Fantasy is a genre full of tropes, many of which I love: castles, dragons and magic are just a few of my favourites. Some of the tropes, however, aren’t so pleasant. Many fantasy societies closely resemble the medieval English culture they are modeled after, including not just the castles but the strict class structure and the oppressive laws. Main characters tend to rebel against these structures(even when it makes no sense for them to do so) but they are almost always there.
But… Why? Why can’t our fantasy societies have different morals? They can still have castles, can still have kings and courts of nobles, without needing the entire moral code. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t make sense for most of these societies to have such identical morals. Most fantasy societies are already so radically different from our own histories that it only makes sense for them to have completely different morals. There’s one huge difference:
Magic is found to some extent in pretty much every fantasy story, but few people really explore its full implications. The implications of healing magic are simultaneously the most profound and the most under explored. You see, advanced healing magic probably means a lot less infant and child mortality. Things like compulsory heterosexual marriages made a lot more sense when you’re dealing with a 30%(or higher) infant mortality rate. Survival of the species takes precedence. At that point sex is 95% about creating the next generation and 5% about pleasure if you’re lucky.
A world where magic has allowed your civilization to flourish much the way science has allowed ours to flourish–and to do so much earlier in their development–will likely have totally different attitudes about things like work, relationships and sexuality. If they’ve figured out how to heal your character’s mortal wounds with magic they’ve definitely figured out how to save children from common yet deadly illnesses and extend the human lifespan at least a little bit. This makes the need to have children less desperate, making sex more about pleasure the same way it happened in our world.
Maybe I’m just an optimist but I believe cultures become more progressive as their lives get easier. It’s why we’re seeing a huge swing back to conservatism in so many places right now: one country after another has been thrown into financial turmoil and we’re all so screwed we can barely help ourselves, let alone each other.
And hey, if your fantasy culture has different attitudes about sex it actually makes sense for your main character to have even more progressive views. What doesn’t make sense is how every woman living in a near copy of medieval Europe seems to be obsessed with the idea of marrying for love when they have literally lived their entire lives under the assumption that they will have an arranged marriage. These women have often also been taught love is a learned thing, something achieved through marriage rather than a reason to marry, so why the hell does every single one turn away from their entire upbringing?
You don’t even have to change the morals completely. With the histories of many fantasy worlds it doesn’t make sense for them to be totally accepting of everything. There will still be taboos. People who are different may simply be tolerated rather than actively accepted. No culture is perfect and I’m not saying yours should be either–that would probably take most of the fun out of it.
What I’m suggesting is that our fantasy worlds don’t have to match our own history so closely. The possibilities of our genre are literally endless. Yes, many fantasy tropes are wonderful, but we need to move beyond them and expand the genre into new territory. The world is changing and so should our stories, because the world changes faster when we change the stories we put into it.
Have you ever read a fantasy novel about a culture where they’re more open about sexuality? Have you written one yourself? Tell me all about it in the comments section below!