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I was trying to work on the worldbuilding of my story. The concept of fictional nations being based on real ones is nothing new, but it is fun to do. Usually, when there's a nation based on actual nations, the culture of said nation is also incorporated into the worldbuilding, to make it clear which nation it is based on.

I was trying to make a nation for my story, and I thought of basing it on Central Asia, but I'm wondering whether it's wrong to mix up the nations I'm basing it on. Other nations are based on one nation each, and you can see their cultural references; but if I decide to base it on the whole of Central Asia, and not just one country from Central Asia, and incorporate the cultural aspects of all the chosen nations, would that be wrong?

I feel like if I do it, it would be controversial, just like how Aladdin is. Are there any other ways for it to be handled?

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    "I feel like if I do it, it would be controversial, just like how Aladdin is." - Assuming you mean the Disney film (either the animated or live-action versions), I'm not aware of any controversies regarding Aladdin. Can you elaborate on that point?
    – F1Krazy
    Jul 25, 2022 at 10:58
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    You've acknowledged you have a double-standard. Yes, it's problematic.
    – wetcircuit
    Jul 25, 2022 at 11:00
  • Many nation-states house multiple ethnic groups and cultures. So in that sense it's not weird to amalgamate multiple nations into one fictional one. But if they can recognize themselves in the fictional nation, they may not appreciate being lumped together if they don't get along irl.
    – user54131
    Jul 25, 2022 at 11:01
  • @wetcircuit, I see, thank you. Sorry if i offended any of you.
    – Crimsoir
    Jul 25, 2022 at 11:10
  • You mean like Wakanda or the Klingons? No, there's no problem. I am reforming many cultures into a post-apocalyptical world.
    – Vogon Poet
    Jul 25, 2022 at 13:03

3 Answers 3

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As you've indicated yourself, this is a risky thing to do, and you can come off as insensitive. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, it just means you have to tread carefully.

Here are some tips I can think of to help you steer clear of the dragons.

1) Understand the controversy

It's important to understand why getting it wrong can be so offensive to people. In this specific case, I think it mostly boils down to taking a very rich and diverse continent with probably the longest history in the world and painting it as a single country. Put simply, it's reductive.

The second problem is that if you do this lazily, you will almost inevitably revert to stereotypes. These are harmful, of course, but they also make your story uninteresting.

2) Do your homework

The main cure is to immerse yourself. Don't use a culture as inspiration without understanding it. Read up on the history, the customs. Read some fiction from the source countries. Focus on understanding the differences between countries. When did they go to war with each other? How did they resolve their differences. What are the stereotypes they have about each other?

The more you focus on the differences, the more rich and varied your fictional country will become.

Don't look to other western fiction that takes inspiration from Asia and do what they do. That's how stereotypes are born. Go to the primary sources and try to figure out how you're going to do it differently.

3) Focus on making the story interesting, not inoffensive

It's important to think about how your writing will be received by people from different backgrounds, but if your main concern is whether you're causing offense, you will probably never write anything very gripping.

It's better to worry about being interesting. Stereotypes are boring, almost by definition. An insufficiently fleshed-out fictional culture is boring. Worldbuilding that doesn't sweat the details is boring. Focus on not being boring. Focus on something that will feel real, even to the people that are intimately familiar with various Asian cultures.

If you sweat the details, do your homework, and take the reader seriously, you will rarely have to worry about causing offense.

4) Look at good and bad examples

There are plenty of bad examples of homogeneous Asian-inspired fictional cultures. It's good to find a couple and to see exactly what they get wrong.

Then, look for some examples that get it right. I guess Westeros from the Song of Ice and Fire saga is one obvious example. It's a single (big) country that is roughly inspired by all of Europe. Why doesn't it come off as a lazy generically medieval mulch? Some thoughts:

  • It maintains the diversity of Europe. Westeros is basically a collection of cultures that slowly came together. Each "province" still functions as a kingdom, and has its own history. Even if your culture is homogeneous in the story (which Westeros isn't) you can still come up with a history of how it became homogeneous, and show the remnants of that process. The history of China may be a good inspiration here.
  • Martin did his homework. Pretty much every major story beat is inspired by some actual historic event. He's not repeating the generic knights-and-princesses fodder, he's going back to primary sources.
  • Westeros is specifically a country in the middle of change. You don't have to do this, but by focusing on a country that is not stable, you are forced to show the diversity in its culture.

5) Respect where differences come from

Things become unrealistic when you randomly throw things together. Don't take samurai-style soldiers, and randomly combine them with Chinese-style warrior monks. Both of these emerged from very specific settings, cultures and geographies.

These come from different cultures, so if you want a Samurai-style warlord with Wudang-style soldiers, you have to figure out how these two cultures clashed and ended up together.

6) Deconstruct the stereotypes

Finally, once you've found the stereotypes in other people's work: take aim. Take what they do and invert it. If they have noble Samurai, read up on the reality of the Shogun period. What were Samurai really like? What was the reality of their day-to-day life? How big was their entourage?

When you're writing, it can be very productive to have an enemy. Everything they do wrong, you figure out a better way to do it. You'll never have writer's block again.

All this doesn't mean your story has to be hyper-realistic or super grim. Even George R.R. Martin throws in the occasional dragon. If you just make sure you have a deep understanding of the relevant history and culture, it's up to you to pick and choose what you include. Perhaps the real history is to grim to fit the tone of your story, but you can still investigate the way people dress, what kind of religion they follow, how they talk to their parents, what sort of breakfast they have etc.

Just make sure that for each of these you figure out the real answer first, and figure out how it differs across Asia.

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Your question is culturally-aware enough to ask the question. You don't say what role this amalgam culture plays in your story (how it is represented in-world), so none of this is directed at you, nor assumes the story you want to write.

Let's ask, what could possibly go wrong?

Fu Manchu is a deep and well-developed character, not a garbage bag of every Asian race trope ever

LOL, J/K.

Fu Manchu embodied every yellow-peril fear a white colonialist culture could dream up. It became so bad the US State Department told Hollywood to stop making Fu Manchu pictures – when the US government of the 1930s thinks your stories are too racist, well…

Why didn't they reference a real person like Zuckerb –– oh, because no such person ever existed. Fu Manchu isn't a character, he's a straw man. Hanging a lampshade on the straw man (He's way worse than a Zuckerberg-type) doesn't excuse a garbage bag of harmful tropes.

Admitting the stereotype isn't based on a real thing, doesn't excuse the stereotype. It just admits you knew, and could have done better.

Worse than stereotype: the Stooge

Consider some Straw Man/Stooge fan-favorites:

  • Innercity Black men who exist to rob liquor stores in the 1970s
  • Latino workers who are lazy, except when they are having violent revolutions which end corruptly.
  • Unattractive women... who just happen to be wrong about everything.
  • Arabs who denounce all-things European but kidnap white women for some reason.
  • Jews.

I'll just call these 'stooges' because 'straw man' implies there's a debate of some sort. Stooges are used when you don't want critical thinking or hesitation. It's shorthand. It works because you can fool some of the people some of the time.

A stooge is designed to provoke our cultural bias. Stooges do work –– for a while. They stop working when the inevitable counter-message emerges. You can't keep performing the same parlor magic when your audience is shouting out how the trick is done.

Fu Manchu was enormously popular, until he became too controversial to touch. Publisher/producers did not grow a conscious, rather it became inconvenient to defend a Fu Manchu project. This should be the take-away: you may find short-term popularity using stooge characters to provoke reader bias, but the backlash can cancel it just as quickly.

the Anti-Stooge, just as bad?

Now consider these 'anti-stooges' – characters that were designed to subvert an over-worn stooge trope:

  • Uncle Tom
  • Charlie Chan
  • Shaft
  • The Spice Girls

These characters were designed to be the anti-stooge in their era. They are well-intended constructs that employ the same familiar tropes, but attempt to change the role from stooge to hero.

These characters do not age well. They eventually become the same joke. Their anti-stooge purpose feels insincere, resting on the same stereotypes and tropes they supposedly correct.

Charlie Chan is an international detective, clearly the hero, but buffoons in pidgin English and mangled Confucianisms for humor's sake.
Black'sploitation films feature Black actors in lead roles, but they exist in the same ghetto liquorstore universe of jive-speaking pimps and criminals.
The Spice Girls do not embody feminism (lol) they are just skinny women with different skintones who sing and dance.

I'm not saying these things are un-entertaining today, but they are so divorced from reality as to become ironic camp for the people who appreciate them. For the average person however, they aren't much different to the messaging they tried to subvert.

Despite prominent cast members being Chinese-American and Black, most casual viewers can't get past the MC Charlie Chan being played in yellowface. To the average person, Shaft is just more innercity one-liners said in a blackcent. To the average person, Spice Girls are rather silly, not empowering.

The ultimate is Uncle Tom, so universally despised he's become a pejorative by the people he was constructed to generate sympathy for. It doesn't get worse than that.

All Euro-white culture is the same (a rant).

Now consider my 'European' story where the Orthodox priest 'Queen Medici' of the Warsaw ghetto puts on her bowler hat, serves poison tea and crumpets while goose-stepping in her Nazi uniform and says "Let them eat cake" –– Everyone should be offended, LOL … not so much culturally offended, just having-a-brain offended.

Worse than lazy worldbuilding, this would just be nonsense.

Yet this is exactly how mish-mosh Native Americans are written. Everyone has a teepee and a canoe, tripping over totem poles and two-sprit wolf companions, wearing Ziegfeld feather headdresses all day just for funsies while chatting with their dead ancestors –– conflating radically different cultures, from vastly different geographies, who were often idealogical opposites in belief, custom, and law. Then smearing a couple centuries of colonial ignorance on top.

We don't live in a vacuum. Cultural erasure is worse where there are long-standing colonial narratives. No author can write a story that stands apart from history and culture, or their own biases.

What if it's not Central Asia but the Planet Mongo instead?

Fu Manchu spawned Ming the Merciless – same guy, same costume, same agenda… but less offensive? In my opinion anyway.

The really trope-y aspects become abstracted, while literally staying exactly the same. They both have torture devices, they both have evil daughters, they both have skinny moustaches and silk robes, literally the same guy.

The difference, in my opinion, is that while Fu Manchu is plotting against the British Secret Service in the 20th Century, Ming does not exist in any real world. Every character in Flash Gordon is a trip to the trope salad bar. Mongo needs an uber-villain and Fu Manchu was popular at the time – a decade later Ming might have been Dracula.

I think bad tropes can get 'sanitized' somewhat, but it's still pretty obvious where they came from (Ming, Mongo) and should inform how they are used. Flash Gordon didn't have a lot of time to build characters, and everybody already recognized Fu Manchu. (see also, Nazis in spaaaace). This isn't deep storytelling.

Similar to many American 'menace' tropes having Asian-sounding names, the name for anything sketchy in British fantasy/sci-fi sounds, to my biased ears, like Middle Eastern territories that disagreed about being British colonies. It pulls me out of the story, little voices jump up and say "Das racist!" every time a new witch-prison or desert planet gets mentioned. I'm all, "No! You can't do that! ... That's a real countr...!"

(So I'm rechecking all my planet names – there are problematic names, some are intentional. I'm still debating it.)

the OG: Ruritania

In the wake of 19th Century political shake-ups, lots of fictional countries vaguely situated in Central/Eastern Europe emerged. Ruritania is probably the best example. In-world it's a political hot mess with revolutions every 2 minutes, an addle-brained monarchy, corrupt ministers, and simple peasant folk.

Ruritania spawned endless imitations, until no visit to fictional Eastern Europe was complete without a revolt as a plot-point. These are comedic depictions of Central European culture, but clearly condescending. There was a generation of Caucasians who were under constant proxy 'revolutions' instigated by the Russian Empire (sound familiar?). They probably found this trope less funny, since it was a joke at their expense that belittled their actual situation.

Klockstopia is my favorite spoof name for a fake European country because it tells you not to take any of the story seriously. It pokes fun at the over-used trope not Eastern Europe – it's not funny unless you know there was a lot of nonsense syllabification that came before, but would the average person see a difference…?

In conclusion

I think the best we can do is be aware.

Tropes that are coded still point at where they came from. They can be abstracted, but not entirely rehabilitated. Subverting a trope actually adds to it. It doesn't fix the problem.

Inventing fictional countries that stand for real places is going to involve some level of 'ching-chong' syllabification (which may offend readers)..., or a lot of worldbuild-y research (which may derail your idea). It's good to indicate which type of story this will be. Readers are generous if the story-tone is correct.

Ruritania was popular in its day. I'm too far removed from the era, I can't tell if it sounded derogatory like 'Muckiyuckistan', or if it was intended to sound plausible (I'm guessing satire, from the context of the stories).

The 'frame challenge' advice might be to not write a fictional 'country' but a fictional person (a family) who moved around these areas their whole lives picking up traditions and experiences, while also clearly being individuals who have character development and some agency. Setting up some idealogical contrasts within the immediate characters will help to prevent them all becoming ambiguously brown.

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  • thank you, I shall take your advice with my story.
    – Crimsoir
    Jul 26, 2022 at 9:27
  • I'm confused by the Spice Girls example. Those are real people. Nobody "designed" them, and certainly not to the extent that you're implying. IIRC, even the gimmick of them having individual personalities ("Posh Spice", "Ginger Spice" etc) was something they invented themselves.
    – F1Krazy
    Jul 26, 2022 at 10:19
  • @F1Krazy, you may not have been the target demographic for that conversation. Online think-pieces are easily found, but this example is short and to the point: thenationalnews.com/arts-culture/comment/…
    – wetcircuit
    Jul 26, 2022 at 14:39
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Just do it; if you are aware of any controversy, address it in the book with more fiction.

The way this is often addressed in film and TV is to make explicit reference to the things you do not wish to imply.

For example, Zuckerberg is the founder of Facebook, but we want a villain that is also a social media giant. So one of our characters says "This guy is on the way to being bigger than Facebook and Zuckerberg."

That's for both the audience and Zuckerberg's lawyers: The fictional character is NOT Zuckerberg, and his social media thing is NOT Facebook.

Talking about your fictional country, you don't need to worry about lawyers, but if you are worried about outrage or offense, then you do that same: Some XYZ characteristic you borrow from Tibet, but you have changed to be different, you just have some character mention:

"It reminds of the XYZ tradition in Tibetan monasteries."

Josh is impressed. "Yes, quite similar. A borrowing, perhaps."

So clearly, your version of XYZ is not the same tradition and your country is not Tibet.

People seldom take offense unless you let them believe your fictional character, or fictional country, or fictional religion or tradition, is their real-life character or country or religion or tradition and you've got it all wrong.

Inoculate yourself against that by making it clear, in the text not just in a disclaimer, that your fictional countries and people are NOT the real thing.

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