How to Create the History of a Fantasy World

Hello there!

I decided to upload a quick post to answer a question I received today. It simply read:

How much history does a fantasy world need?

It’s a good question, and one we fantasy writers often ask ourselves at the “worldbuilding” stage. Worldbuilding, which involves creating not only history, but geography, culture, politics, religion etc, can be a tough ask for many authors, especially those who are not well versed in these topics as they relate to the actual world. It can be hard, for example, to imagine the economy of your kingdom if you don’t have a basic understanding of the principles of supply, demand, currency and trade. And if your novel is largely set in the bustling streets of a city port, then the research you carry out in this area becomes even more pivotal to the realism of your world, to the overall success of your story.

In order to create the history of a fantasy world, you first have to realise that every aspect of worldbuilding is secretly hidden within it. Trade disputes start wars, weather changes bring famines, and people migrate to find water and food. Every part of your history-whether it be a timeline (my personal favourite), a “lost book” or a series of ancient texts-should follow this guiding principle, a principle that says people react to the world around them. Wars, for instance, do not start because someone steals Helen of Troy; they start because people lust after power, or land, or resources.

Even so, you should remember that history lends romance to these stories. It talks about heroes like Achilles, and quests, and love, even when the reality is far less inspiring. So when you do write a history, remember that oftentimes the victors will twist the words to serve themselves, or erase parts that undermine them. To put it simply: real history lies; the history of your fantasy world should do the same.

As for how much history you should create, that really depends on the story you are writing. If your main character lives in a nomadic tribe, oral history (songs, poems etc) may be quite important, whereas written text may be reserved for religious purposes. On the other hand, if the world your story is set in experienced a catastrophe (e.g. natural disaster, civil war), then some parts of history may have been lost. Many fantasy authors also use this when there has been a change of power or the extinction of a race. It’s important to note, this technique should not be abused. It frustrates readers when an author hides history for the sole purpose of creating “mystery” where none should exist. Remember, it only takes one person to share a story; history is not so easily lost.

I personally feel you should only create as much history as your story demands. This can be difficult, because worldbuilding is a joy in itself, but it’s also a writer’s sinkhole. If you want to get your story down on paper, you have to accept that at some point you have to stop building your world and instead start delving into it. In many cases, writers admit they don’t get a feel for their world anyway until they let loose a few characters. So rather than meticulously designing a system of currency, write a scene where your main character explores a market. Shouts, bargaining, thieves running through the stalls-this is all far easier to imagine than a page on taxes and coins.

As I’ve said, you should try to avoid writing history where it’s not needed. If your story hinges on a famous sword, for example, then the history of how it was forged will be crucial to your plot. If, on the other hand, you have a space on your map marked “desert lands”, where nobody goes, then perhaps spending hours writing about the culture of the desert tribes isn’t the best use of your time. Like I said, such an exercise can be rewarding, but it won’t get your story down on paper.

I’ll write more about history in another post. But for now, I’m going to leave you with some of my own, which I feel is crucial to the plot which happens 300 years after the event described below. As a result, you’ll see here I’ve explored “The Battle of the Thousand Fields” in quite some detail, switching between an authoritative historian voice and a more poetic first-hand voice as I saw fit.

The pivotal battle is fought outside the ruins of Mistwall. There, in the once-home of Elerend Aelia, the loyalists meet the rebels at the Battle of the Thousand Fields. Queen Dia rides there herself with her husband Owenn Helix, supported by two armies of Mist Rock, the garrison of Cadewall, the troops of Talmoneer, the Nareland King Artador Rakus and his Ember Cloaks, men of the Vaster, and Arlien knights. The rebels, led by Elerend Aelia himself, come in the form of the central Amarin army, Gargrin mercenaries and lesser divisions of Greatbay. All told, the rebel force is said to be over thirty thousand strong. The Queen’s force is known to be much smaller.

For the first three days of the battle, there is little fighting; the rebels defeat Cadewall troops and the Arlien knights inflict casualties on the rebel’s left flank. On the fourth day of the battle, Elerend tries to catch the Queen early. At the last moment, the Ember Cloaks charger a much larger force of Amarin cavalry, leading to a pitched battle amongst the summer gardens. By sunset, the Amarin army is said to have lost half its light cavalry.

On the fifth and final day of the battle, Elerend Aelia rides out ahead of his lines. He holds a red cloak high above him, waving it at the top of his lance. From her own camp, Queen Dia looks through a spyglass, sees the familiar red cloak of her brother Baylian. Eye-witness accounts tell us what happened next:

On seeing her dead brother’s helmet paraded atop the spear of the Rebel-King, Queen Dia ran for her horse. Her husband, King Owenn Helix III, attempted to stop her. Failing, he called for his own destrier and sword. Queen Dia then rode to the head of the column, her hair flying wild, her own  red cloak flapping bold against a pink dawn. And her anger was fierce, her sorrow so deep that all at once the men took up their arms, cheering her name as she turned her steed into the field.

Across the torn gardens, Elerend flew back to his army, the southern hoard screaming as they crawled forward. But our Queen, armourless, drew out her father’s sword and charged. Behind her came King Owenn and the knights of the royal guard and the Arlien and King Artador with his brave Ember Cloaks. And those without horses charged too, down the hill into the Thousand Fields where the rebels cowered before them. Though I saw it not, they say Queen Dia broke first on their lines, shattering spears and casting shields asunder as she cut her way to the treacherous member of her house. And there, amid the ruin of his army, Elerend met his end in fear and in regret, as they say before he fell he cried out to his Queen for forgiveness, and then meeting the dirt, was done. Seeing their general fall, the Amarin forces went into rout, turning swords on each other or on themselves.

And before the setting of the sun, the fields beyond the mist-city were silent and Queen Dia was seen walking among the dead and the dying, her head hung heavy in prayer.”

I’d love to hear about how YOU approach history. Do you write it first, or create the backstory as you go?

2 thoughts on “How to Create the History of a Fantasy World

  1. That was a great post! Thanks for going so in depth, but without sacrificing clarity and for providing an example too. A lot of blogs I read give advice, but don’t offer an example, which is frustrating.
    When I’m writing, I have a general idea of the history of the land/culture being encountered, but I try to brainstorm more by letting my characters learn about it first-hand or discussing it to a degree. It helps me get a better idea of the history and the characters themselves based on what they think of a new culture, region, etc.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      I feel we have very similar approaches, so. I try not to go in to a story with zero idea of the background, but honestly some of the most fascinating things I have come up with just jump out of my character’s mouths as I write. And when you go with this approach, you get the added bonus of building your characters too!

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