Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts. Visit him online at djangowexler.com.
How important is it that fantasy be ‘historically accurate?’
In one sense, of course, I know this is a silly question. Fantasy wouldn’t be fantasy without the elements that are, well, fantastic-magic, monsters, gods and demons, giant world-carrying turtles, garden statuary that comes to life and grants wishes when you hum the right tune, and so on. Whether it’s hiding in the shadows in an urban fantasy setting or front and center in a secondary world, these unrealistic elements are at the core of the genre I love. At the very least, even the lowest of low fantasy takes place in a world substantially unlike our own in terms of geography, politics, etc.
But I do think there is a way in which the question can be meaningful. In order for all the fantastic stuff to matter, we need a story, and at their hearts stories are about people. They may be six inches high and living in the wainscoting, or forty feet long with wings and armored scales, but they are usually recognizably human in outlook, at least if the author wants us to empathize with or understand them. They build their societies in accordance with the basics of human nature, as influenced by their history and environment. I think follows that there should be some similarities between fantasy societies and their real-world counterparts, at least when they arise under similar circumstances, and historical accuracy has some meaning after all.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many people use the notion of ‘historical accuracy’ as a cudgel to push back against elements that some reader finds uncomfortable. This is the “There’s no such thing as women knights!” or “You can’t have people of color in your medieval fantasy!” argument, which has given the whole notion of historical accuracy a bad name in some circles. So let’s establish from the start that this entire category of arguments is nonsensical-frankly, it’s insulting to the variety of historical experience. Even without invoking fantastic elements, there’s so much wild and strange stuff in actual history as to make the claim that such things “can’t” happen ridiculous.
History should never be used to say “you can’t do that.” It should help our creativity as writers, not hinder it. For me, the right way to look at history is as a gigantic toolbox to dig through, looking for something that fits your particular needs and circumstances. I’ve found it invaluable in this role-the real world is so rich and strange that I guarantee, no matter how carefully you sketch out a fantasy society, there will always be some telling detail you didn’t think of waiting for you if you read about that society’s real-world equivalent.
So my opening question is probably the wrong one. What we want to know is not, “Does historical realism matter?” but rather “How can historical realism help us?” I’ll look at a few possibilities below, along with examples of how it helped me put together my book The Thousand Names.
Societies, in general, make a certain amount of sense. This is particularly true of societies that have been in place for a long time, as groups that don’t make any kind of sense tend to get winnowed out by the remorseless forces of nature. This doesn’t mean that every element of a society will have some logical reason behind it, only that people generally don’t do things that are obviously stupid. (Or at least not for very long. Check out Jared Diamond’s Collapse for some interesting examples.)
Some of these adaptations are pretty obvious. (Just look around you to get started!) A culture that lives in a snowy climate is going to build dwellings with peaked roofs, or devise some other method to prevent their houses from collapsing under the weight of winter snows. A society in a place lashed by regular monsoons will build their housing to protect against that, and adapt their agricultural techniques as well. People from wide, grassy plains might eat a lot of beef, while those from temperate forests might keep pigs. And so on.
I’ve found that it’s difficult to deduce all of this on your own; no author, however inventive, can match the creativity of generations of people actually living a particular lifestyle. Fortunately, you don’t have to reason it all out from first principles. If you can find a historical society (or two, or four) that roughly match the one you’re trying to construct in terms of geography, history, and technological development, you have a wealth of telling historical details at your fingertips. There’s no need to include everything, and nothing says you “must” be consistent with your model-instead, treat it as a source of interesting ideas. (But be careful to maintain consistency! There’s nothing worse than re-reading your story and realizing you have horse-drawn carts delivering food to the capital in a society that never invented the wheel.)
The Thousand Names takes place in a country called Khandar, which has long been under the rule of the distant, more technologically advanced nation of Vordan. In terms of geography and climate, Khandar has a lot in common with ancient Egypt-it’s mostly desert, with a single huge river winding its way to the coast after descending from faraway highlands. That gave me a place to start when building Khandarai society, beginning with the critical importance of irrigation and going on from there. With river transport all-important, the natural place for the largest city is at the river mouth (much easier to push loaded barges downriver than up), and drinking the river water after its thousand-mile path is a really bad idea.
Many of the details I cribbed in my research never made it into the book, which is fine. This sort of thing is there to smooth the way for the reader, not take center stage. It’s tempting, after doing a lot of research work, to give everyone the guided tour, but most readers will only be bored by this. My goal is to get the details to support the story, and make sure nothing sticks out like a nasty splinter to make a reader sit up and go, “Huh? How does that work?”
One caution. It is not a good idea to copy any particular real-world society too closely. You should distinguish between cultural adaptations to geography and climate (everyone wears head coverings because the desert sun is really strong) and actual cultural mores (covering one’s head is required by religious observance). The latter are usually the result of historical accident and tradition, rather than directly of the environment, and it’s best to mix things up compared to the real world equivalents for a couple of reasons. First, if you produce a culture that is obviously a thinly-veiled stand-in for a real-world group, the reader will start to wonder what they’re doing in this secondary world, and you may lose suspension of disbelief. (After all, how likely is it that even a similar society would develop exactly the same table customs?) Second, it may cause people to start looking through your book for a Message, and you may not like what they find.
Another area where I love using real-world history is deciding where, exactly, your society falls on the ladder of technological progress.
Obviously not all societies make progress in the same way. The technological trajectories of the Roman and Chinese empires, though roughly contemporaneous, were quite different, as were the ages that followed. This means that you are completely justified in changing particular technological points where they are important to the story-if your society is around the 8th century, but needs indoor plumbing, more power to you. But you have to be careful to account for any changes a historical technology might introduce, compared to your model society. If you decide that your Roman Empire-equivalent has a crude form of gunpowder, that’s going to alter the way they wage war quite a bit!
The reason I like to rely on a historical equivalent is that it helps answer the question of “Does this society have X?” without accidentally introducing any head-scratching anachronisms. Again, this is for background details, not plot-important moments. For example, you might be writing a scene that takes place at night, in someone’s house, and think, “Wait, what would they use to light their houses?” Reaching for the history book to find out might give you a nice detail (whale-oil lamps!) that sheds a little light (ahem) onto the society in question.
In The Thousand Names, the Vordanai (that is, the people from Vordan) are at a stage of technological development roughly equivalent to Western Europe between 1780 and 1800. A lot of the book deals with military matters, so the things that are important for that are set up-muskets, cannons, horses, and so on. But pinning down the technological range helped me with the incidental details as well. They have spyglasses, pocket watches, and (just barely) gas lights, but not revolvers, dynamite, or steam engines. If I’d accidentally included any of those, it would have the potential to mess things up considerably!
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Your last step in using any kind of historical reference is a quick sanity check. Unless you’re writing historical fiction, you’ve probably grabbed bits and pieces from a variety of times and places, and it’s good to go over your design again with an eye to whether or not anything sticks out as unlikely. Remember the basic rule that societies tend not to do things that are obviously stupid or suicidal, at least for very long, and make sure you haven’t given them customs that are going to cause problems.
For example-many cultures have a coming-of-age ritual, where young men or women are sent to hunt some particular animal to prove their fitness. To make this more exciting, you might turn the thing that they’re supposed to hunt into a real monster, so the test becomes incredibly dangerous. Great! Except-if the ritual has a pretty significant chance of death, the society will run out of young men and women pretty quickly.
Even this, though, is not a point at which you should say, “Bah, it’s unrealistic!” and give up. It just requires further tweaking. Maybe the ritual is a fairly recent invention, and the young people rebel against the elders imposing it on them. Maybe they live in a society with a high birthrate and a fixed agricultural base, so only a savage culling of each successive generation saves them from overpopulation. (Hawai’i, pre-European contact, had something like this model!) Maybe, as a result of being hunted for generations, the monsters have evolved to their present dangerous form.
You get the point. A reasonable fantasy society has to make sense to the reader, in terms of its geography, climate, culture, technological base, and so on. I think history and “historical accuracy” can help with that-not by shutting down ideas as “inaccurate,” but by serving as a toolbox of things that did work, somewhere and somewhen. Do a little reading, and I guarantee you’ll find something to surprise you!