History is an often-underrated element of world-building, and one which can add incredible depth and detail to a fantasy novel. In today’s Playing God post, I explore the reasons you need to know your world’s history, some important considerations, and give a sneak peak at the world history in my own fantasy WIP! →
👍 Introduction | 💡 Creation | 🌟 Cosmology | ☯ Religion | 🔮 Magic | 🌍 Geography | 🌦 Climate & Weather | ⏳ History | 🎭 Race & Culture | 💬 Language | 🎵 Music, Art & Writing | 🏠 Infrastructure | 🤴 Government | 📜 Laws | 💰 Economy
History is an “umbrella term” which refers to the past, as well as the study of information recorded about past events. Sometimes, I feel that it is a world-building element which is underrated or overlooked, but knowing your fantasy world’s history, as well as the characters’ / society’s understanding of it, is essential. Here are the key reasons why:
🕓 Sense of time
Developing a strong sense of time is a vital aspect of any story, but even more so in the fantasy genre where the reader cannot automatically perceive how past, present, and future fit together. People, and therefore characters, spend a lot of time thinking about past events, but this can’t be articulated effectively in a fantasy novel if the world’s history is not clearly defined. Having a good grasp on how long ago certain events occurred also helps to present them with an appropriate tone in the story.
💫 Origins & evolution
Now, I don’t mean this as the origins of the universe and the evolution of species—at least, not purely. As the writer, you should strive to have a working knowledge of where the various aspects of your world came from (e.g. geographical features, nations and cities and landmarks, different species, inventions, and yes, the universe too), as well as how they have changed over time. Why? Because it’s natural for people to wonder about these things, and you need to be ready to answer your characters’ (and readers’) questions!
The key to great world-building is to ensure the main societies have a rich and authentic culture. And guess what? Culture is moulded and shaped by history! If you try to describe religion, or cultural practices and beliefs, or even the purpose behind various bedtime stories, you’ll find it’s near-impossible to do so without some historical reference. This is a strong indication that consideration must be given to history while developing the culture(s) of your WIP’s world!
And, finally, the plot. Who can name a fantasy novel whose plot does not in some way, shape or form, depend on some kind of historical event, even if it happened only in the recent past? Not me! Epic fantasy, in particular, commonly has a plot driven by an event or events that happened long ago. It is therefore essential that the writer understands the historical occurrence of those events, even if they aren’t revealed to the characters and/or readers from the beginning!
Unless you are super keen, there’s no need to write a whole textbook to capture the essence of your world’s history. The extent and level of detail to which you define the history will ultimately depend on how relevant it is to the plot, but here are some of the key aspects that I believe should at least be considered:
⏳ Divisions of time
In order to put history into perspective, people like to break it down into smaller chunks through a process called periodisation. For example, most nations define the year using the concept of BCE/CE, and simply hearing the terms “Stone Age” or “Renaissance” gives a strong sense of time and place. Developing divisions of time within your world provides a strong sense of time, as well as a method both your characters and readers can use to orient themselves!
🏙 Rise of civilisation
It’s also a good idea to have an idea of where the rise of civilisation fits into your divisions of time. This may be different in different parts of your world, but knowing when and how your key societies came into being, and how they may have changed between then and the present day is crucial to ensuring consistent and authentic world-building. Further, if your plot involves breaking or changing of traditions, you need to understand how old they are if you are to articulate how hard they are to break!
📅 Key historical events
Almost everyone who has had a basic historical education can name a handful of national and international events that had a big impact at the time (e.g. the Black Plague, WW1). People can be quite connected to their history, which means that you should identify a couple of key historical events that occurred in your world if you are to maintain a sense of realism. These may include, but are not limited to, wars, plagues and epidemics, religious schisms, signing of important documents or treaties, and more!
❓ Myth vs reality
It’s undeniable that historical events can become distorted over time, and even primary evidence can be misinterpreted if context is not taken into account. While constructing your world’s history, you should therefore give some thought as to how what really happened compares to what modern society thinks happened, and how and why those differences came about. This can be a really exciting way to add complexity and unpredictability to your plot—I love it when the characters realise they had it all wrong!
📝 Recent history
Finally, it is worth putting together a bit of a concept on recent history, with an emphasis on aspects directly relevant to the characters and/or plot. This may be something as simple as a local economic downturn where your MC leaves, or more complex political machinations which is causing tensions within society. Whatever your story’s inciting incident might be, it is almost guaranteed to have some sort of link to recent history, so making sure this is appropriately fleshed out is essential to making a strong start!!
When it came to world-building for my WIP fantasy series Graceborn, developing the world history was something I did very early on in the process, as it influences almost everything else. As a result, it actually took me AGES! I can’t reveal too much, since history is connected so closely to the plot, but some key points to note about history in the world of Graceborn are:
Divisions of time: Following the world’s creation, known as the Making, came the Bright Age, which is referred to as the Ancient World by modern society. Early human history is called the Age of Discord, and the year is currently classified according to years Before (B.F.) or After the Fall (A.F.) of Corraidhin.
Rise of civilisation: Human civilisation evolved during the Age of Discord, which is accepted to have commenced sometime around 5500 years ago. As the name suggests, it was a time of great turmoil, so many dates are unclear, with each of the key nations establishing themselves at different stages throughout this period.
Key historical events: The Ancient World was ended by an event known as the Cataclysm (*spoilers*). Jumping forwards in time, a very important document called the Treaty of Volund was ratified in 207 B.F., founding the rules upon which modern society is governed. Other significant events (aside from the Fall of Corraidhin itself), include the Red Plague (c. 300 A.F.) and the subsequent Eastern Schism which split the Faith in two.
Myth vs reality: History is never as it seems. Most of the key historical events in my world were incredibly destructive, and thus modern understanding of what, exactly, happened long ago is littered with inaccuracies…and perhaps even outright lies…
Recent history: There are a couple of “recent” events which are relevant to this story. There is the Rumish Insurrection of 1095-1097 A.F., the violent kidnapping of the Lost from Crainn Mor five years later, the southern war between Narath and Kannur, which started three years ago and, more recently, Graceborn have been going missing…