Your typical worldbuilding website will have loads of articles and tutorials for designing a world, giving it realistic climates, and populating it with civilizations. But usually when they talk about the history of the world, they say something like this:
“Your world should have history. History can add a lot of depth to your story, like when your characters come across a thousand-year-old castle in the middle of their journey. Definitely do write some history, yup.”
And that’s all you get. Not very helpful!
So here’s a step-by-step guide for writing a world history, or rather, developing a world history framework for your fantasy world. We’ll focus on broad patterns of history, in order to give your world a sort of scaffolding, which then gives you context to drop in whatever battle, character, story or civilization you want.
Throughout this article I’ll use our own world history – Earth – as an example. Anytime I’m talking about Earth’s history I’ll use italics so you know it’s an example and not part of the tutorial. However, I’ll have one big catch: in this example world, the Sahara Desert is full of a magical race of goblins.
Without further ado, let’s get going.
Step 0: Preparation
Before you start diving into history, you should have some idea of what your world is like. In order to develop a history framework you’ll need:
- A world map with physical geography and climates. You don’t have to understand what the weather in Jalopia is like on a Thursday in December, but you should know where deserts, forests, major rivers, and mountain ranges are.
- A magic system fleshed out and ready to use (if magic exists in your world). Magic will certainly impact your world’s history!!
- An idea of what human/humanoid/sentient races exist in your world, and where they lived way back at the beginning. When crafting history, start at your earliest existing sentient species.
- Know any important animals that exist in your world – especially ones that could pose danger to your sentient species, or be domesticated by them. Same goes with plants, especially plants that can be cultivated easily (like wheat). Know where these plants and animals exist, too.
Finally, before we get going, remember this: we’re not writing out every part of your history. We’re not even going to worry about which nations are which, or what wars happen, or who’s in power. That’s all stuff you can fill in later on, when you’re adding depth to your world. For now, we’re just going for general trends and patterns.
Here’s how we start this process with planet Earth.
From the book “Big History” I know that the main domesticated animals (sheep, goats, cattle, etc) are found in the Middle East, pigs and chickens are found in China, and llamas are found in the Andes. Mesoamerica has maize, the Andes have potatoes, Africa has sorghum, Eurasia has wheat, and East Asia has rice.
The Sahara, as we’ve said, is full of goblins. Let’s say they’re extremely aggressive, good at metalworking, and they use magic to give their weapons special powers. By placing a weapon in a fire and dancing around the fire with a special chant, they can make the weapon more powerful or give it special abilities (like shooting fire or freezing whatever it touches). To balance out this world, we’ll say the goblins can’t leave the desert; humidity and cold temperatures kill them.
Step 1: Split Your World Into Regions
Make a table of your world’s regions. Each region should be an area whose inhabitants will generally follow the same course throughout history. For example, in our world, the Sahara and the Middle East are separate regions because one starts with goblins and one doesn’t. However, South America is one giant region because it’s mostly a big jungle and won’t have large nations until almost the modern age. Europe is another region because its people have generally always been similar technologically.
Don’t make your regions too small – it’s easy to get caught up in splitting the world into every little peninsula that exists. Here are the regions I came up with for goblin Earth:
|Europe||Lots of peninsulas, generally temperate climate. Scattered|
mountain ranges and lots of rivers. Hotter in the south and
very cold in the north and east.
|Eastern Asia||Generally temperate climate. Mountains in the southwest.|
Large islands to the east and southeast, and hotter jungles
in the south. Desert/steppe in the north/northwest.
|Central Asia||A large steppe with wild horses. Some desert. Extremely |
cold up north.
|India||Hot jungle, but not a very dense jungle. Tigers and |
elephants. Fertile valley centered around the Indus River.
Huge mountains in the north/northeast.
|Oceania||Tons of small islands, a few very big islands, and one |
giant island (Australia). Australia has a large desert,
the other islands are mostly jungle.
|North America||Deserts in the west, and temperate forests in the east. |
Cold in the north, extremely hot in the southwest. Huge
|Mesoamerica||Mostly dense jungle with a few deserts. Lots of islands in |
|South America||Mostly a huge, dense jungle. In the west there’s a huge|
|Largely desert, with two fertile river areas, one in Egypt and|
one in Mesopotamia.
|Sahara Desert||Extreme, hot desert, full of goblins.|
|Southern Africa||Very hot, desert in the north, savanna and jungle in the |
center, with a fairly temperate south tip.
Optional Step: Describe the Humans in Each Region
At this point, you can go region-by-region and describe what the humans look like. What color is their skin, generally? Do they have epicanthic folds? If there’s magic in your world, maybe most humans are blue-skinned blond people. I’m skipping this step for my goblin Earth because it doesn’t really add anything but aesthetics.
Step 2: Innovations Across History
Take a moment and write a list of all the major technological innovations your world will see, up to the time period your book/game/worldbuilding passion is set in. Don’t forget to include magical innovations if there is magic in your world.
Focus on ground-breaking, world-changing innovations, not specific things like “the atlatl”. Odds are, if your civilizations are human and your world is similar to Earth, you’ll have a lot of the same technology, and you can just use our own historical innovations. But if you have unique cultures (like Sahara Desert sword-making goblins) you’ll have to come up with your own ideas.
As always, stay general, not too detailed or specific. Also, you can ignore innovations that happened universally. We’re looking for things that drove history forward in a certain spot more than others. So for my world, no need to list “fire” – everybody had that by the time they started going to war with each other.
For example, here’s the list of innovations my goblin Earth uses (including some magic ones from the goblins):
- Animal domestication
- Magical powerful weapon enhancement
- Industrial Revolution
- Mass Media
- Nuclear Weapons
- The Internet
Step 3: Keeping Track of Time
You’ll next need a way to keep track of what year it is. You’ll only need to ballpark it, so don’t worry too much about how you do this. I usually start my first time period at year 0 and just count up; for the goblin world, I’m going to use the usual BCE/CE method.
Step 4: Setting Up Your Framework Table
Add a few columns to your table for each area you want to track throughout history. I use political, social, and innovations. You’ll want to track areas that have a big influence on the history; government structures, societal structures, cultures and religions all have a big effect. (I include all of these under political and social.)
Step 5: Setting Up Time Periods
Splitting history into time periods makes it easier to manage, just like splitting your world into regions. Keep in mind that these time periods will be fairly arbitrary – don’t use words like “the Stone Age” because different societies will learn metalworking at different times. I usually use general things like “Ancient” and “Medieval”. Just like every other step of this process, don’t get too specific – if you’re going through history in 100-year periods, this will get very boring.
There are two good ways to add time periods to your table.
First is to use each of your tracking columns in every single time period – for example, having columns for Ancient Political, Ancient Social, Medieval Political, etc. This will leave you with a nice, neat table but it can get tedious if you have lots of different time periods or lots of categories.
Pro Tip: if you’re using Method 1, and you want a whole bunch of columns visible in one single document, a Google Docs add-on called Page Sizer allows you to extend the page as far as you’ll need.
Second is to go through every time period within each column; for example, in the Europe-Political square, writing out what happens in Ancient Europe, then Classical Europe, then Medieval Europe, etc. This might go faster than the previous method, but it makes it harder to see evolution over time, and it can get very jumbled if you write down a lot of things.
For my goblin Earth I’m keeping it simple and using the second method. I don’t want to give you twenty columns as an example.
Step 6: Fill in the table
This is the most important step, where you actually create your world’s history. Remember to keep it simple. Start one time period, one region at a time. I like to stick to general categories or labels on each region, describing what’s happening for the whole area. I treat it as if a historian thousands of years later was given five seconds to describe the area. Here are some labels I use:
- Political: tribal, hunter-gatherers, settled, city-states, kingdoms, empires, pastoral nomads, clans, feudalistic, theocracy, nobility, free market, democracy, republic, dictatorship, federalist, world government, trade with a certain region
- Social: egalitarian, primitive, class system, simple classes, feudalism, serfdom, slavery, new religion, religious movement, religious society, free thinking, democratic, consumerism, nationalism, free trade
You can also get a little bit more specific to your world – if one region invades and conquers all the surrounding regions in a giant wave, you can put that down. Or if your entire world discovers that turtles are worth more than gold and switches to a new currency, that’d be worth putting, too.
Also note that a region can have more than one label, or several. If you have an area that has empires, nomads and kingdoms, write down all three.
For my example I’ll just show you two of my regions on goblin Earth:
For my time periods, I’m using Prehistory, Ancient (4000 BCE), Metal age (1500 BCE), Classical (1 CE), Medieval (1000 CE), Imperial (1500 CE), Industrial (1800 CE) and Modern (1950 CE). Mine are easy because I already know what direction history is going; for your world you may need to make these up as you go along.
|Sahara Desert||–Prehistory: hunter-gatherer goblins, tribal|
–Ancient: nomadic herder goblins, clans
–Metal age: nomad metalworkers, clans, weapons trade with Middle East region
–Classical: nomads in clans, some goblins invade and take over Egypt and parts of the Middle East
–Medieval: nomads in clans, trade with all surrounding areas
–Imperial: massive war with middle east goblins, invasion of Europe with guns
-Industrial: goblins have taken over Europe, Africa, and colonized the New World; monarchial/dictator empires
–Modern: Massive wars between goblin nations across the world, dictatorships, empires
–Ancient: simple classes
–Metal age: simple classes
–Classical: simple classes
–Medieval: simple classes
–Imperial: simple classes, clan system
–Industrial: free market system based on manufacturing, slavery of humans
–Modern: largely egalitarian, slavery
|–Prehistory: Stone age|
–Ancient: Metalworking, animal domestication
–Metal age: magical weapons
–Classical: nothing new
–Medieval: goblins invent gunpowder
–Imperial: goblins discover the New World
–Industrial: industrial revolution
–Modern: nuclear bombs
|Middle East||–Prehistory: settlements, pastoral nomads|
–Ancient: city-states, nomads
–Metal age: empires, kingdoms, trade with goblins in Sahara
–Classical: powerful empires take over Europe, goblins take over Egypt and other areas, Christianity forms but is destroyed by the goblins
–Medieval: goblins have taken over the entire Middle East and now threaten Europe; powerful empires
-Imperial: war with Sahara goblins, Europeans, Mongols invade from the East and destroy capital city; scattered kingdoms and nations
-Industrial: Warring kingdoms and factions
–Modern: small powerful nations, massive wars all over the world, dictatorships
|-Prehistory: class system, egalitarian|
–Metal age: class systems
–Classical: class system, slavery, goblins have clans
–Medieval: goblins have complex family clan system and slavery
–Imperial: complex clan system
–Industrial: chaotic clans and warfare
–Modern: slavery of humans, largely egalitarian
|–Prehistory: Stone age, agriculture, animal domestication|
–Ancient: still stone age
–Metal age: metalworking
–Classical: nothing new
–Medieval: goblins can make magical weapons
–Imperial: learn gunpowder from the other goblins
–Industrial: nothing new
-Modern: nuclear bombs
Step 7: You’re free to go!
Now you have a table that outlines your world’s history. If you have an idea for a story, a character, a nation, or anything, you can use the table to figure out how it fits into history. For your story, anytime your characters enter a region, you know exactly what kinds of things they might find from history, or what’s going on there.
For example, I have an idea for a nation called Dhyrzkft, and I know I want it to be a goblin nation in the 1500s in the Middle East. From my table I know that it will be a smaller kingdom or nation surrounded by war, with a complex clan system, that just learned how to use gunpowder.
This framework won’t just make it easier to develop your world’s nations – it also gives depth to your story and can even help you come up with story ideas. And it wasn’t too complicated either!