Friday, May 11, 2012

Defining History for Fiction

Fiction needs a strong sense of history to it. However, let us not confuse ourselves. The history we're normally talking about when asking "How much history does my fiction need" involves history completely outside the stated canon of a given work. For example, the fact Charr are jerks is not part of Guild Wars' history, as we explore their jerkish tendencies in Prophecies.

Some Charr even learned how to use computers.
So, when we're talking about history in your fiction (or my fiction!) we mean your designer notes. The things that you know that the reader doesn't need to know (or won't know till the future, or you die and, like the later Dune books, your descendants ruin all your good work). Let's look again at Guild Wars. Things like Cantha and Elona are part of the history in Prophecies; later on we get exposed to them. However, from the start, they add flavor and depth to a world that, while impressive, would otherwise have been fairly small and constrained. They hinted at a larger world.

Go on little buddy,  log in to Tyria and burn all that is beautiful.
By Guild Wars 2, pretty much all of Guild Wars 1 is history. Your previous adventures will make the game significantly more fulfilling for you as you see the little connections. Having a good grasp of your world's history lets you do things to help immerse your players. Call backs and continuity nods are the pay offs for this sort of in-canon history. Thackeray, for example, gives players continuity in this world gone mad, and the Charr starting area is pretty much designed to remind us that Charr are jerks for burning Ascalon.

The outside canon pay offs are harder to see. For example, Tolkien gets a lot of payoff in his family trees. Granted, you eventually got to see them, but his unfinished tales (and the eventual publication of said tales) also helped him to visualize his world. You may not need as much detail as Tolkien, but try and imagine the things you know, inherently, about your world.

In your dungeon, try going back a few centuries. What else lived here? Did it always house evil creatures? Do the current residents know its secrets? Even if the players never find out that a group of elves once camped here, and that's where all the masterwork arrows came from, it helps you give your world logical consistencies.

Give the town a brief history; think of your home neighborhood. For example, back in Delaware, there's a story about a man who barricaded himself in his house with booby traps to keep the police from arresting him. Having just two or three of those stories for a small town will bring it to life.

Like real life, what counts as history in your world is fluid. If a background detail that was meant to add color suddenly matters, use it to provide a plot hook. Everything can be a plot hook, and that is OK. If you decide that a historical figure is important enough to fit into a narrative, go ahead and bring him into the story. The history is a tool, and like every literary tool, is subservient to plot and character. So, you almost can ignore everything I've said in trying to describe history in fiction.

Which makes for a very pathetic blog post, I suppose.

The Charr is tired of my disingenuous assertions about their jerkiness.


Tomorrow I may have something to say about Dragon Dice. Or maybe not. This weekend, I'll also get around to taking an actual story and showing how the pre-writing of the world's history helped me flesh out characters and plot, getting us back to the question of how much history our fiction needed.

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