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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.

On Dothraki and House Elves: Developing a Fantasy Culture

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. You should definitely go check out the other great contributions!

Can you describe your fantasy story’s dominant culture in one sentence?

That’s where many of us start when we’re writing, especially those who really love to worldbuild. We hit on a concept for a race of catpeople, or think about how people would be different if they’d evolved underwater, or decide to tweak how human reproduction works. Concepts like these are fantastic starting places: with a little research and creativity, they can be spun pretty quickly into a full-fledged culture, with elaborate practices, values, and stories and beliefs about how the world works.

And you can stop there. A lot of authors do, including some whose books are runaway best-sellers. But if you want your story to portray a realistic society, building “the culture” won’t be enough, for three reasons: cultural drift, cultural exchange, and deviance. Let’s unpack these a little.

Cultural Drift

How old is your primary culture? And how much territory does it cover?

There’s a lot of talk both inside and outside the United States about “American culture,” You know, the culture of Big Macs and organic local farmers’ markets, of abstinence pledges and the reality show Sixteen and Pregnant, of – you get the idea. Even in “the information age,” the US still has regional cultures. If you’re familiar with those cultures, you might make assumptions about someone from the Bay Area, or the Bible Belt, or Brooklyn, but you’d likely realize there’s not much you can assume about someone from “America.” The country’s just too big.

The same goes for cultural change over time. Even in a relatively young country like the US, there have been dramatic cultural changes since its founding, and modern people get into positively brutal arguments about what the original culture was (just ask someone with an opinion on the issue what “separation of church and state” means).

Over time and distance, the Vulgar Latin spoken in the Roman Empire fragmented into the very-different Romance languages. Culture fragments, too, and it also changes in response to local conditions. The American Revolution changed its people’s culture dramatically. So did the slave trade. So did the car.

Failing to take cultural drift into account seems to be particularly common when you’re developing non-human cultures (centaurs are noble, dwarves are gruff, elves are arrogant, you know the drill). One exercise to help you get around this is to think about which of the cultural traits you’ve developed are actually rooted in biology: those are the ones most likely to be universal across cultures. For instance, almost all human children are raised in family groups; almost all humans subsist on some combination of plant matter and animal protein; almost all humans will have sexual partners at some point in their adult life. But think how many variations exist on those themes if you widen the scope to all human cultures.

Cultural Exchange

Think fast: where did tomatoes originate?

If you guessed Italy, I can’t blame you. Tomato sauces and bruschetta are so strongly associated with Italian food now that it can be hard to believe there were no tomatoes in Europe until the sixteenth century. They originated in southern Mexico, and came to Europe with returning Spanish explorers. Same thing with chili peppers, brought first to Europe and then to Asia from the “New World.” People traveled, they saw new things, and they adopted those things as their own.

Intelligent creatures are curious. If people from your primary culture have contact with other cultures, whether through war, alliance, or just casual encounters, some parts of those other cultures will trickle home with them. Some American GIs who served in Vietnam came home with a new taste for Southeast Asian cuisine; some sub-Saharan Africans who heard the preaching of European missionaries decided this Jesus stuff might be worth exploring.

Food and religion are particularly good examples of cultural exchange, because they’re pretty portable and fairly resistant to extinction. When people travel to a new country, they bring their cuisine and their faith along, and even when immigrants assimilate, food and faith tend to persist longer than other things. But the longer an export is immersed in a new culture, the further it’s likely to drift from its original source material. Christianity in Africa looks quite different from Christianity in Europe; “Chinese food” in the United States is very different from Cantonese or Szechuan cuisine. Blame cultural drift again, along with syncretism (a term most commonly applied to religion): combining new cultural elements with ones that are already working well. East and Southeast Asia are notorious for this, with many people’s religious practices incorporating elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and local indigenous traditions without the practitioners seeing any contradiction.

Cultural exchange is particularly common where two cultures bump up against each other often. This is why “ethnic” food is most prevalent in big cities that are common immigrant destinations, and why there are more Mexican restaurants in the southwestern US (i.e., close to Mexico) than in New England. If your story’s set in a border town, it will almost by definition not be monocultural.

Finally, of course, there’s cultural exchange in the most direct sense of the word. When two human cultures first meet, there are two things you can almost always count on: they’ll try to kill each other, and they’ll make babies. Even if there are taboos against intercultural sexual relations – even if it’s punishable by death – it’ll still happen. And the children who come from those unions will have to be categorized within the societies who could potentially claim them, and decide for themselves what cultural space they’re going to occupy.

Which brings me to my final bullet point. I suspect that right now, someone reading this is preparing to protest that your fantasy culture is the exception, that your cultural authorities (king, warlord, high priests, whoever) maintain a policy of strict isolationism, so there’s no opportunities for cultural exchange, and they’re immortal, so there’s limited opportunity for cultural drift because the story coming from the top never changes. To you, I say that even in the most authoritarian societies, there will always be the crazy ones.


What was US culture like in the 1950s? (Hint: This is a trick question.)

If you took early American TV as your guide, you could easily believe the America of the ‘50s was a land of capitalism-loving, comfortably middle-class families, with stay-at-home moms and breadwinning dads. But, of course, some Americans still got divorced in the ‘50s; some were in same-sex relationships; some were poor; some were Communists. The dominant culture’s social norms may have pointed people toward the Leave it to Beaver ideal, but the reality was a little different.

Whatever norms, beliefs and values your society has, there will be people who stray from them. People who don’t believe God created the universe, or don’t believe that the Big Bang did. People who sever ties with their family of origin, or who live with their parents until they’re forty. Straying from the mainstream – whatever that mainstream might be – is what sociologists call deviance.

People tend to think of the term deviance as referring to illegal and/or immoral actions, and that’s certainly part of the picture. But there are also deviant acts that violate norms rather than laws or morals, like sitting down right next to someone on the bus when there are empty seats available elsewhere. You won’t get arrested; you may not even get a dirty look; but you’ll almost certainly make the other person uncomfortable. And there’s another type of deviance even milder than norm-breaking, people who just do things a little differently. In 2014, in much of the world, not having a cell phone makes you deviant; so does having twelve children. Ditto skydiving, or having a tarantula for a pet.

Your society will have all these forms of deviance. There will be people who commit crimes (actions that a government deems undesirable for one reason or another); there will be people who do immoral things (often actions that a religious authority deems undesirable); and there will be people who do weird things, and think outside the box. The motivations for these actions could be anything you can imagine. What if there was a Dothraki in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire who was allergic to horses? What if there was a Hogwarts house elf who had a vision from the gods and started preaching that the house elves needed to go join Voldemort’s cause, or that they needed to use their magic destroy the humans?

The people in your world will be born into a culture, and that culture will shape their thoughts and beliefs and actions. But no thinking person can conform completely to every aspect of their culture, no matter how constrictive that culture is. You’ll always have variability.

This might all sound like a lot of work, and I’m certainly not suggesting you come up with a hundred incarnations of every culture that could potentially appear in your story. But for the main cultures, I’d suggest it’s worth thinking about these things. Because the more nuance you can put in your cultures, the realer they’ll feel to your readers – and who knows, you may even find opportunities for new stories! The messianic house elf seems like it has potential to me…

Worldbuilding from Real Life Without Leaving Home: Travel Guides

I’ve already mentioned here the Comic-Con video I found a few weeks ago where a group of epic fantasy authors discuss everything from overcoming writing anxiety to designing maps. In the conversation, the authors talk a lot about what to read to help you with building rich worlds, but there’s a technique I’ve recently discovered that they didn’t mention and which I’d like to share with you. So here it is, in brief:

If you want your world, or even a corner of it, to have the flavor of someplace you’ve never been, read a good travel guide.

In my own worldbuilding this year, I’ve been making a special effort to avoid the straightforward transposition of existing cultures. Some authors who use this technique do it brilliantly: Guy Gavriel Kay’s built a career on doing minor tweaks to real-world cultures and writing not-quite-historical fiction. Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books also have cultures very similar to those of the real medieval world (in most cases). George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has not-quite-Mongols (though Martin notes that he was inspired by a range of nomadic cultures in developing them), and not-quite-Moors. But I wanted something that felt more original, something that readers couldn’t point to and say “obviously, that’s [England/Japan/India/Italy].”

However, like any good worldbuilder, I knew that I didn’t have to invent everything myself. So instead, I started reading. I read two books on Japanese history and culture; I spent a morning reading up on the armies of ancient empires that ruled over present-day Mali, Congo and South Africa; I have a whole bookshelf full of stuff on comparative religion. That’s all great iceberg work, but it doesn’t do a good job of giving me bits of flavor. Architecture, culture, customs, food… the sorts of things a reader would be interested in learning about. Or, y’know, a tourist.

The idea of using travel guides occurred to me in a bookstore a month or so ago, and so a few weeks back, I checked out two guides from my local library to put the theory to the test. I grabbed what looked interesting from what they happened to have available, and what I ended up with was Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and Fodor’s Scandinavia. Both were useful; the Lonely Planet one included substantially more cultural stuff, though I’m not sure whether that’s because Southeast Asia requires more cultural explanation than Scandinavia for the guidebook’s presumed reader (a questionable assumption for about a dozen reasons) or because Lonely Planet does better culture in general. I’m planning to do more research (and will post a followup comment when I do). But both books included sections on history, politics, food, cultural taboos, holidays, and the must-see places around the country. All things that you’d want to know about your fictional country just as if it were a real one.

Just for fun, a sample of fun facts I learned from these guidebooks, in no particular order:

  • Traditional Vietnamese puppet theatre is “water puppetry”; it was originally performed in flooded rice paddies with the puppeteers standing in the water.
  • In rural Thailand, you are likely to be awakened by a rooster crowing at any hour of the day or night
  • Some Finnish communities traditionally wash their rugs in the sea
  • Cambodian delicacies include grilled tarantula and cobra wine (wine with a dead snake in it)
  • A seaport in Denmark has a pair of ceramic dogs in almost every front window. Historically, when the dogs were facing each other, it meant that the man of the house was home; when they faced away from each other, it meant he was out at sea.

You get the idea. Details like this are appealing to tourists but can also offer a unique flavor to your fantasy world.

Of course, before incorporating any aspects from a real-life culture into a fantasy culture, you should spend some time thinking about the context in which you’re planning to use the elements. If you borrow too much or too distinctively from a single culture (an example of “distinctive” might be if you decide you want your culture to write with ideograms, something  associated in the real world almost exclusively with Chinese language and culture), you want to make sure you’re not encouraging readers to use perceived real-world stereotypes to draw assumptions about your world, or otherwise demeaning the real-world culture. The difference between learning about other cultures to generate ideas and practicing straightforward cultural appropriation can sometimes be subtle. And if you want to use a single culture as more comprehensive inspiration for your fantasy world, please don’t stop with a guidebook: take Nisi Shawl’s advice from Writing the Other and learn everything you can about the culture, ideally including conversations with people who are cultural natives.

Guidebooks won’t build your world for you, and they shouldn’t be your only resource. But they can be a great starting point to generate ideas, and a fabulous way to fill your head with images, smells, tastes and sounds from outside the cultures you’re familiar with.

Escapism vs. Activism, OR: “It’s Just TV!”

“The Klingons are the Dothraki of Star Trek — the scary, warmongering Other from the Heart of Darkness out in deep space. The great thing about imaginary black and brown people is that white sci-fi/ fantasy writers can project their repressed oriental fetishes onto a blank canvas without taking responsibility – “WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT’S RACIST, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS KLINGONS OR DOTHRAKI! How can we be racist towards people WHO DON’T EVEN EXIST??” Funny how it’s always real black and brown people who have to play the role of the imaginary ‘non-existent’ warrior/tribal/primitive/race.” — Aamer Rahman, posting on i09 last June. 

How much do politics matter in storytelling?

I’m not talking about writers’ politics (though I might, next week — I started this post trying to talk about both topics and realized I had plenty to say there too). I’m asking about how much awesome characters, fabulous storytelling and brilliant world-building balance problematic elements in a particular story.

Of course, this is hardly a new topic: it’s even one that I’ve circled around before in this space. But it’s something that seems to be getting a lot of press recently in a couple fandoms to which I’m a proud subscribermost notably A Song of Ice & Fire/Game of Thrones and Doctor Who. Both universes have a lot to love in them: both also have elements that are profoundly problematic, particularly around race and gender.

Most of the grief around Doctor Who seems to be directed at Steven Moffat, primarily for his choice of another white male actor to play the newest Doctor; there’s also no shortage of fan unhappiness with the Doctor’s last few female companions, whose primary jobs seem to be to get into trouble and be rescued by some male person or another.

In the world of Westeros, we could talk about the points Rahman makes in his criticism of Daenerys Targaryen’s storyline, that the Klingons — oops, I mean Luxans — oops, I mean Dothraki — embody just about every stereotype of the “othered” warrior race and don’t get much opportunity to do otherwise, and that they also tend to be played on screen by black and brown people (yes, I know Farscape is an exception that particular trope, but their violent warrior race is still pretty violent-warrior-racey). We could extend it to talk about the fact that there are relatively few black and brown people in ASOIAF overall, and that the argument “but it’s set in quasi-medieval quasi-England, so of course the indigenous people will be white” ignores the fact that GRRM had no apparent problem adding dragons, wargs or zombies to a setting that probably didn’t have those historically, either.

If we wanted to open a whole different can of worms, we could turn to the controversy around sexual violence and misogyny in ASOIAF, a discussion which was already present around the books (summarized well here by Alyssa Rosenberg) and has only gained steam with the TV show (here‘s a discussion from AV Club of the problem as crystallized in the most recent episode of Season 4: possible trigger warning for sexual violence.). The general apologist response to this tends to be “well, life for women in the Middle Ages was really terrible, so…”; people also point to strong female characters like Brienne of Tarth and Asha Greyjoy.

Last summer, while visiting the East Coast, I had a conversation with a beloved friend and mentor about GRRM’s books, which she’d recently made her way through for the first time. She was not only deeply bothered by the sexual violence, but found their overall message deeply disturbing: (spoilers under the break) (more…)