Why “Historical Accuracy” is a Terrible Excuse When Writing Fantasy.

Whenever a fantasy story is criticized for a lack of diversity or for being excessively brutal towards marginalized people in its depiction of them, a common defense of that story is that it is simply being historically accurate. Allow me to explain why this defense is bullshit.

George R R Martin has said that the reason he made his setting so harsh was because he wanted to write a historically accurate depiction of the middle ages. The biggest problem with this is that Westeros isn’t part of Earth and therefore doesn’t share Earth’s history. This inherently means that it cannot be historically accurate because it isn’t even part of history, even if much of the plot was inspired by the War of the Roses. By necessity, fantasy writers pick and choose which elements of the real world go into their writing in addition to the unrealistic elements they add. Writing a fantasy story that depicts a brutal and repressive patriarchy is just as much a creative choice as putting a particular mythical creature in the setting. Had GRRM said that he just wanted to write a gritty setting, I would have had more respect for his creative decisions. There is a place in the media for grim and harsh fantasy stories, but a pretense of realism does not inherently grant them that place.

The only time historical accuracy becomes truly relevant is when the setting is supposed to be actual history. In such cases, the author must do a lot of research if they want to claim historical accuracy. Here’s the thing though. History is very diverse and nuanced, making the typical reasons for claiming historical accuracy invalid. There were people living in medieval Europe who weren’t white (the twitter account @medievalpoc showcases people of color in European art throughout history).
Entire books have been written about women in positions of leadership in ancient times, including military leadership. Many cultures all over the world had very different frameworks for understanding gender and recognized more than two genders. The list goes on and shows very clearly that much of history doesn’t conform to a white, cisheteropatriarchal narrative. Even if an author does find a historical justification for portraying a particular form of marginalization, there is still the question of how necessary it is for the plot. Just because the society in a given place and time punished homosexuality with the death penalty, doesn’t mean the story absolutely needs to depict a gay person being executed. It’s also worth noting that no amount of homophobia makes gay people stop existing, so a society being homophobic doesn’t automatically justify there being no gay characters.

Historical accuracy is a tired defense that is almost never the least bit justified. Writers need to come up with better defenses for what they write. Heck, why not just be honest about why you include a particular element in your story?

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