56
  • @JamieWhitt SE isn't a discussion based site; so all questions in answers are rhetorical. I was mainly just trying to get you to ask yourself questions and head in the right direction. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Feb 15 '17 at 6:21
  • "What you are doing is called being original" Only if it is written well. The combination of pickled cucumbers and whipped cream can be called original, but one will have a very hard time convincing me to try it, although those are perfectly viable ingredients by themselves. – Lew Feb 15 '17 at 14:06
  • @Lew I think originality by itself doesn't have to be appealing. Anything is original if it hasn't been tried before. It might not be tasteful as you pointed out, but it is certainly original. What readers want is the combination of originality and something they like, as you said. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Feb 15 '17 at 17:37
  • I do not know why @JamieWhitt decided to adhere to so widely abused cliches labeling his ingredients (vampires, sirens, bean nighes, etc.)--he likely knows better--but only originality in his settings seem to rely upon using well-known tropes in odd combinations. Very hard to pull off believably, as you rightly mentioned. – Lew Feb 15 '17 at 20:48
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I don't see any issues with this. You are taking things you like about different societies and mashing them together in a way that works. It's refreshing when stories do this. I watched an anime a few months ago where it had a modern Japanese army go through a portal and fight against fantasy based magic/sword users. Of course they made it so the modern army was in control because guns and tanks are better than swords but it was still a culture clash that was refreshing and fun to watch. It was a unique twist to the cliche of fantasy anime.

In the end, it doesn't really matter on your "mix" that you try to do as long as it has a nice flow to it and seems seemless. You picked things that are plausible as Vampires for what ever reason seem to be based out of Italy. Romanian isn't that odd because of Transylvanian lore. I think you picked the right elements to add together to make a good story that people won't scratch their heads on. It would be totally different if you say, picked USA as the setting but chose to have everyone speak Russian. They just don't work together or flow together.

  • Have you been to Brighton Beach? :-) – Lew Feb 15 '17 at 20:35

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