5 Fantasy History Building Must-Haves

Whenever I open a fantasy novel, there are a few things I look for before I read a line of prose. Top two: a map and a timeline. 

In all the fantasy worlds which lay out their histories, my studies have shown that there are five major moments which inevitably occur:

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The Time Before

There is almost always some kind of time before history as we or any humanoid would know it. A primordial time of shaping the shapeless chaos.

In The Silmarillion of The Lord of the Rings world, this is the time in which the world was sung into existence.

If this period of time isn’t explicitly mentioned, it often has affects on religion.

If you’re creating a world, you should at least have some ideas on what forces were at work during this period of time. However, it’s fine if the details are a little fuzzy for you– it should always be set tens of thousands of years before the events of the story; information on this time should be essentially myths and/or up for debate among archaeologists from your world.

The Time of the Not-Humans

I call this the time of the Not-Humans to point out that this doesn’t have to just be the beginning of the time of humanoids (as they’re known in D&D).

In Avatar, this is the time in which the spirits lived without humans. In most fantasy settings, this is the time in which elves and dwarves and other races appeared– often long before humans. Even the low-fantasy Song of Ice and Fire series (better known as from its show, Game of Thrones), has in which the “children of the forest” (probably elves) thrived alongside giants and others without humans. Sometimes this is because the world is theirs and they awoke there; sometimes because they found it before humans, but usually fantasy includes fantasy races and fantasy races almost always beat humans to the punch in making the world their own.

This is usually, but not always, a period of time in which the world is considered a peaceful place. Even if it is not strictly peaceful, the world is easily divided into Good and Evil. These are the simpler, idyllic times.

If you’re creating a world, you should know what the non-humans were up to. (I say the non-humans here instead of the not-humans because not-humans, such as dragons, are generally not as interested in culture building in the same ways as humanoids.) Elves, dwarves, gnomes, trolls, goblins, and orcs however usually start building kingdoms and other kinds of nations. This is especially important because many existing cities will be built on the ruins of the old; most non-humans will have some kind of bastion in which they are holding on to by the time your story is taking place. Again, this part is far enough back in history, a good portion of the information will be lost, so don’t feel like you necessarily need to have every last detail hammered out and especially not revealed to your reader.

Humans Arrive

The part of the fantasy history in which humans come on the scene can take a lot of forms. In Dragon Age and The Witcher, humans arrive on boats from an unknown elsewhere. In Lord of the Rings, the humans wake up. In Legend of Korra, we see how humans of the Avatar world were living almost entirely on thanks to the efforts of giant lion-turtles. Humans always have a different approach to the land and the people than those who came before. They spread out in ways that the other races haven’t; they fight for reasons the other races don’t.

These humans are usually simplistic, far behind the non-humans by comparison in technology and/or magic. Even in worlds which have humans as native, but “awakened” this is the moment in which the humans haven’t been able to reach their full potential yet and are usually scrounging around.

When you are creating your history, this is the moment most of your world’s historians will look back to as the start of “real” history. Heroes are more likely to be named. Clans, tribes, and nations have roots which point to this period of time.

But, the arrival and spread of humans is always followed by:

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Catastrophe (Usually Caused by Humans)

A world cannot remain idyllic forever.

While whatever catastrophic event doesn’t have to be the fault of humans, it usually is.

Some examples are:

The rise of Sauron to power in Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings)

Humans entering the Fade and causing the Blight (Dragon Age)

The Long Night, a generations’ long supernatural winter caused by a race of undead ice people (Song of Ice and Fire or Game of Thrones)

The Conjunction of Spheres in which monsters arrived in the world (Witcher)

The release of the dark spirit into the world by humans (Avatar and Legend of Korra)

While this has a lot of shapes to it as well, it is always a major problem for the entire world and the people who live here. However, one things is certain and that is that the catastrophe ends.

Chances are, this event still has major repercussions on the existing world and may even be the direct cause of problems for the story you are creating. You need to know what this moment was, who was there, who caused it, who stopped it, how long it took, and anything else you can think of. There may even be more than one catastrophe, which is becoming increasingly common in fantasy works.

Human Kingdoms Progress

As much as a time of darkness affects the whole fantasy world, it can’t ever seem to keep humans down. Other races are wiped out or their magic is seriously crippled during this time. For whatever the reason, humans are now out in force and are spreading like wildfire.

In Witcher, the humans are bolstered primarily during this time, the previous humans forming weak kingdoms or dying out. Their almost immediate answer to arriving in the Northern Realms is to start hacking at the elves until they have carved out kingdoms for themselves.

As different as the last couple of aspects might look in a story, this is the part of history in which most stories converge. The humans take over, the non-humans and not-humans are wiped out, removed, or go into hiding.

This is where the bulk of most histories will start to take off as kingdom after kingdom will rise and progress until the current story takes place. Most fantasy stories stop in a kind of European-Medieval period, which means we will probably learn about some kind of Age of Heroes (it is even called this explicitly in several different fantasy histories) and some ancient human empires, but those will likely be dust by the time the narrative begins.

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I would argue that the main reason most fantasies take place in this section of fantasy history is because Lord of the Rings, fantasy of fantasies, took place during this period. To be fair, there are a lot of real-world ideas to pull from the middle ages. There are usually some religious tensions (crusades or inquisitions), there are usually some kind of royal civil war (where a bunch of nobles duke it out with several hundred or thousand soldiers to see who should sit on a throne), and there are usually some kind of raider nations (thanks to the vikings, huns, and mongols). The farthest most progress is into a kind of Renaissance.

But again, most of the time it is clear that the humans have won and have been winning for a long time over their world and its other inhabitants. Most fantasies then bring up a new problem, or the return of the old catastrophe, which will bring humanity to destruction as well.

Thank you for reading!

If you enjoyed reading, please like, share, and follow. What other fantasy world do you know which has this kind of history progression? Let me know in the comments!

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