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The Building Blocks of Fantasy – History

This is the first of several weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of writing a great fantasy novel. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your writing and find ways to improve it. Enjoy.

Fantasy may be born in the imagination, but it doesn’t come from nothing. No group of people, including the characters in a book, emerges without connections to those who came before them. There’s an endless string of chickens and eggs reaching back into the mists of prehistory and beyond. And if you fail to create a world in which those chains are apparent, your fantasy suffers.

I often think about where a fantasy novel gets its credit with readers from—how an author gets the story to feel real. Every time a reader picks up a fantasy story, its author asks them to swallow a whole package of statements that conflict with the world as they know it: Dragons are real. Elves and dwarves are real. Magic exists. Gods and goddesses walk the earth among mortals.

To make that package palatable, the author has to establish some credit with readers, even people out-and-out looking for that package. There are lots of ways to do that, but history is one of the most powerful.

We live in a world steeped in history. If you grew up in the United States, like me, you grew up inundated with stories about Jamestown, the American Revolution, the Civil War, Manifest Destiny, etc.—all the way on up through the Civil Rights Movement and the AIDS Crisis. On top of that, odds are you got some kind of religious history. Genesis and Exodus. The New Testament. Other books in other religions I should know more about. You also grew up surrounded by the detritus of that history. Monuments. Parks. Graffiti. Arguments. Stereotypes. Prejudices.

For most of us, I think, history fades into the background of our lives until some event forces it into our consciousness for a little while. But it’s always there, subtly informing the way we see ourselves, the people around us, and the world in general. Maybe most importantly, most of us receive history fairly uncritically. The first story we’re told about something sticks and becomes truth until something else dislodges it. We end up stuffed full of received historical narratives, and anything that fits into them feels true, because it plays to what we think we know about the world.

So people are used to looking for history, and they’re used to swallowing it more or less unquestioned. As an author looking to get a reader to believe in an imaginary world, that provides you with an incredibly powerful tool. A little dose of history—most often not dead history in the form of an encyclopedia extract or ten pages of backstory but living history in the form of a monument, a ruin, a prejudice, a fight, or a conversation that directly impacts a major character—helps breathe life into a world. Beyond that, a story that loosely shadows a widespread historical narrative feels true to the reader as well. It’s immediately plausible, because the reader has heard of something sort of like it once before. A pastoral green land (England/The Shire) is threatened by a shadow from the southeast (Germany/Mordor). An emperor (Caesar/Palpatine) usurps power from a senate (Rome/The Old Republic).

In the end, that means two things for the writer of a fantasy novel: you must read history, and you must write history. Read it to understand how people think about it and talk about it—to grasp the shapes of the stories we tell and how they might appear in your fiction. Write it because without it, your stories won’t feel whole. Where your characters are coming from matters as much as what they’re heading to.

Catch the next post in the series here.

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