Welcome back to my worldbuilding tutorial series. If this is your first time, you should probably start at the first one. This series aims to elevate your ability to create your own worlds. You know, so your stories are even more awesome for your audience. I want them to want to be in your world. Stories that transport people are found to be more persuasive (relevant here because it reinforces the fact that people like to be whisked away). In this tutorial, we’ll be talking about history, why it’s important for your stories, and I’ll give you some things to consider. In the next couple of tutorials, we’ll expand on history to cover cataclysms, creation stories, mythology, and more.
Your World’s Backstory
It helps to think of your setting as a character in and of itself. Because that’s what it is, another character. With proper cultivating, your setting can be just as real and alive as your protagonist, the villain, the supporting cast. The setting your characters inhabit plays a tremendous role in the events of the stories you create. It becomes alive, thriving.
And just like any character, there is a reason the world ended up this way.
The audience will be experiencing your world as it exists in a specific moment in time–whenever the story takes place. This is how we experience the characters as well. They will have personalities, quirks. The more dynamic the character, the more we will want to know how they ended up that way. We will want to know why. Why does the Hound have that burn scar? Why is he so afraid of fire? What happened? How did Kvothe become the most notorious wizard, musician, thief, and assassin in his world? Why is Roland the last gunslinger?
This same curiosity applies to your setting. There is a history there, a series of events which contributed to what we are seeing now, as we experience your world. People we’re interested in lead us to want to know everything about them. We want to get better acquainted, to be friends. With settings, we also want to get to know them. They become our second homes. We want to be there, stay awhile, kick up our feet. We want to explore, poke our heads around. We want immersion. We want to be there, not just look at the brochure. (This is also why some of the best sellers in each genre have been longer books; we get to spend more time in that setting with those characters.)
To recap–the more we like someone or something, the more we want to know about it.
To Silmarillion or Not to Silmarillion
So just how much history are we talking here? Do you need to go all the way back to the beginning and figure out everything that happened up until your story? Do you need to create a beginning at all? Tolkien did it with The Silmarillion. The book is essentially the entire history of the world in which The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings take place (though it is said to still be incomplete). It covers the creation of that world and the details of the major civilizations, peoples, and events leading up to LOTR.
When it came out, it had mixed reviews. It got dinged by some critics because it doesn’t contain a main protagonist or adventure like his other works; that is intentional, though. The book is (for what I can see) intended to be a supplement to the stories. For that reason, it’s denser, drier. But a lot of the material in it sheds light on things in LOTR I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It’s not all that different from an encyclopedia of a setting we grew to love. I don’t think it was supposed to be an adventure like The Hobbit.
The Silmarillion contained the things I wanted when I read it. I wanted the expansion on what I already knew. I wanted more from the characters and places I was familiar with. It’s like coming out with the encyclopedia of the world after the stories are done. People will love it, but they’ll be glad you didn’t bog up the story with the info that didn’t belong.
Another way I like to put it is this: imagine asking to know more about a new girlfriend. Because you’re interested, she’s captivating. You want to know everything. She might tell you about her siblings, her parents. Music, food, places she likes, things she’s done. Okay, cool. But how about if she tells you about all her aunts and uncles and cousins and her whole lineage going back a thousand years? What if she veers far off course and becomes textbook on some obscure subject you couldn’t care less about?
You might lose interest unless it’s riveting.
Which is the lesson here, I think. While it’s totally okay for you to create the entire history of your world, remember that it’s no different than any other kind of exposition. Everything extra in worldbuilding is for you, the creator. It’s to help you understand your world, to get acquainted inside and out, so the story can flow seamlessly. All that extra material doesn’t make it into the story. You should only put what is relevant to the story and leave the rest for another time. It’ll be tempting to throw all this info at the reader, because you’re excited about it, but don’t do it.
It’s better to leave them wanting more than it is to give them too much.
The History is a Story Unto Itself
Everything leading up to the point where your actual story begins is a story unto itself. Use that to your advantage. Keep a few big questions from the readers, things you can answer later. If you’ve been following Game of Thrones, you’re probably aware that we recently–finally–found out why Hodor only says Hodor. This is season 6. Could they have told us that in the beginning? Sure. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as potent as making us wait for it. Even a tiny detail as that can become a huge carrot on a pole. And as long as you don’t erode our trust, we can have faith that you will reward us by the end with answers. Do not pull a Lost. The writers were told they didn’t have to pay anything off.
As a writer, you need to pay it off. Be a Lannister who always pays their debts.
Okay, that was cheesy, I admit it. But using a different example from GOT, we found out early on that Jaime Lannister was the most hated man in Westeros. It’s because he was the Kingslayer. The oath-breaker. An asshole of the highest order. George R.R. Martin and the show producers let that bit of information simmer for a few seasons. They allowed us to be observers to how everyone else reacted to Jaime Lannister. They gave us just enough information to understand where everyone else was coming from, so we could also hate him. After all, he took ownership of the nickname. They crafted a specific brand for Jaime, which takes time.
But then we got the whole story. We got his side of the story, we got what really happened, why it happened. Suddenly the tables have flipped. We see things differently. We got a glimpse of history there, fed to us in pieces at just the right moments. And those pieces are always relevant to what’s going on. They not only add extra flavor, but they ultimately show us readers how the world was bigger than we thought.
The history is woven into the current story, it’s part of it, a contributor. The above was an example of how one event can shape everything — the political and economic landscape, attitudes and perceptions, etc.
Events contribute to the story. They change everything. But when you only use the relevant material, the reader can absorb it easier. Because that’s the story they’re involved in. If it doesn’t pertain to that, it’s interrupting what they’re interested in. While it’s important for you to know, as the creator, you should not include everything. Don’t even include the more interesting parts until it’s the right time. Save it. Keep it as an ace up your sleeve.
The extra stuff that doesn’t matter to the current story is like an annoying mall kiosk worker stepping in front of you to ask you for just 5 minutes of your time. Only you have somewhere else to be.
“Hey, come fly this remote control helicopter.”
“Our entire line of face products has flecks of gold in it because someone made up a fake study about how it helps your skin.”
“We’ve got a sale on all our cell phone cases.”
“Can you spare a moment?”
“They float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too–”
The extra stuff that doesn’t matter to the current story is like an annoying mall kiosk worker.
Okay, that last one was for fun. But you were hoping I’d get back to the article, weren’t you? You could have done without that whole sequence. Even though the examples are relevant to what we were talking about, you don’t need them. At least I limited it to just a few. Imagine several pages of this.
Use the history to supplement the current story, to be the seasoning that flavors the main dish. Don’t mix in an entirely different main dish.
I don’t want to beat this dead horse anymore.
They say history is written by the victors. But we all know that what they write isn’t necessarily true. We are constantly making discoveries that change the way we see the past. Adam Conover has made a successful show out of ruining things we thought we knew. The point is that the history we know might be wrong all along. It is also flavored heavily depending on who is telling the story.
You can use this to your advantage.
Another great way to add some realism is to have a number of characters understand a specific event in one way, while another set of characters views the event a completely different way. What’s more is that you can keep that understanding a secret, showing us how they act and behave first. Eventually, we’ll start to wonder why, which is when you can reveal how their varied perspectives altered their behavior. (See the Jaime Lannister explanation above.)
A prime example of this Columbus Day. It has been celebrated in many places for decades in the Americas, in honor of his discovery of America in 1492. For most of that time, many people never questioned it. But for Native Americans, the holiday is an affront. They view the events differently, because they were on the receiving end of Columbus’s lesser known exploits. Because of a number of atrocities, many have argued for the end of Columbus Day.
How can you use this to your advantage?
History Changes Part Two
History is in perpetual flux. Borders constantly change. Nations rise and fall, along with languages, cultures, whole species of animals, even entire races of people. Geography evolves over time. Social conventions evolve over time. Fashion, technology, scientific achievements, political and philosophical ideologies. Religion. All of it evolves.
Why do I bring this up?
I’ve seen stories where nations will have rivalries lasting for “thousands of years.” The borders, beliefs, alliances, languages never change in all that time. This is ridiculous. Don’t be ridiculous. In the 20th century alone, no less than 87 sovereign states in Europe ceased to exist in one form or another (many of them changed, some becoming extinct). That’s only in Europe during a 100 year span. That’s not “thousands of years.”
War, politics, economics. All play a role in the rise of fall of nations and empires. How many empires can you name off the top of your head? Here’s five right now: the Mongolian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Green Empire, the British Empire, the Persian Empire. There are so many more. How did they become so vast? What happened to them? These are things you can (and should) incorporate into your world’s history somehow. Because to leave these things out is to ruin some of the realism.
War has a way of altering the political, economic, and even literal landscape in a short amount of time. It helps to understand that there are a variety of reasons people go to war:
- political bargaining
- preventative means
- quest for power
- many more
Knowing these things, and knowing the war is rarely ever a black and white issue–it’s highly convoluted–can be helpful in understanding how war can shape history. Much of culture is distributed through conquering other nations. Some of the effects of war will never be seen, because of their preventative nature. What would have happened had the Spartans not gone to Thermopylae? What if things had gone differently in the Siege of Vienna, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Waterloo?
Battles and wars have the ability to change the course of history. Here is a list of 25 that changed the world.
It stands to reason that wars will have taken place at some point in history, for a number of reasons. It will have altered borders, culture, language, everything. How that applies to your setting is up to you. But another thing I’d like to point out – not all wars cause the participants to hate each other for all eternity. Sometimes it is the case where two cultures never get over it, but even within that paradigm there are always some who want peace, who want to end the animosity.
More often than not, though, nations become allies, or at least they put the war behind them. America has a relationship with Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom. Remember that even if feelings are still hurt, the animosity rarely lasts more than a generation. New generations don’t have the firsthand experience of the previous ones to base prejudices upon.
Are you starting to see how all the other parts of world-building are connected? Hopefully I’ve given you some great ideas on how to get your setting’s deep history set up so that it has in impact on the story. In thinking about how war alters the course of history, you should also be considering how other events can do the same. How can an invention alter the course of history? How can a new belief system alter the course of history? What are the positive and negative impacts? It is really easy for some people to say that religion has poisoned us. “Just look at the Crusades!” While it is true that many wars have been fought over religion, what else has religion done for us, undeniably? Religion has played a huge role in not only culture, but science, mathematics, etc. And this completely leaves out the influence religion has on the arts, from paintings to sculptures to architecture to music. Consider the possibilities with everything that can influence your world.
If you want to be notified, simply subscribe to the RSS feed for all writing articles, or the worldbuilding feed so you don’t miss these! And leave me a comment below, let me know what your favorite parts of worldbuilding are. What do you have trouble with? What would you like to see in these tutorials?
- Tutorial 1: Building a Universe
- Tutorial 2: Geography and Cartography
- Tutorial 3: Cultivating Culture
- Tutorial 4: History
- Creation stories and mythology
- Law, crime, punishment
- Technology and science
- Naming conventions
- Flora and Fauna