History in Fiction

I’ve been spending a lot of time playing a game I hadn’t played in a decade: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I’ve spent too much time playing it, because that’s always been an easy habit for me to fall back into. But I tell myself it’s not a total loss…

I’ve always loved fantasy worlds, where “fantasy” usually means “appears to take place in what I understand to be something like Medieval Europe, except in a parallel universe with dragons and magic and stuff”. I can delve in and theorize about why that was always my thing, moreso than, say, true crime (which is more of a recent fascination), but right now I just want to focus on the features of those stories. And specifically I’m going to talk about what makes the made-up world of The Elder Scrolls series so delicious to me.

The first one of those games I played was Daggerfall, which came out in 1996. It was very ambitious, but the technology couldn’t really keep up: there was this huge world to explore, but a lot of it felt the same because it was generated procedurally, and a lot of it didn’t work properly. I remember lamenting that I loved the concept of the game, and I wished they made a version where the world was smaller but much more detailed (and less buggy).

Then the next game in the series, Morrowind, came out, and I started to worry that Bethesda Software had microphones hidden in my house.

What I loved so much about both Morrowind and its follow-up, Oblivion, is how they both let you wander around a fantasy world doing all sorts of things. They have a storyline, but you can ignore it and find other stories going on in the same world, or just invent your own. I refer to that kind of game as a “fantasy sandbox”, and I think it must be my favourite style: I’ve poured hundreds of hours into these two games over the years.

You could say one of my reasons for writing books is that I finally want to play in my own fantasy sandbox.

The fictional world behind these games—and there are close to a dozen titles in the series at this point, some major, some minor—is incredibly, wonderfully full of detail and history. There’s a creation myth for the game world, and the world is divided into provinces, and each one has a different indigenous race—some human, some not—with their own takes on the myth. There’s this massive history spread over four “eras” that’s accumulated over time from the writing of these games.

As someone who wants to make an immersive fantasy world of my own, it’s breathtaking to see such scope… and incredibly exciting.

So I was thinking the other day (in the shower, where all real thinking takes place) about what gives this fictional history its legs. What makes it compelling, and what, if you’re going to create your own fictional world, do you need to do or avoid doing, in order to make your history compelling?

What you need

If you want to create a history that has some resonance with people living in our world, which has its own history that we tend to be exposed to and understand in specific ways, well, real history is where you start. Our world has this set of information about the past that is generally recorded, preserved, and disseminated. For our purposes, we’re going to split it into two different buckets:

History, and Myth.

This is a deliberate simplification, because we could spend an entire Arts degree debating the distinctions. For right now, I’m going to say “history” tends to have a physical record, a source that’s widely agreed-upon, and “myth” tends to… not have either of those.

Like I said: deliberate simplification. Stick with me here.

Your world’s history, like our world’s history, will probably include “historical” information that is more recent, better agreed-upon, with some physical record (like people who saw it who are still alive, or detailed writings, or actual physical properties like a battlefield or ruin), sitting on top of a background of older, less agreed-upon, less verifiable and probably more fantastic myth.

Let’s start with creation myths. Our world has many, but, given the limitations of reality as we currently understand it, we can neither confirm nor wholly deny any of them. In fantasy worlds, however, the creation myths can play much more direct and literal roles in the ongoing stories in the world.1

One way to build your world’s history is to start at its literal beginning. But having to invent a creation myth every time you want to write about a dragon is a little tedious. So for my purposes, I have some vague, cool ideas about my world’s creation myths… and as I think about the stories I want to tell, I’ll start filling in the gaps.

Once you have an idea for how the world was created, you start filling in how the other stuff got there, too, and the Bible shows how simply you can do that: on the first day God created this, and on the second day, that, and on the last day, he created Man… and then it got complicated.

If you have a few different races of intelligent beings, as many fantasy worlds do, how did they each get created? Were they split off from each other or from some older, extinct race? Does the oldest race have the most advanced civilization? If not, why not? Did they have a very advanced civilization but it was destroyed? Or are there reasons they didn’t develop as quickly as “younger” races, or in the same directions?

Just answering questions like those gives you heaps of story material, and you can drill down and down and down… maybe the ancient precursors of humankind in your world had incredible technologies powered by magic, but they tried to use their technology to ascend to godhood, and the actual gods struck them down, or fomented a terrible civil war that ripped their civilization apart… and now you can make up the details of that war, the names of the two major states or cities involved, who their rulers were, what were a couple of the key battles of that war…

And you don’t ever need to write a whole book about the above, though you can! But it provides you with this rich topsoil in which to grow the stories you’re going to tell in your fantasy world. When you need a reason for why things are the way they are in your story, you can look back at that history: the dangerous cave full of weird magical traps and guardians that the characters have to quest through to find the Sword of Awesome—that cave could be a remnant of the war above.

Again, you never need to mention the history, but its presence suffuses the stories you tell with my favourite word: verisimilitude. It helps you come up with the details that make your world feel real.

The other direction

You don’t have to start from the beginning, either. You can move in the other direction: given the story you want to tell, what is the recent history of the world behind it? For example, the stories I’m working on focus on an empire that is in the midst of expansion. One of the first things I wondered after coming up with this idea was, “Okay, fantasy empire, great…. But how do empires come to exist? Why do you get an empire and not just kingdoms or feudal states?” So I turned again to the history of our world.

I found a great video on what makes an empire viable. It uses examples both from our world and from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, really. If you click that link and go watch it instead of reading the rest of this, I won’t be offended.2

And at a friend’s recommendation, I started reading The Origins of Political Order, which looks at why, exactly, different cultures in different parts of the world achieved “statehood” at different times. We can apply all of those principles to our fantasy world… but, as always, only as much as we need to.

A simple example is, if you have an empire, then it got to be an empire (as opposed to a smaller state) by absorbing some existing states. Now there’s got to be a story there; how did that happen? Often, there was warfare, and even if you don’t need to figure out all the details of that conflict you can come up with, say, a single battle—The Battle at Minotaur Pass—and make a main or side character be a veteran of that battle. How did they end up there? How did they comport themselves? Did they fight nobly? Did they run away? Did they kill people? Did they witness the destruction of people and places they loved? And how did those events shape who they are in the story you’re telling now? This adds so much depth and potential to even a “template” character like the gruff sergeant who has to teach the hero how to swing a longsword.

I’ve said plenty about asking questions to work out details of your world’s history. In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the dangers of doing exactly that.

  1. In The Lord of the Rings mythology, and I realize the risk I’m taking by saying this off the cuff and probably getting some details slightly wrong, the god or entity that was responsible for creation first created other entities, called the Valar, and then either it or the Valar created a sort of second tier of entities called the Maiar. Gandalf is actually one of these Maiar—so this character that plays a large role in the events happening in the “present” of the story was actually a part of the world’s creation myth. That’s pretty cool.
  2. To be totally honest, I will be a little offended, but I’ll try not to let it show.

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D.J. Jacobson

Becoming a novelist, and documenting the journey.