Realism in Fantasy

I’ve been doing a lot of research over the past two weeks, trying to come up with a realistic world for my fantasy novel to inhabit.

Whew, man, it’s bringing to light a bunch of issues that I’d unconsciously been mulling over for a while. The simple issue of population, for example, is one that is always hard to get your head around. Kings, evil warlocks, and headstrong young rebels . . . all the usual suspects in the standard fantasy novels . . . can suddenly raise an army of, say, 25,000-50,000 soldiers, almost all healthy men of fighting age. These soldiers appear out of nowhere, since the only cities in stereotypical fantasy worlds are rare, smelly, and inhabited mostly by beggars and noblemen. Farmsteads are small and sparsely populated. Villages are plucky but barely can scrape together enough men to form a night’s watch when there are boogeymen about.

So where do these armies of thousands come from, anyway?

I still haven’t figured that one out. They’re magical soldiers, maybe, created from dirt when the need arises, disappearing back into the soil once they’re no longer needed to wage war.

Very convenient. Luckily, writers are going beyond those tropes now. The real numbers, though, are much more interesting than the tropes ever were.

I did a little googling yesterday. Did you know that the population of France in 1789, before their revolution, was already at 28 million? That’s a chunk of land about the same size as Texas and surely not all the teeming masses lived in Paris, no matter how disgusting the city was. That’s a LOT of farmers. There are 65 million people there now, about double the amount. Just think about going on a tour through France and just cutting half the population from each town and city. There’s still going to be a lot of bustling cities and busy villages. People would not, on the whole, live in tiny villages of five families and two cows. It’s just not an effective way for people to organize themselves, even before automobiles. It doesn’t allow for specialization.

I think that most fantasy worlds are way underpopulated for the demands we place upon them. There is the odd inn here and there, near the tiny village, sometimes, but often out in the middle of nowhere. Small humble villages. Cities, as mentioned, all teeming with the impoverished in their “poor people’s quarter” but otherwise only inhabited by a couple bakers, a candlemaker, and the nobility and their maids. You never see the hundreds of people it took to keep just one big mansion or castle running. You don’t see the constant influx of supplies that they needed to keep things going.

It’s a sort of myth that people in the past were more self-sufficient. Unless they lived in the wilderness (which in America was actually a possibility for a couple centuries but not exactly do-able in, say, France), people specialized. There was someone to do every task– from boot-polishers to chimney sweeps, knife-sharpeners to laundry maids, chandlers to apothecaries.  The guy who made the staves for the barrels bought the food for his dinner at the pub, maybe, but maybe he bought bits from the fishmonger and the baker and the jam-seller, instead. Someone else chopped down the trees to make the barrels, shipped the wood to the shop, and transported the finished barrels. Someone else caught the fish, someone else harvested the salt, someone else stuffed the fish and salt into the finished barrels, and someone else rolled them into a wagon and carted them around. That’s a lot of people, just to put that barrel of salted fish in the inn’s basement.

I know that realism isn’t the point– people want to escape from reality and inhabit these fantastic worlds for a while. Escapism is a perfectly valid need to fill.

It’s just a bit silly to me if we don’t acknowledge the huge gap between what would be required to make these worlds WORK and what we actually flesh out for the reader. Armies that don’t seem to need supply trains, horses that march without time to feed or feed supplies brought with them if it’s not available, and cities that don’t live and die by the wagons and ships coming in and out . . . that’s just laziness on our parts. We can do better.

George R.R. Martin gets tons of praise for his huge cast of characters and immense world, but he’s only got maybe a dozen noble families that he’s fleshed out with a couple dozen more minor houses thrown in in the background. A real continent as big as he says Westeros would be (as big as South America) would probably have literally thousands of noble families presiding over tens of millions of inhabitants. Let’s put it this way, in France right before the Black Death hit? They already had 17 million people. In 1340. And France, as we know, is much smaller than South America.

It reminds me of Anne McCaffrey, may she rest in peace. I loved Pern– loved it. It was the first genre series I ever read. But let’s be honest . . . she had all of these 747-sized dragons requiring their skin to be oiled, nose to tail, at least every 3 days or their skin would crack when they went between. Even at the lowest point of the Weyr’s population, they still had dozens of these huge animals flying around. They would have needed more oil than even the most dedicated support staff could have cranked out every year, thousands of cattle to eat, and tons of “firestone” to breathe fire during every Fall. A handful of mistreated scullions just couldn’t have pulled all of that off. I don’t love her any less, but I do chuckle to myself whenever anyone oils a dragon.

Realism isn’t the point, I know. But a little more realism in fantasy, I think, can raise the stakes and make the books more compelling as well as more realistic. Some people are making progress, but we’ve got a long way to go. I appreciate every effort, though. Nothing makes me smile as much as a harried quartermaster or a kid selling matches. The world needs those . . . fictional or not.


About endurancemom

Writer of fantasy and historical fantasy fiction, mother of 6, former nurse, Catholic convert, wife of 25 years, and general all-around geek. Warning: Do not attempt this at home. View all posts by endurancemom

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