I read a pair of fun Tumblr articles today from The Writing Cafe: “Your Fantasy Story Is Bothering Me, Pt 1 and Pt 2“. Apart from being a good giggle, it reminded me of a personal thesis I have: that a good fantasy writer ought, too, to be a good historian. I think this is true even if you’re writing second world fantasy, not earth-based AUs, because what a solid grounding in history gets you is an awareness of how worlds work.
You get perspective. No country exists in isolation. Recently I’ve been reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, which really drives that point home. The earliest human civilizations engaged in trade. During the supposed “Dark Ages”, buried hoards in England had jewels from Sri Lanka. So think not just about where your characters live, but who their national neighbors are. What goods do they import and export? Who are they in competition with and who are their allies? (This topic can intersect a lot with making sure your fantasy world is diverse, too). Is your story’s focus nation relatively isolated? Then there needs to be a reason, and it needs to be feasible. Consider how Japan has periodically closed its ports. It’s easier for a country to isolate if it’s an island — but even so, the severance is rarely complete. The rest of the world doesn’t stop existing just because one nation stops participating in trade (a pet peeve of mine when it comes to a lot of dystopian fiction). And there need to be repercussions. What goods is your society without, if it can’t import them? What does it have a surplus of? How does the lack of new influence affect the culture? Who in your society is in favor of isolation and which citizens agitate for reopening the borders?
Then there’s politics and government. I went to a fascinating presentation at a convention once about how different kinds of societies give rise to different kinds of governing structures. You don’t get complexly structured bureaucracies in small civilizations; you get them when you have a lot of people spread out over large distances. And then, to manage that sort of sprawl, you have to have good roads and a solid system for transferring messages — traits shared by Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, Han and Tang China, and the Yuan Mongols. Higher literacy rates tend to lead to more democratic tendencies — or at least to more people agitating for them. Is power centralized or de-centralized? Are there gender disparities in who can hold power? Economic restrictions? Is military control tied directly into political control or is it a separate system? A lot of fantasy, with its medieval-western-Europe focus, tends to reflect an agricultural-based feudal society, but there are so many other options.
Religion’s another big aspect of world-building that can be augmented by knowing your history. Faith doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere — it’s a product of topography, agriculture, climate. Your landlocked city probably isn’t going to revere a god of the oceans — not without really good reason, at least. Maybe the city was taken over by a different, sea-based culture somehow? Or maybe the city hasn’t always been landlocked? Did the geography change for natural or magical reasons? Do the people feel their god abandoned them? That’s a whole story right there. You can also think about how new religions grow, absorb, and replace the faiths that come before them. People don’t give up their beliefs readily, and even in violent, imposed conquest, certain traits will still carry over — look at how many pagan traditions from across Europe got re-envisioned in Christianity. The speed with which a religion grows has a lot of history-based influences as well: Think of the differences between early Christianity and early Islam. Christianity began as a religion of the disenfranchised, and poor folk, traditionally, don’t have a lot of mobility, so it took a few centuries before it got enough traction to become the dominant force in the land. Islam, however, gets its start with folk who had money (Muhammed being of the merchant class and married to the crazy-successful and seriously awesome Khadijah), and people who have money have access to that most convenient of conversion tools: armies. And, while Christianity got its start when the Roman empire was strong and ascendant, Islam started when the Byzantines and Sassanids were pretty weak. So Islam expands with unprecedented speed. How many religions are in the world of your story? How did they grow? Which are dominant? Which are old and which are new?
I could go on like this forever, because everything has history behind it. Every object you touch every day is just a recent point in a chain of events — and that’s true for every object your characters touch, too. It’s true for what they eat, how their houses are decorated, how they dress, how they talk, and what they talk about. That’s not to say that you need to give explicit descriptions of the historical context for everything, of course. You’re writing a story, not an encyclopedia. (A mantra I occasionally have to repeat to myself, with how much I love world-building). You do need, though, to be aware. If your characters are wearing silk clothing in a land without silkworms or have ivory jewelry in a land without elephants, some reader is going to wonder why.
So go forth and read, friends! Or listen! As I’ve posted before, there are some great history podcasts, and even when they nominally focus on, say, Rome or England, so much information about other nations always gets pulled in as well, thanks to the glorious interconnections of our world. Or look at some maps. Just exploring can be a great way to get ideas or to enhance what you’ve already constructed.