Yesterday a thread on Reddit’s fantasy writers board brought up a topic I’ve long meant to write something about, and framed it in a way that I think makes the problem quite clear. User Hoosier_Jedi asked whether the existence of dragons and other fantasy elements in a world could justify dismissing concerns about the presence of South American crops in a world otherwise heavily influenced by Europe, and though I have responded in that thread I want to expand and clarify my thoughts here, because while the question posed is about potatoes, tomatoes and dragons, it has wider implications about the attitude a writer takes to worldbuilding and immersion.
Let’s start with looking at potatoes and dragons specifically.
On Earth, potatoes are a tuber crop originating in the Andes region of South America, where they were domesticated as a high-altitude staple capable of surviving on marginal land where other crops could not, which could be freeze-dried or powdered for long-term storage. They reached the rest of the world following the Spanish Conquest of South America under Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century, and popularised in Europe as a result of their adaptability and high nutritional content.
Dragons, on the other hand, aren’t real*. They’re a mythical monster found, amongst other places, in medieval stories and artworks, making for suitably threatening enemies for gallant heroes to defeat as they demonstrate their skill and bravery.
So, given that potatoes are real and dragons are not, why is it that readers have a hard time accepting potatoes in many fantasy worlds but are fine with dragons?
There are two facets to the answer, I think: the first is about believability and realism, and the second about the work the author puts in and what they leave to the reader.
Believability and realism are related concepts, but they’re not the same thing. Realism is about factual accuracy and faithful recreation of reality. It is vital to the reader’s acceptance of historical fiction and historically-faithful fantasy. Believability is a little more nebulous. It is about creating the appearance of a world or situation that *might* be possible, in another universe, and depends upon using elements of realism combined with internally-logical imagined elements.
In a setting heavily inspired by 13th century Italy or 9th century Britain, potatoes and dragons might be equally unrealistic elements in a story, but not equally unbelievable, if dragons are accepted as part of the fantasy side of the setting and haven’t enabled centuries-earlier discovery of the Americas.
And this is where the work comes in. Readers make assumptions about setting based on the worldbuilding elements the author specifically mentions. There often isn’t space to go into detailed descriptions of every part of a fantasy world. The approach most authors take is to seed their story with worldbuilding hints, brushing upon details when they can organically come up, expanding upon those things that are plot-relevant, and letting the reader fill in the gaps.
But if all of the seeds look like pre-Columbian Europe, the inclusion of a single element from outside that – whether potatoes, katanas or kangaroos – is going to be jarring. It doesn’t match with what the reader already knows of the world of the story or what they might have filled the gaps with. It becomes noticeable, and it interrupts immersion. The reader stops thinking about the story and starts wondering where these potatoes came from.
This doesn’t happen so often with dragons. Why? Because when an author includes something like dragons – or unicorns, magic, eldrich horrors from dark dimensions and so on – they consider their role in the story world. They mentally work through the implications and the impacts that these things would have on society, the way it might change lifestyles, architectural approaches, social hierarchies and so on.
Potatoes, on the other hand, might just be an oversight. And if they’re the only thing from Earth’s American continents in a fantasy world otherwise containing only European dressing, it looks to the reader like a mistake based on ignorance, not a conscious worldbuilding choice.
To make the inclusion of potatoes in a setting that is otherwise heavily European-styled, the author needs to put in more work. If they’re a shorthand for a staple tuber crop and not intended to literally be identical to Earth-potatoes, why pick potatoes instead of, for example, turnips? If they’re intended to demonstrate a more global trade network or a history of exploration that has since been forgotten, where are the other things that might have made the same journey?
To make potatoes feel more believable in a pseudo-European setting, simply seed in worldbuilding that shows there’s more to it than that. Throw in a fashionable courtier wearing the finest imported jaguar furs, or market stall traders shouting the prices of llama wool blankets, or religious authorities condemning the cultivation of quinoa and calling the society of its origin heretics. That’ll give the sense of a wider world your society is in contact with, and make the inclusion of potatoes feel deliberate and natural.
This isn’t just about potatoes. It can apply to any element outside of the reader expectations you build with your setting. It’s about creating a world where readers can easily accept the little differences between the fantasy world and Earth, so that they can focus on reading about the characters, engaging in the action – and getting lost in a world that feels real.
Sure, dragons are less realistic than potatoes, but the humble potato can still be a bigger threat to the believability of your fantasy world than the mighty dragon, if you don’t take the time to think about what readers assume.
What are the most jarring fantasy anachronisms you’ve come across? And, conversely, what are the most inventive and impressive solutions you’ve seen in fantasy to avoid or explain them?
* No, komodo dragons don’t count.