Dealing with the Fantastical in a Novel

Excalibur in the stone
The King’s legitimacy is based on pulling a sword out of a rock.

Historic fiction is a slippery slope. I am currently writing about Japan in the historic period in and around the Gempei War—a war of historic record.

My main character is Yamabuki, a female warrior, a person who is recorded in some annals, but whose life is almost unknown.

How much can a writer make up while entertaining her audience, while staying more or less faithful to the period?

Some writers will go completely around this problem. We have Lord of the Rings, and The Game of Thrones. In these novels, there is no historic period, per se, so as long as we accept the author’s rules, we have no complaints.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have stories (films) such as Dark Knight (Batman) or Man of Steel (Superman) where things verge on the impossible, yet there is a gloss of technology (or at least pseudo-scientific reasoning) that avoids out and out magical explanations, though we do see some hints of magic in Batman Returns.

In the middle there are stories along the line of England’s King Arthur (Uther?) or Russia’s Prince Igor (Ingmar?) that ascribe great deeds to people who remain in history’s shadows.

Or, Blackthorn, in the novel Shogun and his interaction with lordly Yoshi Toranaga (Tokugawa Ieyasu?) where the events of Japanese history are blended with fantasy.

So the rhetorical question: in historic fiction, is the writer crossing a line when supernatural or pseudo-supernatural forces are encountered? And just because it is an advanced civilization, don’t think that Luke Skywalker is beyond calling on The Force.

The borders are not bright lines and I am sure than not every reader will accept shape-shifting foxes, swords that transmit their prior owner karmas,  or ghosts who seem all but real. Is Pillow Book of a Samurai, or Cold Sake, in the realm of history, or is it squarely fantasy?

It’s something that is a challenge, and only the readership will acknowledge by voting with their eyeballs and buying category.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with the Fantastical in a Novel

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    1. I agree. It might be why the Hero of a Thousand Faces resonates because there is truth in it. I believe there are stories and lessons from which we all might profit, but some of them are too harsh to face at certain times and certain places. It is then scifi, or fantasy stories, emerge. Episodes like Star Trek’s, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, addressed racism, far more pervasive in the late 1960s that the early 2010s, in a way that stripped away the unquestioned prejudices and preconceptions that would have kept us from seeing it in the then current context.

      Internalized racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, homophobia, and a host of other things can be addressed one step removed in an alternate universe or setting.

      Only in the past generation have women been able to attend the military service academies, fly fighter jets, and be trained for combat. Prejudices still roil around in regard to “our daughters dying,” never mind the dead sons?

      The place where I have best found where a woman warrior can thrive is in my own fantasy of Japan of a 840 years ago, yet my aim is to focus beyond that period, at least for the time being.

      Like

    1. I agree. It might be why the Hero of a Thousand Faces resonates because there is truth in it. I believe there are stories and lessons from which we all might profit, but some of them are too harsh to face at certain times and certain places. It is then scifi, or fantasy stories, emerge. Episodes like Star Trek’s, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, addressed racism, far more pervasive in the late 1960s that the early 2010s, in a way that stripped away the unquestioned prejudices and preconceptions that would have kept us from seeing it in the then current context.
      Internalized racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, homophobia, and a host of other things can be addressed one step removed in an alternate universe or setting.
      Only in the past generation have women been able to attend the military service academies, fly fighter jets, and be trained for combat. Prejudices still roil around in regard to “our daughters dying,” never mind the dead sons?
      The place where I have best found where a woman warrior can thrive is in my own fantasy of Japan of a 840 years ago, yet my aim is to focus beyond that period, at least for the time being.

      Like

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