Worldbuilding

Five Anachronisms That Fantasy Needs

See how the streets aren't filled with sewage? So inaccurate!

While the fantasy genre is rapidly growing beyond the limitations of medieval Europe, it is still historical almost by definition. Sometimes fantasy stories are literally set in our own world’s history, and sometimes they use history as inspiration. Either way, authors spend a lot of time making sure their stories are as historically accurate as possible.

But what if I told you that you don’t want a fantasy story to be completely accurate? The past is a strange and disturbing place; some of its customs and traditions won’t work for a modern audience. That doesn’t mean you should throw all that research out. Rather, it means you need to carefully consider which historical goofs are worth making. Here are conceits you should use in your fantasy setting, even if it means sweeping accuracy under the rug.

1. A Basic Understanding of Medicine

16th century surgical instruments. Eek. No thanks, I’ll just bleed quietly in the corner.

We haven’t unlocked all the human body’s secrets yet, but we have a pretty good idea of how it works. Most people can tell you what the major organs do, that germs cause disease, and that bleeding is bad for you. Modern medicine, for those with access to it, can perform spectacular feats of healing.

But it wasn’t always this way. In the days of yore, our understanding of the human body was, shall we say, suspect. You may have heard amusing anecdotes about how we used to think that every health problem was caused by an imbalance in the humors, and that the brain was used to cool the blood.

Those aren’t jokes; people used to think that. Respected scholars like Pliny the Elder would expound at length about how women were never left handed and that male children had a shorter gestation rate. And this wasn’t just in ancient times. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that doctors even started washing their hands.

With such a poor understanding of biology, most medical practices were ineffective at best. Only within the last two-hundred years has medicine advanced enough that doctors can actually improve a patient’s odds of survival with active treatment. Before that, the best that could be done was to keep the patient warm and hydrated, then hope the body healed itself. Some who might have otherwise recovered were actually killed by their doctors, like the first president of the United States.

This is not a good dynamic to have in your story. Your audience will find it incredibly silly if an important character dies because no one thought to stop their wound from bleeding, or because it was packed with horse dung, or because the doctor thought it needed to bleed more! Unless your story is specifically about people not understanding the source of a plague, listening to them talk about the spread of “bad air” will have the audience in giggles.

So when building your world, give the people a passing knowledge of biology. They don’t need to know about germs, but they should know that leaving a wound unclean will invite infection and how to use a few low-tech methods of sterilization. You can pass it off as herbology or low-level magic if you like; most of your audience won’t even notice. This way your protagonist can be seriously wounded and then credibly survive.

2. Reliable Birth Control

An old postcard of a woman battling a giant stork.

This may be a surprise, but most people like having sex, and they like reading about characters who have sex. That’s certainly not the only attraction of romance stories, but it’s a significant factor, even when the sex isn’t graphically described. And yet, most people aren’t nearly as enthusiastic about having babies. An unexpected pregnancy in your heterosexual romance can really throw the plot out of whack. The effects on a female protagonist are obvious, and a male protagonist will have a harder time justifying his adventures if his partner has a child on the way.

In modern stories, this isn’t a problem. Birth control is effective and readily available in most Western countries,* and new methods are already on the horizon. But historically, birth control has been either much more difficult to get or completely unreliable.

Old-timey ideas about birth control range from funny, to gross, to dangerous. It wasn’t uncommon for doctors to recommend various substances be inserted into the vagina, very few of which would actually do anything to prevent pregnancy, except maybe by making sex itself too uncomfortable to pursue. The Roman Republic had a plant called Silphium that is believed to have reduced the chances of pregnancy, but since they harvested it to extinction, we’ll never know how effective it was. In ancient China, mixtures of lead and mercury were prescribed to prevent pregnancy, and since dead people are known to have fewer children, this method sort of works.*

Condoms and other barrier methods are not new, but they were often ineffective or just really uncomfortable for all parties involved. That’s assuming birth control was even allowed. In the 1400s, the Catholic Church basically declared anyone who knew about birth control to be a witch, starting the long Western tradition of forcing women to have kids.

So if your story is set in or based on anything before about 1960, it may be tempting to make birth control unavailable in the name of realism. This won’t work for most stories though, because audiences will not be thrilled about a diversion from dragon slaying to diaper changing. Fortunately, most audiences are happy to accept that your world has some kind of herb that’s highly effective at preventing pregnancy, and this way you won’t have to spend an awkward scene describing the pullout method.

3. Acceptance of Differences

A phrenology chart. You mean head bumps don’t denote intelligence?

Our modern society is steeped in prejudice, discrimination, and inequality. But it used to be so much worse. In fact, it was bad enough that a quick study of history will teach you the only correct answer to “what historical time would you like to live in” is “none of them please get that time machine away from me.”

Just to throw out an example, at various times and places in history, it has been widely accepted that women are incapable of reasoning at an adult level. While there are still people who believe that, it has at least passed into the realm of being socially unacceptable to state openly.

The list of terrible things people in history have said or done is practically endless. For decades, many scientists were convinced that dark-skinned people were provably inferior by the shape of their skulls. Many religious groups preached charity and kindness towards all people, then they happily slaughtered people of a different religion without once questioning the contradiction. We’re not completely rid of that second one, but at least it’s now recognizable as a contradiction.

None of this is new to serious worldbuilders, but many are under the mistaken impression that including lots of historical prejudices will make their world more immersive. It doesn’t. If anything, it breaks immersion when the reader is confronted with an obviously absurd moral stance, the same way it would if gravity suddenly reversed.

It doesn’t matter how historically accurate a prejudice is. Modern readers* know that Jews aren’t inherently underhanded and that Ireland isn’t a land of lazy layabouts who are nothing but a drain on the British Crown. Including such views in your world will detract from readers’ enjoyment. Worse, it risks normalizing said views, making those on the fringe who still think that way even more confident in their beliefs.

The only reason to give your setting over-the-top historical prejudices is if your story is about examining and challenging them. Most stories are much more interested in who will sit upon the Iron Throne and the like, so they’re better off with a more liberal attitude.

4. Reasonable Fashion Trends

A painting of a man wearing an Elizabethan Ruff. All the seriousness is gone now.

Costuming your fantasy characters is an important step in the worldbuilding process, and what they wear says a lot about them. It’s only natural to look at historical cultures that are similar to those in your stories. You can learn a lot about what a mountain-dwelling culture would wear by studying real-world cultures from mountainous regions.

But this practice has limits, because historical fashions have sometimes been…odd. Through generations of taste making, what people once considered the height of coolness now just seems absurd. Much has been made of the fact that Game of Thrones (GoT) includes no codpieces, despite such gear being very common in the period GoT is based on. But codpieces are just the beginning. It’s impossible to take someone seriously when they’re wearing an Elizabethan ruff,* and a lot of women’s hats from the same period are rather comical as well. No serious description and grim dialogue can be taken seriously in the presence of such garments.

And it isn’t just about looking ridiculous. Many historical fashion trends were downright dangerous. And I’m not talking subtle, long-term health effects either. Many dyes and makeups used in olden days caused terrible burns, not to mention muscle and nerve damage.

People put up with this either because they didn’t understand the cause, or because looking fashionable was just that important. But modern audiences will have a really difficult time understanding that mindset. To most of us, lipstick isn’t worth putting on if it will melt your lips off. Seeing a character do this in your story will be incredibly distracting, and it will seem unrealistic to any readers who aren’t well versed in history.

This all could provide a lot of meat for a story, no doubt, but most fantasy stories are not about fashion. Indeed, fashion is usually used to support the atmosphere, but that won’t work if the fashion is so bizarre that it distracts the audience. So for most stories, it’s best to stick with costumes that don’t take a history lesson to explain.

5. Time Keeping and Calendars

A Medieval Calendar. Try figuring out a schedule with that.

Keeping track of time is something so incredibly mundane that we barely think about it, and yet it underpins nearly everything we do. Our units of time, from years down to seconds, are deeply ingrained. We have a sense of how much can get done in an hour. When we hear someone is five years younger in a flashback, we have some idea of how different they might be.

But our ideas of how to keep track of time are surprisingly arbitrary. The year and the day are based off the observable phenomenon of the earth’s orbit and rotation; months roughly line up with the lunar phases, but weeks, hours, and so on are completely fabricated. We inherited our 24-hour system from the ancient Egyptians, but many cultures throughout history have used something completely different. For a long time, the Chinese divided their day by 100 instead of 24 and people in the Indian subcontinent measured a day at 30 “muhūtras.” The French even tried to introduced a system called decimal time after the 1799 revolution, but that didn’t last very long.

And this is all on the same planet. If your world isn’t earth, it’s possible that everything could be different. Maybe it has a longer or shorter orbit, meaning a longer or shorter year. Maybe it has no moon, or multiple moons, which would play hell with the months. Maybe even the length of the day isn’t fixed, with your world potentially spinning at a different speed than our own lump of rock.

Then there are names: “hour” and “minute” are just descriptions, but our days and months all have proper names with capitalized letters and everything. There’s no reason those would have to be the same in your fantasy world, and many historical cultures certainly called them by different names. Why, with all these factors in play, you could create a system of timekeeping unlike anything an earthling has ever seen!

But you shouldn’t. Few things will confuse the audience faster than trying to figure out a new time system. We’ve all learned the modern system since childhood to the point where it’s second nature. If characters talk about days, we expect them to be 24 hours long. A day of some other length will leave the audience scratching their heads over why things are happening so quickly or taking so long.

Even if your story contains a detailed explanation of how your time system works, it will be confusing. With something so ingrained as our timekeeping system, it’s difficult to replace it with something else. So unless your story is specifically about a group of colonists trying to adjust to a new world’s calendar, use the timekeeping system your audience is familiar with. If it doesn’t make sense to use proper names for days or months, go with something simple like “firstday.” Your audience will understand that this is a conceit, if they notice it at all.


The goal of worldbuilding is to help you tell your story. Most of the time, historical accuracy accomplishes that because it makes the story feel like it takes place in a living, breathing world. But if historical accuracy is really hurting your story, you can probably use an anachronism and no one will be the wiser.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    A great article. I have a few additions, though.

    #1: We know little about medicine practiced before the so-called middle ages (it’s a modern concept which saw a good deal of time as simply the dark and horrible in-between dividing the ‘enlightened’ ancient times from modern times). There are hints that medicine might have been more evolved before the middle ages, that for instance the Ancient Egyptians successfully opened and closed heads in surgery (since the cuts in the skull where mended again, meaning the person survived the actual act). There are also descriptions of healers (not necessarily doctors, but those other people who knew about healing) using molding bread or spider webs on open wounds, which sounds bad, but is a good idea. Mold was the first thing which gave us antibiotics and spider silk has a similar anti-biotic quality. Or they covered the wound in honey, which is also a good way to keep bacteria away. For an author writing something about a fantasy world set in the past, those facts give quite some leeway.

    #2: Reliable birth control could come from magic or simply from a plant or a potion made up of several plants. In addition, the first condomes (made from pig entrails) were around well before we started counting in AD. Humans have always looked for ways to make sure sex didn’t end in babies, so that is also something you can add without feeling bad about it.

    #3: This one depends on what the topic of your story is. If you need some kind of predjudices to work the story out, you should add them. But you shouldn’t put them in, just because they were around at the time you’re basing your fantasy world on.

    #4: Reasonable and fashion don’t always go together and you don’t need to look back far to see that (1980s shoulder pads, anyone?). However, most forms of fashion that is restricting or can be outright dangerous were limited to the wealthy and the nobles, because your average peasant can’t do their work in a ruff or with shoes so long and pointy you can’t even step on a stair normally. Still, if it’s not a necessary part of the story, you should definitely curb the excesses.

    #5: I remember reading a couple of novels based on the Dark Eye RPG system. The day has 24 hours there, too, but the names of the months are the names of the 12 primal gods. It works quite well, I think, because the name of a month isn’t all that important. If you drop hints that the month is in a specific season, that’s usually enough. Completely drawing up a new time system is rarely, if ever, necessary, though. Minutes, hours, and days are something you can always work with. If you’re writing science fiction and your characters are on another planet, you might want to drop a hint that this planet has a different rotation and a day consists of 31 hours or something.

  2. Mike

    Interesting points to think about, as always. Would love to either see some sources or at least a blurb on the author to be able to put all this in context. Any chance of that happening?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’ve got a few links to sources scattered throughout the article, was there something in particular you were curious about?

      • Mike

        Numerous claims made about how the audience responds to things. I don’t live in the US, and am having trouble figuring out who exactly your “modern audience” refers to, as it seems to be a specific, limited group of people – not including many in my own extended social circle, or people in the news or the intended audiences of great literature.

        Specific examples:
        “Modern readers (at least the kind of reader you want) know that ”
        My kid caught a simple cough and runny nose that was going around. Since I had taken him to the local clinic anyhow, I asked a nurse about it. She told me she had no idea, because she didn’t know anything about how “my people” responded to illness – she only knew about how illnesses affected the local majority people.

        “modern audiences will have a really difficult time understanding that mindset. To most of us, lipstick isn’t worth putting on if it will melt your lips off.”
        So modern audiences have trouble understanding the massive butt implants that celebrities have been doing in recent years? Silicone can do some scary stuff inside the body. And body mods can get even more extreme.

        “Few things will confuse the audience faster than trying to figure out a new time system.”
        Tolkien’s appendices always fascinated me. One of them was a calendar. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series had extra time every day (I think 11 minutes?) when clocks stopped and people had a little celebration. I always find it fun when an author takes the time to build little realistic details like that into their work. Am I then alone in this? Probably not……so makes me think that maybe the audience you refer to perhaps does not include me?

        “Your audience will find it incredibly silly if an important character dies because no one thought to stop their wound from bleeding….listening to them talk about the spread of “bad air” will have the audience in giggles.”
        Several educated acquaintances have refused to wear a seatbelt because “of course you will be driving safely”. Other acquaintances cough and sneeze in other people’s faces without realizing that it could make them ill. A judge in a nearby city found a good Samaritan guilty of injuring a senior citizen because “no one would help someone they didn’t know if it were not their fault that they were hurt in the first place. I’ve read in the news that there are places in the world where people believe that sex with a virgin will cure Aids.
        Is the audience you refer to not well-traveled? Is the world really getting so ingrown that we cannot conceive of people doing things differently from ourselves? I would be extremely interested in finding out if this is the case – hence my request for either sources or background info.

        “you don’t want a fantasy story to be completely accurate….
        some of its customs and traditions won’t work for a modern audience.”
        Agreed. But, as shown by the examples above, the farther I read the more I was unsure who exactly this modern audience is. Not knowing who these people are, and knowing so many people who don’t seem to fit the assumptions of the “modern audience” (not even getting into religious beliefs or blindly-followed traditional customs), builds a tension within me as I read the article. Am I a part of this modern audience? How limited a segment of society is it? Have I missed some massive sea-change in how the world as a whole works, missing the forest for the trees?

        • Katie

          I think a problem when people discuss writing – which isn’t really recognised or talked about that much – is the implicit idea that there is one, single kind of audience.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        I don’t know where you’re from, Mike, but in the US it would be extremely unusual for someone with a nurse’s education to think that a cold would be different based on person’s race or ethnicity. Not to say we don’t have a lot of racism, we do, but it’s usually more subtle than that.

        As to plastic surgery, there can be dangers to for that, but most of them are longer term problems that aren’t immediately apparent, and even considering those they are much safer than what I talked about in the article. Forbes talked about some of those dangers recently: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2011/06/16/hidden-dangers-of-cosmetic-surgery/#569a78427b2b

        For the Mars books, I specifically mentioned that books about colonization might be an exception, since that’s an important part of the worldbuilding.

        And yeah, there will always be people who make irrational decisions like not wear seat belts or make obviously absurd legal decisions, but they are now strange exceptions rather than the rule. Most people, in the US at least, wear seat belts (https://www.edgarsnyder.com/car-accident/defective-products/seat-belts/seat-belts-statistics.html). We had a judge recently who ordered a couple to get married or face jail time, and the reaction was widespread mockery.

        My perspective is certainly colored by living in the US. Since I’ve never lived anywhere else, it’s not really my place to write from the perspective of someone living in rural China, for example.

        • Mike

          So the modern audience you refer to pretty much equates to US progressives?

          • Cay Reet

            I’m not from the US and I found that perfectly understandable. I think everyone in a first- or second-world country who has access to education should understand that. People who have no access to education (something usually only happening in third-world countries) may not. But, of course, there might be privately led schools in the US which teach creationism instead of evolution… Perhaps the nurse went to one of those?

          • Mike

            Cay, you have no reply button, so I’ll reply here.

            The nurse in question came from either a first world or second world country (not sure of the distinction, beyond the European obvious), with a reputation for good quality education. Not the US as I specifically mentioned, so she would find it difficult to go to one of the strange schools you mentioned.

            Not sure why most people I encounter are “strange exceptions”. Maybe I should blame it on the recent decrease of globalization.

          • Cay Reet

            Yes, there’s only a limited amount of replies, at some point, you can’t reply directly any longer. Usually, they’re enough.

            Mike, the difference between first and second world is still from the time of the cold war. First world is ‘west’ (meaning all developed countries not part of the soviet regime) and second world is ‘east’ (meaning now former soviet countries). These days, you could just say ‘first world’ and ‘third world’ or ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ countries.

            I live in Germany, have been born and raised here. I have never met anyone who would give medical advice based on ethnicity – at least nobody in a medical profession. I’m rather sure, although I can’t guarantee it, the same would be true for other countries around mine, for all of western and middle Europe (and, most likely, for easter Europe, too).

        • Mike

          The nurse was just one example. The best doctor in a respected hospital here gives different advice depending on the ethnicity/nationality of the patient.

          Anyhow, I think I’ve been able to glean the answers I was looking for from each of the answers in this thread. While fascinating, this article is written for a specific, limited audience, to give them advice on how to write in order to be more acceptable to that specific, limited audience. Too bad for me, as I love the article otherwise.

          I didn’t mean to troll, and I apologize, because that seems to be what this has become. Would love to read your work after you’ve done a bit more traveling and meeting people different from yourself.

          • Cay Reet

            I do not see where the audience here is specific or limited (unless you base it on the fact that the articles here are meant for people who write fiction). The suggestions up there are meant to make fantasy novels specifically easier to read and to understand. Most fantasy is based on the past of our own world, on past cultures or eras. And the article simply suggests that there are things which were part of that eras or cultures which one might want to cut out or change for a fantasy setting based on those cultures and eras. Like highly impractical pieces of clothing (which, I’m rather sure, every culture on this planet has produced) or predjudices which make no sense in the context of the story you are writing.
            In essence, the article merely says ‘don’t feel forced to put everything in, just because it was like that in history,’ because quite some content is hard to understand for the audience and not worth the two or three pages you would need to explain it to them, unless it’s important for the story.

          • Jim

            All audiences are specific and limited.

          • Daniel

            Thing is, all your examples are examples of people who are complete idiots. What you’re saying is that this “best doctor” is racist or somehow well-meaning but really, really stupid.

            So yes, those people you mentioned aren’t part of the ideal audience.

  3. SunlessNick

    Regarding 3, it’s also worth adding that prejudices of the past weren’t necessarily just worse versions of the prejudices we have now. In particular, racism as we understand it is a relatively new phenomenon – sure it existed in the past, but skin-tone wasn’t the overwhelming factor it is now.

    • Bronze Dog

      Hence strains of flu, measles, and such getting named after those countries.

  4. Quinte

    It’s a good rule of thumb to remove features of a setting if they are confusing and don’t contribute to the story. On the other hand I think discrimination and other absurd features actually contribute.
    Looking at medieval discrimination shows how arbitrary most prejudices are and far we’ve progressed.
    I am irritated by how a lot of fantasy forgets the absurd elements of their world. It tends to give a more rose tinted and nostalgic view of history when we omit the ridiculous, such as toilets catching fire before the invention of plumbing.

  5. Sam Victors

    In one of my story ideas, I created a world that is somewhat anachronistic; the cultures, customs and events are based on the Vikings, Highlanders, Puritans, Greco-Romans, Indigenous Peoples, Middle-Easterns, the Crusades, Russian Revolution, Pogroms, the Antiquity, Elizabethan era, English Civil War, Catholic-Protestant wars, the Enlightenment, and Medieval Ages. The major problems of this fictional world are Witch Trials, Colonialism, Institutional Slavery/Indentured Servitude, Civil Wars, Inquisitions, Religious Warfare, Piracy, Class Warfare, and Prejudice. (I got the inspiration for this idea from both reading and watching Game of Thrones).

  6. Gabriella L. Garlock

    Very nice look at why not to agonize over certain details because we’re afraid of being called-out on our lack of realism; instead we can cherry-pick those aspects of the past (and present) that directly relate to our theme and message.
    And still there’s lee-way for a knowledgeable author to show off his expertise in a particular time-period or culture (à la Tolkien) as it inspired him; it will probably also inspire the reader.
    If we were writing historical fiction the reader would probably expect to see our characters dodging chamber pot dumps; they may even be disappointed if they didn’t. If we wrote science fiction the audience would be positively critical if we neglected to acknowledge time is marked differently on another planet.
    I like to think that readers of fantasy generally want to learn a little something, too, just like readers of sci-fi and historical fic. But it’s refreshing to be re-assured that I can build my world on my own terms, whatever best fits the story I’m telling.

  7. T. K. Marnell

    Fantastic post! I have only one note to add: you absolutely don’t want your protagonists to be ignorant, prejudiced, ridiculously dressed buffoons, but you can use historical accuracy to enhance other characters.

    For example, a sniveling court advisor can deliver pompous platitudes with that silly ruff bobbling around his neck. A misguided doctor can bleed out the delirious hero before the heroine arrives and wisely puts a stop to it. An obvious villain can remind the heroine of her “place” with a sneer, or a seemingly trustworthy rebel can drop a nasty xenophobic joke that hints at his true ambitions.

    Readers must be able to identify with and root for the heroes of the story, so those characters can’t be people we wouldn’t like today. But when it comes to antagonists, go crazy!

    • Cay Reet

      Good point. I can see that advisor with the ruff clearly enough. The other people as well.

    • Chris Winkle

      This is true, but I would caution that if done wrong, it can look really contrived. Why does the protagonist somehow know that bleeding people doesn’t help them when the doctors of the day don’t? If the protagonist was raised by elves who know real medicine, than that’s fine, but I’ve seen way too many stories where the hero somehow has modern values or modern knowledge without sufficient explanation, and it’s supposed to make them better than everyone who actually fits in with the setting.

  8. Dash Robertson

    I have to admit I spent far too long creating a calendar for the novel I am writing, but when it came to referring to the calendar it was too jarring. Instead of referring to specifics, I’ve decided to stick to more generic terms that everybody can inherently understand.

    I might stick the calendar in an appendix or online for curious people.

  9. Lex W

    Ten years ago I would have agreed wholeheartedly with this entire list.

    Now you could pretty much re-brand this as “overused fantasy genre cliches, a list”, because virtually every fantasy genre novel in the last ten (and to some extent twenty) years uses them, and the generally the worse the novel is, the more aggressively it does so.

    I mean, let’s look at the examples:

    1) “A basic grasp on medicine”. This has gone far, far into genre trope/sad cliche territory, and in fact now you regularly see characters in basically medieval settings operating not just with basically sensible first-aid techniques, but 21st-century understandings of genetics and organ function and so on.

    It’s got to the point where, when a fantasy genre novel leans heavily on magical or alchemical healing, that’s actually delightful, because at least it tends to be solidly in-setting, and doesn’t feel like a cheap, wildly overused cliche/trope.

    2) This is a laughable trope at this point. Virtually every fantasy novel has wildly more effective birth-control than reality. They all have some magical herb that is, typically, Plan B and The Pill at once, only with no real side-effects. Yet their society will, because the authors are bloody lazy, inexplicably act like perfect birth control doesn’t exist. If you’re going indulge in this bizarre and needless trope (bizarre and needless because, in reality, all birth-control methods are a pain-in-the-arse if not physically dangerous – yet that has never, ever, harmed people writing about reality – if you can write a sex-scene but can’t write someone pulling out, that’s on you as a writer).

    3) This is the most reasonable one, but at the same time, can get lazy. It’s also an extremely American approach, where it’s wrong to feature sexism, racism, homophobia or the like, but absolutely fine to feature classism, regionalism or other bigotry of that nature, because that’s not a major concern to modern American society (and indeed “liberal” and “woke” Americans often perpetuate those forms of bigotry), but the other elements are. Americanocentric thinking is something that Americans (of all stripes, no matter how liberal or conservative or even how woke) are very poor at dealing with, though, perhaps for obvious reasons.

    All this said, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest the keeping such stuff (including, I would suggest, bigotry about class and the like) in the background if you don’t intend to address that in the story.

    4) Clothing. This is another one well into the lazy cliche/trope territory.

    Basically it’s a test of whether you’re a good writer, and whether you trust your audience. If you’re a bad writer, or a good one who doesn’t trust his audience (perhaps with good reason), then maybe you should stay away from realistic fashion.

    However, if you’re actually a good writer or even an okay one, and you trust your audience not to be a bunch of idiots (which may be going too far on occasion), you absolutely can use more human-history-realistic fashion (which has been ridiculous across the continents, and across the eras) and make it something that’s interesting and important that you can use to say something about your characters and world.

    You claim it’s impossible to write serious dialogue when people are wearing ruffs and the like, but that’s just pathetic and untrue. Historical novels manage it constantly. Historical fiction in general does. Part of how it does is by addressing why people are dressing in certain ways and how important it was to them and what they were saying by doing it. You can do the same. You don’t have to, and for a short story or novella or the like it may well not be worth it, unless it’s the focus. But for yet another never-ending fantasy series? Well, at least you’d have something unusual and a little bit daring, instead of another tired cliche.

    5) Timekeeping. I can’t really disagree too strongly with this one because it’s a simple matter of practicality. However, having characters who don’t have watches or engage in any precise timekeeping in their lives, regularly use terms like seconds or minutes can seem anachronistic in a really unconvincing way. It’s very easy to write around this too – if you think you have to use minutes or seconds, you’re failing as a writer, frankly. You can find a way around it. It makes sense if you’re portraying a very modern society, or one where timepieces are ever-present, but not for most societies.

    Otherwise though this seems fairly reasonable – you can get away with fantasy-izing the names as long as you’re not excessive about it, but it may well just be best not to in some cases.

    Again, let me just say that somewhere over ten years ago, I would have cheered this list. And the reasoning isn’t terrible except with 4, but these are genuinely mostly sad, cheap, tired fantasy genre tropes at this point.

  10. Joshua Jeffrey

    Number 1 irks me just a bit, as a history teacher. No one is going to argue that Medieval understanding of medicine was extremely limited, but it’s possible to overstate things and unfairly make all of our predecessors out to be mere buffoons. Practices like bloodletting seen barbaric to us, but they weren’t used from 3000 BC until the 1800s despite never working. It at least appeared to have real benefits in some cases, or people would have stopped doing it far sooner; and there are now some doctors suggesting the possibility that it actually did help fight infections by reducing concentrations of iron, which bacteria need to thrive, in the human bloodstream. Not to mention the recreation of the Anglo-Saxon “potion” a few years back, made from cow bile, wine, garlic, and a variety of other ingredients stewed in a copper pot, which turned out to be more effective than any modern antibiotic against MRSA.

    The long and the short of it is that, while Medieval physicians didn’t always know why remedies did or didn’t work, they had the benefits of literally thousands of years of trial and error. You’re going to luck onto things. They weren’t any dumber than we are, even if they didn’t know as much.

    And when a few thousand years from now people study the great pandemic which nearly destroyed human civilization, and read about how helplessly we tried to fight it with our woefully inadequate medicines, hopefully they won’t write us all off as idiots either.

    • Joshua Jeffrey

      Aaand I just realized how old this post is, haha. It was on the front page and I assumed it was recent. Sorry for the necro.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      No problem, we get people archive diving all the time. No rule saying old posts can’t be commented on.

  11. Bubbles

    Wow, I realized this article is about fantasy and not actual historical fiction. I now am less critical. Nevertheless, there are still some problems with it, in my opinion:

    The idea that historical accuracy can simply be ignored “for the story” doesn’t seem correct to me. It should only be ignored if there is a good in-story reason to do so. If there is no such reason, the story is logically impossible: there is no possible world in which it could happen. That breaks suspension of disbelief and removes enjoyment. So, for example, alternative laws of physics are fine, but only if they don’t contradict themselves (which is more difficult to do than many think). You can have different societies, but not one where conditions such as evolution or the environment would never allow it to develop in any world.

    1 and 2: There were reasons for these things in the past. Unless you have magic or perhaps very different conditions, the things you want to be ignored must actually be present.

    3. This is a complex and sensitive topic. There have been arguments that bigotry is evolutionarily selected for and that only high technology created the conditions that caused it to start disappearing. I’m not sure whether to agree, but it’s something to keep in mind. If you don’t want bigotry, you may think about having high technology or magic that is similar, or the world is set up so creatures were not created by evolution.

    4. The main problem I see is that you believe that readers cannot take it seriously. At least some can, such as me. Watershed Down was about rabbits and it could be serious. If it’s realistic, people should be able to write about it. Also, you don’t have to keep mentioning the costumes in your work: just once or a few times should be fine.

    5. I suppose developing a calendar that’s the same as ours is technically possible, by the infinite monkey theorem. That said, it’s far more likely for it to be different, and people should be able to write about that. You can put a guide in the front of your work to help people learn.

    • Cay Reet

      History is a very complex thing. The slightest change in history could have created a completely different present. Therefore, it actually is easy to say that in a fantasy environment human history can be ignored. Dragons would make a huge change to warfare. Magic would make a huge change to the development of society. Different races would create a different society and come with a host of different history tellings.

      1 & 2: We know that medicine didn’t evolve in a straight line. Egyptians already did successful brain surgery (we know that, because the marks in the skull had healed, meaning the patient didn’t die from them), something which would not be attempted again until the 19th/20th century. We also know the Romans completely eraticated a plant they used as the ‘morning after’ pill and that contraceptives in the form of rudimentary condoms have been around since ancient times. Which means it’s not unlikely for a world where, for instance, magic exists to have developed a better grasp on medicine (especially, if healing is part of magic and magic isn’t taught on a one-on-one base, but rather in schools of some kind) and has developed some kind of either potion or spell to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

      3: Bigotry does always exist, because humans have a build-in ‘us vs. them’ instinct, but how strong it is usually depends on how much the society allows for it. Sometimes in history, bigotry was merely a personal thing and people were not allowed to act on it. Sometimes it was accepted by the society, because the ruling class subscribed to it. Sometimes it was even forced on people, indoctrinating the children outright. Those stages don’t necessarily come with technology, but are strongly connected to how many different groups of people are living together and how much they interact (of course, high technology normally means a lot of travel, which means chances for interaction with many different groups becomes more likely).

      4: One big problem with impractical fashion is that you have to make it believable that your characters can fight, ride, or scale a cliff in it. That has nothing to do with the reader’s ability to see someone unusual (as the rabbits in Watership Down or the many animals in Aesop’s fables) as the hero. The question is if a hero in a severe ruff and with long, pointed shoe which even make it implossible to walk stairs the normal way can actually believably scale a cliff or fight with a foil and use the footwork which comes with that. It’s not a conicidence that impractical fashion was normally only worn by nobles – and usually in court where there was no need for physical tasks.

      5: Given that earth has produced more than one calendar, depending on the area where it was developed, it is highly unlikely, but possible for a fantasy calendar to be the same as ours. Calendars usually are based on the nature around the people. They are often first kept to figure out when to sow out the fields or until when all harvest has been stored for the winter. Recurring celestial events (like the moon cycle of earth) often play a role as well, because they mean you do not have to count days to figure things out. First full moon after spring has started? Start sowing (just an example, I have no idea if that would be too late or too early). The Himmelscheibe (sky disk) found in Germany is actually a calendar of sorts which allows the initiated to use it, but it completely useless to the average person. If your fantasy world has similar climate zones to earth (worlds with only one climate zone are highly unrealistic) and a calendar you refer to was developed in a similar climate zone to Europe, you can easily get away with only exchanging the names of the months (and, perhaps, add one and make it a moon-cycle based calendar). Another question is if you need a calendar at all. Days are days everywhere. They last from one sunrise to the next, so as long as your world has a sun, it has days. ‘The trip will take ten days’ is true for every world with a sun, even though the actual length of the day in minutes might differ. Cold season, sowing season, growing season, harvest season also will usually be present in rural environments (you can substitute something else for ‘cold season,’ depending on the climate).

  12. Bubbles

    Good points. Perhaps I should have made some things about my viewpoint clearer:

    A. Much of what I said at first is meant more for those worldbuilders who DON’T use magic. Yes, as you said, magic can change a lot of things. However, if you choose not to have it in your world, you are more limited – and I believe that no magic is a legitimate choice.

    B. I believe that as a rule, if something is logically possible, creators should be able to put it in their stories. I know it may just be exaggeration, but the idea that these anachronisms “need” to be in fantasy seems wrong to me. Now, for an inexperienced or awkward writer, such as me, it may be a good idea to use them, but for those who are skilled, I believe they could exclude what is said to be necessary in this article and still write a good story. So the target audience may need to be more clearly stated.

    1 and 2: Interesting. However, not all worlds or time periods are lucky enough to have those, and a skilled writer doesn’t need to have them in the world. Perhaps dangerous medical treatments or an unexpected pregnancy could even be part of the plot.

    3. This is complex, and I don’t think I was clear enough last time. I had something specific in mind, actually, an argument that I saw in the comments section of the website “Fangs for the Fantasy,” about social justice in urban fantasy. The article on that site was about worlds without bigotry (I believe, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the article again). The comments were arguing that some kind of bigotry may be universal in low-technology, non-magical worlds. Sexism was the example, with the comment author stating that in human history, there had been no true matriarchal or egalitarian civilizations and women were always in a subordinate position. The author claimed that this was because of farming, which led to food production supposed to be necessary for a settled civilization, but also to high infant mortality. Women needed to have and take care of a lot of children then so some infants could survive, but then it was more difficult for them to acquire other useful skills, leading to men being more valued than women. This could only end when high technology reduced infant mortality. I have seen similar arguments elsewhere. Now, again, I am NOT 100% sure that the reasoning is correct, but I cannot say it is definitely false either. Can anyone here disprove it, by any chance?

    4. Again, you have a good point. But what if the story is about political intrigue among nobles? That could be interesting without featuring a lot of physical activity. Furthermore, the article claimed something different: that, in its words, “No serious description and grim dialogue can be taken seriously in the presence of such garments.” I was taking issue with that statement. The fashions, again, could be part of the plot in some stories as well. Peasants angry at how they starve while nobles focus on their clothes, or dangerous lipstick being part of the reason why the monarch is so crazy (even if it is never stated in the story itself, it could provide plausibility – and I never thought I would write that!)

    5. Okay, but if the story is on a different planet (even an Earth-like one), the lengths of the days and the years should almost certainly be different. Different cultures, as the article itself mentioned, divided time in very different ways. In fact, the article, unlike you, suggested that worldbuilders generally SHOULDN’T use any made-up proper names for timekeeping at all; but I say that in many cases, it would be unrealistic not to use made-up names. My argument was with the conclusion that readers would be confused even with an explanation: I think that many would be fine, and even if they were confused, you, as the creator, could provide further explanation yourself if they ask. In short, if there must be a trade-off, confusion is better than logical impossibility.

    Now, I noticed that many of the points in the article basically say “You don’t need these anachronisms, but only if their absence is the focus of the story.” However, I think that a very skilled writer (definitely not me) wouldn’t need ANY anachronisms if they didn’t want them, and not have the main focus be on that. Also, as pointed out previously by a comment, the article seems to assume a specific cultural audience at times, even though people of many different cultures could perhaps see your world. What I feel a bit annoyed about, in the end, is the definitive tone of the article.

  13. Mariah

    I was enjoying reading this until I came to the part in #2 where it says that the Catholic Church declared everyone who knows about birth control to be a witch and then links to a wikipedia page where the words “birth,” “control,” and “contraception” do not appear once. Do you have a more accurate source for this? While you don’t mention witch burnings explicitly, they were more of a Protestant thing than a Catholic thing. We Catholics like people to have second chances. (Which is why confession is a thing.)
    I would have had more respect for the comment if instead of mentioning witches you had brought up the Rhythm Method, which was used (I’m not sure if it was used as far back as Medieval times) and laughably inaccurate. Modern Catholic methods of spacing children (Natural Family Planning or NFP) are much more scientific and accurate because they use symptoms from the woman to determine her fertility instead of counting days. Is NFP 100% accurate? Almost, but then again I wouldn’t be here if it was. Chemical and other forms of contraception aren’t 100% accurate either, and that includes the pull out method. User error account for the majority of the lost percentage points for both NFP and the Pill. NFP also doesn’t mess with my body or the environment the way the Pill or an IUD would, so while it isn’t a guarantee of avoiding pregnancy for the times I want to avoid pregnancy, I regard children as precious gifts from God, so I will welcome children at any point.
    That all being said, I am going to include some sort of birth control herb in my story, because I am going to be playing with societal gender themes and I don’t have to agree with my own characters.

    • Cay Reet

      You should be aware that the inquisition is a Catholic thing. Inquisition started out hunting for ‘heretics’ (read: everyone who didn’t agree with the Catholic Church on what Christianity was) and included witches first as specific heretics. Then, however, they shifted to witches as servants of Satan (most specifically with the appearance of the Witch Hammer, a standard book on witch hunting and sentencing) and all second chances fell to the wayside. Witches (this could include men,women, and children, but the highest percentage were women) were to be executed once they had confessed (quite often through torture). Execution method varied from burning alive to several other methods (beheading, garrotting, slicing of veins in water to bleed them out for children – yes, the Catholic Church executed children, but the method is relatively humane for the middle ages) which always included burning the remains (because fire was supposed to clean their souls). So, yes, the Catholic Church did do witch hunts. And, no, the various Protestant Churches weren’t much better.

      Neither the counting nor the heat method are nearly as accurate as you might think – against counting: a woman doesn’t always have a cycle of the same length; against heat (NFP): a slight infection or hormonal imbalance through stress alone can actually break that method. Which is why doctors have a clear word for women who think they can actually avoid pregnancy reliable by that: mothers. If, however, you want to optimize chances to get pregnant, the heat method can be useful. The IUD is very safe, depending on which one is used, and the pill has a fail rate of 1:1000, which is 0.1%. That’s not 100% safe (but the Bible and several other religious texts tell us even being a virgin isn’t 100% safe), but the pill is also used by women to regulate their cycle and counteract several different other problems with it. Both IUD and pill (and the condom, which has about the same fail rate as the pill) are much safer than your suggested method is.

      • Mariah

        I’m doing more research into inquisitions, but I wanted to say that reducing the many methods that make up NFP to tracking your basal body temperature is a gross simplification. Creighton doesn’t use basal body temps at all. I’m haven’t learned the Creighton method just yet. Currently I track both BBT and my cervical mucus. BBT is best for confirming ovulation occurred and cervical mucus is good for knowing where your fertility is day to day but doesn’t itself show if ovulation happened. Using them both is much more accurate. I’m looking forward to seeing what Creighton adds.
        The pill when used for regulating cycles and other problems is more of a bandaid on the problem rather than actually fixing anything. NaPro technology is much better for women in diagnosing and treating underlying problems.

      • Mariah

        Do you have a specific inquisition in mind? Witch hunts is outside the realm of inquisitions and without further evidence I hold to witch hunts being a Protestant thing that is often misunderstood to be a Catholic thing.

        • Cay Reet

          Not on inquisition, but on witchcraft:

          “Catholic and Protestant demonologies were similar in their basic beliefs about witches and most writers agreed on the severity of the crime of witchcraft. It was accepted by both Catholic and Protestant legislatures and witch-hunting was undeniably sponsored by both Protestant and Catholic governments.” From the Wikipedia entry of the Malleus Maleficarum, which was, however, not usually used by the Catholic Church.

          • Mariah

            Interesting. Perhaps a better statement would be that individual lay Catholics participated in witch hunts, even government officials and monarchs, but the Catholic Church as an institution neither condoned nor perpetrated witch hunts. There are modern Catholic politicians who completely disregard Catholic moral teachings, so in that light it isn’t surprising that there were similar circumstances in years past.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just for the record, the bull in question, Summis desiderantes affectibus or the Witch Bull of 1484, specifically mentions the witches “have slain infants yet in the mother’s womb” and that “they hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving…”

      Wikipedia doesn’t do a great job pointing that out, but that’s the passage relevant to birth control.

      • Mariah

        Ah, I missed some words in my search. Still though, calling out witchcraft and calling for hunting witches are separate things, just as calling out illegal drug use and calling for the murder of people who use illegal drugs are separate things.

  14. Numa Pompilius

    Regarding number 1 I see a rather strange thing. You wouldn’t like to have horrible medicine like in Middle Ages (at least for protagonists), so
    1) you suggest changing their thoughts about biology to align with real world;
    2) some people suggest they already had some facts straight;
    3) and other people suggest that magic can just solve this problem anyway.
    But we are talking about fantasy, not historical literature! Why no one goes the other way:
    4) medieval beliefs about biology are RIGHT! Yes, diseases are caused by imbalance in the humors. Yes, mice spontaneously generate in dirt. It’s incredible flavor!
    When I read about wizards and dragons, I fully expect that sky is composed of twelve spheres and wouldn’t be surprised if heavier things fall faster. If people thought it was true for hundreds of years then that worldview was consistent enough for a good story, I think.

    You know, this article reminds me about US publishers of Harry Potter novels who thought nobody would read something that has “philosopher” in it’s name.

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