Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Unexpected Ramifications of your Setting - Part 1

When you start worldbuilding, it's hard to grasp all the consequences of the decisions you make. You have an idea of what you want, and what's different about this world, but your picture is still rather blurry. You don't know the details yet, and you can barely make out the shapes. And sometimes, when you look more closely at one element, you get a surprise.

As this happened to me twice in the past week, with totally different aspects of my world, I figured I should (read, totally wanted to) share them here. It was getting a bit long, though, so here is the first part:  

Beauty Standards

I was working on one of my characters and trying to define her better, both personality-wise and appearance-wise. I knew she was young-ish (16-17), reasonable, that she had sharp wits and that she knew how to deal with a court, or mostly. She still had a fair layer of naivete, but she was the kind of woman you could get along with easily. So I guess I was more trying to define her appearance-wise after all!

Anyway, I went on thinking I wanted her to be rather nice looking (no, I swear, she's not perfect, but that's not what I want to talk about here).

And here's the catch. Nice looking. Beautiful. What does that mean?

We know what it means today, in our world. We know the most common beauty standards. We like our women thin, with nice breasts and full lips, shaved and shapely legs, and smooth, silky skin. We like our men to be muscled, with a firm ass and a great smile. Among other things.

In a fantasy world, it doesn't have to be the same. It can be, and that's all good. Except there are times where it would make more sense for it not to be.

In my case, this lady is from a culture that obsesses about expansion. They spent years warring. They wear large and ample clothes, with sleeves hanging down low. They like their cities to span on a lot of ground without being high. And I think they should like their women with some fat on.

There are cultures on Earth in which fat is connected to wealth (with good reasons) and this also makes sense in this world. Nobles can afford it and while the ladies will want to keep slim enough to be graceful, they definitely won't be all skin on a stick. And the men, once they grow too old to fight, will acquire a belly. Here, fat will be a good thing, not a bad one, because it is, in a way, a physical expansion.


  1. Very interesting look into your world. I like your logic :)

  2. I don't think that is different than how things went here on Earth. There were periods during the Middle Ages where being fat was considered beautiful. I think it is just fine to use such standards within a novel.

  3. There is such a thing as "simple beauty". The radiant smile can capture the heart. Kindness can offer preceptive beauty. Strength of character and fierceness of eye can turn any head.

    Beautiful is two dimensional without personal character.


  4. @Ted: I agree it's not that different from the Middle Ages, but they aren't the standards I see most fantasy author refer to. I can't remember a book that made a point of differing from today's age "Slim is pretty" anyway. (If you know one, I'd love to read it!)

    @Douglas: Of course, someone's appearance isn't all, and that's definitely not what I'm trying to say. It's just that in my WiP, the 'personality' elements commonly considered beautiful haven't changed much.

    @Steph: Thanks! :)

  5. There was a part in the Rome mini-series where the mother was berating the daughter for being too thin. Something about men wanting a little more cushion for the pushing. So I totally agree with making your women a little bit more well rounded! :)

  6. I think keeping beauty standards in line with your world is great! It adds dimensionality to your story, and it's part of fleshing out (pun intended) your world. Not only can beauty standards be driven by the circumstances of your world, but the physical traits of people are likely affected as well (for example, shorter people because nutrition is less abundant).

  7. @stickynotestories: It sounds like (yet) another reason I should watch Rome. I -really- need to sit down and do it.

    @Susan: You know, I never considered the evolutionary effect things such as a shortage of food could have. It's something I'll have to play with!