One of the facets of great fantasy worlds is the depth built into the environment. A well built world provides a complete setting in which stories can grow naturally and appear as a small sample of time in a far reaching universe that existed long before your characters and will exist long after.

Lord of the Rings is the classic example, and one stupendously good example (in my opinion), is the way that Terry Brooks wove the Shannara and Knight of the Word novels into a prehistory/ensuing aftermath continuity.

Unless you are creating a world for the sake of it, there is a purpose, be it for a book or a game or some good old tabletop gaming. When creating a world for a specific purpose, to Set the stage so to speak, how do you get that feel that all of history has contributed to the state of the world where the story begins?

When you create your world, including the timeline of events leading up to where the story begins, how do you develop and demonstrate the depth and complexity of history?

How can you give the impression that the world has been inhabited for a long time?

I am not looking for literary techniques to introduce world history during a story or game but rather how to set a sufficiently complex stage so that the history seems integrated, plausible and rich.

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I combine my history development with my character development process. Usually, I will write a lot of never-to-be published prose in the voice and world view of each of my major characters. I will have them introduce themselves at a gathering, tell a story (which might be true history from their homeland) and talk about the other characters in the story. In the process, I develop not only the back story for the characters but also some glimpses into the history of world around them. I also find, organically, how the characters feel about each other and where the interpersonal pressure points are likely to appear. None of this ever gets read by anyone except me. It is just how I discover who my characters are.

Beyond that, I prowl my first drafts for unjustified elements. If two races hate each other, its an invitation to figure out why. If a powerful device or artifact is found during the story, I feel required to write about its origins and how it got lost. More nonpunishable prose later, additional layers have been added to my history.

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    I like this, I do it too, and I find it also helps flesh out certain characters, especially those who may not play a big role in your current story, but have played one maybe long ago in your world's past. – Feaurie Vladskovitz Jan 13 '15 at 1:37

Start with something you want to be true. Ask how this came about and why. As you come up with answers iterate. Why are these two countries bitter enemies. Because they had a war 150 years ago. Why were they at war? Because the prince of here, called the prince of their an upstart cattle rustler. Why? Because the first prince was a spoiled brat and the second prince was the great grandson of a notorious baron rumored to 'confiscate' livestock for 'protection'. etc. etc.

come up with these answers, and make notes. Special animals? Same process. Pretend your talking to a two year old, they just keep asking why. Why is a city located where it is? Is it on a trade route? Is it near some valuable resource? Is a city/country/region/race known for something? what? metalsmiths? breeding horses? The more important a person/place/thing is to a story the more time should be spent asking and answering these questions. Then when you introduce others to them you can tell them a story like you would if describing the antics of a friend last weekend. You don't need to describe that your friend has 2 arms and 2 legs, (unless he doesn't) because it is assumed. Many of the best authors use this to great effect by choosing what to 'tell' and what to 'show'. What should someone in this situation already know without asking? Then show it. Having two woodsmen out explaining to each other how to start a fire with flint and steel is pointless exposition. They should both know how and just mentioning looking for their flint should be enough.

Old answer. This is also why often the ignorant swine-herd/pig-boy is often used as a main character. It gives the storyteller a reason for someone to ask the important questions that helps the reader catch up and learn alongside the ignorant person who needs to catch up to survive.

If it feels like a history lecture, it's gone on way too long. If it isn't noticed, it's too short, unimportant or deliberately vague to hide its significance until later.

The most irritating place to put a two page info dump is right in the middle of a stand-off (Dan Brown does this ALL the time).

  • +1 for Dan Brown if nothing else, but I'm more looking at how you place world elements to support that sense of history. – JohnP Jan 6 '15 at 21:13
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    @JohnP If I understand what your comment means, (no guarantees) it has to do with creating a rich history for the world and knowing what happened in the past and how it shaped the future. If you do a good job you will likely use a fraction of the history for but it will be there and when you give out the information it will be more obvious that it isn't just a simple cookie cutter explanation. – bowlturner Jan 6 '15 at 21:23
  • @bowlturner when you answered the question came across asking for writing methods but has since been edited. May be worth a re-write. – James Jan 12 '15 at 21:36
  • @James Thanks, I'll have to take a look at this again. – bowlturner Jan 12 '15 at 21:38
  • @James not sure, is that better? – bowlturner Jan 13 '15 at 19:37

I'd start by asking this question: how does the history of your world affect the characters in your story?

Consider a story taking place on Earth in Moorish Spain. If your characters are crusaders, then the relevant aspects of history that are going to directly influence the shape of the world are going to be the rise and fall of the Roman empire, the pre-Roman tribes, the rise of Christianity, the rise of Islam, and the Reconquista.

You don't need to directly tell your reader about all of these things to make a compelling story. Tell your characters what your characters are experiencing as they travel through the world. They're going to interact with burnt-out churches, farmers, enemy combatants, clergy, and scholars in the course of the story. Conversations with these individuals, and how they interact with each other, can describe the historical context as well as an extended passage of exposition.

Consider William Wallace talking to his man in Braveheart. Explaining to them why they should support his cause contains a description of what's happened in the past without breaking beyond the content of what would be described in a normal conversation.

Ultimately, if the history of your world isn't relevant to the characters, you probably don't need to talk about it.

You must try to give the impression that the world in not static. This is not something easy since worldbuilders are usually depicting a static world.

Kingdoms rise and fall, other are somewhere in between. It is not a linear change but more like a fluctuation of their respective power. For example: this means that some areas might be ruled by a new dynasty that is alien to the local population. When the Franks invaded what is now France in the last days of the Roman Empire, most of the population (95%) was still Roman. The elite from German descendant and the culture of the country slowly changes overtime. The language starts to changes and soon it becomes impossible to differentiate the two groups. Having a small group of foreigners ruling a large country is something that tells me that something has happened before. Manchus ruling over Han chinese is an anomaly. Why is most powerful empire in the world rules by strangers? When new rulers come to power they might try to convert the population to their religion. Which means that the number of people practising the religion will be rising over time. But at some other times, the elite are converted instead. Like the Roman emperor converted to Christianity or Qing emperors adoption Chinese culture.

The important thing to remember is that these changes are gradual. Meaning that you are likely to find inconsistencies everywhere.

Furthermore: these political change comes with war, disease, economic problems, movement of population. A new dynasty will often establish a new capital, sometimes it's merely just a village at first. These changes can be violent such as cities been sacked. People are fleeing the war and it's atrocities and are being expulsed of the country. Areas flocked with migrant might have clashes with the locals because they have a different culture or simply because it put more pressure on the local resources. An example of this: Palestinians living in Lebanon. They are many and have been living in the country for several decades but they are not considered citizen.

The size of the cities themselves is not something constant. If something disrupt the economic activity or the trade in the region, a rich city can shrink to a village and on the opposite, the lucrative opportunities of the new world made cities like La Rochelle (France) very rich city. In a couple of years, the village turn into a 20 000 or 40 000 people city.

It is important that you mention purpose for the sake of my answer, the approach would be very different if someone were just building a world for the sake of building one.

This is a multistage, repeating process for me but this is how I generally approach history.

Step 1: Define the world/setting you want.

  1. Define what you want to happen. In my case that is the story I am writing. Basically you are saying you want a world that looks like X.
  2. From there you will need to decide at least a few major events that have happened in the past. A good place to start is to look at sources of conflict, be they racial or political or personal, those conflicts have a source somewhere in history.
    • Here are a few examples: Dynasties falling, a bloody major war (WWII scope), major social or societal changes (signing of the Magna Carta for example), the founding of a group that plays a role in the outcome of history, or maybe a terrible massacre.
  3. Integrate your story points and the plot items you have and make sure they blend together

Note that in the process of integrating things may change, be added or in some cases completely removed.

At this point you have a framework for history, this should most definitely be a very very high level view. If you are having to de-conflict plot points you are too far into the details at this point and it is important to the next step that you don't get to far into the weeds.

Step 2: Create a map Map creation itself isn't all that hard, draw a landmass, add some mountains, add some rivers, maybe some major forests and other biomes, viola! You have a map. This step is significantly more complex. This series will help with the first part: Creating a realistic world map - Landmass formation

  1. Do what I mentioned above...draw it out. Do not add cities, roads, ports, holy sites, historic markers, none of that. If its not geography make it wait. Note, the more preconceptions or ideas you start with at the beginning of the process the more complicated it will be...I had several plot points that included specific locations and every time I tried to make a map to fit...it didn't work and I started over. I ended up changing the story to fit the map.
  2. Place nations. Mountains and bodies of water make great natural lines of demarcation obviously but its always a decent idea to create some borders that are not based on geography, perhaps based on a treaty.
  3. Place cities and castles and other key points of interest. Add roads, major ports (keeping climate in mind. cold = bad for shipping for example) and trade routes. Cities tend to form near intersections be that of roads or rivers or some of each. These should be helpful: A realistic road network AND How can I ensure my cities don't all look the same?

Step 3: Put them together You now have a map as well as the key setting items you want in your world. Start looking at how and where things come together. Was there a great empire? Is there a place where two countries are in conflict. Has language been imported by invaders in the past (mixes naming conventions for cites and such)? Keep a few things in mind when doing this:

  • Biomes: They will impact what sort or natural resources each area has, it will impact population density (more food, more people), what kind of wildlife there is (could have religious implications. All these things can lead to conflict (or cooperation).
  • Nation aspects: Defining how nations behave, what kind of systems (democracy, dicatatorship etc etc etc) they have, religious preference, what they trade, what they have vs need, racial makeup...all that.

The point in putting them together is that if you keep asking what happens here, or what does this nation want, etc etc etc eventually the history begins to write itself, and best yet it can evolve within the system you create as you are writing. If you avoid creating more than you need at the time (and are willing to massage the map or other things that have been decided) you can work in other things you need later. For example when you are writing you think...oh man I wish there was a nomadic tribe my character could meet. Oh wait! Look there on the map! Its a section that is not affiliated with a country. Bam, good to go.

As you dig into this you will end up with excellent, consistent and detailed information. As an example I started with a city state in mind as the setting for the start of my book. It went from being a mountain mining city in my head to becoming a desert port when I finished my map. It also happens to be the continental headquarters to my assassin's guild. Another city (which I only had vague ideas about) ended up (due to its geographic location) being the center of the world's major religion, which in turn impacts how it interacts with its neighbors, as well as its economy etc etc etc.

TL;DR You are creating a system, think of it as a video game engine if that helps, its a network of items (places, people, landmarks, etc etc) each with its own stats and back story. If you develop the framework you will be able to ask a question about what would happen if fill in the blank in my world. The framework should allow you to answer that question and frankly, in the end, it helps you write the story too. And don't fall in love with ideas (its a hard thing to do), sometimes as cool as they may seem they just don't fit.

The steps in generating a history are fairly simple. In effect, you add the main point(s) that you need for your story, then insert additional events that are relevant to your world, both related and unrelated to your story, with the proviso that nothing you add later can invalidate what is already there (unless you have time travel)

Have a look at Microscope RPG, this system (and a few friends) can be used to generate some very interesting and detailed (in the right places) histories, though in essence it is doing what I have described above.

One of the games I am rather fond of has a useful guideline for creating background and setting: Draw maps, leave spaces.

This is how I approach a lot of world creation for any narrative, not least in the case of history. I want to know who the major groups were, what the landmark events and turning points were, but I also want to leave enough space that I can insert new ideas that I come up with as my story is being told.

A little like any other narrative, I like to begin by considering who the characters are and if one is dealing with history those are likely to be cultures. In many settings they may also belong to different races with very different outlooks on life. There are a few things I want to know about any given culture, for example:

  • What they called themselves. Also, what everyone else called them if that is different.
  • What their core beliefs were; whether that is religions, philosophies, scientific discoveries, magical abilities. Whatever the ideas that shaped their outlook were.
  • What their architecture looked like, for old cultures that may have vanished altogether by the time the story begins, it's possible that their buildings or their ruins have survived.
  • What their beliefs and relationships were regarding other contemporary cultures.
  • How they fit into the geography of the world, where their cities stood and what they were called, along with a few general example placenames- taking a place name from an otherwise forgotten culture and adjusting it through changes in language can be a great way of populating your maps. By "geography" here I might also include any otherworlds into which they vanished or from which they arrived, if that makes sense in the setting.

With those pieces as a list of bullet points ( it's way too easy to create histories indefinitely and it becomes almost an excuse not to tell your story ) then I can start to decide on the relationships between cultures. Who might have tried to conquer who else, why a culture might have died out or become dominant. What may have survived of otherwise vanished cultures.

Then I can start to describe the sweep of history. I tend not to get too directly involved in the details of history until it becomes relevant to the story- I am interested in who made discoveries, who conquered or was overrun. Who briefly held an empire until it was overthrown by economic circumstance.

I tend to think generationally - every few hundred years any given culture will probably developed to become something different enough to redefine it ( unless you have your pesky elves with their super-long lives who may hardly change through millennia, which is another interesting concept ) so I will often remap over several generations. A helpful way of working this is that you start with longer intervals and shorten as you get closer to your setting- what happened between 4000 and 3000 years ago may be a single generation, but when I get to what happened between 100 years ago and 50 years ago that is one too.

What this gives me is the big picture of my region or world's history. Then when I need to hark back to a historical hero, I can almost immediately figure out what culture they would have belonged to, when they would have lived and what they might have done. I can also related characters from my current story into that history very easily without restricting them too much or having to adjust it.

In this respect we are very lucky as world-builders. If you have ever tried to research for historical fiction, the amount of detail is immensely challenging. Having room to allow our characters to do what we want and fitting historical context around that is a real boon!

Well, I am worldbuilding for the sake of it. I am not sure how effective my techniques are but one thing I have done was to include things I am being indecisive about. For example, I wanted my humans to be enslaved by another species but I was unsure as to decide which one, so I included both and reflected the nature of the events through different myths, ruins, and vestigial customs; I also do that with indecisiveness about how certain conflicts started, making my uncertainty the peoples' uncertainty, every perspective having some truth and neither having the complete truth, sometimes using characters to create these perspectives.

I also try to build history through religion, hiding the truth within diverging beliefs: one group believes the world was supposed to be one way, another group believes the world exists because of something, each interpreting reality and building societies within that framework, and those beliefs did not come from nowhere. They are right about something, they just do not know what it is.

To buffer against magic limiting technology, I make my magic as potent as technology (village herbalists will know some things but an alchemist will know more), thereby keeping the mundane aspects — ecology, politics, resources — important. Magical monsters are a thing but they are more akin to wild animals than to the horde of the Dark Lord.

There are no kingdoms/empires that are what they were for thousands of years. Many important people are dying from something other than old age, religious wars are a thing, and arranged marriages are not free of petty prejudices. Borders are shrinking and expanding, peoples migrating and cultures blending, along with some conflicts arising. And there relative periods of peace in other regions.

  • Welcome to the site, nice answer. – James Jan 13 '16 at 16:40

It isn't an easy task to create world history from scratch. If you look at the majority of writers that have a fictional world, they often base their world on Earth, and then make changes to it.

Writers often use a device called alternative history to create a world that would exist if certain major historical events happened differently; like what would happen if Germany won WWII, etc.

Check out the list of alternate histories on TV Tropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AlternateHistory

It is possible to create a world completely from scratch like J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth. He created a fictional history that spanned for several thousand years. The basis of it was written in The Silmarillion, and then The Hobbit and the LOTR series was written inside of this world. This approach is not for the faint of heart, and it was his life's work. Tolkien was brilliant, and an extremely well educated man. He had great knowledge and understanding of human history, and had an amazing imagination.

If you study his life, and his work, then you may be able to get ideas on how to create your own imaginary world.

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