Over the past week, I’ve amused myself with George R. R. Martin’s newest book, Fire and Blood. For those of you without the inclination to read a 700 page fantasy book with almost no dialogue, main characters, or resolution, Fire and Blood is a history of Westeros, Martin’s fictional world. In the book, Martin describes the reigns of many of Westeros’ kings, as well as describing the important historical events to occur across a 135 year time span.
Fake history is an eccentric yet an immensely rewarding activity. Anyone interested in science fiction or fantasy will use it as a matter of course, but the applications of fake history go far beyond genre fiction. Writing fake history is a great tool to understand real history, since fake history allows you to consider historical cause and effect, bias of sources, and examine in microcosm the very questions that make our own history so hard to understand.
In order to be educational and interesting, however, fake history needs to have a solid foundation in realism. To that end, here are several tips for creating a false histories that ring true.
Choose a Narrator
Many people assume that it is possible to create a single, comprehensive, and unbiased account of the past. This is not the case. History always has an author, with particular goals, perspectives, and beliefs. In writing history, that person will make all sorts of consequential decisions about which sources to include or how to interpret an event, and inevitably, they will put their own spin on things. Therefore, any writer of fake history should begin by deciding upon a narrator. What is the background of the writer? What narrative might they be tempted to prioritize over others?
Having a biased narrator also makes fake history more fun to read, because it encourages the reader to sift between bias and reality. The reader of Fire and Blood has no idea whether Maester Gildayn, the supposed author of the history, is telling the complete truth, or what his motivations are in writing the history. The mystery gives all of his words extra depth and room for interpretation.
Don’t Start with the End Result
Often, when writing fake history, writers want their story to culminate in a single dramatic moment or event where everything comes to a head. While this makes for great fiction, it also makes for unrealistic history. History is not teleological – that is to say, it is not moving inevitably toward a certain result. The planting and sprouting of historical seeds happens continuously, and there will never be a moment where all of the threads end at the same time. When a fake historian attempts to shoehorn the entire history into the buildup for a certain event, things inevitably seem simplistic and contrived.
The only exception to this rule is if your narrator believes that the history all leads toward a certain end goal. If so, ham it up, but don’t fall into the same trap as your narrator.
George R. R. Martin, unfortunately, cannot do this in Fire and Blood, since he has already written many books set in later Westeros. As a result, he is bound to a fairly narrow historical script. Don’t let yourself be limited in the same way.
Include Other, Conflicting Sources
Every historian uses primary sources, quotations, documents, and the like, and fake historians are no different. Whenever you write fake history, you should include evidence from the various historical actors in order to add extra color to your narrative. These documents don’t have to agree, in fact they shouldn’t. One of the beauties of history is that different sources draw upon completely different philosophies and evidence, and can come to completely different conclusions. Leave it to your reader to decide who is right and who, if anyone, is wrong.
Incorporate Constant Change
Constant and rapid evolution is what differentiates human history from that of other animals like ants or fish. For all of recorded history, cultures, technologies, political structures, and countless other human factors have changed rapidly in essentially all parts of the globe.
Therefore, the underlying assumptions of fake history should always be changing and evolving. Rather than having to justify change, a historian must justify stasis. Why wouldn’t farmers constantly try to develop better and more efficient ways to grow food? Why wouldn’t the middle classes attempt to take power for themselves?One major weak point of George R. R. Martin’s historycraft is that his world, Westeros, never fundamentally changes. If we are to believe Martin, Westeros has been a medieval feudal society for ten thousand years. Such static behavior is unrealistic and uninteresting.
Read Real History
History is a bit like music. It seems simple and straightforward, but when it comes to composing some of our own, it’s easy to get stuck. The solution is to develop an ‘ear’ for history by reading a lot of the real thing.
Often, fake historians borrow (read: steal) real historical events, giving them a new paint job and adding them to their own world. For instance, the Dance of the Dragons, a civil war to occur in Fire and Blood, bears more than a few similarities to the real Wars of the Roses from English history. When done sparingly, this kind of borrowing is a great tactic, since it builds upon real patterns of human nature.
Fake history may seem silly and pointless, but give it a try all the same. You may find yourself asking deep questions you never asked yourself before. Are people motivated by ideology, or self interest? What makes a social order stable or unstable? Centuries of bias and conflicting reports make these questions daunting to answer in the real world, but when we confront them in the great sandbox of fake history, we can come closer to untangling these weighty issues.