Worldbuilding History: Yeah, It’s Messy

I recently read an article by Mateusz Fafinski titled “The Past Doesn’t Tell Easy Stories about the West”. The author highlighted a few non-historians using machine learning algorithms to attempt to gain insights into history.

The problem? The researchers seem to think everything happens in a one-trick-pony vacuum. There’s only one influence on any particular thing, so context doesn’t matter.

I have a BA in Art History, and a masters in Library and Information Science with a focus on archives (I wanted to work at a museum, which didn’t pan out). I know how messy history is, and I know that narrowing one’s view to the point of obliterating context and attempting to analyze what remains will not lead to knowledge, but to a warped understanding of events.

Part of this is because, as the cliché goes, history is written by the winners. For instance, you’re not going to see contemplations written by poor farmers from Europe during medieval times, but you will find religious and politically connected individuals writing at great length about their own social and cultural importance. Sure, they were important, but so were the peasants who, through back-breaking labor, grew their food and kept their economies afloat. Cutting that aspect out of medieval life leads to a skewed understanding of the times.

But what does this have to do with worldbuilding your fantasy setting?

History isn’t a neatly written sheet of paper that flows from the first word to the last. There are splotches everywhere, sentences that start off the sheet, make a spectacular entry, then zip away to finish. Some words are upside down, larger, smaller. Some words are carefully sculpted, some are scrawled. And every single bit can refer back to the same person, place, thing or event and be a legitimate influence.

It’s true, it’s much simpler to write about a world where everything is nice and neat and in its place. That’s not realistic, however. All events have multiple influences, and stripping away all but one does not give a good picture of what truly happened and why. It’s harder to write, but more rewarding and thought-provoking.

Bloodmage from The Wellspring Dragons series

In my own writing, I do try to keep this in mind. In The Wellspring Dragons series, the enemy of the first few books are bloodmages. Bloodmages are magick wielders who continue to practice the bloodarts. Bloodarts in the continent of Seari were once the purview of healers and warriors, but crueler people decided to covet ill-gotten energy from sacrificing others. They contaminated the essence of the bloodarts to the point healers turned to other traditions, such as the greenroot, as a basis for their craft. But that wasn’t the only reason bloodarts are disparaged.

The Condi, a people whose ancestors fled to Seari from another continent, found the practice of all bloodarts distasteful, and they had enough magickal strength to begin exterminating those who practiced them. The slow change away from the bloodarts increased because practitioners, interested in saving their skin, flipped to other traditions.

In addition, many Western Seari warlords manipulated bloodart practices into battle-potent destructive spells and rampaged across the continent using them. Over time, countries began to ban the practice of bloodarts, hoping to thwart warlord ambitions before they got started looting and killing.

The problem was, and still is, that battle wielders beholden to deities of war use spells from certain bloodart traditions. Making those traditions illegal upset said deities, and when those sylfaodolon got pissy, destruction followed. Religious doctrine holds that an irritated warsylf created the Dry Desert, which effectively exterminated the homeland of the Veyda people, who had first tried to outlaw his bloodart teachings. His followers prayed for the end of persecution, and the Veyda leaders declared they only acted in the best interests of their people. So how do governments work around the want to outlaw bloodarts but stay in the good graces of death-dealing deities?

There’s more, which I won’t go into here. The point is, only looking at one of these reasons as the sole cause for the disdain of the bloodarts and why they are still around misses the big, complicated picture. And it’s this big picture that explains why and how bloodmages successfully hid their identities and practices, which is a current problem for Midem countries.

I’m reminded of a TV series called Connections narrated by James Burke (original from the 70s, Connections 2 and 3 from the 90s) that showed widely disparate ideas and events from centuries ago converging in more modern times to create a particular new thing, like plastic. The series highlights how history isn’t a linear progression, but a series of converging branches into a trunk, which is, itself, a branch in another event. I try to keep this in mind when I write.

No, you don’t have to have long chains of events for everything in your world. But for the main ones, having a messy history without straightforward solutions will keep readers enchanted with your story.

Featured Image by Michael Watts from Pixabay


Shiobe Rising: The Wellspring Dragons Book 1 and Trouble in Tindrel: The Wellspring Dragons Book 2 are available in Kindle format. Lapis of Nicodem, a serialized dark fantasy, is available for free at World Anvil. Follow me, Kwyn Marie, on Facebook and Instagram. Check out my author website, and the Wellspring Dragons book site as well as the Lapis of Nicodem book site. And if you like what you see, buy me a KoFi!

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