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World Building Wednesdays: A Sense of History


Tweet of the Day: Strings of Retaliation – 9a – Saskia

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Yesterday I came across this blog post concerning a new literary movement within speculative fiction called “The New Weird.” The blogger did not focus on the definition of this new movement (at least new to me) but he did touch into something that I found intriguing as well:

At last, it all makes sense. My ambivalence to New Weird, I think, comes from the sense of absent history noted above. This normally wouldn’t present much of a problem, yet New Weird works that set out specifically towards creating the sense of a separate, secondary world create a sense of disconnect by not giving those worlds any sense of a past. There is no feeling of historical change; the setting feel static, suspended outside of time, and yet attempt to give an impression of “pastness”. Wierd fiction, from which the New Weird supposedly draws inspiration, doesn’t have this absence. Either history wasn’t a concern, in which case there was nothing to be absent from, or else there was a palpable feeling of the ancient past bubbling up and wreaking havoc on the narrative present.

How can you build a sense of history for something that is completely fictional and many times deliberately different from our own experience?

An pivotal question that lies at the heart of world building, since most world building is the creation of extensive background for characters/events/places in the world/universe of a particular work. The real problem in fact is not building a believable history to your story but how do you transmit all that stuff that is in your computer folder (or notebooks) to the reader without drowning them in info dumps. There are a few tropes that speculative fiction writers can invoke to inject historical depth to their stories:

  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Model a culture or cultures on existing historical ones, in part or in whole. Can be problematic in that it can appear either as cheap imitation or failure to do the research.
  • Standard Sci-Fi History: Sci-Fi stories tend to share a common historical background to explain how humanity reached the stars and beyond. Differentiating your work from the rest can be as difficult as maintaining the audience expectations once they see this trope in action.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Loved by game designers such as Bethesda and BioWare it sprinkles (or showers) the world with records of past events, such as books, audio logs, and video recordings. Can lead to excessive info dumps in print which is why most of this stuff is skipable in games.
  • Medieval European Fantasy: Almost always serves as the basis for a Standard Fantasy Setting. It’s FCC taken to its logical extreme and tends to suffer from the same problems.
  • Used Future: Uses a certain visual aesthetic to convey a sense of history through the wear and tear on objects. It works but requires a solid reason why people continue to use something that is clearly in disrepair and in need of maintenance/substitution.

A few sub genres of speculative fiction avoid the hassle of invoking one or more of these tropes by either setting the action in contemporary times (Urban Fantasy) or in today’s world with a twist (Alternate History).

The tropes above are just tools for your writing tool kit. For more you can listen to this podcast.

Do you have any tips for creating a sense of history in your stories?
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2 comments on “World Building Wednesdays: A Sense of History

  1. I’m not a fantasy person for this very reason. It requires such a high level of creativity and thought-process I worried I’d get confused. Excellent write up though. Very interesting topic.

    • Most speculative fiction does, at some level. But this goes beyond speculative fiction, most stories have a bit of world building, even those set in contemporary times. The story background has to come from somewhere. Of course you can also do the reverse and remove the sense of history in order to create an air of otherworldliness or creepiness.

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