World Building: History
World building is the part of the writer's craft that establishes the very world(s) that your story is set in. In genres like Sci-Fi and Fantasy, worldbuilding must take center stage in the writing process if the you want to craft a great story. As a fantasy author, I have become well accustomed to worldbuilding. In fact, it has not only become my favorite aspect of the craft (aside from the writing itself), but it is actually what drew me to the genre. That being said, worldbuilding is every bit as big as the word suggests. In this series, I will be diving into each of the major areas of worldbuilding; Magic Systems, Settings, Cultures, Technology, Economy, and History.
If you follow my preferred method of world building, then you've already ironed out your magic system. Now it's time to roll up our sleeves and add another layer to your world. The layer we are tackling today is History, so unless your story takes place at ground zero of the big bang, then we need to get to work.
Now when I'm talking about making history, I am not just referring to all the intricate details of all the various people groups and all their milestones, etc. Of course you will need to get into the nitty gritty details about specific histories, but getting these larger "global" type of historic moments will really help you shape the world that you are about to dive into.
This of course means that you are going to have to tackle the history aspect of worldbuilding in layers too. So initially you want to identify what in your world's history really registered on the Richter scale. What are the major, grand scale events that helped make the world what it is today?
Did a being from another planet crash land, only to find himself superior to humans in every conceivable way? Did a foul curse upon male offspring, shift the world into a matriarchal society? Did a god fracture into sixteen powerful shards, which go on to shape entire worlds throughout that universe?
Did all the world's dragons become corrupted by demonic essence?
Now if this is your sort of thing, go nuts with it, but know that you don't have to. Unless there is some critical details of a complex historical movement or event that needs to be clearly communicated to the reader, then skip the minutiae. This is all about giving you landmarks as your are navigation the worldbuilding process.
When I was writing my debut novel, Dragon's Fire, I was writing a story about a creature that people believed to only exist in nightmares and legends. Well the truth of the matter is that dragons actually roamed freely through Aurion, and though they'd have never been mistaken as a benevolent creature such as a unicorn—it wasn't until they became corrupted by demonic essences, that they became what they are today. Thus all dragons were imprisoned in another dimension. Now obviously if all dragons were imprisoned, and all of a sudden you have a dragon problem, then it's safe to say you'd arrive at the conclusion that somehow someone or something found the key.
That right there, in one paragraph gives enough of a basic historical landmark that I can build upon. I might not know all the details of the dragons yet, or how their prison works, or who or what managed to unlock them or whatever, but it gives me context to write from. Like I said earlier, you will most likely find that you'll be creating history in layers, so you can fill in those other details when they become more important.
Now before we go any further, I must make a confession. That all sounds fine and well, and I do get a lot of compliments on people regarding the depth of the world I've created with The Chronicles of Aurion and Dragon's Fire. People often say that it feels like the story has a rich, naturally deep history, rather than superficial backstory. Now I'm not boasting or even #humblebragging, because honestly I did just about everything wrong when it came to developing the history for the world. I got so excited and so involved in the story, that I figured I'd just sort it out as I went.
Now I'm not referring to the whole gardening vs. architecting approach to writing, I flat out failed to do worldbuilding up front. I had to figure it out as I went. This lea to a LOT of rework, especially when it came to fixing my historical timeline. In the end I was able to pull it off, but it was not without a lot of time, energy, and help from patient beta readers. Had I actually come up with even just that simple paragraph above regarding the general history of dragons in my world, my job would have been so much easier!
Okay, I've created my historical landmarks, what's next? Okay, now you will generally start branching out into other aspects of the worldbuilding process like Cultures, Setting, Technology, and Economy. That being said, it is imperative that you continue wearing your historians hat when you go, because that is where you will have the opportunity to really establish the history of certain races, cultures, organizations, wars, technological advancements etc.. This is really important, because your readers are going to want to know why no one dares to go near the ancient temple that you are writing about. They need to know that it was desecrated when ogres ransacked the place and began performing sacrifices, bringing down a vile curse on all who come near its once hallowed grounds.
Got it. I've got my major historical events and my minor more specific stuff. How does it go from notes on a pad to a seamless part of my story?
That is a great, and hugely important question! Fortunately I'm here to help you. Yes I have experience doing it well, but that wasn't until I experienced doing it rather poorly. So please learn from my mistakes and accelerate your learning curve.
A few years ago when I was a clueless—I mean intrepid writer, a writer buddy of mine always seemed to have one particular comment on just about everything I wrote. Too much exposition. I'll be completely, embarrassingly honest with you, I didn't even know what that meant. Fortunately I knew what it how to Google it. See what I was doing in a lot of my writing, is I was trying to "set the stage" for my readers. So in my mind that meant I needed to give the readers context, so naturally I was basically doing a back-story infodump. The truth is, it wasn't pretty and it wrecked the flow and any sense of immersion that the story otherwise might offer. Thankfully he helped me understand why it was hurting my writing, and I was able to make some course corrections. That wasn't always the case though. I fell into this trap with my debut novel Dragon's Fire. Through the help of my beta readers I was able to correct most of it, with exception to one specific piece, the prologue. Now before you roll your eyes or holler at me, I get it prologues are supposed to set the stage. My prologue was initially three awful pages that introduced the major races and regions that were relevant to the story. It was boring and because the reader's hadn't even met a single character yet, it was not meaningful in anway way. Please don't do this, it's just bad writing.
I knew it needed to be fixed, but despite my best efforts to edit and rewrite, my prologue still felt like an infodump. Some beta readers even suggested I scrap it all together, which would have been the correct decision. However it meant that because I hadn't woven much history into the early chapters of the book, this meant a significant rewrite of the early chapters was in order. I opted not to go this route because, deadlines. So I did the best I could at editing the crap out of the prologue, making it as small and palatable as possible. I'm still waiting for the day that I get a one-star review that says, "I couldn't get past the prologue." :D
There are better ways.
Yes, ways with an s, meaning plural. The most important part of adding history to your story, which provides depth, is that you find ways to weave into into you work. The great thing is that there are so many different ways to do just that, and it will be up to you to find which ones your prefer.
Brandon Sanderson is one of the best in the business at building incredibly rich worlds full of hundreds, if not thousands of years of history. How does he implement it? One of the methods that he uses is through the use of journal entries and texts. If you read his Mistborn or Stormlight Archive books, each chapter will greet you with some form of a journal entry. These journal entries in and of themselves rarely form much of a complete picture, but when they are pieced together throughout the narrative, they can add a wonderful added perspective to the story that you wouldn't have had through the direct interactions with your characters. It's great, and it's easy to do!
In his Stormlight series, Sanderson also relays history of the world through a few other clever means. One is that there are characters that have terrible visions, which are basically windows into the past. These visions are essentially flashbacks, but they are framed in a way that fit into the story well, without the disorienting effects that flashbacks can have on your readers.
Another author who does a great job is Steven Erikson. He is the only author that I know of that goes even deeper into the world's history when writing. In the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, we are not talking about millenia, we are talking about hundreds of thousands of years. Now obviously those numbers are guady, but Erikson uses a few basic techniques to convey the history. Like Sanderson he uses the journal entries at the onset of each chapter, which often give you bits and pieces the his vast universe. There are also occassions where a character might have some type of supernatural vision whereby they are witness ancient events unfolding before them. Erikson even has occasional chapters that are simply from another time.
Despite using those methods, the number one way that Erikson shares the history of his creation, is actually right through the dialogue. He reveals little bite sized pieces pieces through the everyday discussions that the characters have between each other. If Erikson's work is one expansive constellation which uses every star in the sky (and that's both hemispheres for you analytical types). It would largely be the seemingly small, mundane conversations throughout the story that would connect so many of the dots.
I claim no ground breaking innovation here. I've found that using a little bit of each works for me. In Dragon's Fire there are places where the history is detailed through the narrative, then in other places it is woven through dialogue, and yet again through historical documents like books and art. In my current projects win the same series, I have started to utilize journal entries and other books a lot more with great success. I think the key is finding a the right balance for your stories.
One particular method I used in Dragon's Fire, which readers love, is a chapter called Here There be Dragons. It is a chapter that is essentially an excerpt of a book detailing the known history of dragons. The book-within-the-book was a lot of fun, because I got to write it in an entirely different voice—the voice of the book's author. This was great, because later in the book, the readers actually get to meet the quirky little guy, bringing it full circle.
I delved into the history of the same world in a very different, more direct way in The Chronicles of Aurion because of the nature of the book. The TCoA itself is the story of two priests on a quest to recover a potent artifact. The elder priest takes this journey as an opportunity to literally teaching his pupil the bloody history of the artifact. So each chapter is a new layer of the artifact's history. Readers have told me that it was a really unique and fun way to explore the history of a much larger world. That's History.
I have found that this process works for me, and I wish I had worked this way from the beginning. So I figure out my cataclysmic, world shaping history first. Then I begin filling in the minutiae of the more specific histories, as is appropriate. This iterative process gives me the flexibility I need when worldbuilding, while providing me the context I need to write freely without backing myself into a corner. I hope you find this helpful, but ultimately you need to find what works best for you.
P.S. As we move onto the other sections, we will also very briefly touch on the importance of history as it pertains to each subject.
Worldbuilding I - Magic Systems
Worldbuilding II - History
Worldbuilding III - Setting
Worldbuilding IV - Cultures
Worldbuilding V - Technology
Worldbuilding VI - Economy