There are many subgenres of fantasy, but unlike other articles on the subject, I won’t go into a giant tirade on how Fantasy is the mother genre and technically all stories are Fantasy, even if they don’t have even a hint of mysticism in them. I’ve said that way too many times now and I just want to focus on this subject, because my recent first impression article on Wynonna Earp brought it to mind.
Historical Fantasy is a genre that you most often find in ‘period’ pieces, set in a time centuries or millennia ago. But much like Urban Fantasy, which deals with our current modern world, Historical Fantasy adds a touch of the weird, the bizarre or even the mystical to the setting, to create a new alternate history where important figures and events are more than what they seem in the history books. And by the way, even if some might not agree, Steampunk set in our world (as in geography and countries) is historical fantasy, just saying.
When you do any piece of historical fiction, no matter the era, the Alternate Timeline is one of the most important things and as such needs to careful handling. Do it well and it’ll ground the fantastic elements and make them believable in the context of your story, but do it badly and you’ll risk losing the historical context, the bedrock of your setting.
One of the pitfalls of the genre is the urge to make historical personages part of the fantastic side of the world, to make them all more than mere humans. It’s alright to make Alexander Graham Bell the latest reincarnation of Thor, but when all the great minds of his era are also superhuman, your setting becomes a bit more brittle, because all these fantastic elements will start to clash with the historical context.
One of the things I hold as truth in a historical fantasy story and/or setting is that the wondrous should never undermine humanity’s moments of greatness. For example, years ago I wrote a short story involving a character called The Illusionist, a supernatural being with reality-warping abilities and longevity bordering on immortality—and enough going against him to keep him out of Mary-Sue-ness. In the last story I wrote, I had the character meet with H.P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini—not a strange match considering Lovecraft wrote a novel starring Houdini. I could’ve made them supernatural, add a touch of the mystical to Lovecraft’s stories, make them real, make him something more than human and perhaps connected with the Eldritch beings he so loved to write about, and the same with Houdini. I could’ve given the master escapist real magical power that would explain why he was so good.
But I didn’t, because that would have diminished the two historical figures, their efforts, sacrifices and talents. If magic is the tool of choice for them, then it cheapens who and what they were. No, I kept them human, because they were both great men in their own way, and I didn’t want to ruin that. With H.P. Lovecraft, my character helped him enter controlled trances to recall more elements of some of his most hideous nightmares, to help him write a new story, but it was still his talent as a writer that made it happen, it was still his imagination and dreaming that gave us the Mythos we now love.
When it comes to historical events, my recommendation would be to have the fantastical elements help behind the scenes, as a catalyst for certain historical moments. For example, the characters defeating a hidden enemy in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, which ultimately would lead to the victory at Gettysburg. This ties the supernatural elements tightly with your setting but leaves the major event mostly untouched, so that it happened the way Wikipedia tells us.
I’m not a big fan of Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and but the Napoleonic War section is undoubtedly the most fun part of the novel. Yet I disliked how the magicians have such an overt effect on the war.
Having said so, sometimes you need the mystical to be at the forefront of a historical moment to drive other parts of your story or to help explain and establish some crucial elements of your setting. For example, the presence of superheroes during the Vietnam War in Watchmen is crucial to the laws the government would later pass and which are essential to the setting’s status quo. I do something similar in one of my novels with the Korean War. In Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, part of my dislike for that moment is the lack of consequence in the grand scheme of things.
As I said, it’s a delicate thing.
Beyond that, I have nothing else to tell you but “go big!” Your story might be set in the Crusades, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have the characters fighting a dragon or doing some ridiculously extreme. In other words, use the setting to your advantage to add flavour to the story and characterisation and never let it stifle your creativity—though my recommendations on the pitfalls above still apply.
Again, it’s a delicate thing.
Historical Fantasy is a complicated beast, but it’s also one of the most fun to read and experience if done correctly. Reading about Julius Caesar’s conquest over the Egyptian Gods and his theft of one of the pieces of Osiris and how this eventually leads to his demise is awesome—and you can’t use that story now because I just made it up and calling dibs—and so is reading about the secret magical agents used by Napoleon during his exile, to keep abreast of things happening back in France and protect it from some inhuman plots. Yep, made that one up right now as well…
Now I really want to draft up these stories!
Also, anyone know of any goof Steampunk Graphic Novels, Comic Series and/or Novels? I’d like to do some reading & research on this!
Featured Image Credit: Slave-of-the-Game (DeviantArt)