Five Essentials of Historical Fantasy

A knight and a witch teaming up to battle a dragon.

Historical fantasy is all about the freedom of fantasy and the unique atmosphere only a past era can provide. Works like Maplecroft and Shades of Milk and Honey let us reimagine history with a fantastical bent. But combining the real with the surreal can be hard work. Let’s look at what you need to make this genre tick.

1. Do Your Homework

A painting of a school room from the 1600s

This is the fundamental aspect that separates fantasy from historical fantasy. Lots of traditional books of the genre use historical settings, like a medieval era with magic or some advanced foreign tech. What makes the difference are the details. Let’s say you like the Viking age. Great. Get ready for 4000 pages of reading. What clothes did they wear? In fantasy you can make them wear a tunic, tights or a wedding dress and get away with it. With a historical setting, you don’t get to choose – you work from what they wore. Do you like horse battles? You’ve got to let that go since Vikings were foot soldiers.

Take for example the Skeligers from the Witcher lore, specifically from the Witcher: Wild Hunt game. They’re a great example of fantasy Vikings. They have a warrior culture, they’re governed by a king and jarls, and they even worship Viking gods like Freya. So far so good. But they still aren’t historical Vikings. They wear fantasy armor, and they have huge stone fortresses that were not common for the Vikings.

Contrast that with the TV series Vikings. This show has fantasy elements such as a potent oracle, mysterious gods, shady travelers, and religious signs, but it also has a keen eye for detail. Vikings uses historically accurate armor, weapons, tents, and hairstyles. It uses the authentic mythology of the nordic people, the dates of real events check out, and historical figures like King Aelle or Ecbert are in place. Those folks at the History channel did their homework! Oh wait…

2. Describe Historical Details

A diagram showing the possible names of God.

Since you did your homework, you know all about your characters’ world. Show it. Let us eat the fruit of your hard work. What did they eat in the 9th century? How did they behave? What was a wedding like? How did they bury their dead? This is an aspect you’ll find in historical novels, where you can read about the lifestyle and culture of the real people who lived in the era used for your setting. You can almost smell those rotten teeth, hear the cry of the sacrificial lamb, and feel the fear of marauders on the forsaken forest trail. Just like the good ol’ days!

But let’s not stop here. Just a historical lifestyle reconstruction won’t satisfy the audience. Find the places where the lifestyle meets your plot. You will probably have a romantic thread. Use it to show that part of life. You might have a servant character. Use their story to show us how they lived in that world. Someone dies? Let him have a decent funeral so we can feel the grief and the presence of the gods! The more aspects of history you incorporate into a story arc, the more real it will become.

3. Use Historical Figures

President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill

“Hey, I know this guy!” is always a great sensation to have at the beginning of a novel. Again, I have to bring up the amazing work of Michael Hirst in the Vikings series. He took Ragnar Lothbrok, a debated historical figure, and made him real. Hirst incorporated Ragnar’s wives, who are also known to us by name from the sagas, and his sons, who undoubtedly existed. Hirst does what I call “life reconstruction” masterfully.

The method is quite simple in theory and a lot of work in practice. First, take a historical figure that fits in the story. Then get every detail you can find: date of birth, family tree, political or familial disputes, known whereabouts in certain times, the political situations of the neighboring regions in the time, and so on. As you can imagine, with the historical distance of a thousand years, your information will be limited and, in a lot of places, lacking. Here is where your superpower as a writer comes in. Fill in the blanks. What could make Ragnar Lothbrok want to go west? How did he acquire the knowledge to do so? How did his sons earn their nicknames? These details are usually missing in the sagas and historical manuscripts, and they are the best blanks to fill in with your ideas.

Don’t be afraid to use fantasy. Mystical elements blend real well with the foggy, unexplainable events of history. They can even be used to explain superstition, fantastical folklore, and tragedies such as witch hunts. Just keep it real. Avoid god-like magic or supertechnology that’s too powerful to exist without leaving any records of it.

4. Make Real Events Click With Your Story

The Hindenburg disaster.

If my previous points were the sails, this is the anchor. Historical fantasy needs to be as close to reality as possible. It doesn’t matter if you have fire mages, as long as they were the ones who caused the London fires in 1666. Maybe they summoned a demon out of greed, hoping for power and riches, and caused the accident. This would be a great start. But what else happened in 1666? How was the political map back then? Who hated who, and who backed who? What gossips would the merchants bring from France? From Scandinavia? History is an ever fluctuating net of relations; something is always happening somewhere.

If you started out with the London fires, why not connect it to the Dubrovnik earthquake in 1667? Maybe those fire mages inspired some earth mages who also screwed up. Just a few months later there was the Dreadful Hurricane of 1667 in southeast Virginia. Sounds fishy, right? And that is the real goldmine for us as writers.

If you can get the real historical events to click with the story, it will feel real, regardless of the dragons and magic.

5. Twist History, But Don’t Break It

Cover art from War of the Worlds, showing a British warship ramming a Martian tripod.

There are a lot of unanswered questions in history: What was the spark that ignited the simultaneous growth of civilization all around the world, at approximately the same time? What caused the industrial revolution? If you have a historical setting, get creative. Make a plan to twist readers out of history’s shoes. Get them to scream “Oh, so that’s why!”

Be wary though. The secret is to make your explanation interesting, but plausible. Yeah, the London fire could have been caused by an army of fire-breathing dragons, but that would probably be documented. Use fantasy elements to your liking, but the best mixture is one that could have happened. For example, your mages can work in secret societies that have remained hidden. The village that saw something they shouldn’t have can be slaughtered down to the last person. Plausibility is the most important spice of the genre.

Writing historical fantasy is difficult. You need the knowledge and patience for a historical novel and the imagination for fantasy, not to mention the wit to combine the two. It is a risky maneuver. If you get it wrong it will be like an urban land rover – too shiny for the wild, and too big for the city. But if you get it right… your readers will be in for a treat.

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  1. R. H. Rush

    LOL, I love “Vikings”, but it’s the medieval equivalent of “let’s watch George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt fight Nazis during the American Civil War!”

    • Deana

      Worse yet is Reign. And I know it technically isn’t historical fantasy, but it should be. There are several walking fully corporeal ghosts (aka people who should be dead and aren’t)

  2. Ty

    I don’t think the costumes in Vikings are very well done at all, particularly the armor. For one thing, no one *ever* wears a helmet- which is a soldier’s most important piece of protection. If there is one piece of kit that you will absolutely want to prioritize, it is the one protecting your noggin. “Leather” or “ring” armors aren’t really a real thing either- at the very least, there is a dearth of archeological evidence that they were real, and modern reproductions do not seem to hold up well to actual test cutting anyway. In the show, none of the main characters ever seem to wear mail, which probably *was* the most common type of armor worn, for those that could afford it. Finally, the color scheme of the Norse costumes is very drab- browns, blacks, greys. In nearly all historical records of them, they had very brightly colored clothes, and were very hygienic people. One thing the show does seem to get right is the intricate hairstyles. I don’t think the show Vikings is setting out to depict actual historical vikings, but instead aims to depict what they thought of themselves, drawing from sagas and legends. It is vikings as seen from their own mythology.

    • American Charioteer

      The Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan famously described Kievan Rus all spitting and blowing into a single bowl that they then washed their faces from, and called them “The filthiest of God’s creatures.” The show was faithful to this description, though from what I’ve read most historians think Ibn Fadlan’s account was meant to make Arabs wary of the Rus.

      • Cay Reet

        Why does that remind me of “The 13th Warrior?” Oh, right, it’s basically in the movie and the novel it’s based on.

        • Michael

          He is the main character in those. Loosely inspired from his account, I think.

    • Andrew Falconier

      I do historical lifestyle reconstruction ( basically reenactment with accent on the non-combative aspects of life. I still fight a lot, but in the time remaining I make a few satchels :D) and I totally agree with you. The helmet is a grave error, and the costumes of the main characters are after Hollywood taste. BUT if you look past the main characters and have a look at the extras fighting in the shield wall, it’s already another story. Mail was not common at all since vikings couldn’t make it, they traded and stole what they wore, but it still wasn’t common in that time, it was far too hard to make.
      As stated here, the totally accurate depiction would be with a helmet, with a bright colored long tunic and a Dane ax, no jumping past the shield-walls ( Go, Rollo!) and fighting with a small ax and a knife ( yeah, I’m looking at you Floki). Still, I believe it’s one of the few shows that try to have a standard in historical accuracy, and to a certain degree, it succeeds. This is why I presented the Vikings as historical fantasy, based on some history, with fantasy elements.

  3. Freawaru

    Another note about the costume failings, they seemed to ignore that Ragnar’s by-name translates to “shaggy-pants”.

    • R. H. Rush

      They seemed to treat it as a surname, didn’t they? There was one episode somewhere in the first three seasons where someone called Rollo “Rollo Lothbrok”. It was a nickname, not a surname.

      And speaking of Rollo, nobody could have been at both the Viking attack on Lindesfarne and the founding of Normandy, as they happened approximately 120 years apart. (Sailing the North Sea in that show is apparently a form of time travel.)

      • Freawaru

        I suppose it has to be forgiven, I mean, the sagas themselves are far from accurate with regards to timelines, and Ragnar Loðbrok’s saga is one of the uglier ones. The Volsunga Saga is an even worse mess. They also completely messed up queen Brunhilde and made her into this irritating, suicidal valkyrie. (So did all the eddic poems, but at least they sound prettier.)

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