Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Worldbuilding Lessons From History, Part 1

By Alex Hughes, @ahugheswriter

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: For a lot of genre writers (especially us in the sci fi fantasy realms), worldbuilding is half the fun of writing a novel. The richer those worlds are, the richer our stories can be. Alex Hughes wraps up the special extended guest lecture series (and marks the end of my own writing deadline) with some great ways history can help you develop your story worlds.

Alex Hughes, the author of the award-winning Mindspace Investigations series from Roc, has lived in the Atlanta area since the age of eight. She is a graduate of the prestigious Odyssey Writing Workshop, and a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers. Her short fiction has been published in several markets including EveryDay Fiction, Thunder on the Battlefield and White Cat Magazine. She is an avid cook and foodie, a trivia buff, and a science geek, and loves to talk about neuroscience, the Food Network, and writing craft—but not necessarily all at the same time!

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Take it away Alex...

I was a history major in college, which means I spent a lot of time thinking about and studying about important people (and groups of people) in the past. As I moved into writing and building other worlds for fiction, I adapted many of my lessons about humanity to those thought experiments. Here are just three of those lessons for you to consider. As you build your fictional world, ask yourself: do any of these ideas apply to your people and what happened to them in the near past? What historical events are your characters and world reacting to?

The Hindenburg: One Dramatic Event Changes Everything

If you haven’t heard of the Hindenburg blimp, take a second and go watch this video: (the dramatic stuff starts at 2:17 or so). The blimp literally went down in flames in a very dramatic video reel that most of the country saw in news reels in movie theaters. Everyone saw it. Everyone remembered it.

What you probably don’t know, however, is that before the Hindenberg crash, the world was crazy for blimps (dirigibles). They were clearly the wave of the future, and everything was going to be blimps going forward, obviously. The New York Empire State Building was even designed with its highest point as a docking place for the amazing technology. But then the Hindenburg happened, and suddenly the world knew that the technology was crazy dangerous and no one would touch it. Interestingly enough, the original technology used helium, which did not burn, and it was only a stupid decision by the Nazis to use hydrogen (and allow smoking on board) that set up the accident. In non-war time, when the Nazis could get helium, this probably wouldn’t have happened. But it didn’t matter. Obviously blimps were unsafe, at least in the eyes of the public, and blimps disappeared from history—at least, until the US military started designing new ones in the last decade.

As you’re setting up your fictional world, ask yourself, what major and/or dramatic events happened in the near past that would change the technology or the culture of the day? 

What important event or events defined this world? What are the consequences of those events, and how do they change the way people think?

Or, take it from the other direction and ask yourself, for the story I want to tell, what events or event will best set up the people and culture to act in the way I need for my story? Then go from there.

Be Switzerland, not Poland: Geography Matters

I was one of those kids in grade school who hated geography. Hated it. I spent a lot of time avoiding learning anything because it was so freaking boring to memorize blobs on a map. Real geography—the stuff that matters—actually has almost nothing to do with boring blobs on a page.

It turns out when you’re studying the history of Europe that Poland gets invaded. A lot. That area on the map actually changes names so repeatedly that as a student I couldn’t keep up. Armies come in. Armies go out. It turns out there’s a very good reason for this. Poland is on a plain—a nice flat section of land without the nasty winters of Russia or, really, any major geographical barrier to keep people out. So anybody with any nation-building ambitions invaded there first. It’s easy.

On the other hand, Switzerland has huge mountains. A lot of them. And as a result their winters aren’t much fun, and the terrain is punishingly difficult to cross. Switzerland rarely gets invaded historically, and almost never at the beginning of someone’s campaign, because the mountains make it so darn hard to get around and so darn easy to defend the Swiss strongholds. You’ll notice that Hitler didn’t bother with Switzerland for that reason.

As a note, Switzerland’s mountains also meant it was one of the few to have any significant railroad system—rail was the only practical way to get from one area to another, considering the terrain, so they invested early and often. It’s not like they could get out their horse and buggy and expect to get very far, after all. Not up some of those mountains!

As you’re building out a world, ask yourself: what is the land like? 

Is it easy or hard to invade? Is it easy or hard to grow crops? What are the unique challenges that this terrain requires its inhabitants to solve, and who have they become as a result? Brainstorm a few possibilities before you settle on one, and ask yourself what land and challenges best suit the story you want to tell.

Russians Love Their Children Too: Détente & Balancing Power

When I was five, it was the late eighties and my father told me about the Cold War and that the Russians could drop nuclear bombs and kill us at any moment. (Yes, I have an interesting family.) I wrestled with that concept for awhile and discussed it with both parents until I’m sure they were sorry they told me. In the end, my mother said something very profound: yes, the Russians can kill us all, but I don’t believe that they will. I don’t think they’ll start something like that, because the Russians love their children, too. So I went back to my Legos.

As I started studying history a lot later, I found this pattern occurring over and over: two or three or ten nation powers all lined up in opposition to one another, none moving. It’s what historians call a détente, and the one we remember the best is the standoff of the Cold War in most of our lifetimes. Big powers were in play, but no one moved, because the powers were equally matched and peace seemed more profitable to everyone than war—at least then.

There’s another, scarier story of détente that also must be considered when we’re thinking about the balance of power in history. That’s, of course, the détente in a peaceful Europe in 1913. In the period immediately preceding World War I, all the nations were lined up, jockeying for power, but they were equally enough matched that—for awhile—peace seemed like it would last forever. One spark (the assassination of one man) threw that perceived balance of power out of whack all at once, and a long and brutal war ensued, nation against nation, killing millions as the still-too-evenly-matched nations battled it to an end.

For nearly all of human history, there have been many forces at play. Church and state. Feudal families and states. The Roman Empire and local governors, local customs. Layers upon layers of powers and agendas and players all at work. And sometimes one is more powerful than the other, sometimes the power is changing, and sometimes there is détente. I love the potential of détente, like a bomb ticking, all that power building slowly to what end we don’t know.

I see a lot of fantasy worlds built with only one major power, and I always think it’s a missed opportunity. Adding another power immediately creates more and stronger conflict, I think, and a third is even better. Then the power can change. Then there can be jockeying for power and victory. Then, there can be layers of conflict. And then there can be the uncomfortable, high-tension, high-stakes moments of détente, in which the world shifts into fragile balance.

As you’re building your world, ask yourself, where do the powers come into conflict? 

Where are the moments of victory and destruction, and where are the moments of détente? What happens, in the end, when that détente is broken?

As you build your next world, take a little time to think through its history, the events, geography and powers that have shaped the world and its characters. And consider, if you have the time, studying a similar situation in our own history to flesh out the world even more. I think you’ll find your fictional world will be much richer for it. 

Continue on with Worldbuilding Lessons from History: Part Two

About Marked


Freelancing for the Atlanta PD isn’t exactly a secure career; my job’s been on the line almost as much as my life. But it’s a paycheck, and it keeps me from falling back into the drug habit. Plus, things are looking up with my sometimes-partner, Cherabino, even if she is still simmering over the telepathic Link I created by accident.

When my ex, Kara, shows up begging for my help, I find myself heading to the last place I ever expected to set foot in again—Guild headquarters—to investigate the death of her uncle. Joining that group was a bad idea the first time. Going back when I’m unwanted is downright dangerous.

Luckily, the Guild needs me more than they’re willing to admit. Kara’s uncle was acting strange before he died—crazy strange. In fact, his madness seems to be slowly spreading through the Guild. And when an army of powerful telepaths loses their marbles, suddenly it’s a game of life or death.…

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  1. Thanks, Alex.

    Geography is something a lot of fantasy novels get wrong. I get frustrated when obvious barriers (or lack thereof) have no bearing on polities.

    1. Thank you, Paul. I agree. We as humans are totally influenced by the land around us. Thanks for reading & commenting.

  2. Worse, fantasy dabbles in good geography all the time. So many monsters and wild tribes live in forbidding forests, mountains, etc, and we all know it's because they're hard to root out there. But nations? too often those are just thrown together.

  3. I'm glad you mentioned the Cold War power struggle. I think that sort of thing gets sidelined a lot in Fantasy. A stall-mate can lead to those wars that are about making sure the opposite super-power doesn't get their hands on some little country nobody's ever heard of because they could use the port to invade, and suddenly both super-powers are attacking that poor third country while pretending that they aren't afraid to fight each other outright. A situation like that is one I haven't seen much in fantasy, though it seems to happen quite a bit in real life.

  4. Great advice. Worlds don't always seem to make sense, but there are always reasons for things. Worlds that feel authentic have good, strong, important reasons, and that just helps the stories as well. (*whispers* But it's "détente".)

  5. Great points all. (*whispers* to Dee: really? Dang it. Never could spell the French words! Thanks for catching.)

  6. Interesting how the Hindenburg changed aviation history. and now dirigibles of various sorts are making a comeback. However, helium is a non-renewable resource produced by very few countries. Faced this issue when devising a post-apocalyptic society without oil. Have had to look at craft with methane cells within a hot-air envelope - which has a real basis.

  7. Belgium. I lived there a little while. It's another country that gets run over time and time again. Another barrier to effective war making is oceans. If the Spanish Armada hadn't sunk, who knows how history might have changed?

    Excellent post. I agree that many of the best novels I've read have multiple forces at play, not just a hero and a bad guy.

  8. Great post. Off to my writers' Wiki it goes!

  9. Wonderful post. A couple of the smaller kingdoms I was thinking of as mere window dressing are going to get a boost in size and significance.

  10. World-building is so much fun, but it can also be difficult. One of my problems is that sometimes I don't feel comfortable writing a story at all until it has a fully-developed world behind it. But I'm definitely good at world-building-- I've been creating fictional universes since I was little. Great post with really helpful ideas.

  11. For 20 years, by occupation, I was a Research Analyst, and although my research was more technical, I still enjoyed it—my love for digging why, where, when, and how started in childhood. Limited by polio (not complaining, I survived and recovered), I read all I could get my hands on. While writing my series, I perhaps spend too much time digging around, theoretically speaking, by reading and researching.