Monday, October 18, 2010

Dragons and elves: Why historical fantasy?

Whenever I tell people that I write historical fantasy I elicit first, a perplexed look, followed by a short silence and finally an “Ohh, something like Tolkien?”Indeed, “historical fantasy” is a little known and well misunderstood term. Since I not only write historical fantasy, but I also happen to love the genre, I wish to share with you its many mysteries and quirks.

Historical fantasy is Fantasy´s little girl, but despite popular rumor, it is not to be confused with epic fantasy or Sword and Sorcery sagas such as Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin´s A Game of Thrones . Those novels are set in mythical lands, whereas historical fantasies take place on our earth and use a specific historical period as background, although its characters might have a penchant to wander into magical spaces. Neither should historical fantasy be classified as “alternative history”, the kind of story where well-known historical episodes are modified (Germany winning World War II and so on).

On the other hand, vampire stories set in days of old such as the Saint Germaine series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and time travelling tales like the dazzling Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, fall into the historical fantasy realm. Any story dealing with magical creatures and the supernatural and taking place in a well defined historical period may be classified as historical fantasy. Naomi Novick’s Temeraire series, where dragons are used to defend England from the Napoleonic invasion, and Mercedes Lackey´s novels where good elves protect Elizabeth I in her first years in the throne are fine examples of the genre.

Having gotten that out of the way, the question remains: Why should a novice writer like me choose such a complex genre? To be quite honest when I began to tackle fiction in the hope of becoming a published author, I had no idea of such genre existed. I had read some books that fell under the category (Mary Stewart’s and Marion Zimmer Bradley´s Arthurian epics) but I dismissed them as fantasy, and bunched them together with Harry Potter and its many clones.

About five years ago, I started writing a serious historical novel, but I ran into an unexpected obstacle; my subject matter could be constructed as non PC. Moreover, its treatment could offend people close to me who had lived through that particular grueling period. I was in a quandary and very dismayed. It was then that I embraced the idea of inserting illusion and magic into my story. I found that the plot moved faster and flowed easily, bypassing all offensive material.

Eventually, I learned that I wasn’t the only writer to take advantage of the freedoms and loopholes fantasy provides. Urban and epic fantasies have been known to successfully undertake risqué subject. After all they deal with a make-believe world, right? Anything is possible. There are no bounds.

Not so fast. Historical fantasy and fantasy as well, have a couple of caveats. You must find the exact midpoint between parallel worlds; otherwise your story might not be credible. If you infuse too much magic in a “real” space you might find yourself falling for the “Deus ex machina” cliché, getting your characters constantly out of trouble through means that do not sound plausible even in the most fantastic realm.

On the same hand, you cannot make the storyline too serious. This is not the place to delve deeply into the psychology of your characters or to pontificate on grave matters such as historical or religious theories. However, you may find that allegories and symbolism fit quite comfortably in historical fantasies. After all, fairy tales and legends are the forerunners of the genre. In fact I would define historical fantasy as the XXI century fairy tales. Historical fantasy is my game, but what fantasy subgenre do you favor? What makes fantasy, in its many literary disguises, so popular in this century?


  1. I like the idea of cementing fantasy (or science fiction for that matter) in a recognizable historical period. There is a tremendous romance in looking backward in time to a bygone era. Fertile soil for flights of fancy, methinks. Excellent post, my dear V.

  2. It's escapist literature, that's why I think it's so popular today. With all the junk swirling about our world, so many people just want to get away from it all. No matter what. Historical and Fantasy go well together because we travel to a time and place that no longer exists, with amazing forces and whimsical storylines drawing us in. Although I'm not a big fan of most Fantasy, I just might give the historical version a try in my book reviews. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Indeed, escape is what we need. But also it makes us believe in the impossible becoming possible, in people that have the control over matter and nature that we lack and long for.
    Thanks for your comments

  4. Interesting questions ;). I think the kind of fantasy I prefer is the one rooted in the "real world". I don't like to go to unknown worlds like in the Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. I like the strange creatures to come to our world, like werewolves, vampires, aliens, etc. because (to me) it feels like it could "almost" happen, whereas fantastic places are so far from our reality they just seem outrageous. But this is just my personal taste. Besides Historical Fantasy, I think another good combination (not so popular nowadays, it seems) is Comedic Fantasy (I'm not sure what it's called) but it was really popular in the sixties (shows like I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, My Favorite Martian.) It seems now fantasy has turned more serious and very sensual (even in children's literature!)

  5. I'm with Lorena. I can't get into pure Fantasy but am quite enchanted by fantastical elements based in 'reality.' (Whatever that means.)

  6. Does that make it an oxymoron? Can Fantasy be real? Hmmm, that's some food for thought.

  7. My latest manuscript is contemporary fantasy; magical and fantasy elements set in the real world, present day. And to sub-divide the genre further, mine features a 'hidden world' where most of society is oblivious to the presence of fantasy elements within their world.

    I didn't realise there were so many sub-sets to each genre until I started banging my head against the issue of trying to define mine in the querying process, and I have to say I find the whole genre and sub-genre and sub-sub-genre thing very confusing...

    To answer your question, I think there's so much room for fantasy in the market because it provides the ultimate escape from a (sometimes) humdrum reality. Or perhaps in this computer age, readers are feeling alienated from the real world, and escaping it into the world of fiction seems easier than ever before.

  8. I am glad to hear that, Adina, because I haven't seen much Fantasy (least of all HF) in NYT lists, aside from the omnipresent vampires. HF is almost unknown in Latino countries, so I don´t know if I can get a break on the market.

  9. Very interesting what happened with your novel, how changing it to fantasy eliminated the problem with potential offense. I heard Diana Gabaldon interviewed, and she said she didn't intend for her Outlander series to be time travel. However, she started writing Claire's voice in 18th century Scotland and it was clear that Claire wanted to be a 20th century gal, so voila!

  10. Diana Gabaldon is a good example of getting away with murder in a historical fantasy setting. She's managed to tackle pretty racy subjects.

  11. I just started an historical fantasy... in its first incarnation it was pure fantasy with a made-up realm, but more and more these days I find that grounding fantasy in the real world makes it a bit more accessible to readers - at least, that's my theory. :) Glad to meet another HF writer.

  12. Same sentiments over here Margo. May I ask what historical period are you using?


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.