Before Writing Fantasy, Read Some History

This is one of those topics I drift back to every so often over the years, and I never quite feel I’ve sold the idea.

So: something in you, writers aspirant, may rebel immediately at hearing I want you to research for your fantasy. “It’s fantasy! Why do I need to research just to make things up?” Well, to put it bluntly: you’re not the only one making things up. Fantasy remains among the most popular genres in commercial fiction. And while I know full well how much pressure there is in writing a book, and I hate to worsen that pressure, I’ve also been reading Tuchman’s The Guns of August and damned if that hasn’t been a masterclass in the importance of confronting unpleasant facts ASAP.

Did you know France nearly lost WWI in the first month because, in their mindless obsession with going on the offensive, they did exactly what the Germans, under the Schlieffen Plan, wanted? The Schlieffen Plan dictated luring the French into futile attacks against prepared German positions in the South and Center while the bulk of the German Army swept wide and North through Belgium. It failed, in large part, because the Germans didn’t remain committed to that sweep. In the end, the Germans were too eager to push their advantage with–guess what?–a general offensive all along the line.

The most rigidly defensive war in human history happened as it did because both sides became too caught up in attacking.

The French supreme commander at the time, a certain Joffre, was so determined to believe the Germans were weak in the center that they were almost able to march straight into Paris with minimal opposition. This is real. This actually happened just over a century ago. History’s crammed to bursting with this sort of stuff! Just reading something like The Guns of August gives you a treasure trove of information on everything from fashion to diplomatic mores to national culture. Read a few books more, and you can start to see the chain of events and ideas, both chronologically and like fetters on the human mind, that shape nations.

Another gleaning just from The Guns of August: the myriad ways in which the German government and people convinced themselves that war was inevitable, and the self-fulfilling prophecy thus created. All of this stemmed in turn from Prussia’s violent unification of Germany, itself driven by Prussia’s long history of militarism, itself coming from the kingdom’s violent creation by the expansionist Teutonic Order.

To put this fully in perspective: when you start building a fantasy world, you’re probably going to start with its earliest history. For many authors, this involves a creation myth or something similar to it. And for too many of us, that’s where it stops. Despite the fact that both Tolkien and George R.R. Martin followed exactly the method I’m about to give you, and calling either the commercial or literary merits of their work into question would be simply ridiculous, I still don’t see much drive among most fantasy authors to understand our history before writing alternate ones.

And, well, that’s a damn shame. I understand why this happens, don’t mistake me: too many teachers and professors teaching history perfunctorily, and the page-lurking bugbear that is American academia’s obsession with putting things the blandest way possible. When emotionally engaging history runs the risk of being called “unscholarly” for daring to convey pivotal moments with some of the psychological thunder they had for the people living them, it’s no wonder so many of us come to think it’s boring.

On the other hand, it probably doesn’t help that our media subculture falls over itself to portray characters who think history is boring. A more suspicious author than myself might suggest that’s because knowing history would help us see certain troublesome habits our media also panders to, but not me. No sir. I certainly wouldn’t reflect on the fact that a good, solemn look at Germany’s diplomatic and cultural failures leading up to WWI shows they were almost exactly the same as the ones overtaking Trumpist America today.

History, at the end of the day, is about humans and the world they created at a certain time. It brings together the effects of technology, philosophy, politics, warfare, culture and daily life in a way that you’ll find in few other mediums. It’s a window into other times and places, a look at peoples simultaneously very different from ourselves and sometimes happily, often horribly the same.

I could say everything about Fantasy that I just said about history and all of it would be dead on, wouldn’t it? But there’s a vital difference: History really happened. Every event involved at least one other human just as fully developed as you, with their own hopes, dreams, way of life, backstory, and whatever else you care to mention. Even the greatest writer imaginable would find it nigh-impossible to write a protagonist with a keen enough awareness of upbringing, cultural and personal history, psychological changes, and lifestyle to match a real historical figure’s depth.

If, that is, that greatest writer had to imagine it all from scratch using nothing but thought exercises and alcoholism. And when you try to write a fully-developed fantasy world without knowing much history, that’s what you’re going to wind up doing over and over again. You shouldn’t want to do that to yourself, because you’re using mental effort to reinvent the wheel when you could be putting it into the truly fantastical elements of your world.

And no, guys, just giving everyone anime color palettes isn’t a worldbuilding masterstroke. I’ve seen this done a few times now and it’s already worn incredibly thin. I’ll tell you what, though, if you can come up with historical reasons for those absurd hues and tie them meaningfully into the existing fabric of your world, now we might have something!

Even when you’re inventing entirely new elements for your world, history still gives you a starting point. Every new animal species discovered by Earth humans had scientific, economic, and even social impacts. If there’s useful wildlife on your world and word about that use hasn’t spread among humans, you need a lesson from history. If warfare has used the same tools for ages without any change in tactics or strategy, you need a lesson from history. If warfare changes in the blink of an eye purely to suit the plot, you need a lesson from history.

Want to design an original style of armor? Read up on the historical ones first. A new fighting style? Read some manuscripts from the old masters and under no circumstances copy-paste Hollywoodized Kung Fu. You will be the 1,192nd author to do this, as well as (I suspect) the 2,082nd to completely ignore the value of armor. I’m not going to harp too much on those things because I’m saving them for another upcoming article, but trust me: you can still have cool fight scenes with armor that works.

Period fashion: it’s out there, along with its original source, advantages, disadvantages and everything it inspired. I think you’ll be astonished by how much more interesting it is than the one-gimmick getups your fantasy competitors subsist on. Religions? There’s everything you could possibly want to know and, depending on your faith, probably a lot you don’t. Morals and honor codes, art and arithmetic, none of these things emerged from thin air. Our culture and technology, like our very DNA, shifted and mutated overtime in response to pressures from inside and out. And, like our DNA, our mutations cause new pressures of their own, often birthing more problems than they solve.

I cannot begin to express to you how much easier it is to write fantasy cultures, wars, art movements, and what-have-you when you know the factors that shaped Earth cultures. Every fact you acquire is one you can incorporate somewhere–actually, it’s at least two.

If I understand the utility of a stiff, narrow blade in piercing chainmail armor–‘mail’ is more correct, but brainlessly hammering folks just for not using the most “technical” term is the worst use of history–I can already see how cultures with more protective armor will evolve more specialized weapons to pierce it. From there I can guess that cultures with poor iron supplies and less-comprehensive steel armor might favor more cutting weapons, and if I want to confirm either of these things I just need to know that Feudal Japan existed.

In fact, reading up on the history of warfare will help drive home just how crucial a good iron supply can be. Entire warrior cultures were shaped by this: European knighthood by the abundance of high-quality steel, and the samurai by its sparsity. Now, obviously it’d be a huge oversimplification to reduce these cultures just to their relationship with iron, but it did have a significant effect, and by understanding that I gain a new way of looking at each culture I add to my own worlds.

Or, taking a countercultural approach, I can try writing a culture for whom iron access is barely a factor at all, maybe one which doesn’t use armor because they live in a landscape which hampers organized warfare, or one which stops them from forging whether they’ve got iron or not.

Just about anything can become a dominant factor in a civilization: access to water or lack of it, the newness or age of a kingdom, no neighboring powers or being entirely encased by them, dance or ritual, hunting or farming. Among history’s best lessons: even cultures mostly defined by one thing weren’t only about that one thing, it simply had more impact than any single other thing. That can seem daunting at first, but you’ll learn to love it over time.

Ultimately, we’re talking the difference between giving your readers one meaningfully-developed country to like, and an entire world of possibilities to adore.

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