History: The Secret Weapon of Fantasy Writers
I’ve heard it time and again…
Some readers will stay clear of fantasy because “fantasy” seems to imply “unrealistic.”
As a storyteller, I firmly believe that all stories are fantasy and all good stories—even fantasy stories—are realistic. There’s only one difference. Because “realistic” stories mimic life so faithfully, they more easily trick us into believing we are reading reality (when we are in fact reading stories). Fantasy doesn’t cheat us.
Both fantasy writers and readers perfectly know those worlds and characters don’t exist, never existed, and never will. So, why should we read fantasy, then?
Well, why do we read stories at all? Neurologists will tell you that stories are an experience. They build our awareness, abilities, and empathy the same as if we experienced what the characters do ourselves. But to achieve this awesome effect, stories need to be ‘realistic’, and I’m speaking of a level of realism that goes far beyond the difference between making light in a dark place with a globe of magic rather than with an electric torch.
As fantasy writers, we need to take down one more barrier in order to place the reader in a position to enjoy our story.
Our worlds need to be so realistic and believable that the reader sees past the fanciful surface without being distracted by what they might otherwise consider unlikely. We need to make our worlds more than realistic.
We need to make them meaningful. Our fantasy world needs to speak to readers about their reality even when it doesn’t depict that reality.
So then, how do we help our readers see their life beneath the surface of a world that doesn’t exist, never did, and never will?
Before we start the article I’d like to introduce you all to Sarah Zama, today’s guest!
Sarah is an awesome dieselpunk author, and her unique perspective on the combination of history and fantasy makes her the perfect person to write this post. I hope you’ll give her a warm welcome down in the comments and enjoy this post just as much as I have 🙂 – Lewis
Own the “Unrecognizable”
As professor JRR Tolkien eloquently put it, we need to give our fantasy world the “inner consistency of reality.”
Our fantasy world might not look real, but it needs to feel real. And to feel real, we must give the reader the possibility to connect and to recognize something of their own.
This is where fantasy has its hardest chance. To be defined as fantasy, a story must offer something “unrecognizable.” Something that doesn’t exist, or doesn’t exist that way in the reality we live in. The defining characteristic of a fantasy world is the author’s own arbitrary creation, an element that comes from the author’s imagination and has no real counterpart in the world readers experience every day.
“Realistic” writers and readers will find a common ground in the world they both know from experience. Fantasy writers and readers will need to take one further step because readers will never accept the fantasy idea at the core of the story if they don’t have the opportunity to make it their own.
But don’t fret!
There are many ways in which we as fantasy writers can build that bridge that will allow readers to enter our world. There are ways in which we can help readers recognize the “unrecognizable.”
Turning an imagined world into an alien place the reader won’t recognize and own is a present and real issue for a fantasy writer, but if we play are cards wisely, we can turn that imaginary world into a mirror of our reader’s reality. There are many tools to help us achieve this. One of my favorites is history.
The Grit of It
One might think there are no two things as different as fantasy and history.
Fantasy is what never existed and will never exist. It’s arbitrary and imaginative, and often the more fantastical and surreal it is, the more we appreciate it. History is what was once. It’s grounded in the past, it’s unchangeable, it’s logical, finite, definitive, and we appreciate it most when it’s presented accurately.
It’s precisely because history is so different from fantasy that it makes fantasy more approachable for readers.
Where fantasy is arbitrary and authorial, history is shareable and objective (to some degree). By using history in our fantasy world we build that bridge that will allow readers to enter. We allow them to ‘recognize’ and so to feel grounded, to share and ultimately to own our imagined world.
I’ve always loved history and I’ve always preferred fantasy that mixes history in. I appreciate it as a reader and as a writer. So, let’s have a look at the more common and effective ways to mix the two.
This is the most obvious way to use history in a fantasy context.
After all, history is in part story. It has settings, main characters, and unfolding events. I find that, in this sense, history is particularly useful as backstory. If we pin down a historical event as the backbone for our backstory, it will make it more solid than if we just made it up.
History will supply us with situations and—this is very important—reasons.
When we look at history, everything happens for a reason and reasons are always hardest to pin down in fiction, especially when they don’t actually enter the story but are only in the background.
In the Long Prince Quartet, Daniel Abraham depicts a fantasy world that clearly resembles the Far East of Asia when it was forced to open up to the rest of the world. It’s a world of powerful merchants, shrewd diplomats, huge commercial fleets, commercial laws, and fights. The first book, A Shadow in Summer, mostly takes place in a port city where foreign merchants with a clearly European culture are slowly filtering into an Asian society. In some places it’s even possible to recognize the main features of how the British Empire slowly pressed the Japanese Empire to open their ports and markets, with all the social, political, and commercial dynamics that went with it.
This doesn’t mean that Abraham carbon copied history, but it does mean that he borrowed complex dynamics that are not only likely, but were at one time in history true, and helped made his story more grounded, more solid, and ultimately more realistic.
Basing fantasy societies on real historical societies is just as effective.
Societies are complex entities, with diverse dynamics. As writers, we are seldom fully equipped to create a society and its dynamics from scratch because we are storytellers, not sociologists. History once again can provide us with real societies that are already complete and logical, on which we can base our own fantasy versions.
In Sten Nichols’ Orcs series, the main characters are Orcs. Here we also have an example of timelines at work since in the story’s background humans have appeared and are slowly encroaching on the land of the Orcs in a way that closely resembles the Native American/European history in North America. Human settlers are slowing entering the Orcs’s land, settling down, and expanding their communities.
However, Orc society is instead base on ancient Spartan society, with its strongly war oriented structure, which allowed Nichols to create a culture that is extremely warrior-like, not just in attitude but also in philosophy.
When combined, the histories of Europeans in America and of Spartans in Ancient Greece are two extremely far away realities in terms of place and time, which helped Nichols fashion two societies that have very little in common with each other. This in turn helped stress the fact that in his world Orcs and Humans are not only two different cultures, but two different species altogether.
Magic and the supernatural are defining characteristics of fantasy, but on some level, this may well be where authors and readers might find themselves furthest apart.
Where timelines and setting may be considered “passive” elements, magic systems and creatures are “active” elements in the story and will impact the reader’s enjoyment of the novel tremendously.
Here we need to be extra-careful.
I’ve read magic systems that blew my mind and I find that most of the time, rather than being completely made up by the author, these magic systems are a clever twist on something I’m already familiar with. This is where history comes in to provide that common ground that’ll allow readers to feel at home rather than in an alien, unfamiliar, possibly unnegotiable land.
History provides us with a real treasure of myths, legends, belief systems, mystic attitudes and even philosophies that may be the base for something fantastical in our stories, and still won’t be completely unknown to the reader.
Personally, I believe that the deeper we dig into these myths and legends, into their anthropological, folkloristic, and sometimes even psychological fabric, the more they offer us in terms of ideas. If we take the time and effort to truly understand the identity of a legend or a myth, they’ll give us in return ideas that we never imagined and that have the potential to make our stories and characters deeper, more real and—why not?—more original.
So let’s not just be content with “what everybody already knows about it,” but let’s try to discover these legends’ true hearts, their true position in the culture that produced them.
Anything can be the spark that brings a new idea to life.
Legends and folktales are not only set in the past, but they lived in the past. They offer us a catalog of fantastic creatures (ghosts, vampires, were-animals, dragons, witches, wizards…) that lived and moved in a historical and cultural environment where they ‘made sense’. They already present us with why they existed and how they interacted with humans.
In The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, women cannot marry men, only ghosts. It’s one of those ideas that makes you wonder how she came up with it, but it actually belongs to a Chinese storytelling tradition which lends the story not just the idea, but also the way a human bride and her family handle her relationship with her ghost groom and his world of the beyond.
Witchcraft, foresight, the ability to communicate with the underworld – our ancestors believed in a lot of things we now considered unlikely. But it was real to them, and they lived their lives taking those beliefs and practices into consideration. We can do the same in our fantasy worlds, without having to imagine what it would be like.
We have the possibility to learn how it felt from history.
Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Knwal presents a story set during WWI where people with a special gift can communicate with the dead. This ability is used in the war effort. In our actual history, occultism became widely practiced during WWI, giving Knwal’s story not just an idea, but also the feeling, the whys, and the practices that she can apply to her imagined reality.
Belief Systems and Secular Structures:
Belief systems are particularly important since they don’t only show us how beliefs are structured, but also how they play out in people’s lives. To me this is very important because it’s often difficult to expand from personal life (which is relatively easy to depict in any story, even fantasy stories) into a connection to the fantasy element, whatever that is.
The way a historical belief manifested in everyday life gives us the dynamics of how to infuse our character’s everyday life with their “fantasy belief,” whether it’s the way magic impacts people in your imagined world, whether they have that gift or not, or how they might behave toward fantasy creatures and the places they live.
Not to mention that belief systems of old might be the base for a true religion-like structure in our fantasy world.
In The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien the Elves that were once lords of parts of Middle-earth are now hidden in faraway realms. Humans don’t go looking for them because they distrust them (when they don’t think they’re mere folklore, not real people).
In the Lightbringer Trilogy, Oliver Johnson creates a world where the sun is dying, giving birth to two opposing creeds, one based on the worship of light and one based on the acceptance of darkness. These opposing creeds create two different ways of life for their worshippers as well as one of the cleverest reinterpretations of the zombie tradition I’ve ever read.
History can also provide the idea for true plot twists. This is particularly evident in fantasy stories that are historically set, which are becoming more and more common today.
Some of these stories bring together an accurate historical setting with an obviously fantastical idea (such as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, where the Napoleonic Wars are fought with an air force of dragons) while others create an altogether Alternate History by imagining a world which is recognizably our own, but where history took a different turn (GB-SS by Len Deighton is based on the premise that the Third Reich did conquer Great Britain).
Connecting fantasy with history and reality is crucial in these kinds of stories.
This is often done by giving the fantasy element a very realistic treatment. For example, in Novik’s series she does lay down an absolute fantasy premise: dragons existed in the Napoleonic world. However, she recreates a very accurate 1800s world, places dragons inside it, then describes the training of dragons with the accuracy of any animal training. She handles the use of dragons in war just like aviation actually worked in its infancy and so she makes the existence of dragons feel quite likely in the Napoleonic world. Dragons have a place and a way of living, not to mention a reason to exist in that reality.
It’s a delicate balance, but it can be attained.
In fact, this more obvious mixing of history and fantasy has turned into entire new genres.
Steampunk: Based on Victorian times and places, or a fantastical rendition of it, like in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, where different incarnations of London exist and some people can use magic to travel from one to the other.
Dieselpunk: Set in an interwar time or in a fantasy recreation of it (like my own writing), such as Ari Marmell’s Mick Oberon series, which is set in 1920s Chicago where fairies and other supernatural beings exist and make war on each other.
The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side
Ultimately, fantasy is a subversive mode of storytelling.
It challenges us to think outside the box, to imagine the unimaginable, and to put ourselves in situations we know we’ll never find ourselves in, while still considering what it would mean and what we would do. It stretches our ability to think of new solutions.
But I think fantasy is particularly effective when it’s mixed in with history, because it more effectively brings the fantastical into our own experiences. For me, history lends to fantasy that particular thickness, a pertinence that a completely invented fantasy world may not have. It helps readers ground themselves in the fantasy world, and to better understand the message of the story.
Where mimetic fiction speaks to us through the faithful representation of life as we know it…
Fantasy speaks to us through the subversion of life as we know it.
Still, I do believe that all modes of storytelling do the same thing: they speak to us about ourselves and they challenge us to look deeper in what we know or we think we know. As fantasy writers, we just need to be extra-careful when building that bridge to let readers enter our world, but if we do it right, readers will feel at home.
They can feel very real, those made up worlds that don’t exist, never did, and never will.
Born and raised in Verona, Italy, Sarah Zama has always loved to surround herself with books, so it may be a sort of karma that she ended up being a bookseller and an indie author. A fantasy reader since childhood, a Tolkien nerd almost as long, she’s always being fascinated with history and old black-and-white mystery films, which may or may not have had a hand in her involvement in the dieselpunk community.
Give in to the Feeling is her first published novella. She’s currently working on more historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, and you can find her over on her blog, The Old Shelter, or on Instagram.