Why History and Fantasy Aren’t Enemies
History and Fantasy may work powerfully together… if we treat them as equal
I’ve been a fantasy reader since the age of sixteen. It’s a few decades, trust me. I’ve read any kind of fantasy, from the classic epic stories from the 1930s pulp magazines to the new ‘anthropological’ fantasy of a decade ago. I’ve seen the entire spectrum of how fantasy creates its own world and some trends I’ve witnessed as they happened. And I’ve noticed something. Most of the time, fantasy seems to ransack history with no regard for what history truly was. Fantasy takes what it’s cool, it leaves the rest behind, without a thought the damage it’s doing. Besides, why should fantasy writers concern themselves with what history was? We are not writing history, right? It’s fantasy, so historical mechanics and truth don’t apply.
In spite of their close relationship in the storytelling world, nothing seems to be farther apart than fantasy and history, especially when fantasy cannibalises history giving nothing in return.
Still, I’ve always been fascinated by this relationship. My favourite fantasy stories have always been the ones that most show off their debt to history (Tolkien fan — cough-cough). The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and The Lion of Macedon by David Gemmell are among my first very favourite fantasy novels. I was ecstatic when, at the beginning of the 2000s, fantasy veered toward a more historical, even anthropological take, before the economic crisis destroyed most of it. Stories like The Orcs Saga by Stan Nicholls and The Long Prince Quartet by Daniel Abrahams (to cite only two), were created with historical mechanics and logic firmly in mind when not even explicit references to actual cultures.
The truth is that fantasy doesn’t need to cannibalise history. Like in so many other areas, collaboration is the best practice and the most fruitful. When history and fantasy work together with respect for each another, that’s when fantastic fantasy stories are born.
It is true, fantasy and history rest on very different grounds.
History is solid. History happened. Maybe It isn’s as unchangeable as we’d like to think (our perception of history changes all the time, as new discoveries emerge), but we can see and touch it in actual documents and remains.
Fantasy is evanescent. Fantasy not only never was, but it will never be. Its only source is in our minds, in our imagination. No matter how good we are as writers, it will never be more than just believable.
But these differences are what may enrich both fantasy and history when they work together as equal. Not only can history lend its solidity to fantasy, fantasy can lend its vision to history.
The Historical Writer’s Dilemma: Story or History?
Let’s face it: what’s more important?
The solidity and complexity of history
Fantasy presents typically a kind of story where a complete secondary reality is created. A world with its own history, geography, cultures, past and present. This is no little task. And if it’s true that fantasy may create whatever we want, it is also true that readers are not inclined to believe anything. An author needs to make that world not only intriguing and different, colourful and surprising, but also credible and as realistic as reality is. To say it with Prof. Tolkien, that made up world needs to have the inner consistency of reality.
This is where history can be beneficial to fantasy and in many ways.
The most obvious is that history may lend to fantasy actual reality. From history, the fantasy can acquire geography, cultures, characters and their drives. It can also work out chains of events, and what is more important, the reasons why certain events happened. Fantasy can also acquire from history political situations and beliefs, as well as religions and philosophies, economic dynamics and social rules and mores.
The reason why fantasy has often cannibalised history is that history has so much to offer to a fantasy writer. But think about it! The more historically accurate we are, the more original our world becomes. We may content ourselves with the surface of history, and cursory research online. We may even content ourselves with relying on other history-inspired novels and skip our own research. But what we’ll end up with it’s most of times stereotypes.
I firmly believe that accurate historical research that goes deep into the subject we have chosen results in very unique ideas. This is beneficial to setting and world-building, but also to the plot and narrative arcs. I doubt that Stan Nicholls would have ever come up with such a sophisticated Orc culture if he had no idea of how a military/warrior society operates both on the outside (social behaviours, life styles) and on the inside (personal behaviours, social mores).
It may sound crazy, but I do believe that being historically accurate makes for far stronger and immersive fantasy worlds.
“Write what you know” or “know what you write”?
Every writer is familiar with the mantra “write what you know”. I do agree that’s good advice, but sometimes, “know…
The fantasist’s vision
It’s harder to see what fantasy may lend to history, which might be the reason why so often it’s a one-way taking.
Where history is solid and coherent, it may also be (and usually is) very complex. Very often, it isn’t easy to decode history, mainly because the causes for one historical event may go back decades, if not centuries. Sometimes only a very devoted history enthusiast may decipher one historical event and its importance for us today, for example. Readers are often not ready for that ride since mostly they’ve just come along for a good story.
Here is where fantasy can help. A fantasy manifestation in a world that is mostly historical may help elements, reasons, causes and relations come to the surface. It may become clearer to see them in the real, complex historical context.
A fantastical vision may also help see the relevance of certain historical events to us today because fantasy acts as a bridge between the past and the present. In The Ghost Bride by Yangtze Choo, which is set in a realistic rendition of colonial China, the main character Li Lanis trapped between the real world and the world of ghosts. Invisible strings pull her towards both worlds, and she moves between these two worlds. It’s a very vivid image of what it means to be part of two different cultures, both with a firm grasp on a person. In Li Lan’s journey, we see how land and culture dislocation impacts a person’s life maybe more clearly than reality ever allows us.
There is so much that fantasy and history can offer us as writers when we treat them as equal. It takes effort, sure. It also takes training. But I think what we get in return is one of the most fantastic rewarding a storyteller — and a reader — might receive.
How to write a character that impacts the story? By giving them not just history and character personality traits but also a strong narrative role. Create characters that leave a mark. Give them a strong desire, make them fight for it. That’s how to create memorable characters. Download The Protagonist Builder, a free worksheet and start creating your character right away.
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Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Fourteen years ago, when she started her job in a bookshop, she discovered books that address the structure of a story and she became addicted to them. Today, she’s a dieselpunk author who writes fantasy stories historically set in the 1920s. Her life-long interest in Tolkien has turned quite nerdy recently.
She writes about all her passions on her blog https://theoldshelter.com/