Why History is Important for Worldbuilders

This is what it’s all based on.What else can we base our stories on, whatever the genre? Imagination is always influenced by observing the world around us whether we like it or not. If I wrote a story about people flying, it would be partly because I wanted something completely different from the world I live in.

I love history, particularly ancient history, because to me it’s magical.

Picking a historical period to loosely base your world on is useful because you can base contemporary technologies and societal norms on something that already made sense. You can look at history and determine whether some things would realistically happen in a world at this level of advancement.

For example, if you base your story loosely on Ancient Egypt, you can then get a rough idea of the kind of technology and weaponry that would be available at this time and in that climate. Putting in a medieval style broad sword probably wouldn’t make much sense because of the materials available and methods of weapon making.

Raw materials need to be considered. If your country doesn’t have iron, you need to import it, then that leads to trade relations, transportation, and a whole load of things to consider.

Egyptian chariot. Photo taken at the British Museum
Egyptian chariot. Photo taken at the British Museum

Of course, because this is a fantasy world you can do whatever you want. However, for it to be a good, rich fantasy story, your reader has to believe the world (as much as they can). Anything that is too weird immediately sticks out and distracts the reader, pulling them out of your world.

This means that if you choose to base it on a historical period, you need to know quite a bit about that period.

When I was building my world, I automatically turned to medieval history because that’s usually what classic fantasy stories are based on. The problem was that I know hardly anything about that period. I changed my focus to Ancient Egypt because I already knew a fair amount about it, and absolutely love it.

Though I knew quite a bit about Egypt, there was still a lot to learn, particularly the finer details of everyday life. These details are what make your world real. You need to know about diet, transport, days of the week, art, and everything in between. So do your potential readers. This is why I found history so useful as a starting point. It helped me to channel my imagination and research which then leaves me to develop everything else within a loose framework.

Some people might find this too restricting, which I understand. I think if you don’t know where to begin, then history can be a good starting point.

In the early days, there’s a lot of room for experimenting. I think the key with world building is that it must all make sense within the context of that world. If you want the world to be rich and swallow the reader whole, then it has to be detailed and believable.

History can help you with:

  • Technology – transport, weaponry, architecture
  • Trade – international relations, transport
  • Social norms – religion, family life, gender roles
  • Society – monarchy, democracy, republic
  • Art & architecture – artistic styles, temples, homes

One thing that is important to remember is to not copy everything from history. Try to use it as a frame work. If you are researching the roles of women in Ancient Greece you might want to do the opposite in your world. Shake things up a bit, make your world unique.

I found that I was copying too much from Ancient Egypt at first. I forgot that I needed to add my bit in. My bit mostly came from the story and the characters but now I’m experimenting with changing some of the little details that make up the world too.

What are your thoughts on using history as a starting point? Have you tried it before, or do you feel it’s too restricting? Share your thoughts in the comments 🙂


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