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
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
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
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
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
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.
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