World Building: History

Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake (Right-Hand P...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

      I see history as having five main influences: events, great persons, geography, technology, and politics. These elements interact. After all, who was Joan of Arc without the war between France and England (events, places,technology, and politics). Would her story have been as remarkable if she had not been a peasant girl-woman in the late middle ages (technology and politics). And wouldn’t her story eb different depending on who told it?

      When creating a history for youur world (contemporary, too) it is probably impossible and unnecessary to record every event. So focus on the history that most affect your characters and world. Also keep in mind the perspective of your history – whose side you take. It will probably be the perspective of your most relevant character. This means you may have multiple versions of the same time point. This can be cause for overt or covert conflict between characters. (Think the Holocaust.) Because characters change between books or series, your relevant history points will change.

      Let’s briefly look at these five influences on history:

  • Events: Wars, individual battles, natural disasters, elections to office, revolutions, the building of great cultural masterpieces, and emergence of new power groups are all historic events. Events are typically learned in history class but they have little relevance by themselves.

  • Great Persons: Events often have an instigator, figurehead, or scapegoat. Sometimes the great person represents the event or even more than the event – an entire movement. Since great persons typically act on behalf of a cause, there is more than one side to their stories. The popular perspective may change across socioeconomic status, political stances, and other power positions. It may change across time. Usually, little is remembered about these people – making them excellent fodder for future books (either by using the person as a prototype or by tackling the person’s struggles, triumphs, and failures directly).

  • Geography: geography definitely affects history but is an often overlooked aspect. Would England have become so powerful and remained independent for so long without the English Channel and easy access to the ocean? It would have been more difficult – that’s for sure. Hills and mountains make travel difficult and so may be less regulated and a good place for dissident ideas and groups to be found. Vast plains are easily traveled and often agricultural in lifestyle, a necessary resource for large populations. Rivers promote travel and trade. Geography greatly influences trade routes in time of peace and war. It influences the boundaries of nations and provides the resources that make a spot worth being fought over by two powers.

  • Technology: technology influences education, the flow of information, the ability to make war, and to provide resources. New farming techniques. The printing press. Gunpowder. Cotton gin. Nuclear power. Many historic events were only possible because they came before or after these inventions.

  • Politics: Politics is probably what makes a particular event historic. Many battles go unnoticed in many parts of the world. Massacres are justified or condemned. People become great or remain obscure. Claims to valuable resources are justified or dismissed. Technology is a tool for political agendas. The winning side is often the one that gets to write the history. But some (or most) of your characters may come from the loosing side. From another side of history. Power groups have great influence over how people perceive events (though the effect is not always the intended one) and this is important to keep in mind when writing your history.

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