This Saturday (January 13th) I’ll be giving a panel presentation on worldbuilding for fiction and roleplaying games at SwampCon in Gainesville, FL. As a preview of the topics I intend to cover, I’m going to do a few posts here on the website. Today’s post has to do with presenting history in fictional worlds.
Look, I get it, I used to teach history. The sad truth is that no matter how interesting you think some historical event might be, it just can’t compete with a student’s latest Instagram notification. Sure, you can spruce things up a bit talking about incestuous royal marriages or get a little irreverent by joking how dumb George Washington must have felt at the Constitutional Convention listening to debates involving much smarter guys like James Madison and Gouverneur Morris (I know, sweet name, right?), but that’s a tactic with diminishing returns because once students figure out those amusing asides won’t be on the test, they start turning them out too. For most students, history is just another class they HAVE to take, and if they can space out for long portions of it and still get by on the accumulated knowledge they’ve gained after years of passive exposure to the subject, then that’s exactly what they’re going to do. It simply doesn’t matter to them for much of their everyday lives.
What does this have to do with worldbuilding? Fiction is all about the here and now. When you’re reading/watching a story, you’re interested in what’s happening and what’s going to happen next. What happened in the past might be important for the sake of context, but it’s not the story itself. Certainly the characters in the story aren’t going to be obsessing over it. Very often, aspiring worldbuilders populate their new creations with characters who aren’t really characters; they’re tour guides. They spout off encyclopedic knowledge about this family or that location or this battle or that empire. Sometimes that information might provide important context for the plot, sometimes it doesn’t.
Take The Lord of the Rings, for instance. The story itself is concerned with Frodo’s journey to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. Sure, there’s plenty of interesting historical detail that gives the world some color and makes it feel like it’s a real place, but do you really need to read The Silmarillion to get the most out of that history? Furthermore, the urgency of the narrative conflict falls flat on its face whenever Tolkien veers off course while the characters discuss the history of some watchtower or keep whilst sipping on afternoon tea. Actually, The Lord of the Rings is an example of another problem with putting too much emphasis on history. In many cases, the history of Middle Earth is far more interesting than the story Tolkien’s trying to tell in the present.
None of this means that history shouldn’t inform your worldbuilding. But you have to keep in mind that people aren’t looking for a textbook or a documentary; they came for a compelling story. History provides color and texture, but it should never be the star of the show. On a related note, it’s perfectly acceptable for the creator to not know things. I have a feeling that the idea of the Clone Wars sounded way cooler as a vague concept in George Lucas’s head in 1976 than when he ironed out the details of it twenty years later. However, not knowing anything about the Clone Wars didn’t diminish anyone’s enjoyment of the original Star Wars. Part of the reason the Star Wars prequels fall a bit flat is because they’re not movies you watch to find out “what’s happening,” but rather to find out “what happened” to produce an outcome you already know about.
History in fiction is like a seasoning. Some people like more of it than others, but nobody wants to eat it by itself. The Silmarillion is a difficult read because it’s like doing shots of paprika; sooner or later, you just can’t take anymore and you have to go rinse your mouth out. As a creator, you might be deeply invested in the history of your world, but you simply can’t assume that readers/viewers will care as much as you. Remember, most of them probably slept through history class when they HAD to take it. How much of a chance do you think they’ll give your world when they’re only there because they WANT to be there?
Their attention is a gift; don’t waste it trying to give them a lecture.