Wednesday, April 7, 2010

World Building, Part 2: History

No matter how detailed your world is going to be—whether an addition to the modern world or a completely different world of your own—one thing is certain: you need a backstory. History is an integral part of the world. It shapes the present. Therefore, whether first or last, this is definitely something you should be exploring.

You need a creation myth. Not only for the world itself, but also for your mythical species, if paranormal. Once you figure out how they were created—whether they are a separate species altogether, or whether they somehow evolve from humans (for instance, vampires, through the bite), or maybe even both—then you can move on to other pertinent information.

Some important questions to ask yourself are:

1. Were there any wars between this species and humankind? Or maybe even amongst the species itself?

Wars are devastating. They bind people together, they divide them, they could even eradicate entire cultures. Think for a minute about your species. Did they have a hand in any famous wars? Or perhaps they were nearly eradicated—as a species, a former sect, a cherished city. Wars touch people, especially if your character is old enough to have lived through them.

2. In what ways would this species have influenced humankind?

If you're writing a fantasy romance instead of a paranormal romance, this question is moot. After all, you need to figure out completely new turning points in history which have shaped the society in your book. If you're writing sci-fi romance, usually, you can take what has happened so far on Earth, and add to it, until whatever nameless date your story takes place. For sci-fi romances, a certain advance in science and technology (or sometimes recession) is involved.

In most paranormal books, however, this question usually is embodied in the form of the originating myth. Generally, it is due to a slip up on somebody's part that humanity knows what little they do about whichever mythological creature you choose.

However, that being said, there are other ways for your species to have influenced humankind. Perhaps certain historical figures were paranormal—let me give you an example. For humour's sake, let's say Napoleon was a gnome. And once he gained control of France, he decided to war against all the other species who looked down on him, until he was conquered at Waterloo. How would this change history? Well, if the general population didn't know he was a gnome, it wouldn't. Let's say only supernatural creatures know—because after Napoleon was defeated, all other gnomes were captured and made to be the slaves of the other supernatural races. See how something simple like that can have such an effect on the world you're creating?

A good rule of thumb, if you're going to use public figures is this: if they play a role in your story, you would do better to use figures that have been dead for more than 70 years. For one, if they wrote anything, it is now out of copyright. For another, they have been dead long enough that their close friends and relatives are now also dead. Therefore, neither they—nor their kids—have the opportunity to read the story you wrote and become offended at your portrayal. On the other hand, I have read stories in which current political figures are associated with the supernatural. In these cases, the figures themselves don't play a starring role—instead, they are mentioned in passing, or to make a point.

3. How did historical events differ from what we are taught in schools?

Again, this is mainly a question for paranormal romance writers, although those writing fantasy romance might like to think about how the historical events they set down are different from what their characters are taught happens. In the case of paranormal, this usually only concerns the mythological creatures.

In general, they have coincided with humans for thousands of years, and therefore a lot of their history is our history. However, during certain points in this history, other, lesser-known events might have occurred. It is up to you to decide where these are necessary.

I'm going to take a step back and address the fantasy romance writers—or even, to a certain extent, sci-fi romance writers. You have the more difficult task of creating your history from scratch. Here are a few things to think about:

-Civilizations that have lived and died (for sci-fi, existing civilizations which might be eradicated, or unified)

-Slavery—did it ever exist? Does it still exist?

-Alliances—between countries, between species.

-Legends—or in other words, things that may have happened, but likely didn't happen the way it is glorified.

-Significant natural disasters which the world might have lived through

-Advances in technology, and exploration.

-And again, wars and rebellions.

A good rule of thumb is to think about what you know about our history. Analyze why this is important. Once you get down to the root of these questions, a pattern should become apparent to you, one which you should be able to mirror in your world. You don't have to be detailed, but even sketching a quick timeline should help your story seem more vibrant in your readers' minds.

Back to the topic at hand,

4. Who are/were important figures in your world?

For paranormal romance writers, these could be actual historical figures, as mentioned before. On the other hand, this could be the head of the current faction of, say, vampires—or the instigator of a rebellion, in the past or present. Once you decide what has happened in the past, you will be better able to decide who played an important part in it.

For fantasy romance writers, all of these important people will of course be fictional. The same can be said of sci-fi romance writers. While you might be able to point to a well known person in modern society and say, "He/She started it off!" any important personages afterwards would have to be fictional.

That being said, I hope I've given some of you some direction for your world building. Check back next week for the continuation to this mini-series!



  1. All of these things, while definitely applying to paranormal romance also apply to every other world building attempt, right down to the Dungeon Master in a D&D game. The good ones have answers for almost every question the players could ask about the history of the town or whatever happens to be going on. Obviously not in an extreme amount of detail... at least not normally. The best Dungeon Masters will literally make up good answers on the spot, but this STILL requires their worlds foundations are so strong that they easily know what will fit.

    So, if these are very desireable things for something as (relatively) simple as a D&D campaign vs writing an entire book... a lot of authors would do well to take care of these elements much better than I currently see them being done. A good story is one thing, a good story set in a solid world is something else altogether, and part of what seperates good or decent books from great books.

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