Saturday, July 5, 2014

Realistic Fantasy World Building

I was reading another debate on g+ recently. It was like so many others. Some parts of it were quite insightful. Other parts were, to put it bluntly, a touch lacking in common sense. I see this a lot in fiction writing, and it has provoked me to unleash a sputtering trickle or two from the decayed plumbing in my fountain of wisdom.

Before I go any further, I don't claim authority over anyone or anything. But I have done a fair bit of world building, and gotten positive feedback on it from people all over the world. To start with, I am *not* talking about the kind of fantasy where nobody expects realism. Fairytales, tongue-in-cheek parodies, wildly improbable worlds where anything can happen - these are immune to any expectations of adherence to real world standards.

By realistic fantasy I mean epic fantasy, or similar stories, that are supposed to be set in a world where normal humans live reasonably normal human lives, with a few minor variations. Like magic. Or undead. Or shapeshifters. Or the fact that they might be a dragon's next meal. Those piddling details should not take away from the realism of the world building process itself.

I am going to talk about fantasy worlds that follow a pre-industrial pattern, or at most, a 17th-18th century European/American pattern, since these seem to be the ones I come across most often. Granted, these are the kinds I look for most often. Such is life. I could reel off a few titles but I am not going to. I don't want to provoke anyone, and I am not a literary critic anyway. I'm just a writer. 

One last time. This is my personal opinion about my personal preferences. If you don't happen to like realistic fantasy worlds, good for you. Enjoy. 

If I had to pick one single thing, I think the main point that aggravates me most of all, and which I see over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, is that fact that everyone in a fantasy world is rich. I mean filthy, stinking, rich.

Take food for instance. The poorest peasant, heck, even the poorest beggar never really goes hungry. Even if they do, it's because of social injustice. Some meany of a noble is hoarding it from them. There is almost never a case where the food simply isn't there.

In reality, famine was a dismal fact of life many times in most places. Even up into the twentieth century. Remember the Dust Bowl? Remember the droughts in Africa? But fantasy books almost never address the consequences of a bad crop year. The political, social, military, and purely physical disaster caused by crop failures could produce endless material for major plot points. Like in my second book, "Wrath", where the lack of food stockpiles is threatening the kingdom's ability to resist invasion. Even in a good year, there wasn't anything like modern surplus. And there was no such thing as freezers. You smoked, you pickled, you salted, you stuck it in a cool cellar, and you prayed to make it until next summer.

How many writers use material like this? I see food being used as a political tool (Mean old nobles/dictators/evil mages!) but there is always food somewhere to be had. Maybe someone has and I just haven't read it. If so, I would welcome someone pointing it out to me, because I would enjoy reading a book like that. I suspect it's because very few fantasy authors have ever lived or worked on a farm, and therefore have minimal understanding of just how close to famine we all really are, even today.

Then there is the issue of clothing. Everyone has all the clothing they need. Even under primitive conditions. Everyone has shoes. Everyone. In Depression era Appalachia, my family members went barefoot from Spring to Fall. They weren't trying to get close to nature. They were too poor to buy shoes. Almost never do you see peasants that poor in a fantasy book.

Some movies and television programs show barefoot peasants, but from what I have seen, it seems to be a case where they are depicted as either oppressed (Mean old nobles!), or ignorant and shiftless. The idea that the leather to cobble up some shoes is not available, even if they had the tools, which they don't, never seems to be presented. The average peasant in ancient times lived under conditions that would provoke humanitarian outrage today. Where would they get the leather? Kill their plow ox maybe?

And many people didn't have intact clothing in the old days, either. In most fantasy books, nobody is cold because they are wearing rags. Everyone is the epitome of sartorial excellence, except cases where the plot specifically calls for them to look dirty or something. In which case, everyone notices it because gods forbid someone look dirty as a typical thing.

Which brings up washing. Under primitive conditions, you make your own soap. Just like my parents did during the Great Depression. You go kill a hog. Then you butcher it and you peel out the lard. You reserve a *small* portion of the lard for soap, because most of it is food and you don't waste food. Then you take the soap ration and you render it. Then you pour the hot grease through lye made by leaching wood ashes. Then you cook it until it stiffens. Then you let if cool. Then you cut it up. Then you wash with it. Rarely. Because that stuff is harsh. It will quite literally eat holes in your clothing. It will peel hair off your scalp. Literally.

Nobody ever has fleas in a fantasy book. Or lice. Or skin fungus. Or any other disease that comes from filth. Shall we talk about toothbrushes? How many ever mention the lowly toothbrush? Granted, if your scene is set in a palace, and if you are implying a certain minimum level of sophistication, then you can safely assume they have toothbrushes. But what about the Great Unwashed? (There's a reason for that nickname.)

Not a toothbrush to be detected in any direction as far as the nose can smell. Yet everyone has a lovely smile and all their teeth. If the hero happens to be a commoner, and he grabs his new bride for a passionate kiss, do either of them ever recoil, gagging, and ask, "By all that is decent, what kind of carrion have you been eating?"

Back to the mechanics of washing. You don't turn a tap. You pick up a bucket and go to the well. If you are lucky enough to have a good well. Otherwise, you walk a tenth of a mile to a spring. You carry the water back to the fire. You pour it in a pot. If you are living in a world post 17th century, you might have a stove. That is, if you are in a developed country. Otherwise, you hang it on a hook over an open fireplace. Then you go back for more water. You walk back to the fire. You fill another pot. You walk back for more water. You fill a rinse basin perhaps. You go cut and split some more wood. By the time you are done, the water is hot.

You take the hot water. You use it to wash the dishes. Then you go to bed, because it is past sundown and you have to get up before first light to hitch up the ox. There's another thing. Every farmer owns his own horse. Not an ox. Not a milk cow that does double duty on the plow. Not even a spavined donkey. He owns a horse.

Nope. If you are a farmer under the kind of fantasy world conditions I am talking about, you don't own a horse. Only nobles own horses. If you are exceedingly well-to-do you *might* be able to get hold of a mule, you lucky dog you.

Does anyone realize just how expensive horses really were in the old days? Even in nineteenth century America, which was not a poor place by most standards of the time, most people had to struggle to buy a horse. They just weren't cost effective, either. The work you could get out of one, compared to the expense of feeding and housing one, made them luxury items. Like a pack of expensive and well-trained hunting dogs, a horse was a status symbol.

Earlier I mentioned heating water in a pot. Which brings up metal crafting. Anyone recall the profession of Tinker? Tinkers used to travel around from village to village mending people's old tin pots and other metal items. They were not blacksmiths. A blacksmith was an iron worker. Tinkers did piecework on small things. They were the shade tree mechanics of the day. Why was there a market for this job, and why did it endure for generations? Because worked metal, such as a tin pot, was unholy expensive, that's why.

In some cases, you could pay a workman in goods or services. If someone helped you with your roof, you could help plow his field. Or if he lived in town, you could pay him with a bushel of grain. But metal workers often had to be paid in money. Why? Because they had to buy supplies. You can't make a pot or a horseshoe out of straw. Iron and tin cost an arm, and a leg, and the pound of flesh nearest your gonads. So if you got something made out of metal, you hung onto it and maintained it. One hunting knife, or one straight razor, or one beer mug, might go through five or six generations of a single family. It wasn't for sentimental reasons, or not entirely. It was expensive.

Weapons? Don't get me started on swords. You don't need to get me started, I already did. OK. In feudal Japan a sword destined for a Samurai took months to make. Even in places where they were just hammering out iron bars and grinding points on them, you are talking about weeks of work. Because you did not buy the bar stock already made. You bought the ore, then you smelted it yourself, in many cases.

Even if you were lucky enough to find processed metal for sale from another smith, it was obscenely expensive. Which would add to the final cost of the sword, either way. Then you stuck it in a fire. Then you pumped the bellows. Then you pulled it out and you hammered it five or six times. Then you stuck it back in the fire and pumped the bellows. Then you pulled it out and you hammered it five or six more times. You stood there and did that every single day for weeks, even if you were making a relatively simple sword. For one of the fancy kind, like a knight used, double or triple the time involved. Believe me. My grandfather used to do that kind of work. (Not swords. Grandpaw made horseshoes and suchlike. But it's the same principle.)

You think the average peasant, or even the average merchant, is going to be able to afford something that took a skilled craftsman the better part of a month to make? Yeah, right. Not even talking about a nobleman's sword. I mean a simple foot soldier's blade? Not gonna happen. Which is why, in the days when it was customary for fighters to provide their own weapons, they brought farm implements. Or clubs. Maybe a spiked club if they were lucky and ambitious. Or wood cutting axes. Or quarterstaves. It's hard to beat a good quarterstaff. Even falchions (A thick machete with a point and an attitude.) were reserved for the well-to-do yeomanry and up.

Most things were not made from metal. Doors had wooden hinges and wooden bars instead of locks. Houses and ships were built using pegs instead of nails, whenever possible. Stone and bone, as well as ceramic, were used whenever they could be. Things like buttons for instance. Metal buttons were a high status item, even in colonial America. Most buttons in those days were made from bone, or turtle shell, or wood. If they were too expensive for the average person in the 18th century, in a fairly well-off area, imagine how much more expensive they would have been in the Middle Ages?

I'm going to quit here. I'm not done, but my hands are tired. Arthritis is not my friend. Next time I may rant about the unrealistic portrayal of women fighters under primitive conditions. Yes, they fought. Rarely. No, they did not stand up and trade broadsword blows with a man twice their size and three times their strength. Let's not get stupid. But that's for another day.

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