World-Builder’s Anonymous – A Little History

Posted: April 25, 2019 in Uncategorized

In this installment of my Worldbuilding series (if you are joining me late, you can start viewing the others here), I am going to address something that I love to do with WB-ing that is both random and designed: History.

Okay, I can hear the groaning out there, since history tends to be one of the least favorite subjects in school. I’m a nerd there, once again, as I just LOVE history and appreciate it more and more the older I get. But this is easy history, because you, as the writer, get to make it up.

One of the problems I first encountered with some awful stories—including ones I had written—is that the world is designed around the characters that I loved creating. While it makes sense, as you wouldn’t want to go placing a Feudal-Era Japanese Samurai in the middle of Depression-Era New York City, it sometimes gets out of hand in that the world is NOT providing enough conflict that really sharpens the characters.

Flat world* settings are tailored to the character, mostly to showcase the character’s abilities rather than revealing their weaknesses so that the character has something to surmount. Some of this is a very deliberate way of overpowering their character and turning them into uninteresting Mary Sues, because the author can’t bear to do any harm to their character. All writers are at least a little guilty of this as some point in their career, if not in every first draft.

So how do we get over this?

By introducing a little randomness, of course.

In the real world, we have almost no influence over our world (aside from decorating our homes, or helping out in our communities, etc.). We can’t wave our hands and have the entire political system go from being one of two-party power-mongerers preaching that they will be the ones to save you and instead victimizing everyone for the sake of votes into one that is truly run by the people, for the people. BUT… the latter is not nearly as interesting as the former for a source of conflict.

Which brings me to a rule I try to follow: When in doubt, make the world more brutal.

Most importantly, you want your world to feel “lived-in”.

Unless you are deliberately writing a story where the world only exists when your character is there, and doesn’t persist when he is not, then the world needs to be a “lived-in” place.

I’m going to use another video game as an illustration here. Many video games up until the 1990’s had a static, persistent world. When you showed up at the merchant’s, they happened to be open and they happened to be exactly where you needed them to be, ready to buy and sell to you no matter what time of day or night. The world revolved around you, the main character. Enter Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. For the first time in my memory, if you showed up at a certain time, the shops would be closed. The occupants wouldn’t just lock up, either, but follow their own routine of taking a walk, or going to the tavern, or slipping off discreetly with someone they shouldn’t have been sneaking off with. They had their own lives that went on whether you were hunting down that Belt of Speechcraft or not, and wouldn’t sell to you unless you came back the next day, during business hours. Bethesda’s title Morrowind (ES III) does this with its world-building, if not the characters (who were persistently in their same spot) but by the incredibly rich history unraveled by the presence of literally hundreds of books, stories from the characters themselves. Your character as a possible “Nerevarine”, would be a re-incarnation of the Ashlander’s hero, Indoril Nerevar, foretold to return and set things straight according to prophecy. In order to give that prophecy weight, it had to exist in a well-developed world, and boy did they ever get that right in Morrowind.

Anyway, back to that “randomness” – to keep the world I am creating from becoming too “me”, I use tables to randomize events. While there have been others of my own creation, one of my all-time favorite go-tos is AD&D’s Oriental Adventures book from back in the 80’s.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – Ninjas and Samurai, Oh My!

Inside, you’ll find a table of “Yearly Events”. The writers intended for this to be more of a way to drive a current campaign. However, I have adapted it in order to randomly get 10 or so historical events that helped to shape the culture or cultures I am creating. Selecting events that happened in the past is a way of introducing more conflict, but more importantly, giving the world you are creating a “lived-in” feel. The events as presented are vague enough to be tailored to virtually any world, not just the setting in the book, and also just enough world-building to give you a taste of what might have happened in your world’s past without filling in too many blanks while you’re writing to make the development of the story stale or too pre-structured. And they can be significant enough to stand in for pivotal historical events.

Generally, what I do is roll the dice about 10 times, and then pick at least one of the events to be that ‘pivotal’ moment in history, just as we in the Western world have Christ’s birth delineating us as AD and BC**. If I start with one event, I will roll a d20 for how far away from that pivotal year my characters are, and a d20 to reach backward from that moment. Then I scatter the events with some more random die rolls (it changes all the time, so it wouldn’t do any good to post my method here, unless you are REALLY interested).

In this way, I’ve come up with some rather good ones for stories I have written and am in the process of writing.

Hawkblood: Saint Lorico’s Decree. This one came from the entry “Legendary Hero”. At this point, Saint Lorico is a figure a little like Martin Luther and a little like Robinette Broadhead. Yeah, seriously. But not too deeply built, at least not yet. There’s also the possibility of a second one, much older.

Belly of the Beast: The Crossroads. So far, this moment has only been defined in my personal handbook on the stories of Ennid the Havok. (Note: while *I* know the pivotal date and the stretch of time between that and the time in which the story takes place, the characters do not. They don’t have to know. And neither does the reader…yet.)

Umbra: The Visitation of the Fallen Suns (Again, I know, but the characters don’t, not yet.)

 

Have you created any worlds where you threw in a history? Have you resisted the urge to use it as an info dump prologue? Do you know of any published works that DO throw in a history-of-their-world info dump? Please share in the comments below!

 

*as opposed to Flat Earth, which is a very weird movement to discredit science and convince people that the world really is flat and our solar system is heliocentric. I won’t glorify it by linking it here, and a little google-fu will find you more than enough material to make your day.

 **And, yes, I use Anno Domini and Before Christ and object to the rather stupid adoption of Common-Era and Before-Common-Era as a way to just erase Jesus Christ’s name from the calendar without changing anything else surrounding the computation. It’s petty, at best, especially since there’s nothing “Common” about the so-called CE. And the ones who wanted to change it to be based less on a spiritual figure and more on some shoddy cover-up/denial, they might as well change the names of the days of the week and months to erase that too, since the former are based on Norse gods and the latter on Roman gods and a mortal who was worshipped as a god.

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