I believe the best fictional work, especially in a genre like fantasy, where world-building is essential, requires thorough non-fictional, especially historical knowledge. In fact, non-fictional knowledge is, in my view, the key to good world-building, more so than familiarity with other, related works of fiction and literary styles. This is why I advocated a thorough history-based, “lore” approach to fantasy, both in terms of constructing the world, and in garnering knowledge from the lore of the real world.
Why is this, you might ask?
Despite the name ‘fantasy,’ what I consider good fantasy is pretty realistic. I believe fantasy ought to invoke the scientific method, where the majority of malleable variables are held constant so that the author may focus on upon what I see as the genre’s true purpose: exploring new and interesting worlds, or telling a compelling story with unique, dynamic characters. Variables such as human nature and the reactions of countries or governments to a variety of events ought to remain constant, so as not to distract from that purpose.
For me, the appeal of fantasy is considering questions of world-building or the human experience when stripped of their usual real-life context, which can obscure these elements at times. When writing historical fiction or fiction set in the real world, the story must be conditioned by real events and culture in order to be plausible. Fantasy, however, gives you the freedom to avoid this strict historical conditioning.
Instead of worrying about historical accuracy or getting real-life cultures completely down, an author can explore many of the same issues of war, peace, governance, diplomacy, love, and so on but in an entirely unique setting. History is my first and truest love, but a good fantasy can make me think about or strengthen my views of history and the way historical processes work by taking what I know and bringing it into sharp focus in a new world.George R.R. Martin, in particular, is a master at this. His knowledge of history is encyclopedic and this really shows in the realism by which countries and political figures behave in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Anyone can write a story. But a story that does not draw upon real-world knowledge can come across like an old-school video game: only a plot with limited depth in its world or characters. History fleshes out the skeleton to make fantastical universes realistic.
It is a huge dereliction of knowledge, for example, to have a river that flows from the sea to a mountain range; of course, rivers flow from high elevations to bodies of water, because that’s how water works. If there is a river that does the opposite, there damn well better be a very well thought out and convincing in-world reason for why that’s the case. It is actually quite distracting for the historically-inclined reader to see countries and leaders act in a way that would make no sense in their circumstances. For example, it is odd for rulers to not worry about political power or the futures of their dynasties.
Therefore, I like fantasy, and I consider it good, when both historical and scientific research has been done beforehand
. If the world has a year consisting of 300 days, then obviously this might be related to its orbit. Or not, but there has to be some plausible reason, not just because ‘the author said so.’ The key to good fantasy flows from a good foundation of non-fiction.
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