Fantasy Writing and Titles of Nobility

I’ve heard many people decry the tendency for historical fantasy or secondary world fantasy to concern itself with the actions of the nobility.  Such people have a valid point, but they also ought to understand that in order for an individual peasant, let us say, to have a significant effect on his or her world requires either some sort of inherent magical gift (which has its own problems), or else to ignore everything we know of history.  The peasantry as a class is not in a position to independently transform society; so much the less is the individual peasant able to effect the sort of sweeping changes we often want in our stories.  In order to permit the freedom of action we need from the protagonist of a fantasy story set in medieval, renaissance, or even reformation Europe (or its analog), that protagonist pretty much has to be of the upper class.  And yes, there are exceptions.

For Americans there is an element of the romantic and the exotic about titles of nobility, about Baron Soandso, or Count Thisandsuch, that I suspect is missing, or at any rate different, for who were raised in places where a feudal aristocracy was part of history..  In reality, the feudal landlords were vicious bloodsuckers—when not for personal reasons, than simply because of the nature of the property relations that ultimately defined everyone’s life.  What I am not about to do is suggest is that American fantasy writers ignore the exotic and romantic elements—your readers have them in their heads, and unless you see your job is primarily pedagogical (which I do not), what is in the reader’s head is key: it is easier to play with the reader’s head if you work with what you know is rattling around in there.

What I want to point out is that the tension between the actual nature of the nobility and this sense of the romantic and exotic is something that, if we’re aware of it, we can play with to produce interesting effects.  Just a few subtle hints about the reality, while still permitting the swirling capes and Byronic posturing, can really bring home the world and the character, and add a sense of depth.  That is, be aware of the reality and of the feelings of the reader.

It’s another thing to play with.

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21 thoughts on “Fantasy Writing and Titles of Nobility”

  1. Excellent commentary. I’d suggest trying to tie any fantasy social structure to actual history or social structures is fraught with pitfalls.

  2. I appreciate the way you have written nobility in your works (at least the ones I have read). When I read fiction I am not looking to see brutal reality, but rather to escape and take a vacation from the moment. I read history books and articles (like some discussed here) when I want to dwell on reality and life’s problems. Don’t get me wrong, as fiction needs to make people think or it becomes boring, but I don’t want to be preached to, nor do I want to be bogged down in the depressing realities of medieval, or frankly modern, life. Fiction naturally follows a character who can change his/her world, whether they are nobility, or “rags to riches”. It is depressing to read about a character that is born, works, and dies without impacting the world or even really even bettering their own life. Unfortunately that reality is much of history and needs to be studied and understood, but not when I want to leave a book refreshed. There is a time and a place for serious study, just as there is a time for lighter enjoyment.

    Having said the above, I love the way you have taken Vlad and have had him right on the edge of “nobility” and yet subject to the problems of not being in the true upper class. The interplay of race (him being human), not accepted by the upper crust (due to house and profession), and yet finding himself dealing with friends from both sides of the tracks, has made for some truly thought provoking reading, yet still serves as escapist fantasy. It allows me to take a vacation from reality, but not from thinking. It is appreciated and is an art form. How do you play with broad concepts without preaching? I appreciate how you have done this in your works. Not every author I have read has been able to walk that line.

  3. What irritates me the most is when the farm boy is the *real* nobility, and the person who has been king for over a decade is the usurper. Then the boy overthrows the person who has been trained to rule and everybody lives happily ever after. A variation of Puddin’head Wilson.

  4. Each story needs a framework that it operates within. Using the nobility / lower classes as a model saves the author and the reader a lot of work in trying to lay out a social structure. The reader is already familiar with the basics so it leaves the author the freedom to start the story.

  5. In Oliver Twist, the title orphan is of gentle birth, but gets abandoned to the welfare system and all its depravations. However, his sheer nobility shines through despite his humble surroundings. So much so, in fact, that the local gentry take notice, rescue him, and restore him to his rightful life of luxury.

    Pure claptrap.

    skzb avoids this problem of the inherent and innate racial superiority of the wealthy (don’t they just love to believe it) by making his dragaeran nobles literally created partially from genetic stock of the house animal. So now, you want to talk genetic differences? Go ahead, you fleabag of a Tzur. I DARE you.

    But I agree, also, a book about a peasant who is born, grows up, toils miserably for a decade or three, then dies broken and beaten down, might not be all that interesting. skzb would still make it worth reading, though.

  6. “The peasantry as a class is not in a position to independently transform society”

    The Swiss and the people of Dithmarschen (and maybe the Ikko-ikki) might disagree, but granted, it takes ideal conditions.

  7. All the same, I still eagerly await the sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – the one about Childermass and Vinculus.

  8. Peasants born into a feudal society can live lives worth writing about. Example: Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born a peasant and rose to be the first ruler of a united Japan. Not surprisingly much has been written about him, at least in Japanese. It is also the case that this literature, including Hideyoshi’s own autobiography, is very sketchy on his life before he achieved samurai status. So I guess this example both disputes and confirms your position :-)

  9. Excellent points.

    There are exceptions as you noted, like the Swiss. But coming from nowhere hero, like William Wallace (who was likely a member of what passed for landed gentry in Scotland) or William Marshall (who was a noble but younger son without inheritance), still required a social class connection which could result in acceptance by noble peers.

    The major criteria to have the ability to influence matters in the middle ages to reformation period was not necessarily wealth (though that helped) but a combination of class and ability. So long as one was of the right social class, even a junior member, one could be poor (like William Marshall or William Wallace) and still acquire considerable power if one also demonstrated considerable ability.

    I think one of the many national advantages England had was it’s widening of what was an acceptable class of person for advancement with the nebulous “gentleman”. One could be a gentleman if connected to the nobility, or if one had sufficient resources and personal skills to dress and act the part (prideful free yeoman farmers, physicians, lawyers, merchants, for example). It gave the nation a much wider pool of talent to draw upon compared to their national rivals. America continued this trend of expanding class boundaries early on to it’s national benefit (and let it continue to do so).

  10. Ivailo of Bulgaria.

    There is not even a hint of him being linked in any way to nobility. A landless swineherd who got fed up with the aristocracy not doing anything about casual raids by the Mongols, he supposedly started by fighting off a very minor raid, which got him a small following. By the time he ended up emperor, his following had grown, but he still never made any claims of noble birth. Though, like Jeanne d’Arc, he did have ‘divinely inspired’ visions of getting foreign invaders off the backs of his countrymen.

    Of course, these are exceptions, and unbelievable to boot. While reality can get away with it, we all know that fiction has to be believable.

  11. You know, I’ve long assumed that the Noble Houses of Dragaera were not really genetically distinct in any significant way, neither from each other nor from Teckla, and that the association of specific temperaments and talents with specific Houses was in fact rooted in myth and enculturation. I do notice that most readers/commenters/write-ups on the series take the supposed genetic differences at face value, though.

    I am trying to write a fantasy novel in which (the equivalent of) nobles instigate a mass uprising by the underclass… and I’m finding it very difficult to walk the line between a realistically depressing outcome and an inspiring, escapist, hopefully not preachy, transformation of society. It bothers me that I agree a lot with my protagonists, which by skzb’s example is not always a good idea!

  12. It’s funny how people in one culture try to fit other cultures’ positions into their own hierarchy. As in John Smith couldn’t marry Pocahontas because he was a commoner and she was nobility. We have Russian princes not meaning the same as English princes. And we have societies that didn’t worry whether their rulers had long lineages.

    In fiction, a real Genghis Khan would likely be an usurper, and the hero would be the poor son of one of his rivals or conquered kings who would overthrow him.

  13. This is quite true. I would argue that a fantasy writer ought to know the reality and be aware of the common misconceptions.

  14. OK: off the top of my head: a question, Steven. I know a lot of fantasy is “medievalistic”: but it seems to me that you’re, like, expecting *all* fantasies with characters with titles in (or without titles, even?) will or should copy supposedly similar societies on our own Earth, this dimension, which have people with titles in.. Which sounds boring and not allowing free play of imagination.. Which however your books *do* have, I believe! (Just one thing about them as I have yet to make the acquaintance of your Vlad: would you say he is basically good: or basically evil? That TOO being a big preoccupation of a lot of fantasy!)

    Well anyway: for one thing, lots of fantasies *do* have magic in: which immediately makes their reality different, doesn’t it?

    I mean, the sort of magic that is like a reliable technology: that makes visible difference. Like in Harry Potter to use a well-known example. That makes things different, doesn’t it?

    What if the story is not about humans? What if there are alien races – of which I believe you have a few? Elves? Hobbits?? Do they “have” to have all our social faults?

    Socialists can’t go assuming that other cultures and sapient beings do things the same as what they know!

    What if the society is matriarchal: rather than the boring default patriarchal? Has to make a difference.

    What if it’s about birdmen; or garuda; such as written about by China Mieville? They have titles: but it’s nothing to do with nobility I don’t think. They’re honorifics.

    Are you assuming that all speculative fiction writers want to emulate previously known flawed societies?

  15. I’m baffled now. I suggested some things to think about for those who are playing with typical titles of nobility. Where did I say that that all fantasy did that, or should do that? Are you suggesting that by saying some people do something, I’m implying that all people ought to? That’s just weird.

  16. Your comment form isn’t working for me too well I’m afraid! This is my THIRD attempt at replying! Disqus works better…

    As I was saying: I re-read it and saw you said ” historical fantasy”. Which narrows it down a bit!

    But: my point is that something like Game Of Thrones is a historical fantasy. Writer said it was based upon the Wars of the Roses or some such.

    But it’s got dragons in it! And magic. (And a rather inconsistent approach to that magic, I would argue, which got me annoyed with the author.)

    My argument is that one or two major differences – like that – between the fantasy world and the “real world” would tend to change EVERYTHING. So why bind oneself to “reality”??

    Imagine, if you will, how the Trump/Clinton election would have turned out, with dragons!

  17. Because sometimes some people like to bind themselves to reality; look at the amazing work Tim Powers has done, for example. No one is saying everyone has to. I’m saying if you “bind yourself to reality” in a certain particular way, here is a thing worth thinking about I am just seriously confused about what your issue is.

    (Also, Game of Thrones is not historical fantasy, it is secondary world fantasy. Being influenced by certain historical events doesn’t make something historical fantasy; I’d like you to find any work of fiction that is not influenced by the real world.)

  18. Because a story needs rules and challenges to make it interesting. Unless you work within them (bind yourself to reality), there is really no challenge for the protagonist. If all the guy has to do is prang up a new magic spell with no constraints, it gets really boring. How can the guy/gal fail if they can effortlessly prang a solution? And the protagonist needs the possibility of failing to make the story interesting.

  19. It might be possible to be successful with clear constraints that don’t fit reality.

    Like, you could write about a society where it’s customary to have marriages with four to six partners. That might be particularly practical in an extreme environment where people tend to die, so that a child who starts with six parents is likely to still have 2 or 3 long enough to grow up.

    The society could have various customs that help families stay together, the people would be raised with the idea that it was normal and they had to adapt, and they wouldn’t have to be quite exactly human either.So the fact that nobody ever succeeds at multiple-parent families in the real world would not have to apply.

    It could work, but when it presents an alien society that readers aren’t used to, that makes it a lot harder for it to get popular. A lot of readers will see the characters acting in ways that don’t ring true to them and they’ll just throw the book against the wall. “People aren’t really like that!”

    Steve says it’s good for writers to pay attention to what readers already believe. Not an absolute rule, but something that can pay off. You can challenge their beliefs if you do it carefully, but you need to pay attention.

    It’s OK to have a main character who is a very special case. He can be the only peasant who has a chance to change the world. You might need a reason why there is one who can do that, but once you have somebody like that you can write about him and readers mostly won’t mind. They like to read about people who can change the world.

    Sometimes they like a character who upholds the world as it is, who does everything right and succeeds and nothing changes except he does well. It can work either way.

    John Carter of Mars had sword fights with green martians who were 16 feet tall. They had four arms and could fight with up to 4 8-foot swords at once. Or if they preferred, an 8-foot sword, a 6-foot sword, a 4-foot sword, and a 2-foot dagger. But he was super-strong so he could jump up and punch a green martian in the jaw and kill him before the martian could aim at him. He was special.

    Vlad has sword fights with 7 foot Dragaerans who have studied sword-fighting for hundreds of years. But Vlad uses an eastern sword-fighting style that they usually haven’t practiced against because it’s so inferior that they don’t bother to learn it. So that helps even things out. Plus he carries poisoned shurikens and poisoned darts and poisoned daggers. He uses magic and sorcery. He does whatever it takes to win. He joined the Jheregs, the tricky dishonorable ones; most of the others would figure he should fight honorably and die.

    At first sight, Easterners should have a giant disadvantage fighting. But they make up for it by breeding like cockroaches….

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