JM Williams

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How (not) to Use Real History in Your Fantasy World


Here’s a quick tip to help you polish your fantasy novel outlines and world-building. While it is common–perhaps unavoidable–to add historical inspirations to your fantasy world, you should do so in moderation. And you should be sure to differentiate your fantasy world from its real-world inspiration. Copying too much from a historical example can come off as lazy and not creative.

I can highlight this with an example. I am currently reading–or more accurately, listening to–the good fantasy book Dragon of Ash and Stars, by  H. Leighton Dickson. Overall, the book is very good. The story is compelling and the writing decent. It also lends itself well to the audiobook format, which is how I am enjoying the book. I’m not going to offer a full review here, as I am still in the middle of the book, and since my focus here is on a singular issue.

I must admit, I have a short attention span when it comes to fiction. I often don’t finish books if they are problematic or just not interesting enough to keep me engaged. Despite this habit of mine, Dragon of Ash and Stars has kept my attention very well. But there are times when I get knocked out of the story. This mostly has to do with the story world the author offers us.

There is nothing wrong with using ancient Rome as a starting point in developing your fantasy world, besides Roman-style worlds being a bit cliche at this point. However, there’s a huge difference between being influenced by Roman culture, and filling your world with very Roman-named senators, prefects, citizens and centurions who spend denari on opulence and slaves. Dickson does little to hide the Roman roots of her world. She calls her land Remus, which comes directly from the origin story of Rome and the legend of the brothers Romulus and Remus. While it is fine to create a fantasy city inspired by Venice, you should be sure to name is something different. Dickson’s Venice stand-in is “Venitus,” literally only 2-3 letters and one syllable different from its obvious reference. Names are a critical way you differentiate your setting from its both historical and fictional peers, don’t settle for an easy choice. On a whole, this strikes me as an incredibly lazy sort of world-building. Readers are good at detecting an author’s laziness.

If you want to write a story about dragons in Rome, then just write Dragons in Rome. If you’re going to try to sell your reader a new fantasy world, then make sure it is indeed new.

Using historical references can be quite useful for fantasy authors. For my Valley of Magic fantasy world, I have borrowed bits from the cultural history of different regions of Europe and Asia. For naming conventions in Marudal, the City of Magic, I chose to use Old Saxon and Old Norse names for my characters. I also created a social-class division through the use of these different types of names–Norse for the lower classes, Saxon for the aristocracy. For the rising militaristic empire in the West (I’ve swapped the East vs West dynamic, marking the Westerners are the “barbarians,” at least from the current point-of-view), I’ve borrowed from the Mongol and Roman empires to generate something new. At least I hope it’s new. The City of Magic is ruled by a triumvirate, also a Roman concept. But none of these polities are direct copies of one specific historical entity or another.

I feel like Dickson spent a lot less time on her world-building than on the actual story-crafting. That is truly unfortunate, since a story, even a great story, cannot exist separate from its world. There is another major narrative issue that I find hurts the story, but I will leave that for a latter time.

All that being said, the story is great and despite falling out from time to time, I am still entertained by the book and expect no problem with finishing it. I would even go so far as to recommend the book to any general fan of fantasy, offering that recommendation even before I have finished it. I cannot say the same for Dune, or the first Witcher book, both of which I started but will likely not finish because their problems are killing the joy of reading/listening.

To sum up, ensure to make your fantasy world distinct from its real-world influences. That will ensure a more engaging and polished setting for your readers.

4 Responses to How (not) to Use Real History in Your Fantasy World

  1. This is actually a really thoughtful read. I started it, ready to defend using real history in fiction (I’m a history lover and a steampunk writer), but you actually turned me around. Especially in the example you gave, it does feel a little lazy and would pull you out of the fiction. I suppose if you know nothing about Roman history, it would pass over your head, but when there’s so much history to pull from, a fictional retelling of Rome with dragons (in a different world) seems a little like short changing your talents. Really interesting post!

    • Thanks for the comment. I think historical fiction is great if its presented as such, but anything described as fantasy should be original, in my opinion.

  2. I could not agree with you more! I love the idea of using history and historical places as a framework for fiction! However, we authors need to make it our own and make it read as if it were original. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

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