World Crafting: Historicity

There are two topics I want to highlight this week.  The first is the concept of meeting historical expectations (or preconceived misunderstandings) of your audience.  The second is the expanse of time in fantasy world history.

The older I get, the more cool history becomes.  I wish I had paid more attention in high school.  No, that wouldn’t have helped.  Two back to back years of American history (I switched schools between sophomore and junior years) proves it.  It wasn’t a matter of paying attention.  It was a matter of interest.  I just didn’t care about any history that couldn’t be a reasonable template for mythological fantasy.  Hearing about the constitution, and the tea party, the cotton gin and the great depression… I would have rather stabbed my eye with a pencil.  And so I spent note-taking time doodling comic heroes in the margins of my notebook… and so, I kept my History grades at the B- levels.  (A C+ would have resulted in suspended video game privileges at home… which happened at least once).  I could re-tell the ins and outs of Tolkiens Unfinished Tales from one reading, but to get me to talk about states rights.  Yeah, not so much.

I liked world history more, especially ancient history.  Growing up in Italy probably helped, with early exposure to ruins and old pagan temples and statues.  Once we got to the industrial revolution I again lost interest.  Interest is a huge motivating energy.  I read in a book once that a “master is someone who can generate interest in the direction of their choosing.”  Now, I find history more interesting, because history is the fabric in which human psychology unfolds.  History becomes a display of the character and development of the human race.

Now, I’m no expert on history.  Not by a long shot.  My library of recallable facts is abysmal.  I’m only as smart as Wikipedia, on most historical topics.  My adult interest in history began with comparative religion (I’d always loved religion and mythology as a kid).  As I started to argue against my childhood assumptions about Way the World Is ™, I became interested in world religions and how they unfolded.  Now my interest has broadened and, I find my passion for writing and world-crafting now fuels a greater interest in real-world history.

One of the things I enjoy about historical museums is the perspective of looking out over years of time.  It’s not just about years… it’s about generations, people’s lives.  It’s about imagining the day to day life of people between key moments and large areas of gradual change.  It’s like thinking of evolution, but at a lot faster pace.  It’s easy to see change on a timeline, it’s harder to see it day to day.  And, there’s a lot in common back then to today.  There were still politics, worries, periods of peace, and always the perpetual thought is, “I live in modern times.”  We’re so lucky to be alive today… but I wonder if I would have felt that then too (whenever “then” happens to be, depending on which museum or historical site I’m at.  Damn, I loved living in Europe.)

I was particularly struck by this the first time I visited the Alamo.  The historical shrine has a great visual display of a Texas history timeline (I tried to find an image of it but couldn’t), drawn in parallel with what was going on in the colonies and Europe.  It was amazing to think of how many people lived their lives, their families continuing through multiple generations, before Texas was ever its own republic, much less part of the Union.  Texas was Spanish territory from 1690-1821.  That’s two or three generations worth of people.  Even in the 1800s, life on the frontier was hard.  Levels of technology and comfort was not at all the same as what one found on the East Coast.  Frontier life was primitive by New England’s more civilized standards.  The variation in quality of life and slow rate of change fascinates me and stimulates the imagination.  It’s not that you don’t see that at European museums–you do.  But Europe has a longer period of recorded history, and the start point is not quite so recent and clear.  There was something about seeing colonial Texas history laid out as starting in the 1500s that highlighted how much variation there is, even in periods of gradual change.  It was like a microcosm of historical development, something of its own petri dish that let a particular story unfold over time.

Historical Authenticity

It goes without saying that we’re talking about fictional worlds, so their history isn’t, by definition, “authentic”.  Actually, it doesn’t go without saying.  It needs saying, and that’s the problem with some fantasy pundits today.  Do you know what’s a horrible place to learn about medieval history and culture?  Fantasy!

I’ll bet you thought I was going to go on a rant about how fantasy worlds are sloppy, and we need better historicity.  Nope.  Just the opposite.  I get more irritated at so-called experts who get wrapped around the axle when a fantasy world doesn’t meet their preconceived notions of what medieval life should be.  As a kid, I remember friends getting righteous about how you can’t fight or move in full plate armor, and that’s why knights always rode horses.  Of course, that turns out to be false.  Properly constructed plate armor is quite mobile (custom tailored).  It also turns out, I believe, that many forum-poster’s high-minded opinions of historical authenticity are predominantly informed by other fantasy books they’ve read.

I recently read an advice to fantasy writers:  “Remember, there’s no running water back in those days.”  What the hell are “those days?”  There wasn’t magic and dragons back in those days either!  To be fair, if your goal is to write a middle-ages inspired tale (akin to Tolkien), then you need to have an understanding of the time period to use as the scaffolding on which you build your world.  If you want an authentic viking feel, then yes, you have to look at viking life.

However, there is room for variation.  The middle-ages of Europe were shaped by specific events that led to them (the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Church, the barbarian invasions, etc.)  If your world doesn’t have those exact events, you don’t have to follow the same developments.  I also recently learned that the Romans had indoor plumbing (in their wealthier houses).  There’s no reason things like that, or gunpowder, or other inventions couldn’t come at an earlier time in a fantasy world.

The point I’m trying to make is that in any world, there is variation in technology levels.  In today’s electronics age, you still have tribes living in stone-age culture in areas of South America and Australia.  Even something as simple as visiting the Alamo reminded me how much variation there was in the world.

So what does that mean for world crafting?  It means you don’t have to stick to Earth-based historical tech levels as a straight-jacket.  It should be a starting point from which you mindfully deviate, and I would argue that the medieval European starting point doesn’t need to be the de-facto default.  It’s ok to deviate, especially when there’s magic involved.

However–and this is a big “however”–the audience does have expectations.  I’m not arguing for an anything-goes, sloppy approach to world building.  It should be believable and internally consistent.  There should be a “feel” for the culture, and similarities to real-world culture gives those familiar keynotes that allows an audience to sync into your world more quickly.

One of the fantasy stories that helped break me out of the hobbit/Dungeons & Dragons mindset (where life consists of a tavern, a blacksmith, and a bunch of roads in between towns, and cities nothing more than dreary stone an castles) was Pirates of the Caribbean  It was a fantastic fantasy, with guns, and pirates, and undead, and magic!  Anything from renaissance to the colonial world gives such a rich template of culture variation–you can have areas that are stuck in a more traditional medieval feel, and you can have more “modern” arrangements where we ditch the armor and move to corsets.  Well, corsets are kinda cruel to inflict upon your heroines, and powdered wigs a bit silly to inflict upon your heroes, but you get the drift.

In the book I’m writing, I’ve used post-renaissance colonialism as a model for “modern” civilization, with large pockets of medieval remnants, and fringe areas of primitive culture.  I’ve advanced firearms to what you would find in the American Old West, but kept around swords and magic for areas where firearms are hard to come by.  It’s a little non-standard for high fantasy, but there it is.

It’s ok to have a medieval feel to a town when the rest of the world has moved on.  It’s ok to have castles, stone walls, and horses, and at the same time gunpowder, tricorne hats, and… ok, on second thought, powdered wigs are silly.  Nevertheless, anyone who thinks that the “feel” of the middle-ages is out of place in anything other than a medieval story has never been to  Bruges.

But now that we talk about parts where the rest of the world “moves on”, that brings me to my second point.

Ridiculously Long Time Periods of Mythological History

One of my favorite parts of the Lord of the Rings was the chronology of the ages in the third book’s Appendix.  However, as I took more history classes, I started to think that tens of thousands of years is a ridiculously long time for a civilization to be stuck in the same time period.  This seems to be a commonality in much high fantasy.  I mean really, this kingdom ruled for ten thousand years, and then another forty thousand years pass and what’s changed?  Remember Elrond’s speech, “I was there, Gandalf, I was there ten thousand years ago when Isildur cut the ring from Sauran’s hand.”  I mean really?  Armor and all that looks the same, culture looks the same.

It reminds me of that Saturday Night Life with Kelsey Grammer and Phil Hartman about traveling 20,000 LEEAGGUEES under the see (curse you YouTube for failing me on this).

I’m actually okay with that, I just think it’s a tad odd.  I understand the myth-time (we’re talking Aeons and Ages, and all that), but even the Bible doesn’t (literally) put human history as that long.  You can have a plenty rich history of empires rising and falling, and times of yore, in about, say three thousand years?  I mean, look back at King Henry’s time.  The Tudors is a great period in medieval history.  By his reckoning, the Romans were “Times of Yore”, and Egypt was even older.  The earliest Egyptian dynasty started roughly 4000, maybe 5000 years prior (31st century BC–King Henry VIII was born in 1491.

“I was there, Gandalf.  I was there 10,000 years ago…”

Holy crap, Elrond.  What the frack have you been doing with your time?  I mean really, your people haven’t invented anything yet?  Like, I don’t know.  Maybe an iPad?  Or a fracking air plane to take the Ring, put it on a precision-guided missile, and launch it into the fracking volcano?  I mean, really?

“I was there, John Galt.  I was there 10,000 pages ago, when you started talking…”

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Star Wars isn’t any better.  The Old Republic starts 25,000 years prior to A New Hope.  You would think the computer displays would be better.  Well, this sort of mythological time-span only lends weight to my theory that Star Wars is a fantasy and not a science fiction.  But I digress…

In truth, I’m not against the long time span.  When building my own world, I thought about shortening the scale on everything, but then I thought there was something of a mythological epicness that was lost when I did that.  I embraced the concept of tens-of-thousands of years, with empires taking a loooong time to fall.  We are talking about a world with magical and immortal beings, after all.  I charted out large swaths of time to set the stage for pre-history, swords-and-sandals barbarian fantasy, high fantasy, and then proto-steampunk/gunpowder age stories (my current work is set in the latter).  That gives me enough timeframe to write stories at different points in time without them spilling on each other.  I mean, when 5,000 years pass from one set of characters to another, you don’t have to worry about stories impacting each other if you don’t want them to.  5,000 years is enough time to wipe just about any slate clean if you want to.  (Hell, you could do it in 200 years if you really wanted to).  However, I do take the point to address (towards the end of the trilogy)  why history has lasted so long with very little advancement and innovation.

In closing, I have to say that writing in the age of Google and Wikipedia is an absolute joy.  I had a scene I was working on a few months back where I needed to have a sorceress slip away from the tavern room for a moment to pull something sneaky.  In a modern story, it’s easy to have someone slip off to the restroom for a few moments.  Then I remembered I’m in a tavern, in a mostly medieval town.  It’s not like there’s a ladies room for her to jaunt off to.  Enter Google, and a few hours diverted into the history of toilets.  Was it possible to have a “ladies room” in a town with no running water?

Indeed it is.

Until next week then!


2 thoughts on “World Crafting: Historicity

  1. Yeah, it makes a certain kind of sense. I see it a lot in RPG-based stories. There’s some merit to the idea I supposed, but I never found it especially compelling–because the characters in those stories always ended up seeming human. I think to pull that off, you need elves and such races to have a bit of other-ness to them, and the RPG books (Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, etc) never pull that off. They’re too relatable (which makes sense–because you can’t have human players playing non-human characters that are just too alien to relate to). So, there’s a bit of frictional artificiality going on there, IMO. There’s a competing thought that people who live that long (800 years or so) get *really* bored–and so more extreme libertine societies emerge as new experiences are sought. Why don’t elves have orgies and blood sport?

    Maybe that’s the non-human aspect–maybe the other races just don’t experience boredom, which is why they never innovate. There’s an idea…

    I remember reading the description of elves in Middle-Earth Roleplaying (MERP). Tolkien’s elves are immortal, unlike D&D elves. In MERP, they alluded that old elves didn’t die, they just passed on to the undying lands when they no longer had the will to live. In other words, when they experienced everything the world had to offer, they moved on. In other words… they get bored “to death”. :-p

    The question of immortality is also common in vampire stories… vampires get bored or depressed, unable to deal with immortality, and the ones who live long either choose to go into a coma, or just plain off themselves. I like the coma option… wake up in a few centuries, and the world has completely changed, so there are new things to experience.

    Anyway, I’m off on a tangent now.

  2. In most of the fantasy I’ve read, many ancient empires were some other race (dwarven, elven, etc.) Lifespans of 800 years per person meant that everything slowed down. In a lot of race descriptions (at least in role-playing) the short life-span of humans is what inspires them to do so much in so little time. Maybe there’s a relationship (intentional or not) between the lifespans of non-human races and 10000 year empires where nobody invents steam power.

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