A Lesson by M.R. Smith

Questions you'll want to ask yourself when building the backgrounds of your fantasy world.


Oh, yes.  History.

I'm going to present a singular question before we proceed:  How technologically advanced is your world?

If you have that figured, check out the questions below.

1.  How old is your world? 
Is there a specific age?  How many ages have passed?  Do you have a timeline to the beginning?  Do you have a beginning?  Avoid huge specifics, like having a clear evolution or creation.  Creationist theories in fantasy-themed stories can work, though I'd suggest staying clear.  They usually don't.  Steer completely clear of evolution.  At that point, it crosses that hypothetical line and becomes something completely different than fantasy.
2.  How far back does the written history of your world go?  What about a specific nation's?  How far back does the social memory go (in the case of the lower classes)?  How well-versed in history are the highborn?  These things will depend upon their homelands.  A piss-poor micro-kingdom won't likely be as well-educated in the past (or anything else, for that matter) as the glorious, ancient, decadent empire.  Compare Rome to pre-Roman Britain.  Easy!
3.  How advanced is one nation to another?  Is there a reason for this difference?
4.  Who ruled what nations prior to their current rulers?  Do you have a chronology of leaders?  Who got along, who didn't?  Who was assassinated?  It isn't important to deal with EVERYTHING.  That's too much trouble.  Only cover what will be essential in recent history and what will appear as a possible factor in your story.  Folk tales of the ghost of a king who killed himself by self-immolation may set an interesting tone for a later moment.
5.  How long has any specific nation existed?  What existed prior?  A greater realm, perhaps?  Rome was split between the East and West.  The death of that era resulted in the Dark Ages--from which specific kingdoms emerged, each having a distinct feel, though inevitably tied by their history.  Some are lost, some are found(ed), get creative.  Crack open a book.  Look at other writers' works.  Go to Wikipedia.  Go get inspiration.  Don't forget to throw a fantastical twist in there somewhere!  Making something too realistic, too historically-rigid will only kill the reader with boredom.
6.  Does anything from the depths of time have any influence on the story of the main characters?  Maybe a character's ancestors came to a specific region after a forced migration.  Perhaps this character upholds the ancient customs of his people.  Think, people!
7.  Has anything important happened within recent years?  Any wars?  Battles?  Political upheaval?  Epidemic?  Natural disaster?  It's usually a good idea to start in the wake of something that'll cause some sort of repercussion in your story.

As for older history, only worry about that which will appear, with some purpose, in your story.  It may be prudent to have a well-fleshed recent history, though.

Here's a bit of help:

Primary History:  This needs to be as detailed as possible.  This is anything that falls into recent memory.  Example:  A devastating war ravaged the countryside--the older or middle-aged folk will remember its ferocity.  Story characters inhabit this nation, which is trying to rebuild itself after a stunning defeat during their parents' lifetimes.
Secondary History:  This isn't as important, but it's a good idea to have as many ideas as possible thought up.  Nothing too specific, but enough to get by on.  Example:  People remember the tales of Douchebag the Terrible, a particularly vicious tyrant who stole from the poor and gave to the rich, who slaughtered whole villages because of a single dissident.
Tertiary History:  This would be an equivalent to our Antiquity.  An age of myths, perhaps, full of men and women who did great things.  Their stories, blown out of proportion by time, rumor, and exaggeration, have formed a basis of myths.  Only the most important facts out of this time should have an effect on your story.  If any do, they are probably massive, like some evil denizen from time immemorial being released from imprisonment.  Example:  In the ancient days, a terrible demon was defeated and imprisoned by the gods.

I hope this helps!

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Posted 7 Years Ago

I find that even if an author has made their own world or just set their story in the current kind of situation more often then not they don't include history, which kind of leaves me lost at times. I want to know what happened to cause such problems that the characters have to face or help others to over come. I want the knowledge that the characters have before I get all sorts of confused. I love that you addressed this issue for me because I have often asked questions on the history of something in the story that could have added so much depth and the author just shrugs and says "I dunno". Thank you for writting this. I find it really helpful for myself and for my friends.

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Posted 7 Years Ago

Lol, even my most minor of errors cannot escape your eye! =P

Ii wouldn't say it's damaging, not particularly. Consider it a personal preference that seeped into my writing. Other than some examples found in something by Michael Moorcock, I don't believe I've really seen anything fantastical that managed blending something as realistic as that. But who knows? There has always been, always will be exceptions.

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Posted 7 Years Ago

"Steer completely clear of evolution. At that point, it crosses that hypothetical line and becomes something completely different than fantasy." Is there something wrong with having realism mixed in with the fantasy bits?

"an affect on your story" - "affect" is a verb - I think you mean "effect" :)

Hope this lesson makers people stop clammoring for the Entire History of the World Until Now whenever they read a fantasy story.
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M.R. Smith
M.R. Smith

Thereabouts, OH

Hello, I'm Matthew. I write. I read. I work. I eat. My main-stay genres are fantasy, science fiction, horror. I enjoy a good existential crisis every now and then, and, true to myself, I prese..