How Living in a Foreign Country Has Helped My Fantasy Writing

Me casting Prismatic Spray over a temple.

I’ve largely not discussed this because I don’t want to say anything clumsy or stupid. But +Kameron Hurley‘s posts about diversity and trying to be different have encouraged me to share. They’re compiled in this book of essays which I highly recommend if you’re a writer or a person breathing period.

For those that don’t know, I live in Japan. I’ve lived here for five years altogether. While I don’t speak fluent Japanese or anything, I do find that my experiences here have exponentially helped my writing, especially when it comes to the fantasy aspect of it. Does this mean I’m writing only anime or manga inspired fantasy now? No, not really. It just gives me a different perspective I might not have had otherwise if I’d stayed in the U.S.

In Japan, I’m a minority. Foreigners make up probably 1% of the population. In this way, I get to see life through the eyes of someone who is an outsider. I no longer see the American way of thinking to be the only way. While I’ll always love the U.S., I guess I see the world more globally now. I try to understand why certain cultures function the way they do. This has allowed me to insert more diversity into my fiction as I try not to see the world from a myopic perspective anymore.

So how does this help my fantasy writing? Well, list time? List time.

1. I’ve always been interested in other cultures, but being able to immerse myself in one helps world-building substantially. If I write about an Asian style culture in my fantasy worlds, I am doing so from a first hand perspective. I can get the intricacies of communication, how people act at work vs. outside of work, urban vs. rural landscapes, etc. This is one reason I dreamed of going to every continent in the world at some point to experience just a bit. I’m not there yet, but I do plan to achieve this goal one way or another.

2. I don’t only see characters as “knight,” “elf,” or “wizard” anymore. Something unlocked inside me where I want to explore how race, gender, and background factor into a character’s motivations and struggles. I think approaching fantasy fiction from a more global perspective allows you to develop worlds that may not be the standard European medieval setting. While I do enjoy those settings, I find myself more drawn to settings from different cultures. I most recently wrote a story that featured a Mesoamerican setting, which encouraged me to research about Aztecs and other civilizations (which you can check out here Songs of the Great Cycle). My current WIP also features a kind of Pangaea continent where several cultures are butted up against each other.This means all kinds of people can be found in the same area without having to travel to “exotic” lands.

3. I want to be challenged. One thing I’ve been attempting to do with my writing is to challenge myself and have fun. If I’m not doing those things, then I don’t want to write. Therefore, I’ve been writing more fiction with women as the protagonists, with characters from different backgrounds, with monsters from all sorts of different cultures (not just dragons and elves, although I love dragons and elves).

I’m not sure how moving to a foreign country inspired that, but perhaps it’s because I know the white straight male experience so well already. I want to try to something different. While I may not be successful at creating convincing characters who are not white, male, and straight, I feel I have to try. My goal in fiction has always been to dig deeper into the human experience and figure out what makes people tick. That and to write goofy splatter slapstick on occasion. 🙂

Making fiction fun and challenging is what makes it so appealing to me. If I just keep writing about the same types of characters from the same types of backgrounds, I get bored. This doesn’t mean I’m only writing characters who are not the same as me now, it just means I want MORE.

When I first started writing fantasy, it was all about D&D style characters. It’s what I knew. When I played D&D I’d always pick a fighter with a sword. It was easy. It was comfortable. But at some point playing a fighter with a sword gets a bit boring. Perhaps jumping into the skin of characters of different types in my stories allows me to challenge my creativity. If I’m going to have a fighter with a sword, it’s going to be have to be a remarkable person with a remarkable sword.

Moving to Japan has been a huge challenge for me. From navigating daily life, to the frustration of learning a language, to experiencing a place where I am not the majority. Perhaps this has also challenged me as a writer. I can’t be safe anymore. I want to be dangerous, weird, off the wall.

If you want to be the same, hell, try visiting (or living in) a foreign country. You’ll be surprised what you might learn about yourself and even your own country.

Have you ever lived in a foreign country? Did it help you writing in any way? Share below!