Tristan Shandy is a novel that’s about nothing, a Seinfield of novels. Many fantasy novels follow the Shandy structure, the novel has random quests that don’t have a central plot outside from “Level up and survive.” The key to making a Shandy structure work is by thinking through the details that make things believable. This doesn’t mean an information dump or exposition scene (no one like those), but little clues that detail the World and its inhabitants.
The term sometimes used in historical fiction novels is the historicism of the novel, but I don’t like that term. While there’s nothing wrong with incorporating historical/factual elements into a fantasy novel, it might not be appropriate. Rather, I will discuss the Shandification of the novel, meaning the believability of the World as it is presented to the outside viewer.
What do they eat?
This video will bring you up to speed on the Shandification of a video game.
This is the first big question. A novel doesn’t have to go into great detail about all the ins and outs, but:
- If they’re nomadic, then a traditional hunter-gatherer society has men who hunt and women who gather. This is how they spend most of their time.
- If they’re sedentary, then they should have crops, animals, etc. They need to guard these animals and prevent predators from eating them.
- If they’re in the highlands, they will typically raise sheep and goats (or equivalent fantasy creatures) and either trade or raid low-lying villages
What’s a novel that does this well? The Dungeoneers by Jeffrey Russell. The dwarves eat food that’s considered disgusting by the other races, and it explains that this is because the caves that dwarves live in are primarily composed of moss and mushrooms. It’s a nice detail that adds to the story.
If they have milk and cheese, where are the cows/goats milk producing animals? If they have bread, where are the granaries? Sedentary populations suffer soil erosion unless they take steps to rotate crops and fertilize the soil. During war, over harvesting can completely deplete the soil, so the most fertile areas of the Roman empire became barren wastelands, a similar fate befell the Middle East. The Middle East was once called “The Fertile Crescent”, a name that seems mocking now if you’ve ever seen the region.
The video explains how food and crops are an important element of Fallout: New Vegas. It has quests where you can change water flow to either go to a city or to go towards the New California Republic (NCR). Plus how many games have inspired real events (CalExit)? That’s some serious foresite.
Whence comes the villains?
Bandits are a particular problem because:
- What do they eat?
- How do they setup their ambushes? They need to capture enough merchandise to get by but not enough that a full party gets sent out to kill them.
- How do they avoid detection?
Many people know of Somalian pirates, what they don’t know is that Somalian pirates are welcomed because European countries like to dump nuclear waste in Africa. The reason the pirates exist is because the population supports them. The reason the Taliban existed in Afghanistan was to replace the violent drug lords that ruled before, who often kidnapped children and used them as sexual currency. The Taliban is brutal, but their rules were considered fair.
If you go through most outlaw/bandit groups, you’ll find out interesting things about privateers vs. pirates, how they functioned, and how they were completely rewritten to make a narrative that was comfortable to the conquering faction. Unless your bad guys are orcs springing from Middle Earth fully formed, you will need to make sure the backstory works.
Back to Fallout: New Vegas, you have a choice between two major factions. The first is the NCR. The NCR likes to think of themselves as good guys, but their rapid expansion has left numerous settlements without any defense. They’ve also hogged all the resources so that anything not considered important by the NCR has been left without adequate food and water.
Meanwhile the other faction, the Legion, is absolutely brutal. The introduction to the Legion features them slaughtering an entire town, including their own soldiers, by crucifixion. When you encounter their leader, Caesar, he explains that by combining Roman military ethics with Mormon morality, he has turned scattered groups of drug addicts and raiders into a single fighting force. He believes this newly Romanized force is able to assimilate individuals better into a civilizing force.
Thus neither the NCR or the Legion are really *good* guys, depending on what your viewpoint is. The struggle is between two largely impersonal forces that are seeking to subjugate an area.
Buildings and Materials
If there are stone structures, where are the quarries? If there are wooden structures, where are the forests and the woodsmen? If there is metal, where are the mines? Like What do they eat, being able to answer these questions will help the novel feel more realistic.
If buildings are made out of straw and wood, are they using torchlights with fire? How far apart are buildings? If one catches on fire, will the fire spread like Roman times? How do they deal with this problem, do they keep one water/ice mage on reserve at all times?
In most pre-industrial societies, they were more children than anything else because of the high rates of death. In most stories, there are either no children or only plot convenient children.
Many novels feature people in cold weather like northern barbarians who wear very little clothing and desert dwellers who wear tons of clothing. If they wear wool, there must be sheep or sheeplike creatures. If they wear leather, they need cows.
Terrain appropriate creatures (horses vs camels)
During the Crusades on Earth, the European military used cavalry the way that European warfare did. Cavalry was used to break the infantry lines and then harass the enemy when they fled. To withstand an assault, the horses were heavily armored and specifically bred to be strong enough to break the lines and be able to move in heavy armor.
In contrast, the horses that the Arabians used were light and fast, meant to move about in harsh climates and evade combat. The Arabs preferred to use archery to pick off opponents. During the crusades, the large European horses would die of heat exhaustion while the Europeans tried to pursue the Arabians.
President Lincoln was offered elephants to use in the Civil War, which didn’t make sense for how war was fought during the Civil War. Likewise, the American military is using tactics and training for combat environments that makes no sense.
Most Arabians preferred to use camels vs. horses. The camels often scared horses and could survive the harsh climate and move faster than horses on the sand’s terrain. The downside is that camels are notoriously fickle compared to horses.
If you’re using mythical creatures, think about the upsides and downsides of using certain animals. Dragons might be cool, but how much do they eat? How much water do they need to drink? How far can they fly? Can they move through thick forests if they’re big? How much noise do they make? Where do they sleep?
People in the Middle Ages were plagued by constant disease because they were nasty. Horse feces littered areas, fleas were everywhere, people slept next to animals, liter was rampant, etc. If your fantasy World has lots of refuse, people who don’t bathe, etc., then there should be some indication of this in the disease rate.
What sorts of birds are there, how do plants grow and pollinate, what sorts of insects exist, what sorts of pest animals, etc.
Be original, make it a quest to stop the spread of infectious diseases by introducing sanitation.
The economy is a shamble in most books. This gets satirized brilliantly in Orconomics by Jeffrey Pike and again in The Dungeoneers. Jeffrey Pike goes so far as to make fantasy economics integral to the entire plot, and makes it engaging. If I taught an economics course, Orconomics would be at the top of the list. Pick whether you want to read An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations or Orconomics. That’s what I thought.
Anyway, if they are trading items, then there must be a relative advantage between the two countries in terms of labor or items. Country A must either be poorer and hence have cheaper labor or Country A must have some other equivalent good that can be exchanged for another, copper for iron for example. How are Thieves Guilds and Assassins Guilds doing so well? Where are populist uprisings against rulers who are hoarding wealth and/or brutal displays of guards killing these people? Read up on your Middle Ages history, the guards were not your friends and public killings were a spectacle for the entire town to keep anyone from falling out of line.
The NPC series by Drew Hayes also goes into backstory of economics, or at least a partial satire of it, as dark wizards always have huge amounts of loot and NPCs that hang around or with PCs have tons of wealth. This confuses the regular NPCs, who are quite poor. It also fits the trope that the fiefdoms can be rich while the outskirt cities are all squalid. It’s not so much a subversion of the stereotype the way that books like Dark Lord of Derkholm, Orconomics, and The Dungeoneers are as it is a meta-commentary on why that problem exists and how tourists/outsiders change the rules of the game.
Other questions deal with exchange rates. The Roman Empire used gold because they were one empire, but they still had various emperors faces on the coinage. Likewise, people in poor countries tend to wear jewelry so that they literally have their wealth on them, but jewelry in most novels is only relegated to use as a magical artifact.
Hiring soldiers requires lots of gold and kingdoms might begin to devalue their own currency by mixing in copper and silver into gold. It also requires a huge amount of food, “An army crawls on its belly” as Napoleon noted. Depriving large amounts of grain from areas leads to uprisings in others, as does the push to start mass recruitment in one area that removes all the able bodied men in the area.
After the Rwandan genocidal slaughter, there were very few men left. The result is the parliament is comprised of some 70% women. This isn’t an unusual situation.
Again, it’s not necessary, but it adds more flavor than “You must kill Kingdom Z because Kingdom Z is ruled by evil” if you think about the full ramifications of what waging war really means in terms of supplies, units, troops, currency, local populations, and reactions.
It’s the reason why George R.R. Martin is so good at it, he utilizes British history like the War of the Five Roses into his novels.
The only books I can remember incorporating weather into it is the Mirror World series. There, inclement weather will destroy objects and possessions, meaning that places with hostile weather are often avoided because players hate seeing their gear get destroyed. Think frostbite, heat stroke, hypothermia, etc., the problems that have killed most military units for centuries.
If it’s misty, where does it come from?
The most common problem I see is that there are villages that are next to large forests and yet seldom deal with rain. We also don’t see much earthquakes, hurricanes, or other natural disasters unless plot dictates it.
Are there limits on how often fish can be fished? Are the fish used to add nitrogen to the soil in the crops? Is manure used like this? Do they breed eagles or other birds of prey? Where do they breed horses? Who does it?
Languages on Earth are the result of conquest, the more a populace speaks a particular language, the more that population has conquered the Earth. There are also enclave languages that developed from geographically isolated regions. Most novels only have one language and/or accent.
See Peter Kenny’s performance of the Witcher. Geralt isn’t from Rivia, but he practices the speech and mannerisms of it. Hence people from Rivia speak different from people from Temeria or other regions.