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Author Topic: Write Fantasy as if it is History  (Read 3959 times)

Offline Yora

Write Fantasy as if it is History
« on: November 15, 2015, 03:02:13 PM »
There have been several writers who are said to have created fantasy stories of high quality because they were treating it as if it were history. And I think on an abstract level, I do have a rough idea and understanding what that could mean.

But how would that translate into practice? It sounds simple enough and like something anyone could do. But what does it really mean?
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

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Offline ArhiX

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #1 on: November 15, 2015, 03:55:23 PM »
I love the concept of it. And I think Malazan is some kind of good example.
We have normal narration in story. This person done this and this. This one died. Standard.
Then - in between chapters - we have this tiny little pieces from 'chistorical chronicles'. Because of actions of someone in the year of 1300 Sleep of Burn such person died. It had repercussions in a way of (...).

It's neat, because those 'chronicles' are only showing some parts of a whole action. They can even lie. You can read how someone was fighting for the cause to death - you know he was a loyal person, and then - in chronicles - he is shown as a traitor and the one who was actual traitor... is now a hero.
History is written by the victors. Or so they say.

And so to say... maybe you just have to treat your story like you were only speaking about something that was already set in stone. Maybe you just have to treat it like it actually happened but it's actually a past...
"The world is full of stories, and from time to time, they permit themselves to be told."

Offline Yora

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #2 on: November 15, 2015, 04:31:09 PM »
I think one of the big key things is probably to make it appear that the world exists beyond the personal story of the protagonist. There are other cities and other countries and they are interacting in ways not directly connected to the plot, and those interactions go back a considerable time. Things are happening even when the protagonist isn't involved and people have their own interests that don't really have anything to do with the subject of the current plot.

And once you start looking a bit closer, it's actually not uncommon for many fantasy worlds to not do that. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar is the stage for his two protagonists and while they sometimes go outside of the city they only find isolated ruins in the middle of nowhere. There aren't really other places where people live. Michael Moorcock and Karl Wagner don't really spend much attention to it either, but in the very same niche genre for which these three wrote you also have .Robert Howard's Hyborian Age, which constantly is reminding the reader of other places and their unique cultures that surround the current location of the story.

People often call it history, but I think it's actually less about accounts of major political and military events, but more about a living world with it's own cultures, dynamics, and relationships. (Which is something contemporary historians are also getting very much interested in.)
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline Matamelcan

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #3 on: November 16, 2015, 06:08:56 AM »


Darn it, my awesome meme won't work.

Well, I think it means write is as complex as history.  Trade routes, sanctions, ancient alliances, geographical locations shaping continents, cultures, cities, wars, and everything.
The world has to be living and breathing, as complex as our world, and vibrant as every shred of emerald grass. But, it has to have mystery, impossible places and buildings, and most of all...
 
Magic!
« Last Edit: November 16, 2015, 06:11:54 AM by Matamelcan »
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Offline CameronJohnston

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #4 on: November 16, 2015, 08:27:15 AM »
I think it does just boils down to 'Make it real', and that means a setting, with living characters all with their own aims and goals, hopes and fears independent of whatever your main characters desire. Nations and cities and whatnot make sweeping changes to the world, and usually that is greater than any one character.

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Offline zmunkz

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #5 on: November 20, 2015, 11:21:38 PM »
Well, I think it means write is as complex as history.  Trade routes, sanctions, ancient alliances, geographical locations shaping continents, cultures, cities, wars, and everything.

I agree with this.  The world and the characters existed and were moving before you came in and started telling this specific story.  I think both the characters and the setting need to show that pre-existence whenever they can to feel real.  So ya, how does this city get its food, who are the geographical neighbors, which ways does tourism flow, what kind of jobs do most people have, all the real-world things that should exist in a real place with a real history.
"People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do." --Isaac Asimov

Offline jefGoelz

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #6 on: November 22, 2015, 05:36:27 AM »
Story is what matters, not world-building.  So if you can make your history about a story, I think it might work.

Offline Adrian_Selby

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Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #7 on: November 30, 2015, 09:03:58 AM »
I would also interpret it meaning, alongside the great comments above, a research of real history, i.e. an understanding of history.  I feel I benefit greatly from using actual history as a springboard.  To give a really cheesy example:  A tin sword is never going to be much use :) If therefore I want to write, in a fantasy novel, about someone forging a tin sword, I need to understand the former to know what I need to do with the latter, i.e. put some magic in the sword, or have 'tin' in my world, be quite unlike 'tin' in this one.  But unless I specify this, a reader will laugh when my hero hurls herself into battle with a tin sword.

A less cheesy example is social order.  I'm reading a lot lately about the transition from tribal societies to fully fledged nation states - Francis Fukayama's The Origins of Political Order.  The question of taxation of people, the roles of the gentry, the nobility, commoners and the crown in the creation of wealth, the taxation of that wealth, trade and so on and what it means for war and empire, as well as intrigue among these principle social actors is important to understand because all of it was grounded in what people (and any book is really only about people) actually did, and they do things driven by what makes fiction good; greed, jealousy, hate, love etc.

So how things came to be in reality should always be the basis for a fantasy author's springboard off into their own world, because our reality was defined by how people are.  As such, characters in a fantasy novel will be trying to do the same kinds of things there they would be doing in our own pre-modern era (generalisation alert :)) such as protecting the family, feeding the family, doing one's duty, fulfilling one's ambitions etc. etc.

Offline tebakutis

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Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #8 on: November 30, 2015, 04:42:19 PM »
I agree with this.  The world and the characters existed and were moving before you came in and started telling this specific story.  I think both the characters and the setting need to show that pre-existence whenever they can to feel real.  So ya, how does this city get its food, who are the geographical neighbors, which ways does tourism flow, what kind of jobs do most people have, all the real-world things that should exist in a real place with a real history.

Yeah, this is all great stuff that makes a world feel more alive. For me personally, I always plot out any new world at least 50-100 or so years into the past - what big wars occurred, what sort of shared events does everyone reference, and so on. You have to think about the big historical events we all share.

In our real world, for example, you have WW II and the Nazis. Everyone is always comparing SOMEONE or SOMETHING to Nazis, and that's because we as a society are aware of the history. Same with 9/11. Obviously, the events don't have to be that horrific, but having your characters refer to historical events of which most everyone in the world is aware, particularly in conversation, is a great way to make a world feel like it exists outside of your story.

George R. R. Martin is just one example of this. There's a HUGE story that takes place before Game of Thrones (the first book) even starts, and people constantly refer to it. Robert's Rebellion. The Mad King. The Kingslayer. All of these things happened prior to the book, and they have passed into public knowledge to the point where people use them as a reference point. Much like people sometimes eventually ask "Where were you when 9/11 happened?" people in Martin's books ask things like "Who did you fight for during Robert's Rebellion?"

The fact that there are huge historical events in the past, and everyone knows about and references them, is one of several great ways to make a world feel bigger than the specific story or characters. It gives the world a feeling of having a real history because that history is known and referenced in the everyday lives of people.

Offline Yora

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #9 on: November 30, 2015, 08:33:39 PM »
I think you could explain the global situation of today very well by starting in 1945. What happened in World War II does no longer directly matter to any current conflict, but everything starts right at the moment when fighting stopped and people started to negotiate what would come next. You can't explain China, Korea, or Iraq without starting in 1945.

But that's still just 70 years. Which compared to the span of history in many fantasy worlds is actually really short. If you have very long lived people, maybe double or tripple that, but I don't think any longer than that is really necessary to explain the status of your world as it is now. Everything before that is myth and legend. (Assuming the author attempts to use a realistic time scale. Many seem to be off by a factor of 100 or 1000 when estimating how many years should have passed since and event, given how well it is remembered and the impact it still has.)
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline ultamentkiller

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #10 on: November 30, 2015, 10:26:58 PM »
I love world-building and all, but there's a right way to do it. Coming up with trade routes and different types of crops and all that is cool. But give me a reason why I, the reader, should care what country is trading with where my characters are. If it doesn't effect their life, why does it matter?
Otherwise, your book does become a fictional history book, with detailed descriptions of events.
What do I mean by effecting their life? Of course trade routes are going to effect things. But how is it relevant to the story? Would the characters be thinking about that to help solve their problems?
Hope that makes sense.

Offline zmunkz

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #11 on: December 01, 2015, 01:00:36 AM »
I love world-building and all, but there's a right way to do it. Coming up with trade routes and different types of crops and all that is cool. But give me a reason why I, the reader, should care what country is trading with where my characters are. If it doesn't effect their life, why does it matter?
Otherwise, your book does become a fictional history book, with detailed descriptions of events.
What do I mean by effecting their life? Of course trade routes are going to effect things. But how is it relevant to the story? Would the characters be thinking about that to help solve their problems?
Hope that makes sense.

As the reader, you shouldn't care -- and a good writer will not bore you with exposition about how trading works. 

The writer himself, though, should have a sense of these things.  This way as his plot interacts with his world, he can keep things realistic and the immersion good.  Often this only manifests in minute details.  Let's say a king is overthrown and the capital city is in chaos, well if the capital is the primary exporter of <whatever>, that would be a tiny plot blip that might come up elsewhere in the kingdom between characters.  It has nothing to do with the story, and is probably only mentioned in passing, but as you subconsciously absorb a few of these things you get a sense of a real living and working world.

Leave it all out, and the story probably works just as well, but the depth of the immersion is fractionally lower.

I would say a new writer should err on the side of less details, for the reasons you mentioned, whereas a more experienced writer knows how to weave this tony details into the right place to create the immersion.
"People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do." --Isaac Asimov

Offline Yora

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #12 on: January 12, 2016, 12:34:17 PM »
I was reading some articles about the Conan story Beyond the Black River by people with a very strong interest in historical fiction and I those directed my attention to another perspective on the subject. In that tale Conan is some kind of "military advisor" who is using the skills and knowledge he learned as a boy in a barbarian tribe to teach and supervise civilized soldiers who are trying to claim new territory for settlement from the local barbarians. Then the natives are getting restless and Conan is really the only one among the good guys who is capable to deal with true savage warfare. The story has been described as being a fantasy adaptation of tales from the American Frontier, but it could also be a fantasy adaptation of the Romans crossing the Rhine or the Vikings crossing from Greenland to the continent.
It's not the classic history book type of history that deals with kings and generals, but much more similar to the currently very popular kind of history that examines how people lived and what they were dealing with at the lower levels. It's about how things were normally instead of the exceptions when extraordinary things were happening. Especially when it comes to early (colonial) American history, there seems to be a very high interest in the personal stories of interesting individuals that have been preserved, even if their deeds are completely irrelevant when you take a more global view spanning centuries. Part of it is probably necessity because at the time there were no big kingdoms, powerful kings, or many huge battles. But even the tales of a hunter who became an important translator for solving a few specific conflicts between locals and settlers can get very exciting because they are windows into the world of those people involved, to which we otherwise have very little access.

And I think one thing that makes Conan stories different from most other adventure tales is that his stories regularly intersect with what are important "big history" events. We only see what Conan does and encounters, but the people he fights against or for are generally involved in some pretty big business. There are big things happening in the history of the world, but instead of seeing them in the big picture from above with the kings and generals, we usually get a look at them directly from the ground where you can see only a very small piece but with details usually invisible in Epic Fantasy.
The other writer next to Howard who often gets praised for creating a sense of history is Tolkien, and The Hobbit is perhaps the best example to see that. For Bilbo it is a completely straight adventure tale. Go places, encounter monsters, return home rich and wiser. But for the dwarves it is an important episode of their history. It's not just a single adventure but a big turning point that completely changes the power structure in the region. But the tale is Bilbo's tale and so when the big battle between all the regional powers takes place it's done in three or four paragraphs because Bilbo was mostly sitting this one out and had nothing really to do with it himself. But you know that his individual adventure takes place before the background of big historic events.

It is examining the situation and changes of a fascinating time through the events that happened to a few interesting, though also not really special individuals. Individuals who are not the big masterminds behind the big events or who single handedly decided the outcome of large scale conflicts through their actions. Even in the Conan stories in which Conan is a general or a king, we almost never see him performing the duties and functions of these roles. Instead we see him when he's cut off from his armies and advisors and has to fight for his life all by himself.
We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on a big tower of other dwarves.

Beneath the Leaves of Kaendor

Offline Francis Knight

Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #13 on: January 13, 2016, 12:05:31 AM »
I think one of the big key things is probably to make it appear that the world exists beyond the personal story of the protagonist.

Yes

As though if you just peeked past the curtain you'd see other vistas. LOTR does this by alluding to tales etc that it doesn't expand on bar odd snippets, as well as spelling out other tales. Vague legends, misinformation, glimpses of things that aren't explained can all give a depth to your world that makes it feel like history
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Offline Mr.J

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Re: Write Fantasy as if it is History
« Reply #14 on: January 13, 2016, 12:28:56 AM »
I think one of the big key things is probably to make it appear that the world exists beyond the personal story of the protagonist.

Yes

As though if you just peeked past the curtain you'd see other vistas. LOTR does this by alluding to tales etc that it doesn't expand on bar odd snippets, as well as spelling out other tales. Vague legends, misinformation, glimpses of things that aren't explained can all give a depth to your world that makes it feel like history
Scott Lynch is really good at that in The Lies of Locke Lamora, the history of Camorr and its class borders, the secret peace and the relationship between its government and the people, the mysterious glass towers of the ancient civilization...