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.

  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.

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