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History is Written By People: Conclusions on Building Fictional History

I read quite a bit of history, both real and fictional. In the last couple months, the historically oriented books that I’ve read and enjoyed have included (in no particular order) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the edited volume Wastelands 2: More Stories of the Apocalypse, Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, Bruce Levine’s The Fall of the House of Dixie, N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and the fictionalized history text by George RR Martin, Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson, The World of Ice & Fire. With all of this stuff floating around my head, and especially after talking about Jemisin and Martin’s work in my book group this weekend, I’ve been reminded of a conclusion that’s good to restate from time to time. That conclusion is this:

History is complicated.

A lot of what I mean by that is encompassed in the expression “history is written by the victors,” that those who come out on top in any conflict usually get the first and/or last say in how that conflict’s framed in official history books. That’s why Christopher Columbus’s arrival in North America is still celebrated in much of the United States despite protests that the holiday commemorates genocide, and it’s why children in Vietnam learn that the United States sent colonialist forces to their country in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But there’s more to the matter than that.

Good historians, like all social scientists, try to understand and present the past as completely and accurately as possible. But when we talk about history, we mean more than just the most accurate account of events; history’s a distillation of the stories a culture tells itself about the world. By its very nature as the collected experiences of individuals, set down by individuals, real history is never completely uniform, and it’s never totally complete.

First off, no official history ever goes completely unchallenged. One hundred and fifty years later, people still occasionally refer to the 19th-century conflict between the US and the Confederacy as “the War of Northern Aggression.” More than 45 years after network TV broadcast Neil Armstrong saying “one small step for man,” people still dispute whether there was ever a moon landing. Even the most authoritarian leaders usually can’t suppress opposing views completely – and even the most information-driven societies can’t be absolutely sure of the truth of everything in their archives. Not to mention the fact that the archives never hold everything.

Every historian’s work is based on analysis of data. The two “real” histories on my list from the first paragraph, Nielsen’s and Levine’s, rely heavily on first-person accounts, journals and letters from the time periods they’re interested in. But if a place or a people is destroyed suddenly (as happens sometimes in history, and is particularly prone to happen in genre fiction, where a god or an asteroid might wipe out a whole continent with no warning), there may not be much left in the way of records to consult. In Charles C. Mann’s 1491, distilling the latest theories about pre-contact American societies, the author makes the point that there’s a great deal that will never be known for sure about these peoples just because their destruction by the Europeans (through intentional and unintentional means) was so complete.

Finally, there’s the fact that those who set down the history are human beings, and as I tell my students in Sociological Research Methods, human beings can never be truly objective. Even a historian who had access to all the possible data on their subject, from all the sides of a conflict, would have to pick and choose what to include, and those choices would inevitably be guided by bias. Social researchers can try to be aware of their biases, and to work around them, but they can never escape them completely.

Having said all that about how I believe real history works, it probably comes as no surprise that I like my fictionalized history to follow these same rules.

George RR Martin is a master of this. Whether you believe A World of Ice and Fire is a worthwhile addition to the universe or a concession to fans chomping at the bit for the next book, you’d be hard-pressed to deny that it’s a marvelously complex and human history that’s right in line with the way Martin is telling his story in the novels. Rather than an uncontested “behind-the-scenes” account of the events Martin’s developed for the history of his world, AWoIaF presents a contradictory account by a few well-intentioned maesters, who are drawing on incomplete data and writing in full knowledge that their work will be reviewed by the current rulers, and so they’d better stay clear of politically incendiary rhetoric (the title “Kingslayer,”  for example, appears nowhere in these pages). The book’s gotten some criticism from fans for not being “the official history of Westeros”; I’d argue that it couldn’t be more official, just as it is.

Another series that does this well is Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is the first one. When we enter the setting, we’re given the official version of its history – once there were three gods, but then one was killed, another enslaved. These are, respectively, the traitor and the fiend, while the remaining god rules alone in the heavens and the family that helped him win the gods’ war rule on the earth with wisdom and justice. Upon encountering this setup, I’d guess that any reader familiar with the concept of “mainstream” and “alternative” history will be suspicious from the word go, and Jemisin is quick to validate those suspicions. In a guest post she wrote for John Scalzi’s blog when her first book came out, she notes that the germ of the idea for the Inheritance books came when she read 1491, which made her think about the idea of “hidden history.”

The world of my novels has all kinds of hidden history. The era my hero lives in is (very roughly) something of a Renaissance period for his culture, the first years of peace and renewal after a long war that basically leveled the previous civilization. When I sat down to flesh out my worldbuilding, one of the first things I had to work out was exactly what happened in that war. So I did, and now I know the whole story – more or less – but as I wrote it out, I found myself taking first one perspective and then another. I told one faction’s version of what happened and then countered it with the other’s; I came up with names for what each group called themselves as well as what they called their enemies. And when I reference the war in the novel, a person’s answer to the question of “what happened” varies dramatically depending on their species, their regional origins, their age and other factors. No one person, no one group, has the whole story. I like it better that way.

There are certainly good books that connect their story’s main events to precise, unambiguous history. But the more I read, the more I’m convinced that if a writer wants their fictional world to have the ring of authenticity, they’d best take a little time to think about how that world views its past. What evidence has been preserved for contemporary people to use in understanding the past? What stories do the people in power want taught and highlighted? Who would have the incentives to counter those stories?

That’s why I read so much history; because the real world is wondrously multifaceted and complex, and the story changes depending on who’s telling it. I think the best fictional worlds are those that have this feeling to them, like Martin’s, like Jemisin’s. That’s what I try to do when I tell stories in my world.

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Worldbuilding: Basics of Social Stratification

A version of this post appeared first in Dan Koboldt’s Science in Sci-Fi, Fact in Fantasy series, where guest experts share their specialty knowledge and how it’s relevant for genre writers.

Think fast: is your hero an underdog?

Modern readers, especially Western readers, are used to reading about unlikely heroes who save the world by triumphing over colossal odds. Think Harry Potter, the scrawny orphan with the abusive relatives; think Vin, the suspicious street kid from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn; think Lord of the Rings’s Frodo. This trope has been a part of storytelling around the world for a long time, and with good reason – since most people see themselves as the little guy, everyone likes seeing the little guy win. And especially in American culture, the idea of the “self-made” person who achieves their success through their own wits and determination has resonance outside the world of storytelling, too. However, if you want your fantasy world to be realistic, you may want to take another look at your hero’s social position.

For as long as people have lived in groups, those groups have had dominant and subordinate members. And for the most part (with a few exceptions), the people on top will be the ones who make the biggest changes, and the ones born on top will be the ones who stay there. So if you want to tell the story of a hero whose culture doesn’t expect them to be the one changing the world, you may want to get creative.

Social Stratification

This distinction between the people with power and the people without is what sociologists call stratification, the same word used in geology to describe layers of rock. Social stratification, unsurprisingly, refers to “layers” of people (like the upper, middle, and lower classes); in the modern world, the divisions between these layers are often invisible or unwritten, but in other times and places they’ve been laid out very clearly. In medieval Europe, whether you were born a member of the royalty, the nobility, the merchant class or the peasant class dictated pretty much everything about your life, and you weren’t likely to leave the class you were born into. George RR Martin acknowledges this in an interview where he talks about why the movers and shakers of his A Song of Ice and Fire world are all high-born people. Martin wanted his story to reflect the fact that in a real feudal society, a peasant wouldn’t have been able to walk up to a king and say anything she wanted. Except under extraordinary circumstances, she’d never have been able to get near him.

Obviously, the modern world doesn’t have feudal lords (at least, not in the same way), but an individual’s social identities and the conditions of their birth still affect their life chances in substantial ways. In any society, the rulers tend to make rules that favor people like them. This is why the election of President Obama was such a big deal, and why people got excited when Justice Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court. People believe that leaders who are like them are more likely to make decisions that benefit them – and they’re probably right. Tribalism is deeply rooted in human nature; drawing lines between “us” and “them,” and doing what we can to better the condition of “us,” has been benefitting people for a very long time (this is why a lot of rhetoric around the benefits of diversity focuses on how it encourages people to develop broader definitions of “us”). So the fact that people in power favor others like themselves over those who are different from them doesn’t make them evil; just human.

All the same, the effects are indisputable. Even in the 21st century, even in places like the United States with its narrative of “the American Dream,” significant upward social mobility (moving from a lower class to a higher one) is still very rare. Most people born into working-class and poor families remain in those classes as adults, far from the seats of power. And depending on what your other social identities are, gaining power and influence can be even more difficult.

So, what do you do if you want your fantasy story to have a realistic power structure, but you don’t want your intrepid hero to start out as the ruler of the world? Well, you’ve got a few options. Let’s look briefly at two of them: different types of power and different types of stratification.

Different Types of Power

Who holds the power in your society?

Okay, now who’s fighting them for it?

Even in the most tyrannical societies, it’s almost impossible for one group or person to hang on to control of everything. Your society probably has a government, the “state” that sociologist Max Weber identifies as the individual or individuals who “legitimately control the means of violence” – in other words, the ones who have final authority over armies, weapons of mass destruction, city guards and police. But where does that government get their money? (Think of the power of “special interests,” and the fight over campaign funding, in modern American politics.) Who holds the moral authority in your society? (In medieval Europe, kings and princes were extraordinarily powerful people, but when the Pope spoke, they listened.) Do you have magic-users whose special abilities might level the playing field? And what about celebrities? Whether you’re talking about a singer, a military leader, or just someone thrust into the spotlight by circumstances, anyone who has the affection of thousands or millions of followers is in a very powerful position indeed.

The three characters I mentioned at the beginning of this post are all able to take their “hero” positions because of their unique types of power.

  • Harry Potter’s not just a scrawny orphan; because of a random event that happened when he was a baby, he enters the wizarding world a major celebrity, which gives him an enormous amount of social power. Most of Harry’s actions throughout the books, including his quest to save the world, are set in motion not because of any special quality he has but because other, more powerful people have decided he can’t be ignored.
  • Mistborn’s Vin isn’t just an ordinary street kid: she has magic abilities that are vanishingly rare among people from her social class.
  • As for Frodo, he’s a little different. His power to save the world comes from the nature of the threat it faces: by making the One Ring into such a corrupting force, Tolkien came up with a situation where anyone who held (or even wanted) any kind of power couldn’t be the hero. The only guy who could save the world in this story was someone who desperately wanted nothing more than to be ordinary. So that’s another strategy.

Different Types of Stratification

If you want your hero to be an underdog instead of just someone with a different kind of power, you’ve got another way to play it. Stratification based on social identities is never simple. Every person’s got a number of identities (the sociological term for this phenomenon is intersectionality), and while some of those will likely make it easier to wield power, others will not. Many powerful black men, including popular actors and President Obama, have talked publicly about their experiences of casual racism at times when they weren’t recognized as being famous. A white woman has come close to winning the nomination for President of the United States, but there’s never been a “serious” candidate for that office who was gay, or who wasn’t a practicing Christian. In the modern United States, your odds of gaining and keeping power are still significantly higher the more you have in common with this list of traits:

  • Cisgendered maleness
  • Whiteness
  • Heterosexuality
  • Christian faith
  • Ablebodiedness (no physical, mental, or developmental disabilities)
  • Good health, including a lack of addictions and mental illness
  • Physical attractiveness, including not being too thin or too fat
  • Age between 25-60 (varies depending on the specific type of power)
  • Legally recognized, monogamous marriage
  • Fatherhood (within the bounds of marriage)
  • A college degree
  • A professional (white-collar) job
  • Financial security
  • Native English-speaking ability
  • Native-born American citizenship
  • No criminal history

Looking at this list, you can see more clearly how even if your character’s handed a lot of the right cards for power in their society (which, depending on your world, will probably vary from the ones listed above), they could still be an underdog. George RR Martin’s Tyrion Lannister is a wonderful example of this: he’s a brilliant man from one of the most powerful families in Westeros, but many people, including his father, fail to take him seriously or give him the credit he deserves because he also happens to be a dwarf. His sister Cersei wants nothing more than to rule the kingdom, but her gender gets in her way.

So, in short, if you want to tell a story about an underdog, there are a lot of different (and more realistic) ways to do it besides having your peasant girl march into the court and tell off the king. Depending on the norms of your society, there are probably half a hundred ways a character who’s born into the ruling class could still be an “underdog” because some part of them doesn’t match the model of who’s supposed to be holding power – and as we saw with the examples of Harry, Vin and Frodo, there are other ways besides power to bring someone to the center of the world, too (including plain old luck). Consider it a challenge that’ll help you build not only richer worlds, but more creative plots, too!

Who Do Your Characters Answer To? Creating Religion for Secondary Worlds

“The Glorious [Lion] bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me… I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” — From C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, Book 7 of the Narnia series

How should religion(s) look in the world of your story? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I’m reaching the part of my draft where my character joins the religion that will play a central role in his story for the rest of the series, and I’m realizing that although there are religions all over the place in secondary-world fantasy, I haven’t seen many critical discussions of how to develop religion for secondary worlds, and especially how secondary-world religion might look different from the religion(s) (and interactions between religions) that modern writers might be most familiar with. So, without further ado, I present a loosely-connected collection of my musings on the subject.

When I was developing the religions for my setting, the biggest thing I tried to remember was that at most times and places throughout human history, religion (or the lack thereof) hasn’t been viewed as separate from culture. Most people who’ve lived in the real world have been born into a belief system, and that belief system’s usually been shared by everyone they know. In small and/or homogeneous communities, the idea of “shopping around” for religions the way people sometimes do in the modern West wouldn’t make any sense at all. Historically, if you were a Hebrew, you worshiped the god of the Hebrews; if you were an Egyptian, you worshiped the gods of the Egyptians; if you were Japanese, you worshiped the gods of Japan. Throughout most of human history, religion and ethnicity have been overlapping concepts, and there are several major modern religions (Hinduism and Judaism come to mind) where many practitioners still see this as the case. One of the big ways Christianity and Islam are different from other major religions is that they seek out converts and preach that your ethnic background doesn’t matter, that their god is the god for everyone. Relatively speaking, this is a new and different idea.

So if you’ve got more than one major ethnic group in your world, especially people who don’t have much contact with each other, you’ll almost certainly want to develop more than one religion (and that’s before you consider opening the sects-and-heretics can of worms). And as you’re developing those religions, it might be useful to think outside the modern Western philosophical point that all religions are different paths to the same goal. This concept is particularly common among religious liberals (or slightly-patronizing monotheists; see the quote from CS Lewis’s The Last Battle that I included up above), but I don’t think it works very well for developing distinct religious groups. And here’s why.

For most common people, religion is first and foremost a problem-solver: you pray to your god(s) because you want or need things. And not all cultures have the same problems. An agricultural religion is going to look different than a hunter-gatherer religion, which will look different from a religion that developed in a spacefaring culture. That’s something to think about when you consider converts, too: I had a conversation with a medieval historian friend a few months ago where he pointed out that one of the main reasons Christianity caught on with the masses when the Roman Empire was sweeping across Europe was because the Christian god had clearly outfitted his people with better, fancier weapons and armor than the local gods. For all my talk about how different ethnic groups tended on a large scale to worship their own ethnic gods, religious conversion has been around for as long as different groups of people have been bumping into each other: remember, the first request YHWH makes of his people through Moses is to “have no other gods before me.” And although people convert for all sorts of reasons, one of the biggest is that the new religion speaks to something that the old one didn’t.

Which brings me to my second big point. In the real world, there’s no way to conclusively prove that any of the gods humans have ever worshipped are cultural constructions or real forces. When building your fantasy world, you’d better know the status of your gods. Whether they’re real may or may not be important… but whether they listen, that matters. If one god really does reward her people’s prayers with better stuff, she’s likely to start stacking up followers fast. If some gods listen/exist and others don’t, you have to ask yourself why the quiet ones continue to gather followers. Are there mundane patrons of the faith that make it worth people’s while to keep up the worship? Tricks by the clergy to make it look like their gods manifest in the temple the way the others do? People behave logically, and they behave in self-interested ways; what you have to decide is what logic and self-interest look like in your world.

Something else that’s likely different in a world with active gods is that there’s less focus on where the world came from. In most real-world historical religions, someone gets credit for creating the world; that belief’s probably harder to sustain in a world where your god(s) aren’t the only powerful force shaping the universe. If you feel like delving that deep into your history, you could sit down and decide whether any of the figures worshipped as gods in your contemporary setting actually had anything to do with the physical creation of the world (Brandon Sanderson’s books do some interesting things with this, and NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy presents a single belief system that does include active, acting creator gods), but if you want multiple belief systems, it can be difficult to have your rational religious folk buy the idea of a single grand creator.

In the world of my series, there are (very roughly) three main religious pantheons, whose worshippers all rub elbows in the capital. All of these religions are connected to beings with real power; all of the forces called “gods” have the ability to effect significant change on some part of existence. But none of them is all-powerful. So when their worshippers pray, they focus on specific things. My protagonist’s god draws worshippers by giving them a promise of strength and safety in a dangerous world; he doesn’t answer prayers about a good harvest or a warm body to share your bed in the inn. If those are your concerns, you’d best seek aid from someone else, whether mundane, magical or divine.

Traditional Greek-style polytheism, where Hera handles requests that touch on marriage, Athena handles war, and Apollo handles illness, seems pretty common in secondary-world fiction; I suspect in part that’s because it reads as “exotic” to many Western audiences, but it’s also a good way to get around the problem of none of your gods actually being all-powerful. However, it’s not the only way. In many parts of East Asia, people see Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism as harmonious traditions that specialize in different parts of the human existence. As Stephen Prothero puts it in his book God is Not One, “According to a popular Chinese saying, ‘Every Chinese wears a Confucian cap, a Daoist robe and Buddhist sandals.” Or, according to another, Chinese are Confucians at work, Daoists at leisure, and Buddhists at death.” Remember what I said up above, about sects and heretics? Just because religions didn’t develop to be part of a polytheistic system doesn’t mean that’s not how they’ll end up.

And, of course, there are monotheistic religions in fantasy worlds, too, the worship of R’hllor the Lord of Light from GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire being one highly-visible contemporary example. If you want this sort of god to have real power in your world, you probably want to think of them less as a bureaucratic entity with different departments’ having different specialties and more as a monarch (maybe a magic-using monarch). This individual asks for devotion from her people, and in exchange, she promises to take care of whatever they need. But she doesn’t hear similar appeals from people in the next country over… unless, that is, they want to give up their previous citizenship and swear loyalty to her instead.

Basically, what I’ve realized after pondering this for far too long is that when you’re developing fantasy religions, you need to start by thinking about the worshippers – why are they following this faith and not a different one? What need is it serving for them? (and before you ask, yes, the need to avoid being killed by powerful priests or the wrathful god himself definitely counts.) If there’s only one religion in your setting, how does it connect with the rest of the culture? If there are multiple religions, what do they think of each other? Do they coexist in non-overlapping ways (many tribal/ethnic gods), do they demonize each other (Christianity’s view of pre-Christian Europe), or do their worshippers decide over time that the two gods are part of the same pantheon, or even different faces of the same being (Hinduism)? And what do the gods themselves (if applicable) make of all this?

And that’s my spiel. Some actual reference books I can recommend for trying to get a handle on all this:

  • Smith, The World’s Religions: the classic comparative religion textbook, which argues that the point of all religion is to help people be nicer to one another.
  • Prothero, God Is Not One: runs through the major world religions (by population/influence) and talks about the “problem” that each one sees as its central challenge, and the “solution” that it offers.
  • Armstrong, The Great Transformation, about the rise of modern religion/philosophy (Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, and Greek thought) as a response to great conflict all around the world — an interesting book to read to make you realize that not all religions throughout history have had a moral message at their heart.