I love history, particularly ancient history. To me, it’s magical. It’s part of the reason I got into fantasy in the first place. I’m drawn to it because reading about the ancients is like an escape for me, in the same way that fantasy is.
I know what you’re thinking. What’s history got to do with a made-up place? Hear me out. Imagination and our ideas for fantasy fiction are always influenced by observing the world around us, whether we like it or not. Where else are our ideas going to come from, at least in their basic form?
As you no doubt already know, a lot of fantasy fiction is loosely based on the past – often medieval Europe because it’s got all the castles, swords and knights we love.
Using history as a guide
I personally use history as a guide and a framework. I believe it can help us make choices that make sense in the context of your world.
For example, if you want to build a world that’s only been around for a few hundred years, your characters are going to be primitive in their technology and society. You can take a look at history in this world from that time period to inform choices on stuff like transport, trade, weaponry, war and religion.
This obviously depends on so much more than simple timeframes. If your people are magical creatures, their technology will likely advance faster and differently than a story with humans in.
That makes using history as a guide a bit trickier but I still think it can be useful to take a look at. Even if you’re just ruling out what you don’t want to do in your world. For example, look at how long it took humans to invent the wheel – what could your characters have invented by this point already? How can you compare your world with this one to show a higher level of advancement?
If on the other hand, you’re like me, using a human population with a little magic dusted around, then history can be particularly useful.
I have chosen a couple of civilisations to loosely base parts of my world. If you have done something similar, I would suggest reading up about your chosen time period as much as you can. Not only will it inspire new ideas, it’ll help you build the kind of details that will make your world feel real.
Testing out ideas
You can test out world building choices by looking at the technology and societal norms of the period you’re using as a guide. You can ask yourself – would this realistically happen in a world at this level of development?
Raw materials also need to be considered. Do your characters have access to the raw materials needed to build these kinds of weapons you want to include? If not, what does this mean for trade relations?
- If you’ve got a caveman population, you’re probably not going to have steel swords until you’ve mastered an equivalent Iron Age in your world.
- If you’ve got a Roman-like army, you probably won’t have guns yet because the invention of gunpowder would likely mean a very different type of army
That’s not to say you can’t have the above. You’re not banned. But ask yourself – is this going to pull the reader out of my story with a “wait what”?
Of course, because this is a fantasy world you can do whatever you want. However, for it to be a good, rich fantasy story, your reader has to believe the world (as much as they can). If you want to mix things up, go for it, but I suggest having a reason for it to ease some of the confusion for the reader.
Researching the details
Research is perhaps underrated for this genre, especially if you’re creating a world from scratch. Where do you research something that’s only in your head?
When I was building my world, I automatically turned to medieval history because that’s what ‘proper’ fantasy stories are based on. The problem was that I know hardly anything about that period (and it’s also a bit overdone). I changed my focus to Ancient Egypt because I already knew a fair amount about it.
Though I knew quite a bit about the time period I was basing my world on, there was still a lot to learn, particularly the finer details of everyday life. These details are what make your world real. You need to know about diet, transport, days of the week, art, and everything in between.
Don’t neglect the boring bits! What does your hero eat when they’re not fighting off orcs or dragons? What do they do for fun? A character in a desert, with a bow and arrow isn’t going to eat a pop tart, so what do they eat?
History can help you with:
- Technology – transport, weaponry, architecture
- Trade – international relations, transport
- Social norms – religion, family life, gender roles
- Society – monarchy, democracy, republic
- Art & architecture – artistic styles, temples, homes and tons more
This is why I found history so useful as a starting point. It helped me to channel my imagination and research, which then leaves me to develop everything else within a loose framework that doesn’t get out of hand.
Some people might find this too restricting, which I totally understand. But I think if you don’t know where to begin with your world, then history can be a good starting point.
One word of caution: DON’T COPY EVERYTHING from history. Use it as a guide for texturing your world but try to avoid rewriting ancient Roman history but with different names.
This is an easy trap to fall into if you use history. Try to assess all your choices on whether they are too similar to a time period or tale from history. This can pull your reader out of the story too.
I originally found that I was copying a bit too much from Ancient Egypt with my world. I forgot that I needed to add my bit in! This meant I had to go back and change a bunch of stuff, but overall I think it helped me.
‘Your bit’ can come from the story and the characters but it should also come from your world building choices too. What can you do differently to make your world unique?
So what do you think? Do you like using history or do you feel it’s a bit too restrictive? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!