59 – Should You Base Your Setting on History?

The Mythcreant Podcast

Chris, Mike, and Oren discuss the ups and downs of using history in worldbuilding. They question whether historical realism is a worthwhile goal, cover the pitfalls of using the history of other cultures, and critique settings derived from real places and events. But mostly, they talk about pirates.

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Seventh Sea

The War of the Roses

The Gentleman Bastard Series

Women Pirates

Cultural Appropriation


Telling a Story in a Prejudiced Setting

Balfour and Meriwether

Way of Kings

Great Chain of Being

Six Consequences of High Magic

His Majesty’s Dragon

Mistborn Series


Guns, Germs, and Steel

The Malazan Series

Pirates of the Carribean

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  1. Johnny Smith

    I agree with you on almost everything. Towards the start, one of you mentions anthropology as a possible approach. I kind of like that – in a way, it’s a good alternative to the “historical” approach. Looking at how cultures function and develop can give you the building blocks to create brand new cultures rather than just resting on tired old parallels.

    Your comments on the Malazan series are quite on the mark, and I say that as one of the aforementioned dedicated fanbase. I think a big problem with these books is that they deliberately go for the “irreducible complexity” (did you use those words?) of the real world that Chris brings up right at the beginning of the podcast. As a result, even the authors get lost on occasion, and the readers (even some long-term fans) exist in an almost perpetual state of bewilderment. The Roman-style warfare of the early volumes gives way to a Vietnam-style marine invasion with small squads acting in coordination towards the mid-series, and then shifts to a combination of the two in the late volumes. As for the motivation for expanding and fighting, it’s an odd amalgam of geopolitics, resource control, and saving the world as we know it.

    I think these are the two most compelling issues, in a way – first, the balance between making a parallel culture or constructing something from scratch, and second, the balance between “realistic” (chaotic and complex – intellectually satisfying but not always fun to read) and “concise” (fun to read but not always intellectually satisfying).

  2. Johnny Smith

    Off topic somewhat, but another area worth thinking about (and please forgive me if you already brought this one up) is technological imbalance. Like the role of women in history, this is one area that’s frequently misunderstood. There’s this myth of Europe slowly steamrolling the rest of the world from 1492 to 1900, due to sustained technological superiority (“firearms” being the cliche). There are three events that give rise to this myth – the mass disease that swept the New World after the European arrival, the destruction of the Aztecs (due to longswords, not firearms, actually), and the 100-or-so years of European dominance following the industrial revolution (due to organizational skill as much as firearms).

    In reality, technological imbalance usually corrects itself in a matter of decades. From 1500-1800, European influence in most of Eurasia and Africa was strong, but by no means dominant. In the 1640s, for example, the most powerful European power (the Dutch) lost a war against one of the weakest mainland Southeast Asian powers (the Cambodians). Turns out that Dutch ships (their main advantage) aren’t that effective when you have to sail them far upstream to fight, and Dutch firearms are easily matched by the Japanese firearms acquired by the Cambodian king.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that you don’t REALLY need to alter history in order to give agency to anyone who isn’t a white male.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Absolutely. As complicated as it is, history often turns on a few tiny factors that could have turned out differently.

  3. Saumya Kulp

    Maybe not Johnny Depp pirate movies.

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