A Fictional World History: Do You Need It?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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18 Responses to A Fictional World History: Do You Need It?

  1. L. Marie says:

    A thought-provoking post. Your analogy about the rollercoaster can help authors avoid info dump. Nothing slows down a story more than an author who stops to explain everything. But I do enjoy knowing some of the history of the world. I can’t help thinking of “Concerning Hobbits” in Fellowship of the Ring, which provides history.

    A timeline is so helpful. Even if an author mentions an event in dialogue (like a war), as a reader, I’d still like to know that the author knows where in the history of the world that event took place. (Thinking of Luke’s question about the Clone Wars in Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope.)

    I’m working on historical fantasy and contemporary fantasy. In both cases, a history of the world is needed, particularly to explain the origin of the magic used. Even if I don’t stop in the middle of a chapter to explain something, I still need to know the history.

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  2. V.M.Sang says:

    An interesting post, Charles. I write both fantasy and historical novels. For the latter, some history is necessary to establish the setting. My latest wip is set in the Viking era in England. I do mention a few things, like when the Vikings first arrived, in order to set the world in place.
    With my fantasy novels, though, I find, as you say, it depends on the story. In my Wolves if Vimar series, history is essential because in book 1 the group who call themselves Wolf, (hence the title of the first book, and the series) are charged with finding a long-lost artefact that had belonged to a legendary king.
    In my Elenental Worlds books, the history of the land is irrelevant so is not mentioned.

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  3. Love your roller coaster analogy. I haven’t put a lot of thought to it, but in Lanternfish, there was a previous war that has influence on the current one. I touch upon it, but also try to keep it in the background. Grinders was a bit different, because our historical errors were shown by what the characters lived with in their era.

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  4. Jaq says:

    Love the roller coaster analogy!

    I’ve had this on my mind a lot recently as a new Fantasy world has been forming for me. How far to go creating history, what the map needs to include (yes, I’ve avoided maps before but this one is getting one), etc. I’ve got it just about worked out now and just need to finish some other projects to start bringing it into fruition.

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  5. Here’s where I admit that I’m a sucker for standing stones, ruined castles, and other markers of past human (or other) occupation. Show me a picture of Mesa Verde and get out of the way!

    I love to sprinkle these kinds of relics through my settings. Sometimes they’re just set decoration, but often I do come back and use them in the plot.

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