Making the Most of Your Setting's History
History isn’t just for historical fiction. Every place and person has their history, the string of events that made them what they are now. Thinking about that history is an invaluable tool for writers.
Let’s have a look at why you might want to dig into that history and how you can use in a range of different genres.
Why Think About the History?
Thinking about the history that preceded your story can hugely enrich your work. Even if that history isn’t directly relevant to the plot, it will add details that make people and places more convincing. And once you start thinking about it, you may find that it actually is relevant to the plot, and that going down the historical rabbit hole gives you fresh twists and turns.
Everywhere we go, history is embedded in the landscape. It’s the standing stones on a hilltop, the Victorian facing above a modern shop front, the stains on a living room carpet. Thinking about what’s happened in a place, who’s been here and how it’s changed over time, inspires these little details. The imperfections left behind by history make a fictional place feel more real.
People’s histories are a great way of fleshing out their background. Knowing where someone comes from and what they’ve been through gives depth to their personality. It helps to explain why they behave the way they do. It can also guide you as a writer in making their emotions and behavior convincing. It can provide inspiration when you write yourself into a corner and want to know what someone will do next. It can even create a connection between their personality and their physical presence, the scars of past adventures showing in their face.
Because the past shapes the present, it can be a great source of conflict, the driver of any story. If two characters used to date, then their breakup may have left tensions that create clashes now. If a neighborhood used to be well-off but has become poor due to lost industry, that will create all kinds of social and psychological tensions as people struggle with change. If a character once dreamed of being a star but gave up on that to raise a family, that may create internal conflict which drives their actions.
History creates depth and conflict. How you apply it will depend upon the sort of story you’re trying to tell.
The History of a Modern Setting
For a story with a contemporary setting, whether it’s a romance, a mystery, literary fiction, or any other genre, the most important historical background will usually be that of family and community. These are the connections that almost any character will have, and that shape the setting as well as its inhabitants.
Think about the history of the families involved. Where do they come from? Why are they here? What events have shaped them?
Think about the community that the story is set in. How old is it? What made it the way it is? How has it changed since its founding? How is that reflected in the buildings, scenery, and social dynamics?
Consider how your characters connect to that history. Are they very proud of their family’s history, trying to escape it, indifferent even? Do they feel a deep connection with community traditions, or are view them as an intrusion?
It’s often worth tying these histories into bigger events – the stuff we usually think of when we talk about history. Have members of the family fought in wars, campaigned in strikes, been present for cultural landmark moments? Does the community include memorials or buildings to mark widely remembered occasions? Has it been transformed by war, unrest, or social and economic shifts?
Through questions like these, you can add historical depth without becoming bogged down in the past.
The History of a Fantasy Setting
When using history in a fantasy novel, you get to invent that history. Not just the way it’s affected families and communities, but the big picture of political change, religious transformation, and geographical catastrophe. Everything from battles to volcanic eruptions is yours to create, and so to shape the setting.
Most fantasy features some sort of magic. One of the most important considerations is how that magic has shaped your history. Has it ensured stability or created chaos? How has it been reflected in art and culture? How has the role of magic users changed over time? Has the magic always been there, meaning that society is shaped around it, or is it a recent development that brought change in its wake?
Similarly, think about the technology of your culture. Whether it’s a stone age civilization or a steampunk one, that technology won’t have been there forever. Was it invented recently, so that people are still adjusting to its arrival? Has it been around for so long that no-one remembers a time before it was there? In an industrialized society, like that of Kate Elliot’s Cold Magic, this will vary depending upon what piece of technology you’re talking about. The history of technological development will affect how people relate to those tools.
Both of these things feed into the details that are shown in your world. You can show history through the landscape, in the form of ruins, battlefields, abandoned buildings, and place names. You can also show it through social, political, and economic structures. Perhaps some past catastrophe ruined the industry of a region or affected who could rule.
In fantasy, people are often very aware of parts of history. Great figures from the past may well be celebrated. Events are shown in art, song, and folk tales. In a setting without mass entertainment, certain stories from history may take on importance simply because they’re entertaining. And this can provide clues to the location of a lost artefact or the solution to tackling the big bad.
The History of a Science Fiction Setting
In science fiction, you also get to invent history, but from a different starting point. You’re extrapolating forward from now to create your history.
One useful starting place is technology, often the distinctive feature of a sci-fi setting. Consider how that technology evolved from what we have now. What other technology was created along the way to get here? What missteps were made? What accidents happened along the way?
If your setting has multiple inhabited planets, then how did people get there? What forces drove them to leave Earth? What resources and organizations made it possible, and how have they left their mark on the landscapes and culture of these planets? There will probably have been setbacks and disasters along the way, so consider how those shaped society and people, which ones are remembered, how, and why.
Technology changes society – just look at how smartphones have transformed the way we live. So how has your technology and the journey to the stars shaped your setting’s society? What sort of changes were made to adjust to a world that worked very differently? Which features have remained even if they aren’t needed anymore?
As when creating a fantasy setting, think about which great figures from the past are remembered. Do people still celebrate the historical figures we do? Who else has been important since the 21st century? They might be leaders, inventors, explorers, artists - whoever they are, referencing them in the story can help to show what sort of place your characters live in.
Connecting History and Story
Having created your history, it’s time to connect it to your story, so that you can make the most of your work.
Connect the history into the backgrounds of your characters. This will arise naturally when inventing a family history for a modern setting, but it can also be done for other sorts of history. Maybe your character was descended from a significant space-farer. Maybe they come from a community ripped apart by the magic wars. Maybe they grew up next to the site of the great strike of ’65 and that has colored their political and personal values. Connections like these add depth to the character and allow you to naturally bring up history within the story, showing the depth of your world.
Use history to drive conflicts. This can be something huge, like resentment from an ancient war driving fresh violence between rival kingdoms. It can equally well be something small yet deeply felt, like a feud between cousins, their friendship torn apart by an event no-one wants to talk about. Such conflicts can create plotlines for your story or give characters a motive to get involved with the plots you’re already planning. They can also be used to create great character arcs, as individuals resolve the issues buried in their past.
By making history integral to your setting, you enrich that setting and the stories that come from it. You make the world seem more substantial and the characters more rounded. Best of all, you give yourself hooks on which to hang a story.
So take the time to develop the history of your setting, from the grand to the personal. Then find ways to weave it into the tapestry of your characters’ lives and watch them come to life.
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