World-building through Historical Characters: Gnaius and Galen

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political.

“Exactly so,” Gnaius agreed. “May I say more? I have lived in many of Casil’s provinces over the years. A physician travels with the army, if he wishes to become a skilled surgeon.”

– from Oraiáphon: A Novella of the Empire, 2020.

In my Empire’s Legacy series and its sequels (both completed and planned), the supporting character Gnaius plays, and will play, an important role. Gnaius is a physician, erudite and highly skilled, who has held many positions with both the army and to the Empress of Casil. He is a product of my imagination, of course, but he is based on the historical physician Claudius Galenus, best known to the modern West as Galen.

Galen (public domain)

I want to talk about Galen not so much in terms of the historical person, but as an example of how, in my alternate-world historical fiction, I use history to inform my world without being bound by it. The city in my world, Casil, is physically based on 4th century Rome, but politically it’s a blend of Rome and Byzantium. However, many of the conflicts that occur are from later in Europe’s history, between about 600 and 1000.

Galen lived in the 2nd century of the common era, at the same time as the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who appears as a figure from the past in my series (under a different name, of course). But this doesn’t matter: I’m not writing history. What matters is that Galen did almost everything I wanted Gnaius to have done: travelled extensively, learned about surgery and wound treatment in the field, practiced medicine in the capital city and became the personal physician to Emperors. So I have, effectively, lifted Galen out of the 2nd century and inserted him into my world at a later date.

There are both pros and cons to doing this. Readers will fall roughly into three categories: those who know nothing about early-medieval medicine, and will assume I’ve made Gnaius up entirely; those who have some knowledge of Galen, may well recognize consciously or unconsciously that Gnaius seems familiar, or right for the times; and those who know a fair bit about the subject, and may object to him being dragged forward several centuries.

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political. The real-life Galen fits neatly into the world, he’s just in the wrong century. (Certain readers may throw the book across the room in disgust at recognizing Gnaius as more-or-less Galen, although if they are that wedded to historical accuracy, they’ve probably given up on the series long before Gnaius makes his appearance 2/3 of the way through the third book.)

By some combination of serendipity and synchronicity, I learned in my research trip to Rome last week that Galen had lectured extensively at The Temple of Peace in the Forum, and indeed had stored his writings there for safekeeping. This plays right into the plot outline for the book (#5) I was there to research…and then I learned a fire at the Temple destroyed a fair number of those works. I’d already considered a fire in that general location as a plot device; now I have a historical occurrence to build around. The fire is not just plausible, it happened, and the destruction of some of Galen/Gnaius’s writings may well feed part of the plot of book #6, which is now little more than a concept.

The Temple of Peace in 1749 (public domain)

Gnaius is a minor character, although an important one. But by using Galen’s life as the basis for his, the verisimilitude of setting, character and plot is strengthened. Reviewers frequently comment on the depth and quality of world-building in my books: this is one way I do it. What are your methods for creating believable worlds?

Worldbuilding: The Role of Small Details

I was reading Madeleine Bunting’s thoughtful, thought-provoking travel memoir, A Hebridean Journey, earlier today. I’m reading it for two reasons: because I love books that look at landscape and their meanings, and, for setting and cultural research for my work-in-progress.

One chapter is on the island known as Lewis and Harris, and the famous, beautiful 540px-UigChessmen_SelectionOfKingsLewis Chessman. If you don’t know the Lewis Chessmen, they are intricate, oddly beautiful 12th century chess pieces, carved from walrus ivory. Found in 1831 on Lewis, they are now mostly in the British Museum (I was looking at some of them only a couple of weeks ago) and the National Museum of Scotland, plus a few on permanent loan on Lewis.

These chessmen are the model for a xache set in Empire’s Exile (a game I never define, but can be considered to be like chess. It’s played throughout the series.)

‘He opened the skin bag he carried, to take out intricately carved game pieces. They must be part of Irmgard’s treasure, I thought. How did he convince her to let him use them? Cillian took one, turning it in his fingers. “Hálainn[1],” he murmured.’

The purpose of this set was really two-fold: to show Irmgard’s wealth, and to allow my characters to play xache in the setting they were in at the time. I didn’t really mean them to be anything else.

But today, well into to the new book, which is a sequel to Empire’s Exile, I realized I can use them as a tiny bridge between the two books, adding continuity. I won’t say exactly how, because that would give away a little of the plot: suffice it to say that those beautiful walrus-ivory game pieces will end up in Sorley’s hands again, and from him to Cillian.

Repeated details like this, small, and not dwelt-upon, are important in world-building, especially in a series. They make the created world a little more familiar to readers, immersing them a little further into the world, creating a sense of comfort. They can deepen connections between characters and events, and trigger memories in both our characters, making them more human, and our readers.

In my series, xache is not just a game, but a metaphor, and perhaps too the move from the plain xache sets earlier in the series to this intricate set with its own messages about power and influence carved into the stances and dress of the pieces has its own meaning. I still need to think about that, and it’s for a different discussion than one about world-building.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas!


[1] Beautiful