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What are the most common historical (or other) inaccuracies you see in fantasy?

Discussion in 'Research' started by Gecks, Jul 20, 2013.

  1. Gecks

    Gecks Scribe

    (I couldn't really decide which sub-forum was the best place for me to post this. In the end, I decided this was the most relevant place. I apologise if I should have posted elsewhere).

    I have been becoming increasingly aware that I tend to lack certain knowledge about certain subjects (primarily horses, weapons, and clothing, though the latter isn't so bad). Also, provisions, food while travelling, tools, sleeping arrangements while travelling, water, etc.

    I have basic knowledge about things, but nothing very detailed and I'm concerned I'm going to write down something jarringly awfully wrong without realising it.

    So far I either get overly bogged down in attempted research or just become a bit vague (eg. not mention too specifically what someone is wearing, especially when it comes to materials.. uh..). But I feel as though I should know things like this about my characters/world in detail.

    An awful lot of fantasy gets set in a time period vaguely equivalent to somewhere between perhaps the 10th and 15th century in our world and I suppose a lot of people aren't exactly experts on the topic. Having dreadful inaccuracies in the middle of a story can really grate, and drag the reader out of believing what's going on, unless the difference between the fantasy world and equivalent for our world in that time period is explained or, for some other reason, not relevant in that world.

    Actual question:

    What are the most common mistakes you see in fantasy writing, or the ones that annoy you the most? Especially to do with historical inaccuracies. Any particular common mistakes I could avoid?
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  2. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I'm a medieval historian and I have to say ... it's personal.

    A notoriously inaccurate historical movie is Braveheart. Medievalists gnash their teeth at the mere mention of it. Yet, when I watched it, the inaccuracies didn't bother me at all. I just thought it was a stupid movie dreadfully overacted.

    When I read books, I enjoy them as stories (or not, as the case may be). It doesn't really bother me if someone gets details on horse riding wrong. Or that their economics are goofy. I just want a good story. The Song of Roland, or The Odyssey don't hold up that well as history either. Who cares?

    The thing is, some people care. A historically false note can take them right out of the moment. But you can't please everyone and you'll go crazy trying to get everything right. I once stumbled on a web site by a typographer who had carefully assembled a list of movies where they'd got the fonts wrong. He freely admitted it was a personal issue, but having a Helvetica font on a poster in a movie supposedly set in the 1920s drove him nuts. There is no way you are going to become so well versed that you don't accidentally commit an anachronism here and there. You can only hope your editor and your beta readers will help.

    Meanwhile, if you're going for a particular period, read about it. Learn all you can about it. Not for verisimilitude, though that's great, but because in doing that research you will gain all kinds of great ideas you'll want to use in your story.

    As for the rest, ask your specific questions here. You're among a highly intelligent and well-read crowd. Plus they're really nice. They let me hang out here too.
    Nobby, phillipsauthor and Trick like this.
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Anachronistic phrases or colloquialisms.

    I don't expect characters in a medieval setting to start every sentence off with a "thee" or a "thou". In fact, I'd regard reading something like that more akin to a chore than entertainment. However, modern day phrases that we take for granted, and use in common speech without thought to their meanings and origins, can dampen the immersion of a story.

    Say I had a medieval monk. This character, as one of the few educated people in a small hamlet, is called upon to investigate the suspicious death of a nobleman. Upon entering the crime scene he says, "I suspect foul play."

    We don't give much thought to little bits of jargon like "foul play" but a monk would never have uttered those two words in that context, if at all. It is a modern sporting term.
  4. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    Dialogue is always going to be an issue. On the one hand you want it to sound real to your reader. But on the other hand not too real. I mean most readers wouldn't understand what you character was saying if you used Middle English. Read the Canterbury tales which are 16th century if I remember correctly, and you'll understand what I mean.

    Having said that my thought would be that as long as you aren't writing a historical fantasy the problem becomes more maneagable. You don't have the historiocity to worry about. After that its mainly a matter of getting the technological bits of day to day life right. And you can even vary this, as long as you're consistent. Remember you have the one saving grace as a fantasy writer, it's a fantasy.

    Cheers, Greg.
  5. psychotick

    psychotick Auror

    Hi T.Allen.Smith,

    Actually the term foul play is quite old. Your monk might have said it.

    From: Love's Labours Lost, 1588:

    Honest plain words best pierce the ear of grief;
    And by these badges understand the king.
    For your fair sakes have we neglected time,
    Play'd foul play with our oaths.

    Cheers, Greg.
    T.Allen.Smith likes this.
  6. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

    Dialogue is one thing that really turns me off. I can't STAND when non-modern characters say things like "okay", unless it's semi-justified by time travel or something, where they'd have exposure to modern-day people and might have picked up a few habits of speaking. But a peasant woman who's spent her whole life in the eleventh century is not going to say that, ever. It drives me up the wall when my RPing partner does stuff like that, as many of our characters are of the medieval era.
  7. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    If your society is very closely based on medieval societies, it can be very off-putting to also have it be nationalistic. Loyalty to a leader is pretty old, but loyalty to a broad, abstract nation wasn't really a concept in Europe at that time. (This is one I botched myself--I referenced "service to the country" when "service to the king" was more appropriate.)
    Scribble likes this.
  8. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

    If you're writing historical fiction, then by all means worry about the historical accuracy. If it's fantasy - not a problem. You want to have horses that can gallop all day? Go right ahead (they evolved differently in your world). You want bows that can fire arrows 700 feet in the air? No problem, just read Game of Thrones. Fantasy means that nothing *has* to be a certain way, starting from basics like day and year length, number of moons, plant and animal life, social structures, tools... Everything is flexible. Take the bits you want, invent the rest, and nobody can say 'that couldn't happen', because you can reply 'on my world, it can'. And, you know - magic.

    Having said all that, I hate fantasy characters saying 'okay' as well. ;-)
    Steerpike likes this.
  9. Gecks

    Gecks Scribe

    Thanks for these replies :)

    Ahaa, I noticed a bunch of people talking about language use by characters and I have to say... I don't care about this at all. I did my degree in English Language, including taking such dry modules/classes as "grammatical change in the history of English" and "lexical change in the history of English" among others (I did actually find it interesting to a point, but that's not the point) so it's not entirely just a case of being mis/under-informed.

    In fantasy, I really don't care what sort of language is being used, though it's very annoying when an author is popping in random archaic pronouns (thou, etc) or whatever just to try and make it old fashioned sounding (however, I have no issue if the writer is using them correctly).

    In a fantasy world there is no way language could have developed in exactly the same way as in our world. A large amount of it is influenced by things like the geography of the area and who invaded who when, and what contact they had with each other. Since that didn't happen the same, (unless it is actually set in our world), then we can't assume they speak the same language as us.

    Therefore I consider all dialogue in fantasy to essentially be a translation into English. When reading, I consider there to be an unspoken "she said, in [name of other language]" to everything spoken by a character. Therefore, terms don't tend to grate on me for being modern unless they're extremely out of place. Otherwise I'd have to get annoyed by things like 'hello' (a 19th century word) and 'disinterested' or 'polite' (17th century).


    Ah, this is something I kind of knew (as in, I'd probably remember if asked specifically) but had forgotten. Thanks for the reminder :D

    This is something I will almost definitely get wrong, even when using my master plan of being super vague.. I have tried to read about it a bit, but then I realise I sort of don't highly understand what I'm reading!
    Feo Takahari likes this.
  10. C Hollis

    C Hollis Troubadour

    Historical accuracies in fantasy do not bother me at all. It's a fantasy world after all.

    Phrases that take me out of story? Yes, very much so. Dude, where's my horse?

    As mentioned, though, you can't concern yourself with trying to make everyone happy. Ain't gonna happen. I've gotten comments about how I put pointy ears on my elves and that is just wrong. To my surprise, there is an ongoing argument about the validity of pointy ears on elves.

    Now let me get this straight...People argue about physical aspects of a fantasy creature in a fantasy book?

    You can't win if you are out to please the world. Your nails will always be too long or short, and your hammers too big or small.
    Steerpike likes this.
  11. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

    I took it that all of my characters speak a different language to me. What I'm doing is, basically, translating their story into English for more modern readers. So dialogue may sound modern, and so does the narrative. Even so, I think it's important to stay away from the glaringly obvious modern phrases and words, such as okay, gotten, awesome, and of course anything used in common usage, such as the blood-curdling, cringing phrase of 'at the end of the day' (I really, really, really, hate to hear or see that one written down, I don't know why though).
  12. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Something I tend to come back to time and again is a saying, which I've actually forgotten, but which goes along the lines of:
    I don't care too much if a powerful hero can perform superhuman deeds with little to no effort, but it annoys me when the story nudges my immersion the wrong way. A personal pet peeve is logistics. I don't know if that's a common issue, but it's something I tend to get hung up on.
    Now, I don't actually have any special knowledge or experience on the topic, it's just something that I picked up somewhere and it bothers me when it doesn't match my preconceived notions of what's acceptable and what isn't.
    A great example of something I'd pick up on is a too big army travelling too fast. Moving hundreds of thousands of soldiers across a wast continent is going to take some time. I have no idea how long it would realistically take, but I know when it feels like the author just grabbed a large number because it sounded cool without really thinking about it. An army of a five hundred thousand soldiers is pretty big. It's a cool big number, but how much thought has really been put in behind it?
    Something similar is history. You have a world with a recorded history spanning thousands of years and you're still living in a castle built out of stone and fighting with a sword? It's the kind of thing I can ignore if I feel like it, but it still irks me when it happens.

    In the real world we've come an awfully long way in the past two thousand years. The existence of power hungry kings backed by wizards and a church devoted to reactionary gods can and will slow down development, but only by so much. Eventually someone will figure out that if you mix some random chemicals you can create a compound with the same explosive power as a decent fireball spell.
    A. E. Lowan likes this.
  13. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Interesting. I never realized that. I suppose I chose a poor example.
  14. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

    Considering that the human genome has a gene for slight points on ears (called Darwin's tubercle when it shows up vestigially in modern humans), there is no reason why a species that's usually depicted as cross-fertile with humans -- which means they cannot be much different from us -- couldn't have those points fully formed instead of vestigial. You don't have to give your elves pointy ears, but I don't see how it could be wrong to do so, either. ('Like, ohmigod, you gave your elves pointy ears! That's, like, ohmigod, soooooo cliché! You should, like, write your elves to be just like the ones in that book by that kid that got made into a movie that one time...')

    Yeah, I know: "'Creative' is our middle name." Oh, wait, that's the other guys' excuse. Sorry. What I mean to say is, "It's fantasy, so nothing has to make sense." *shakes head*

    All I require is that a story be internally consistent. If the laws of physics are different in a setting -- electricity cannot be harnessed, and gunpowder doesn't explode (excuse me -- doesn't burn extremely fast) -- that's fine. I don't even have to know why it's that way (and, alas, we will never find out *sad fanboy face*), but if those things are true, I don't want to see someone using a non-spell-powered telegraph to send messages later. Of course, "internally consistent" does mean that if the setting is some version of "our world, plus magic," anything that is significantly different needs a reason for being that way, even if that reason is never discussed in detail. Medieval Europe but where all humans are at least fifteen feet tall -- I'd want to see some evidence that the author has thought about the implications.

    Many, many years ago (not quite a quarter of a century), I saw an article in Writer's Digest magazine on writing fantasy fiction. The author of the article stated quite clearly that it is not necessary for a fantasy story to be internally consistent. If you say early on that the character gets just three wishes, and after he uses those up it turns out that he can have as many wishes as he wants, and you don't even have a reason within the story for why the "only three wishes" rule established earlier was broken, that's okay, because it's fantasy and there are no rules. Personally, I feel that the author of that article was deliberately trying to sabotage the potential competition by giving bad advice.
  15. Nihal

    Nihal Vala

    Since the phonetic version seems to be around since 1600 and it was first written around 1800, I see no problem at all in using it when another 1800ish words like... "like" are used in the same story. =P

    Anyway, I think only internal inconsistency really bothers me. You can always change some "rules" if it's somehow explained, but when you have this five thousand army marching extremely fast for no reason while your MCs take several months to reach the same location...
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2013
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I agree with Pauline and C Hollis. If you're writing in a fantasy world, there is no reason whatsoever you should be bound to make things accurate with respect to analogous time periods in real history. If you're writing a story that is meant to be set in a real historical time and place, but with fantasy elements thrown in to the otherwise real world, then I think you should take care for accurate about things other than those fantasy elements.
    C Hollis likes this.
  17. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    I've always believed that there is a difference between suspending disbelief and taking it bungee jumping. Nothing drives me crazier than writers who think that just because it's fantasy they can do anything they want, whenever they want, and readers will buy it just 'cus. That will break me out of a story faster than just about anything, and usually get me to close the book, as well. Establish your world, your metaphysics and your boundaries, whatever they may be, and stick to them. Have reasons why things happen the way they do, even if you don't share them with the reader - this can help you maintain consistency and help avoid the "maybe no one will notice if I fudge this just this once" trap. Because they will notice. I promise.
    wordwalker and Ireth like this.
  18. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I try to make it clear right off the bat that there's no time period equivalent for the setting. There's a standard technology level, plus there's also a handful of small factories capable of churning relatively more modern technology - not too much, but for instance, you might find a vitamin pill or a pinball machine.

    Without meaning that people should nitpick everything, the thing to remember is that it's only fantasy where you set the tone for fantasy. If you're describing the details of a woman's dress or the architecture of the castle, the base line assumption many readers make is that it's historical until you show them otherwise. Some mistakes can break immersion.

    Again, I don't mean to suggest that people should nitpick the details. Most readers don't know anything about medieval dresses or only a little about castle architecture, and even those who do won't care if you have Victorian dresses with Renaissance architecture.

    But ignorance shows. I don't think "Whatever, it's fantasy" should be an excuse for not knowing anything about the subject you're writing about. What I mean is, the more detail you go into, the more you should make sure you know what you're talking about.
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Yep. It should be internally consistent. But it doesn't have to be externally consistent with any historical aspects of the real world.
  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    But, if I'm writing a story set in the eleventh century, *nothing* a realistic character would say would make any sense to a modern reader. Every word in every sentence is an anachronism.

    As a reader, I'm fine with that. I understand that I'm reading something like a free translation of what might have actually been said. I don't want to hear a character say they enjoyed their carriage ride (because carriages come later than the 11thc), but I'm fine if they say their wagon ride was okay. I would probably draw the line at 'groovy'.

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