Unless the world you’re writing about was freshly built by Gods/wizards/accident, it’ll have some kind of back-story. Whether the story itself references this history, or whether it’s something stuffed in your notes just in case it comes up later, coming up with a history fleshes out your world and gives you a chance to shot it’s more than a map and castles. It can also lead to coming up with interesting side-stories the bards can tell, or reasons why the Elves hate the Dwarves.
Let’s start with some general bullet points.
· Don’t be afraid to be nasty...: History isn’t a long list of people getting on. Wars break out, nobles get assassinated, barbarian hordes burn villages to the ground. As the world-builder, you have licence to be as mean as you like. Even good leaders have to make tough decisions, just as evil leaders might have a loving family.
· But keep it in perspective: It’s a personal bugbear of mine that fantasy, in an attempt to be realistic, edgy or amoral, will use rape as shorthand for villains or anti-heroes. It’s even turned up in a book aimed at young teenagers. Like I said, history isn’t a long list of people being nice to each other. But if you’re depicting rape, remember it’s a delicate minefield and it’s a lot easier to write badly than respectfully. The same goes for racism, homophobia, slut-shaming and any other bigotry that history’s rife with; if you have to depict it, it’d better be more than a way of showing a villain is capital E Evil.
· Magic affects History: Figuring out the prevalence of magic and its effects give new challenges to figuring out events like battles. How important are bridges when armies can walk over water, or fly? Why employ sentries if assassins have cloaks of invisibility? Why even have assassins if the court wizards can resurrect the king? In low magic settings, things like disease, peasant revolts, assassinations, famines and cavalry charges are still a problem. Generations are shorter if medicine is less prevalent. Likewise, in high magic worlds, there needs to be a good reason why immortal elves aren’t outbreeding humans, why an undead army isn’t constantly growing, or why giants don’t stroll into town and steal the cattle.
· Change takes time: Magic and outside influences are used to explain sudden shifts from tribal worlds to high society. And there’s a good reason for this; if you read Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, you find out real moves to civilisation took thousands of years, involved cultural shifts in farming technique over warfare, and is difficult to depict in an interesting way. In low magic settings, however, the transition from roaming tribes to grand architecture should take generations, not years.
Generation I- The Barbarian King. Skrull the Bloodbraided successfully crushes the jewelled throne beneath his sandaled feet. His army is more like a tribe of fighters; each man and woman will be capable of living independently, but have sworn to aid Skrull in his conquest.
Generation II- The Warrior King. Volool the Dreaded inherited the throne, along with what jewels and gold his father plundered. The military is no less aggressive, but better trained and equipped; specialisations like archers and swordsmen appear among the brawlers, but still acts as a horde.
Generation III- The Soldier King. After the expansion of Volool’s kingdom, Malcrus the Argent has to protect a lot of land to keep his throne and his people from revolting. The military may still be aggressive, but now is developed into regiments and high specialisations. As cultures are absorbed, the army can pick and choose effective combat styles. Barbarians tribes may have one style (Vikings had sea warfare, Mongols had horsemanship, to simplify greatly), but a soldier army can have several.
Generation IV- The Knight King- King Brulgere has never had to defend his throne personally; his father’s army has dealt with any wars and rebellions, but has never needed to stand on the front line of a battle. He still wants to give the impression he’s a combat veteran, however, and so a stylised, low-risk form of combat is the answer. Tournaments like jousts or grand melees are held to give a sense of military prowess. Concepts like honourable combat form the basis for chivalry and subsequent laws.
Generation V- The Diplomat King. It’s been decades since the kingdom’s faced any problem smaller than another kingdom, and the rules of honour and conduct now open up the possibilities to engage other Kings peacefully. King Brulgere II is still the nominal leader of his Knights and army, and may even still learn a heavily ritualised form of combat, but most of his work is in peace talks and negotiations. If wars declared, he might post on a horse in full regalia for a painting, but nowhere near the battle his historians will connect him to.
This is a simplification; not all tribes fight upon first contact and a particular civilisation might not progress if one system of government works for their environment. But if you’re going to have grand palaces or specialist buildings like schools or temples, you have to give some thought as to how long that city’s been around.
· History doesn’t wait: If the heir to the throne has been missing for any more than a few years, there’d better be a good reason why no-one else has stepped in. The same goes for unpopular or ineffective leaders; if a family of opulent tyrants are in charge, they’re going to be facing potential revolution unless they have an effective way of keeping the citizens in check, be it magic, loyal armies or some other advantage (A phrase Jared Diamond uses is ‘monopoly on violence’; basically commoners aren’t allowed to attack each other, or not allowed to have weaponry). However this isn’t an eternal resource; the Praetorian Guard turned on Caligula, while feudal Japan’s lower classes used improvised weapons when swords were outlawed. In short, if it’s been five hundred years since the royal family went into exile, the returning king will have to face more than an evil warlord; he’ll have every commoner he meets saying ‘Wait; this was a kingdom?’
· Characters before names: Even though history gave Britain seven Edwards, eight Henrys, two Charles, six Georges and two Elizabeths, fantasy history that uses the same name (or, a far worse crime, vowel replacements) is hard to follow and dull. Coming up with characters for each ruler and lord makes for more interesting stories. Everyone remembers Henry VIII; he married six times, invented divorce, the Church of England, and the Royal Navy (Though historians might argue with that). Elizabeth I? The Virgin Queen, fought the Armada, body of a woman but heart of a man. If you know a lot about history, changing a few aspects of a famous personality can make them unrecognisable in your fantasy setting (What if Henry VIII was a dragon? What if Oliver Cromwell was a wizard?). Alternatively, if you’re familiar with role-playing games, using their descriptions for character classes can stand in for a personality until you’ve figured out specifics. Remember that magic changes history; if the royalty rule by literal divine right, they’re not going to turn out the same as a non-magical hierarchy, and building a fortified castle on top of a hill might impress the commoners, but be laughed at by the dragons.
An Example royal family
For simplicity’s sake, let’s keep the history we’re writing in human scale. Generations go up to 50 as a maximum; even the rich aren’t necessarily going to see their grandkids grow up, as medicine or healing magic aren’t standardised or readily available. Two surviving children by the same mother is the upper limit; for reasons of simplicity and taste we’ll skip over the probable infant mortality rates. Magic exists but is restricted to simple forms; spirit worship and shamanic magic over formalised divine power or wizards. Line of succession goes to oldest of the oldest, similar to British monarchy, but let’s be equal rights fantasy and say the eldest can be either gender. We’ll also say this kingdom is brand new; no previous rulers had enough clout to declare themselves king of the land, so our plucky barbarian is building from the bottom rather than overthrowing a tyrant.
Okay, how old is our kingdom? If we say 100 years; about 3-4 generations of royalty since the Barbarian King first took control. It’s fairly sizable, but not yet big enough for specialised armies, education or grand buildings. The capital is less a city, more a large town, with a fort at the centre rather than a castle. Because magic is formal or well understood, the threat of flying armies hasn’t come up (yet); a wooden barricade with a ditch is enough to keep invaders out.
So, the first generation of royalty;
Horsemen had a massive advantage over foot-soldiers in ancient and medieval warfare, so it’s as good a reason why our king rose to prominence as any. But who’s his queen?
We’ll go the Warrior Queen route; this is the first generation world after all, there’s not going to be pale and interesting types. Every member of the tribe would be expected to be self-sufficient, so a huntswoman would be a good wife to take. We’re also combining two fighting styles; horsemanship and archery, both of which give advantages over peasants with improvised weapons or foot-soldiers. King Horseman and Queen Hunter aren’t very interesting names, but they can stand in until we figure out the rest of their family tree.
The heirs have more formalised versions of their parents jobs, but still within the warriors purview more than a soldier. As a leader, however, a cavalier would be more inspiring than an archer; chances are the younger brother would be the popular choice for the throne once King Horseman dies. Prince Archer might be forced into political alliances at this early stage; he’d certainly take a wife earlier and be more concerned with the line of succession. Prince Cavalier would be much more the spare prince; not settling into domesticity as soon, perhaps preferring battle and leading his warriors to attending his father’s court. So by the first King and Queen are dead, Archer would be married with children.
‘Mage’ in this world is a loose term for witch, fortune-teller, healer; we’ll settle on details later. In this instance, Prince Archer decided to ally with a proto-religion to make him a more credible ruler. His firstborn daughter is raised a warrior, who fully combines archery and horse riding to great effect. His second-born son takes after his mother, still using magic in a scrappy, hap-hazard way. But what about Prince Cavalier? He might be slower to settle than his brother, but he’s still a powerful fighter and potential leader. What’s stopping him triggering a war of succession?
Ah. Either his exploits on the battlefield finally caught up with him, or Prince Archer (Now King Archer) isn’t above fratricide. Like I stated above, history isn’t pleasant, especially in an early history as our kingdom has. Any followers that Cavalier might have had would have to be appeased somehow, unless the new King puts down his first rebellion.
Princess M. Archer and her brother both got political marriages. Archer needed to keep lesser chiefs on-side after his brother’s death. As a warrior princess, though, M. Archer only had time for one child; a son whose closer to a heavily armoured knight than a lightweight mounted archer. Prince Mage had a lot more time for filling up the family tree; ‘Cleric’ suggests a more formalised version of the proto-religion, advancing on the shamanic magic of their grandmother. Giving him three children would be a lot for one wife though; we can have him remarry.
So that’s our four generations; we’ve gone from Rohan-esque horsemen to the founding of a state religion. From the looks of it, this Temple will end up politically more powerful than the military.
Naming our Nobles: More important than given names at this point are nicknames. Giving them a nickname reflects their personality rather than a list of funny names. Let’s start with our first generation;
There’s two stories already waiting to be told. How did Darus end up with a golden steed? Is it literally gold, or did he decorate it? And Mara’s not just a hunter, but a lion hunter, and a successful one at that. How did they meet?
Onto the next generation;
Looks like our two princes aren’t nice guys. Garric is characterised as cold, swift, deadly; all traits of a modern day sniper, but transposed to an expert archer. As for his brother, far from being a noble horseman, is outright called a Devil! What’s more, laughing suggests a sinister, sadistic glee; he probably rides down fleeing enemies, lassoes them to his horse and drags them till they die! I’m glad his brother ends up killing him!
Right, generation III;
Here the given names are more important. Marani is similarly named to her grandmother Mara, while her brother had the same prefix as his mother’s name. Marani similarly evokes her lineage with her nickname; ‘Serpent’ sounds more noble than ‘Viper’, and the silver may be related to her hair, her armour, or referencing the Golden Age of King Darus. She was married off to a baron whose dad hung out with the Laughing Devil; chances are he wasn’t a nice guy either, so having a son called the Bloody Wolf tells that story. Likewise, Anaven’s two wives (we’ll say he remarried the sister after the first wife died somehow) seem to be similarly nasty, practicing some kind of black magic.
Anasa and her son Anaven have similar nicknames, but going back to the first ideas we had, the Mage was introducing a basic religion to the royal line. She would be a herald, and the nature based shamanism could be called ‘the Wild Way’. Anaven is Devotee of the Wld; he’s dedicated himself to this religion entirely. Our kingdom isn’t old enough for advanced structures like temples or churches, so the fort could double up as a temple.
Finally, let’s marry them off and have the last generation.
After all the nastiness in this family story, the final generation are looking a lot more noble. Darani is named after his great grandfather, while the three children of Anaven have followed him in devoting their lives to their new religion. However, they’ve decided to devote themselves to more focused aspects of the Wild Way. Anamir, whose mother used ashes to divine the future, decided to combine her slightly sinister magic with his father’s more accepted teachings to become a cleric of Fire. His half-siblings have taken less destructive choices; at this stage of our kingdom, farmers would be more important than hunters, so clerics devoted to rains and plants would be more use than a generic nature religion. After a few more generations, the religion might even formalise these concepts with Gods and rituals, but at this point it’s still early days. Darani’s monicker ‘the White Drake’ takes aspects of his parents (if you combine a serpent and a wolf, you’ll get some kind of drake-like creature) and made it into something more noble.
How much of this should be in your story? If your story’s set in the royal court, a lot of the family history will come up, starting from the current generation and expanding backwards. If your story visits the royal court as a location, you don’t need to know the back-story but it can add flavour to the scene (and explain why there’s three different clerics present). It’s important to identify what’s story and what’s back-story; look at who your main characters are going to be and focus the story on them, rather than trying to give everyone a full story and making the whole thing needlessly complex. There are certain key events in our example kingdom’s history (Crowning of King Darus, assassination of Prince Baltus, founding of the state religion), but the reader doesn’t necessarily have to know the details.