Time doesn’t work that way

Last year I bought an audiobook based on the recommendation of an acquaintance, along with several favorable reviews. The opening chapter was a bit heavy on the description for my taste—I don’t need to know the precise color, width, and material composition of every article of clothing on every character with a speaking role in order to follow the plot, for instance.

But when the author finally stopped describing the characters and let them interact, the dialog was good and the characters engaging.

Around about chapter four the author fell into the trap of many epic fantasy-type tales by having the older, experienced character give a long lecture about the history of the world to the younger, inexperienced character. This is a trap because the world background is seldom as interesting as the authors who do this sort of thing think. Also, a surprising amount of information can be conveyed about the setting of the world in little tidbits sprinkled through the dialog over many scenes. Just have a character mention imperial troops at the border, for example, and the reader will fill in a lot of the gaps accurately enough for the purposes of most plots.

Unfortunately, the lecture then took a terrible turn. “It all seemed settled, but the peace was short-lived, because 400 years later…”

And I hit the stop button right there. When I got home, I deleted the book from my iPhone. I will never recommend this author to anyone, and if anyone asks about her books, I will warn them away.

Why? Because time doesn’t work that way. It had already been established before this chapter that the middle-aged human character was considered almost an old man in this medieval-style settings. Which is entirely in keeping with the realities of that sort of technological level. Therefore, a span of 400 years is approximately 20 generations. No one considers a peace which survives for 20 generations as “short-lived.” Particularly not in largely illiterate societies where the vast majority of people get all of their historical data by word of mouth.

It’s a mistake that writers—particularly writers dabbling in science fiction or fantasy for the first time–make all the time. Starship crew stranded on a habitable planet, is discoved centuries later, and the great-great-great granddaughter of the original ship’s captain is the leader of the community. Not only that, she still knows the passcodes for the computer in the part of the original ship still orbiting. Even more important, she’s similar enough that the computer responds to her voice commands, mistaking her for her ancestor!

Or the rival prince plots the destruction of a neighboring kingdom because an ancestor was betrayed by the other king’s ancestor 1000 years ago.

Really? Do you know who your great-great-great grandfathers were, let alone what any of them did for a living, or where they hid their valuables?

Now, I realize for the more successful royal families, at least some of one’s ancestors are known going back scarily long times. Queen Elizabeth II, for instance, knows her line of descent from Alfred the Great in the Ninth Century. But that sort of thing is the exception, rather than the rule. And even in that exceptional situation, if Her Majesty has any feelings toward Denmark, it is very unlikely that the wars fought over 1100 years ago between Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and Guthrum, King of the Dans, loom as large in those feelings as events that have happened in her own lifetime.

Epic fantasy gets its name from the tradition of Greek poetic tales outlining the grand sweep of the history of a nation or many nations. So I understand where the impulse to plot that sort mythic chronicle comes from. But even Homer’s Iliad, despite covering vast aspects of the Trojan War, remains focused throughout on the anger of Achilles and why it is directed at Agamemnon. The poem alludes to (and sometimes goes into detail about) historical and legendary events that led many of the supporting cast to the situation, but the story itself is about just a few weeks at the end of a war.

And at least the epic Greek poets had the excuse of having gods taking active roles in the action, so that beings whose memories span the centuries of history behind the events are actually walking around, talking to the other characters. If your characters are all ordinary humans living ordinary lifespans, history is going to be more of an abstraction. Zeus can hold a grudge for centuries, but John the Farmer will be motivated by events within his personal experience and memory.

And that’s the sort of motivation you can make your readers care about.



  1. […] the previous post, while I alluded to historical events, I tried to do so in such a way that a reader who knew […]

  2. 2

    Though it sometimes seems that groups of people can hold grudges for an awfully long time.

  3. […] I wrote about how people process history and, more specifically, how believable character motivation in fiction is when based upon distant historical events, a few people pointed to ethnic conflicts which have gone on for generations as a counterexample. I […]

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