History in a Fantasy Novel

The history of your world should play a major role if you are writing a fantasy or even a Sci-Fi novel. Imagine how a reader will feel when they are dropped into a civilization or a post-apocalyptic setting without any knowledge. Surely this scenario can make anyone feel like a stranger in a strange land. History is an essential part of world-building.

Of course, one has to naturally avoid long-winded historical passages when world-building. After all, it’s a fantasy novel not a history textbook. Earlier, I discussed the use of Technology In Your Fantasy World. Dropping such hints tells us where a civilization or society currently stands, but it doesn’t speak about how they got there.

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Reflect for a moment upon Gandalf returning to Bag End to impart his knowledge about the Ring to Frodo. The scene plays out with a sense of urgency rather than seeming conveniently dropped into place as world-building filler material by Tolkien.

In my upcoming fantasy novel, An Easterly Sojourn, I only delve into several great ancient battles and religious history. Both are incredibly linked to the main plot and the mystery at hand for the main character.

Another “history” would be backstory for characters. I used some of the same techniques and will discuss the in a future post.

I cringed at the thought of adding a chunk of history and sweated profusely when chapter 3 “Religious Relics” was read at a critique. Oddly enough it passed with flying colors.

The trick was to “seed” the history in the previous chapter.

In chapter 2, there are two sub-characters discussing and comparing historical notes. The main character listens and sometimes get frustrated by their knowledge. He wants to jump in and ask questions, but feels foolish. Later, he’ll accost one of them alone for the information he needs. His sense of “itching” for more information transfers to the reader. A sense of urgency made everything in chapter 3 flow without the aforementioned “contrived” element and seems perfectly plausible.

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History and backstory have to be present in order for a complete world-building experience in a fantasy novel, but many feel intimidated by it. How about you? How are you handling history or backstory in your novel?

6 thoughts on “History in a Fantasy Novel

  1. I agree: history and the back stories of characters can play a vital roll in educating readers in what might happen and why it happens. From the first page, I’m usually dropping hints and details about what might happen, why and what did happen. I seldom clump it together in one scene. But each story, each scene is unique and handled slightly differently.

    Usually, I have one character informing the other, but sometimes characters learn history from books they discover or a monument. Something as simple as a headstone can provide vital historical information. As a genealogist, I’ve always used those tools–headstones, public records, obituaries, monuments–to round out a story.

    I think what you did, hinting in chapter 2, making the missing information sound vital, and getting the character to learn in chapter 3 works great.

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  2. I think the best to insert history into a story is to have the characters argue about the past to decide what to do in the future. In a fantasy novel, the history often just comes through the surroundings. Most of the decoration in a king’s castle ought to have historical lineage.

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