Part 1: Why the study of history is relevant for the fantasy writer

Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne

The past is a strange land

Over the last five hundred years, we have had social, cultural and economic changes on a large and continuous scale in the western world, spurred on by massive and unprecedented developments in the areas of science, technology and medicine. Once, people lived without the things we take for granted. They did not grow up with an idea of the atom or the concept of a microscope. The equality legislation of our time would not have made sense to people in the distant past. It was seen as natural that society was structured in a hierarchy and therefore also natural that some had more God-given rights than others. Enlightenment values were not yet visible on the horizon. Back in the middle ages, for example, if you did not believe in God, what did you believe in? Most people had no philosophical alternative. Very few people were literate and almost all of those who were belonged to a religious institution.

Our views of the world have changed so dramatically since the middle ages, and indeed, though to a much lesser extent, to people living even half a century ago, that the past is a very strange land to us. The middle ages, for instance, seem so fantastic, so bizarre, often so immoral, reprehensible and corrupt in comparison to our own world that it is sometimes hard to imagine that such a world ever existed. It often seems easier to think of it as a series of tales set in a mythical past. Yet, real people did live then. Their world was as real to them as ours is to us. And those people are our ancestors. If we had lived in that time, we would have lived in just the same way.

Mining the past

The fantasy genre is often placed in a time and setting similar to that of the dark or early middle ages of northern Europe. True, authors have written books on the customs, culture, law, religion, castles and so on from that period of history specifically for the fantasy writer. But the past is so different to the present that a glance at it is hardly enough to do it justice as a rich source of material for the fantasy genre. These sorts of books are not really mining the rich veins of historical writings that are out there. Yes, they are useful, very useful in their own way. Even a brief study of them will help you build a richer milieu for your story and even offer you new ideas. But they do not really offer you more than a set of factual historical references. Many of these books sit easily in the children’s section of the library.

It would really benefit the fantasy writer to examine the past with an historian’s eye. What you should be looking for are those powerful historical narratives that offer you insight into the minds of the actors of the past. For, if the people of the past are much unlike us, and we can view their time as a sort of mythical world in comparison to our own, then why on earth can’t the fantasy writer mine this mythical world as a rich source of material for his own work?

But what is history?

First and foremost, the study of history is a study of the human condition on both an individual and a collective or social level and within a setting different to our own by default of it being situated in the past. We hope to learn something significant about people in the past in order to try and learn something significant about ourselves in our own time. Although they were very different to how we are now, as they lived in very different times under very different conditions, we are able to make a connection to them because the human condition runs through all people, at all times, in all places and under all physical conditions.

So history allows us to make close studies of real people under extraordinary circumstances quite different to anything we will ever experience in our own time. Let’s look at it another way: history is the study of character in an exotic setting with often brilliant plots because the past is full of epic tales, of strange and bizarre rules, ideas, faiths and actions. It’s full of character clashes, rising tensions, and genuine conflict at every imaginable level, conflict that is often resolved only through war or other forms of violence. We read history for the same psychological reasons we read the novel, except the difference is that with history it really happened. So, though we want to know all about the castles, the religion, costumes, etc. – the bricks and mortar that build up the architecture of the story – the most fascinating aspects of the tale are the actors themselves who inhabit this architecture. We are curious to know how people coped with the limitations of their world. We are curious because we can’t help but wonder how we ourselves might have behaved under the same circumstances. We read the novel for just the same reasons.

Fantasy reflecting history

A fantasy writer can easily get lost writing down lots of physical description and superfluous actions without a proper understanding of the levels of social complexity needed to make his story logical and believable. But historical narratives offer a multiplicity of guidelines on how a character or group of characters act under certain conditions. The reader of history will develop a deep understanding of why people behaved in the way they did as individuals and as groups. The reader will come to understand how cause and effect works on both an individual and an epic level so that he can use this knowledge as a mapping for his own work. He will discover how people were held in check in their day by social, cultural, moral, religious and economic forces. This applied to everyone, including the most powerful individuals. He will come to understand in great detail the different interrelated strands and levels that held past societies together. Studies of history enable the writer to develop his own story depth, logic and rhythm because history offers him a wide range of original, reality-based blueprints for doing just that.

With the right books as guide, the reader will speedily come to see the greatest gift the historian offers the fiction writer. The historical novelist uses these gifts as a matter of course, but writers of other genres may also mine this rich source. Historians often spend a lifetime studying a particular period and setting of history and focus quite exclusively on a single group of characters within that period and setting. This means they may end up knowing more about a set of historical characters in greater depth and breath, in certain respects, than they know about living characters close to them. These characters include not just the usual run of kings, queens, religious people, soldiers, leaders, scholars, philosophers, artists, writers and so on, but also lower status and lesser known characters. The rich character definition and development the better historians offer the reader of history is invaluable for the fiction writer and include more details than he is every going to use in his own work of fiction.

The heart of character

The trick for the fantasy writer is to know what generic part of the historical character they may use as a blueprint for a similar character in their own fantasy setting. Well, the strongest part of the historical character that the writer may want to remove intact from its historical setting is attitude, the strongest indicator of behaviour.

Once the writer has a good grasp of the attitudes of his historical characters, both individual and collective ones, and an understanding of the world which shaped their attitudes, he will now be ready to go to work with his historical blueprint. The environment in which he places his characters does not even have to be a similar one to the historical one. All the writer needs from this point on is to understand that the attitude and behaviour of his characters has actually happened and make rational sense within context. People once thought and behaved the way the writer will now have his fictional characters thinking and behaving. So his character’s thoughts and actions will make sense within the setting which he lays out for them. This supposes, of course, that he has clearly understood cause and effect in his history reading. At the simplest level, it is all about our attitudes to ourselves and to others that determine what we do and become in life, but also with consideration to the limitations that our environment imposes upon us physically and psychologically. It is out of attitude that conflict rises. There is no story without conflict. Amongst other things, an individual’s attitude will determine how proactive or reactive they are toward religious and political institutions, social status, the social and moral code, and family and friends. Whatever obstacle is placed in front of an actor, their attitude to themselves, to others, and to their environment very much determines what choices they will make in order to try and overcome the obstacle.

Let’s sum up!

From reading history we can gain inspiration from setting, theme, storyline, plot, and especially character. The single most important element we can hope to understand from these exotic characters in their exotic settings is their attitude to their environment. Attitude creates behaviour which in turn creates conflict which in turn creates plot with in turn gives us the actual history.  The fantasy writer must get under the skin of the historical character in order to understand their attitude from the inside out. He wants to be able to think and feel what the historical figure thinks and feels. He wants to understand the human condition from their point of view (This can only enrich the writer’s knowledge and skills). Then he writer has his blueprint from which he can develop great fantasy character and plot and at a greater level than he would have managed by just trying to squeeze it out of his imagination.  Naturally, he will tweak the historical characters, plots and so on in all sorts of ways so that his work looks completely fresh and original. And he will be able to do this without affecting the balance of his blueprint because he will understand the history on which his blueprint is based.


This article is all well and good, you might say, but it’s very theoretical. Yes, you might be wondering how this actually works in practice. In the next article on this topic, creating a blueprint from the historical character, I’m going to sketch out briefly how to do just that for the purpose of defining and developing character in a fantasy setting. It’s not as difficult as it may seem.

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About jerrydunne

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