It’s not always clear if you need to create a world history, especially when you’re doing fantasy. Sure, you may think it’s necessary because that’s what all of the big names have done. We know so much about Middle Earth, Oz, Narnia, etc. in regards to what happened prior to the adventures. Some events get their own books while others are simply told. It really makes it appear as if a thorough world history is needed to even attempt the genre. Though, is it really?
The truth is that it depends on your story. I’d love to say that it couldn’t hurt, but there’s the chance that it can. If your story focuses entirely on a current event that has no attachment to the world’s history then you shouldn’t be dredging up the past. You need enough to establish that this world has existed for longer than the story is going on, but diving into the details can distract from the main attraction. Imagine riding a roller coaster and it stops every few feet to show you a video of how the thing was built or the history behind such rides. You wouldn’t have fun, especially when it freezes as it attempts to make a loop and your stuck upside down. That’s simply not safe.
In terms of adding history to story, I would say you have 3 choices:
- Low– As stated, your story deals with the now and history isn’t a focus. You sprinkle a little in for regions or anything that may need more of an explanation. This could include monsters, magic, famous names, and anything else that doesn’t exist in our reality. It can be done through conversation or exposition, but it will be quick enough to not slow things down. Readers can pay attention to the past events being mentioned or not without losing anything.
- Medium– Your story does have a connection to history at some level. Characters will talk about past events and the exposition will reveal such things. Perhaps a few info dumps when you have no other choice, but you manage to spread everything out as the action progresses. It’s more about general information instead of the details of the past, which aren’t needed. Readers are clearly aware of the past of this world and how it connects to the present.
- High– The current adventure is basically a continuation of the past, which will be thoroughly explored and uncovered by the heroes. You need to create a lot here because the details are necessary to form the full picture. There is a risk of overburdening the book with information since you can get too focused on the history than the current events. This can cause the book to bloat to a size you didn’t foresee, but that isn’t always a bad thing. As long as the history is shown to be essential, readers will listen.
Of course, that’s just a simple overview because things change depending on the story and author. There is another tactic where an author creates a vast history for their world, but doesn’t use all of it. Many times, the history of a fantasy world is there to guide the author more than the reader. You get a sense of where you are coming from and add depth in your own mind. Monster races act a specific way because of their history even though you don’t have to mention it. The landscape looks strange due to an ancient war, but the heroes are only passing through. These examples show how a history helps with world-building even if it’s never revealed to the readers. Maybe down the road, you can create a book that explains all of this if you wish, but it isn’t necessary. It does hurt though since it means you’re crafting things that you can’t really share.
For myself, I have a lot of notes on Windemere history. Some will be turned into books while others will be left alone for my own knowledge. I used to add everything I could think of into my books, which made them clunky. That’s why I’ve become more aware of using what is important. I can slip in a fun story from time to time, which gives Windemere more charm. That depends on the scene and character. I couldn’t do it much with the Dawn Fangs in War of Nytefall since they’re immortal, but I used the storytelling tactic a bunch with Fritz Warrenberg in Legends of Windemere. It can help to have a character who loves to talk and teach because this gives you a way to reveal history in a more natural form. Yet, it doesn’t become necessary since that comes off a bit like a tour guide, which doesn’t work in every situation.
So, what do you think of adding history to your world? I know I talked about fantasy, but it can be done in other genres as well. What do you do in your genre?