7 February 2017

History vs Fantasy: East meets West

by Joanna Courtney

At first glance it would seem that historical fiction and fantasy fiction are at opposite ends of the publishing spectrum. They are east and west, for one is almost fanatically rooted in facts and truths where the other deliberately eschews them to create a world far removed from reality. And yet, when it comes to writing in these genres they have a great deal in common.

The research process is clearly worlds apart. The writer of historical fiction will need to spend many hours pouring over texts and maps and manuscripts and, if they’re lucky, diaries and first-hand accounts of that crucial ingredient – what actually happened. The writer of fantasy, in contrast, has only the pages of their own vast imagination to consult. But by the end of this preparation stage, both writers aims are the same – to establish for their readers a world that their characters can viably and convincingly inhabit.

From there on in, their writing task is also very similar. They must plunge their readers into a world that is almost always alien to them, be that sixteenth century England or thirty-first century Mars, and they must do so with enough detail to make it clear without seeming to provide any detail at all. The reader must be able to step out with the protagonist and see what they are seeing, whether that’s a plague-ridden prison or a post-nuclear city. They must be able to easily grasp smells and tastes unfamiliar to their twenty-first century palate, as well as absorbing the social and cultural norms governing the characters’ lives, whether they have been established by research or created from scratch.

It matters little to the reader once they are gripped by the characters’ stories whether or not the world they are lost in ever did truly exist or ever will truly exist, for in the moment of reading, it does exist. If the writer has achieved that in either genre then they have surely done their job.

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Of course, it would be naïve to say the two genres are the same, or that they appeal to the same audiences because that is manifestly untrue. At the risk of gross oversimplification, historical fiction is most often read by middle-aged, middle-class people with a bias towards women. Fantasy, in contrast, is predominantly read by a younger group and definitely more by men. This is not to typecast or exclude, simply try and pick apart my own argument. East may meet west in terms of writing techniques, but they are still poles apart when it comes to the final product.

It must, in the end, come down to whether readers see fact as an enticement or a burden. I love historical fiction because I relish the way that I am opening a door into the past. In the same way as I am fascinated by who sat at my own cottage’s fireside a hundred years ago, I love the element of learning about the people who walked this earth before us in my fiction. For me it gives the book an added element. It is definitely not that I feel in some way ‘educated’ or, God forbid, ‘improved’ by historical fiction, just that the lives of our ancestors fascinate me.

But then, fantasy readers must feel the same fascination in the lives of our as yet unborn descendants. Historical fiction readers seek to understand our own times in terms of where we’ve come from and fantasy readers in terms of where we might be heading. There can, clearly, be no ‘facts’ in futuristic fiction but the technologies, cultures and attitudes must be believably extrapolated from what we already know.

In essence, both genres involve the author offering their interpretation of a different time, be that uncomfortably close to now or intriguingly far distant in either direction. Both can, and often do, lead to much debate. Did Anne Boleyn sleep with her brother as suggested in Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl? Might we harness women’s fertility as in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Readers of both genres will happily read different authors’ interpretation of the same period and enjoy the contrasts because they understand that writing outside of the current reality is a game. It may feel real when you are deep in the plot but you know it is not once you step out of it and back into normal life. And that is half the fun.

Of course these days even the boundaries between the two genres are blurring. This has happened most notably with the infamous Game of Thrones, which is perhaps best defined as fantastical history. It is set in a time clearly intended to precede our own but not one that ever actually existed. It is a masterstroke by George RR Martin – history without the research! It combines the intriguing cultural contrasts of history with the extravagances of fantasy and it’s a winning combination.

But it’s not just Game of Thrones that breaks boundaries. Steampunk, for example, is set in neo-Victorian times with not yet invented technologies. And then there’s alternative history where we start from a basis of historical fact and turn it on its head so that imagination and extrapolation of a known starting point replace what ‘really happened’. Robert Harris does this brilliantly in Fatherland and Kate Atkinson dabbles with it fascinatingly in Life After Life. Alison Morton’s Roma Nova series conjures up a modern world as if the Roman Empire had never collapsed and the collection 1066 Turned Upside down of which I was  part, plays with the events of 1066 as if they had happened another way. All this is, hopefully, both entertaining and thought-provoking – it’s playing the fiction game.

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In the end, the differences between historical and fantasy fiction come down to simply whether the author is trying to create something that did happen or play with something that might (or, indeed, might have). As a result historical fiction is on the whole filled with its fair share of grit and grime where fantasy trades more on technology but they belong on the same continuum. Both depend on their readers’ willing imaginations to travel through time. Both are world-building and both should be cherished as such.

Maybe time is circular. Maybe if we go far enough we’ll come right back round. Maybe the end of the third millennium will bump up against the start of the first and east will truly meet west. Or maybe not… But, hey, it’s fun to imagine as, wherever an author derives their core ideas, imagination remains the fundamental root of a really good story.

About Joanna

Ever since I sat up in my cot with a book, I’ve wanted to be a writer and I wrote endless stories, plays and Enid-Blyton-style novels as a child. My favourite subjects at school were English and history, and at Cambridge University I combined these passions by studying medieval literature.

Due to the pesky need to make money, I didn’t have time to pursue my dream of publication until, married and living in Derbyshire. I wrote short stories in the sparse hours available between raising two children and two stepchildren. I had over two-hundred stories and serials published in women’s magazines before, finally, I signed to PanMacmillan for my three-book series ‘The Queens of the Conquest’, about the amazing wives of the men fighting to be king of England in 1066.
My fascination with historical writing is in finding the similarities between us and them - the core humanness of people throughout the ages – and my aim is to provide a lively female take on an amazing year in England’s history.

I’m passionate about my period and about writing and I teach creative writing in courses around the country and for the Open University.

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Website : http://www.joannacourtney.com/


  1. Great post. Ultimately it boils down, I think, to whether the reader can suspend their disbelief and inhabit the world which has been created. If so, then the author has done their job :)

  2. Enjoyed the blog. I love both historical fiction (ok it's the swords/battles/mighty blows and derring-do as opposed to the 'headless-women-from-the-back, Edwardian 'romance' type!) and fantasy fiction. With the former, yes, I do like the facts set out clearly and can accept those small variations that authors sometimes needs must 'manipulate' but at the same time I admire an author who can invent his/her own histories in a fantasy world. Again, with fantasy fiction, I really love the worlds created by David Gemmell and Joe Abercrombie - swords and sandals, basically - not to mention Tolkien! the fantasy writer has more scope in that he/she can duplicate a real historical situation but doesn't have to follow the facts as closely as the true historical writer. But I also think that fantasy writers are also somewhat hampered by having to make their world pretty much a human world that we recognise and, usually, the only difference is the introduction of 'magic'. (Or should that be 'magick')?

  3. Great to hear from someone who likes both. And like you say Annie as long as the world is real whilst you're reading then it's as it should be. I'm starting to read more fantasy and loving it. Will check out the authors mentioned.

    1. Joanna - I can thoroughly recommend the two authors I mentioned: with David Gemmell, start with Legend - but any of his are good! Joe Abercrombie is relatively new and The First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before they are hanged and Last argument of kings) - though beare as he has also just produced a trilogy of YA fantasy fiction, beginning with Half a King. Gemmel has a series called The Rigante which are also excellent and he has also done some hstorical fact and fiction books where he mixes real people and events with some magic thrown in!!!

  4. I enjoy historical and fantasy as a reader, so find myself reading one and then the other, plus a lot of mysteries, including books like the Cadfael series. My writing does the same, although I am being sucked down the alternative history rabbit hole - blame 1066 Turned Upside Down and Roma Nova...or was it Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee. As you so rightly say, "Both depend on their readers’ willing imaginations to travel through time. Both are world-building and both should be cherished as such." That can apply to mysteries as well, if the 'world' is taken as the crime scene and its setting. Only difference is the lack of time-travel - unless it's not present day.

    1. I think the 1066 authors and Alison Morton are Ok with taking the blame Roland! *laugh*

    2. I love Cadfael Roland. And I'm very keen on the idea of an 'alternative history rabbit hole' - very Lewis Carroll!! Bagsie the Mad Hatter....

  5. Absolutely right, Joanna. World building is key to history, fantasy and every shade in between. If readers trust where an author is taking them, they will follow whether to the stews of Southwark or the red plains of Mars.

    I grew up reading science fiction and historical fiction and, when not reading crime and thrillers, alternated(!) between the two. Asimov, Heinlein ad McCaffery give us vibrant worlds, Plaidy, Graves and Forester exciting, dangerous ones, but they are peopled by the same types of characters – human beings. Flawed, heroic, shifty, noble, caught in impossible dilemmas and places, often courting ruin and death or reward and fame, they entrance us. As you say, ultimately it's the story that grabs us by the heart.

    1. I started with pony stories as a child but then went to Sci Fi and fantasy, the latter of which, I must be honest, is still among my favourite. Game of Thrones. for instance, I adore because it has a comparison with HF (my only 'complaint' with the TV version is the overdone sex and violence). My favourite series though?Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern. On the dexter side - I can't stand the majority of fantasy books about King Arthur - I prefer him in a pure historical context.

    2. When I'm teaching creative writing people often submit science fiction stories and only occasionally are they really good. Students think the Open University is biased against the genre which just isn't true. I think it's simply that it's easy to write science fiction badly because people get so lost in the worlds they have created (understandably as they are often amazing) that they forget to people them effectively. Setting is wonderful but it is just that - setting. It is people who drive plot.

    3. I'm with you on Arthur Helen. One of my specialisms at university was Arthurian literature and it all fascinates me but if I was ever to write about him myself (which I probably won't because there is just so much out there already) it would be to try and put him in a true historical context, whenever and wherever that might be (so many possibilities from Cornwall to Scotland and pretty much everywhere in between).

    4. Well you could always content yourself with my Arthurian Trilogy Joanna *laugh*. I wrote it with no fantasy, no Lancelot, no holy grail - no Merlin. It's set from the mid 450's to early 500s. Took me ten years to write what turned out to be part one and two (Kingmaking, Pendragon's Banner) It could probably do with a re-write now as I wrote it over 20 years ago, but you can't keep going back over things.

  6. I'm also an Anne McCaffrey fan and used to have all the Pern books - favourite was The White Dragon. It was only later, when I was an equestrian journalist, that I discovered that she bred event horses and that was possibly why her dragons had aspects of the equine temperament.


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