Immersive Fantasy: An Exploration of Cultural Diversity in Fantasy Novels

April 10, 2021   /  

Name: Sarah Rapacz
Major: English
Minor: Art
Advisors: Dr. Claire Eager, Dr. Jennifer Hayward

Immerse is a medieval fantasy novel exploring the relationships between cultures and people in a postwar society. The plot follows a peace initiative featuring several young ambassadors on their quest to learn about each other and their countries in order to prevent a continent-wide war. The three main characters, Lerita, Sora, and Irisin, were all born after the war but they have heard stories of the war growing up and have seen its lasting effects in their day to day life. Lerita hails from an oceanic nation occupied by foreign soldiers, and she seeks to ensure her country’s voice is heard, Sora is a quiet shy individual representing a technological powerhouse, and Irisin is from the largest colonial power in the world trying to remedy the mistakes of his forefathers.Despite their shared goal of peace, their disparate histories lead to conflict and they must overcome their biases in order to help the peace initiative succeed. Currently, the novel is unfinished, but it leaves off at a good stopping point before the ambassadors engage in their training. The most exciting part of this project was developing the world, as each country is inspired by real world cultures. A major focus of mine was on the difference between ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, and I wanted to explore each of the cultures from the viewpoint of a local as well as an outsider. I planon doing much more research in the future to give my countries more nuance, and future iterations of this project will include an exploration of each of the nations.

Sarah will be online to field comments on April 16:
noon-2pm EDT (PST: 9-11am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

58 thoughts on “Immersive Fantasy: An Exploration of Cultural Diversity in Fantasy Novels”

    1. Thank you so much! I am more than willing to share the draft if you are interested in reading it.

  1. This looks like a lot of thought and research went into it! I’m excited to see the final product!

    1. Thank you! There were certainly a lot of sleepless nights spent researching and developing the world. I’ll be sure to share with you once I come home after graduation.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your work here, Sarah–the visuals are striking and the world you’ve created is complex and fascinating, and I feel very lucky to have been able to read the whole novel. Congratulations, it has been a real privilege watching you develop as an individual and as a writer over your four years here, starting with that ill-fated department event in your freshman year!

    1. Thank you for your feedback and taking the time to read it! It means a lot to me that you enjoyed the world, especially given your experience in the fields of postcolonial literature and travel writing. Although this project is purely fiction, I wanted it to have the same levels of nuance as the real world has. Perhaps the department event did not go as planned my freshman year, but I’m glad it gave me the chance to meet you and make an impression!

  3. How cool Sarah! I love the synthesis of your art and writing. In writing this novel did you ever think about your positionality as a white person writing diverse characters? If so, how did that affect your process?

    1. Thank you! Yes, positionality was a huge topic of consideration as I worked on this project. During my time here at Wooster, I fell in love with anthropology and the exploration of different cultures, so I knew from the beginning of this project that I wanted to write a novel that was culturally diverse. The question became how to do that in a nuanced and respectful way. I did not want to contribute to trends of stereotyping groups I am not a part of, nor did I want to take away a platform that belongs to writers of color. However, I also did not want to contribute to the ongoing collection of literature written about white people for white people. The real world is such a beautiful and diverse place, and I wanted to reflect that in my writing.
      This affected my process greatly, as I ended up dedicating far more time to research than I initially expected. At the inception of this project, I anticipated writing a full novel. Instead, I spent so much time researching and world-building to the point where I would consider this draft to only be 1/4 complete. For each of the countries in the world, I wanted to have a developed understanding of how they worked, modeling these cultures off of real world ones without directly copying cultural practices. I know there is a strong distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, and I wanted to make sure I was doing the latter. Even now, I still do not feel confident about writing the rest of the novel without conducting more research. And after I have completed that research, it is very important to me that I get more eyes on the project to ensure that my portrayals of a diverse cast are accurate.

  4. I cannot WAIT to read!
    Did you find any parts of the research particularly challenging? Trying to understand cultures internally has been a particular stumbling block for me, I wanna know how you’ve managed it!

    1. Thank you!
      I think that a major challenge I encountered was how to create fictional cultures modeled after real ones without stealing or appropriating cultural practices. As I discussed in another comment, I had to be very considerate of my positionality as a white woman. In most medieval fantasy novels, we see a common trend of Western European traditions being adapted and fantasized. I knew I wanted to stray from this pattern, but in doing so I would have to develop a better understanding of other traditions or else risk creating caricatures of the cultures I sought to appreciate. This resulted in extensive research and an unfinished project, as I do not feel comfortable writing about certain aspects of my world until I understand them better myself. I would hate to create an inaccurate or offensive portrayal of a group of people.
      We are all raised from the perspective of our own culture as being the norm, and I think in order to truly understand others, we need to reject that standard and be open to seeing people through their own eyes and listening to their experiences. Something that has helped me in my research and writing process has been reading fantasy centered on the cultures I wish to emulate as well as reading historical accounts. But I would not consider myself an authority on the matter by any means, I still have a lot to learn.

  5. How much of a real world culture do you include in the nation’s of immerse? Also does the book discuss issues of racism or prejudice against the other nationalities. If so, what was the process like writing those kinds of ideas in a respectful and insightful way?

    1. Thank you for the question, Justin.
      Immerse features many cultures and all of them have drawn at least some inspiration from real world cultures, mostly because I find their real world counterparts to be beautiful and interesting, but I have also been doing my best to develop unique aspects of my world as well. I do not wish to directly copy or appropriate real world cultural practices, merely to find inspiration in them and convey my appreciation in a way that will encourage others to do the same.
      Since my novel is about diplomacy on an international scale, there is exploration of racism and prejudice between nations. In particular, my novel explores the ripple effects of a major world war and the impacts of colonial imperialism on the surrounding nations. Some of the characters are prejudiced towards each other, and a major thesis of the novel is navigating how they bridge those gaps and come to understand each other better. In some instances, it is as simple as learning more about the other’s perspective, but in other instances there is a longstanding history of grievances that must be remedied before a productive conversation can be had.
      The process of writing this novel was a complicated one and I still have a long way to go before I can be truly confident in the work that I have created. I anticipate much more research will go into this project in the future.

  6. Congratulations Sarah!! I know you’ve put so much work into this project, and it’s so impressive! How would you describe your process between writing/drawing your characters and settings? If you’re creating a new place, for example, would you draw it or write about it first?

    1. Thank you, Annabelle! That means a lot to hear!
      I would say that I usually write about my characters first and draw my settings first. Both are very much informed by their role in the story and the culture from which I want them to originate, but the way I visualize them ends up being very different. When I have an idea for a new character, my first thought is to develop who they are as an individual in this world, and I end up writing a lot more about their personality before I decide on their appearance. Visually speaking, I don’t tend to describe my characters’ appearances in too much detail, so that comes through more in the artwork I create after the fact.
      In regards to setting and location, I will usually draw those first, or at least research locations in the real world that are similar to it so that I can have an image of what I am describing. Then I add a fantastical twist to it in my artwork. From there, I feel I am able to more accurately describe it in my writing.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Sarah! It seems like quite a challenging novel to write — do you have any narrative strategies to help readers keep all the places and characters straight? Do you envision the art helping with that?

    1. Thank you!
      My current plan for engaging readers with all the names and locations is multifaceted. I hope that having maps and images of each character and location will help, so that readers can always go back to the reference pages if some information is lost. Within the text, I have tried to limit the main cast to 3 of the ambassadors-in-training, so that at least readers can remember the main characters and their home countries. Narratively speaking, these main characters also have to undergo the process of learning about the other nations and get to know the other characters. My hope is that by putting readers in the same situation as the characters, they can take their time getting to know the world at their own pace.
      I do anticipate there still being confusion regarding all the names and places, but for now I intend to write the full novel and then when I enter the revision stage I will hopefully be able to address this issue with more clarity.

  8. Hi Sarah! Congratulations once again on bringing this fantastically thoughtful and complex project to life. It’s so great to see the new images of the characters in the presentation. One thing I’m continually curious about is the after-ideas–have new scenes, characters, plot elements, or directions emerged since you submitted the IS or since making this presentation? I know you are always working on the project anyway, but sometimes these pauses or moments of sharing the work can give our brains the chance to rest and let new pieces come through.

    1. Thank you, Professor Eager! I have been coming up with new ideas since the submission of IS and completion of the presentation.
      I recall you mentioning you were very excited to see how Irisin interacted with the High Priestess of Deoasis, and I have been writing some of their conversations to experiment with their relationship. I don’t know if I will include these sections in future drafts, but it has been fun to explore how their history informs their relationship. Additionally, I think I have decided I want to spend more time with these characters on Paxus before sending them out into the world to explore each others’ cultures. As much as I want to jump into the world of Immersia, I have realized how important it is to me that their friendships develop naturally over several chapters. I think I might introduce an extended arc on the Isle of Paxus whereas before I intended that arc to be rather short. This way I can explore the characters’ relationships more and really emphasize how close they have grown once they start exploring the world together.

      1. Thanks, Sarah! I agree that a longer arc on Paxus seems to make sense for the narrative and the characters.

        1. I think exploring their backstories a bit more while they’re on the island will allow me to explore their home countries without actually having to go there. As for what the plot of this extended arc will be… I still need to figure that out.

          1. Ooh, great idea–more flashbacks! And sharing stories? In terms of plot, two that come to mind are the sort of school story scenarios (thinking of HP) and then maybe the outside challenge intruding scenarios (thinking of Tamora Pierce)? And/or maybe the personal stories, traumas, and mental health situations could result in a combination of the two?

        2. It won’t let me reply directly to your comment below, so I am responding here. I definitely agree that I want to have more school oriented stories, specifically ones that focus on interpersonal conflict as a result of personal information being revealed. As for the outside forces, I have been considering what sorts of people would want the peace program to fail, and how they could involve themselves at Paxus.

          1. It seems like each of the three characters has people in their background who might want THEM to fail . . . or to sabotage them in some other way . . .

  9. Excellent work Sarah! It’s very cool to see how you’ve developed from what you were depicting in drawing class a year ago to today. I find it very admirable that you want to be as respectful as possible when taking influence from other cultures and making fictional ones, so that you can provide some representation to other perspectives without degrading or stereotyping them. I’m curious to know if there is a specific process for developing a fictional country. Do you start off first with a real world example, and think about how you want to create a fictional version that takes from that, or do you have an idea of what kind of country you want to create first, and then look to real world influences? Or is it a mixture between the two?

    1. Thank you for the questions and kind words!
      I would say that my process was a mix of the two, but it usually started with a real world example. My Junior year I took a course called Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion, which explored many different cultural beliefs that are not usually taught. Through this course, I was exposed to many of these faiths and cultures for the first time, and it really opened my eyes to how narrow my view of the world was. During this class, I found myself keeping two sets of notes: one for passing the course and the other for developing my fictional world.
      Oftentimes, rather than picking a real world country to draw inspiration from, I would be drawn in by a specific cultural practice and then expand my scope outward to see where that specific practice originated from and what its significance was.
      Other times, I already knew I wanted to model a country off of a real world analog, but then learned something new about that analog and had to incorporate it. This was especially common when I was developing the minority cultures for each of my nations. For example, Gyldenbend has a strong tradition of monotheism, as it is modeled off of Western Europe, but there are also pagan groups who follow other traditions, both in my world and in the real one.

  10. Sarah I have loved hearing all about this these last two semesters and it has always fascinated me when you talked about it, you have so much love for this world and its characters that is incredibly infectious. I was wondering what your writing process looks like, from idea, to outline, to execution?

    1. Thanks!
      Usually when I am sitting down to write, my ideas come from the characters and thinking of what sort of interesting situations I can put them in, usually in a way in which they clash due to cultural differences. I always prefer to resolve these conflicts in a way that the reader can understand both perspectives, but what usually ends up happening is the reader tends to understand better the character that aligns more specifically with their experiences. Because of this, it has become very important to me to outline the general trend of how these relationships develop and the gradual uncovering of specific cultural aspects.
      For this specific project, I knew I wanted to explore relationships between people and cultures, then came up with the plot after the fact. From there, I create an event-by-event outline that explores the progression of these relationships as well as the development of the plot. The outlining process can be as specific as noting a line in a scene that I want to happen. When it comes to final execution, the outline becomes more of a loose guideline. I have my chapters structured by the outline, but sometimes the characters pull me in a new direction, and I end up writing scenes I did not expect. Despite this deviation, all of the new writing contributes back to the general themes and intentions that I conveyed in my original outline.

  11. Congratulations Sarah! I know this work has been a long time goal for you and you’ve done it! Here’s wishing you success in your every endeavor.

    1. Thank you so much!! It has been, and I’m excited to keep exploring this project!

  12. Congratulations on your I.S., Sarah!! I have so enjoyed listening to you speak about these characters and places! I am so impressed with your imagination and the commitment it takes to represent your imagination in words and through art. I appreciate that you “flush-out” your world-building and that you think about the “little” details to create nuance within the story. It really makes Immersia feel like a real place.

    For all that we’ve talked, however, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this: Where did the idea for Immerse come from? What inspired you to write this story? What has influenced your creative choices?

    1. Thanks, Erin!! I’m so glad many of these aspects of the story shone through when I talked about it.
      The origin of Immerse is actually very simple. It began with the characters, Lerita, Irisin, and Sora. They weren’t from any existing world, I only knew about their names (some of which have changed) and the way that they interacted with each other. The setting I put them in changed so many times, as I didn’t really know what story I wanted to include them in. Up until I took my first anthropology course at Wooster, I was dead set on putting them in a modern high school setting, which is really funny looking back.
      Immerse really became a merging of two different ideas. These characters and their dynamics were so interesting to me: the way that Lerita and Irisin’s different experiences pitted them against each other and how Sora became a sort of passive observer who was wrapped up in the action. Once I came to Wooster, I started developing an interest in culture and the way that different groups interact with each other. At some point, I realized that these characters and their disparate experiences fit neatly into my ideas regarding a fantasy world with diverse cultures. From there, I just needed to adjust Lerita, Irisin, and Sora’s stories slightly to fit into the new world, but their dynamics stayed the same. If anything, this setting helped amplify who they are and why they disagree on certain things. And then, of course, I wanted to explore how they resolved those differences, which lead to my conclusion that the novel would be about bridging gaps between people and cultures.
      The inspiration started as a fun little passion project, I just really enjoy writing. Since then, it has become a lot more nuanced, as I genuinely want to do a good job portraying the themes I have developed.
      Some creative influences have been historical and anthropological accounts, folklore from real cultures, and a few high fantasy novels.

  13. Congratulations Sarah! I love how you together your passions for art, writing, and learning about/understanding other cultures into this creative work. It is a labor of love, and I am excited to see where you take it!

    1. Thank you!! I hope that I can keep developing this story and take it somewhere amazing. Love you!

      1. Hi Sarah
        I enjoyed reading about your project. It sounds like something Cousin Nick would enjoy reading. Congratulations on all of your accomplishments!
        Cousin Amy Schultz

  14. May I be the first to request a signed copy of your novel – when completed.
    Am looking forward to reading the story (even in draft form) and viewing your very interesting art work.

    1. Of course! And I would love to share the draft with you as soon as I get home from school! Love you!

  15. Congratulations, Sarah! I’ve loved hearing about your world building, character portraits, and artwork throughout the time that we’ve known each other. It’s wonderful to see (this version!) of the project come together. Can’t wait to see what the future has in hold for you, and this incredible story.

    1. Thank you, Claire! I appreciate you listening along and being interested in my project this year!

  16. Congratulations Sarah! Your creativity shines through this project and I am so proud of your world building capabilities. This story looks so cool and I would love to read it some time! What inspired you to use widely different political systems within the novel? Also, is there a common religion that all these regions practice and lead to the magical abilities?

    1. Thank you! That makes me really happy to hear and I would love to share the draft with you.
      I knew I wanted each of the countries to have different political systems because it is reflective of the real world, but I took particular inspiration from my Intro to International Relations class, where I learned about many different government systems. From there it became a question of figuring out what each country valued and why it would choose that specific system.
      As for the religions, there is no overarching religion in this world, however there is a collective understanding that the wold holds power. Each group of people has their own method of accessing this power/magic. Lerita’s people, for example, pass down a language to communicate with the spirits of the land, and if these spirits trust humans enough they can perform magic on their behalf. Other cultures participate in ritual and alchemy in order to harness this magic. Some gain their magical abilities through bloodlines that were gifted power by gods, saints, or powerful spirits. I preferred to keep the magic very fluid in my world because that is how it is in our world as well. We share some common understandings of philosophy but the types of magic/miracles that humans can perform in the real world is drawn from vastly different sources.

  17. Sarah, this is so cool! I love that you were able to use your passions and talents to create a project so interesting and unique. What a great way to explore this research!

    1. Thank you! It was a lot of fun incorporating the two, research certainly never felt boring.

  18. Congratulations, Sarah, on completing your Senior I.S. and on this stunning presentation. I look forward to seeing this work published some day. I would be interested in hearing how you balanced the creative writing and critical/theoretical sides of your project.

    Wishing you every success with your future endeavors.
    –Prof. P.

    1. Thank you, Professor Palmer! Your class was actually the first one I took at Wooster that really delved into culture and I am really grateful for that early exposure. Our exploration of Latin American art really helped shape the way that I approach cultural studies. It isn’t mentioned in this presentation, but I touch on that briefly in my IS, as well as citing a few books we read in that class. I never would have guessed that I would end up here. So thank you for that.
      When it comes to balancing creative writing and critical/theoretical aspects, it really came down to making sure that all of my writing was well-researched, which is part of why the project is still unfinished. Finding a balance between research and writing was hard, and I wound up spending more time than I expected conducting this research. Often, I hesitated to write certain chapters because I was afraid that I would not be able to properly convey an idea, and I didn’t want to risk portraying a specific culture without having a thorough understanding of it first. This led to many unfinished chapters and unexplored cultures in my world, which I hope to develop more in the future.
      My focus on the critical angle of my work may have held back my creativity in some regards, but more often than not I found the critical aspects to be what inspired my creativity. I think that made writing my critical introduction easy because I already had academic aspects to my work that I wanted to discuss and had been integrating into my work since the beginning.

  19. Sarah, congrats on all your hard work this year! SO much fun world-building here, especially the simulated intertextuality and interpolated texts.

    1. Thank you! All of the courses I took with you were a huge help in refining my skills and developing this world. I had a lot of fun incorporating those texts. Their inclusion was actually inspired by your Junior IS course when we read “Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter.” That collection of poems really resonated with me, especially in how they showcased different aspects of Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s experiences being othered, as well as the lasting effects of colonialism. Thank you for introducing me to such impactful works and helping me refine my writing these past few years.

  20. Congrats Sarah! I remember you working on this last year before Spring Break, don’t know if it’s the same concept as then but, very well thought out and very well inspired!

    1. Thank you! It has stayed the same conceptually but has evolved a great deal since then! I appreciate the kind words!

  21. It’s been great to see this novel develop over the last two semesters! I always love your worldbuilding and character development, it’s a shame we didn’t get to read a larger excerpt in your presentation!

    Great job and good luck with your work on Immerse in the future!

    1. Thank you so much! That means a lot to me coming from such a talented writer. Sorry I haven’t included a larger segment, I didn’t really know how to make it fit in the presentation. I’m always happy to share excerpts though!

  22. Wow, such impressive work on the characters and theme. Count me in to read the manuscript! Well done. So glad we had the opportunity to connect on campus. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you. 👏👏

    1. Thank you so much! If you’d like I can send you the draft! I’m glad we got to meet too.

  23. Okay this is incredible! Love the art and basis for the story! Can’t wait to read it and see the art.. you are so talented. Love much

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