Nothing wrong with history

When I wrote about the problematic way some fantasy authors treat time, I alluded to some historic events from 1100 years ago in the real world in order to make my point. Since one of the points I was making was that events hundreds or thousands of years in the past are poor choices for motivating your characters, my allusion might appear to be a contradiction.

But there’s a difference between using history and misusing it.

In the previous post, while I alluded to historical events, I tried to do so in such a way that a reader who knew nothing about the events would still get the point. I happen to be one of those people who is interested in history, so I knew a little bit about Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, who happens to be an ancestor of the current English Royal Family. So I could make the allusion.

Whether you are writing epic fantasy, far future science fiction, or even contemporary fiction, some of your characters will know a lot about the history of their world. But a lot of them won’t. And even the ones who do, aren’t likely to make day-to-day decisions based on that distant historical data.

In the fantasy novel I’m currently working on, for instance, some plot points hinge on something which happened 70 years prior to the current date. At that time, a supernatural creature bent on conquest was thwarted. The creature is trying again, but most of the characters in the current plot don’t know about those past events. For instance, one of the main characters begins the story being accused of murdering someone just a few days before the novel begins. His motivation is to find out who actually killed the other guy and why. And since the victim was his former mentor, he’s probably going to want to exact some revenge when he finds them. As the plot unfolds, as he learns why the victim was killed, he becomes aware of those events 70 years prior, but when he resolves his plot at the end of the story, his motivation will be avenging his friend and clearing his own name.

Because it is a fantasy novel (I usually describe it as a light fantasy in an epic fantasy wrapper), some of the characters are longer-lived than a typical human. One of the other main characters is old enough that she was actually involved in the events 70 years ago. She provides most of the link to those events for the reader. But even so, her motivation in this story is to try to recover a holy relic which has recently been stolen, and figure out whether an old friend who has been implicated is responsible or not.

There are a few other characters who are aware of the events either because they are history buffs or, like the one mentioned above, they are old enough to have experienced them. Those include a couple of supernatural beings who are also aware of somewhat related events going back much further in time. Most of those things are never going to be mentioned in the story. The few that are, will be mentioned in passing to provide a bit of verisimilitude. Or to set up a joke (it is a light fantasy, so humor drives a lot of my decisions as the author).

As the author, I have to be aware of the history of the characters in order to write them. But sometimes that awareness is in broad outline. The Mother of All Dragons, who is a peripheral character in this novel, obviously is extremely old and has a memory spanning back millennia. I haven’t written down an extended timeline of her life spanning all those centuries. There are a few key events in her life that I have nailed down, but the rest is left open. In part, because the more time I spend figuring that out and writing it down, the less time I spend telling the story I want to tell. I don’t need all the rest of that detail for this story.

And the needs of the story must trump everything else.

Many tasks facing a storyteller are similar to tightrope walking: one must strike a balance while moving forward. While it’s perfectly true to tell someone attempting to walk across a tightrope of the dangers of leaning too far to the left, that does not mean there is no danger in leaning too far the other way.

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