Worldbuilding 101 – Histories and Lore, Legends and MythsPosted
All those of you who have been waiting (so patiently) for the next installment of the worldbuilding series, here it is! Our topic today, gentle writer, is about fleshing out the history of your planet and various peoples, their lore (body of knowledge about particular subjects) and their legends and myths. Of the three, I personally find legends (even more than myths) to be one of the most powerful tools in the worldbuilding arsenal. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The history of your planet, your various cultures, and key events on that planet and in those cultures are vital to everything that happens on that planet and in those cultures. We are all a product of our upbringing, and everything that is now is a product of something that came before.
Your world has a timeline too. The more you know about it, the more fully-realized your world is going to be. Does this mean you have to sit down and write out acres of historical data before you can begin your story? No, of course not, but it does help to document a few key “major” events – things that the people in your story will know about, that will have had some effect on the events in the story. A great plague, for instance, or a terrible war, or the death of someone important, or a king’s coronation.
There are some timeline generators you can use to give you ideas. One that’s fairly fun to play with is http://www.fantasist.net/timeline.shtml. I like it because it gives a range of “world events” that can spark your imagination.
If you don’t like that idea, just consider earth’s own history. I love history. Not the boring bits about dates of battles and wars, but the stories behind those battles and wars. I also love seeing how certain events change the course of the world. THOSE are the events you would document in your timeline.
In the novels of the Fading Lands, I started with two key historical events: The Mage Wars and The Scorching of the World (caps for emphasis). I knew the Scorching had occurred 1,000 years prior to the story start. I knew my hero was 1200 years old at the story start. Even now, I’m still not exactly certain how long the Mage Wars raged, but I’ve pinned it down to approximately 4-5 years, give or take a year or two. My reasoning: that much devastation can’t go on for too long before there’s no one and nowhere left to fight. I also had a vague idea of several important historical events: “Time before memory” and a key event that will be revealed in QUEEN OF SONG AND SOULS.
The rest of my timeline grew as the story developed, and as I discovered things, I added them to my “History of the World” file. The assassination of Marikah and Dorian I and the Vengeance of Gaelen vel Serranis, which kicked off the Mage Wars. The Great Plague which occurred 300 years prior to story start and re-initialized trade between Eld and Celieria. I have also made reference to the Demon Wars and various legends and events (Lissalukai breathes magic into the world, Fellana the Bright meets Sevander, Shannisorran v’En Celay meets his truemate, Elfeya), but I haven’t placed them exactly on the timeline. I’ve found myself backtracking now and trying to pin those events down, because I’m at the point where timing of historical events is becoming more and more important and my references to those events needs to be solid.
Being an excel nerd, the easiest way for me to create and track a timeline is to create an Excel spreadsheet file. I love the sortability-by-date feature which makes it easy to add things and just re-sort.
Oh, and if you are REALLY nerdly and do something goofy like build a planet with two moons (like I did) and tie power to the revolution of those moons (like I “Bonk! Bonk!” did), I just discovered a really cool calendar builder http://www.gamewyrd.com/archives/calendar.php where you can create a calendar (with full moon tracking for up to 5 moons). I was in nerdling heaven when I discovered this. The only down side is it doesn’t actually track the NEW moon phases (which was the part that was important to me). So I use you guessed it Excel.
Lore is really a collection of knowledge (or stories) about any topic. It can be factually based (herb lore) or less so (folklore). Factual lore may be documented by the knowledge-keepers, herbalists, medicine men, etc. Factual lore is, essentially, the seeds from which science germinates. It’s helpful to have some idea of what has been remembered and passed on – and what has been forgotten or changed. The last, most especially, can be a wellspring for the imagination.
Prior to the invention of the written word, knowledge and traditions were passed orally through tales and songs. As you can imagine, stories changed over time. Facts became blurred. Lore became legend, and eventually legends became myths.
Legends and Myths
I adore legends and myths. They bring such rich layers to a story and offer nearly endless depths to be plumbed for dramatic purpose.
Legends bring instant emotion to any scene. For any story to become legend, it must be extraordinary; therefore the mere fact that someone or some occurrence has passed into legend imbues the legendary person or event with great and supernatural power. And because legends are generally well known, you can show legends are significant by the way people react to the mention of them.
As a tool for storytellers, legends can be used in a variety of powerful ways: to highlight certain aspects of your story, give a sense of “prophesy” to the events or to specific characters, and even heighten dramatic tension, build suspense, or create fear. Think of how well the tale of the Headless Horseman works in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Think of how many horror movies (Halloween, Friday the 13th) use “legends” to instill fear “They say that you can still see her ghost walking the halls.” Think of how romances use legends and myths to assign supernatural properties to events, people or places: “They say if you lean backwards over the well, you’ll see the reflection of your true love.” (Whoever “They” are they are great nameless characters for storytellers!)
Think of all the End of the World prophesies there are, and how much they fascinate us.
I adore legends.
Sometimes, however, some of the best effect comes not from what is remembered but from what is forgotten. In the prologue of Peter Jackson’s fabulous Lord of the Rings movies, remember the voice of Galadriel (Cate Blanchette) saying, “Much that once was was lost, for none now live who remember it and some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And the ring passed out of all knowledge” Oh my.
There is enormous potential in the value of lost knowledge and the rediscovery of it. The phenomenal bestseller, The DaVinci Code, revolves entirely around the investigation and rediscovery of lost religious secrets. Rediscovery of lost knowledge / disproving accepted fact / proving legend to be truth are all powerful dramatic tools a writer can use to great potential in their works.
In another example of how well legends can be used, consider Dragonflight, the first book in the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. There are many legends that McCaffrey uses to great effect in the book. Most of those legends are told through songs sung by the Harpers: The Ballad of Moreta’s Ride, the songs about Thread (crack dust/black dust), and The Question Song about what happened to all the Weyrs of Pern four hundred years earlier. (You can find a terrific compilation of them here.) These songs (legends) are vital to key scenes in the book. The Moreta’s Ride song is what pushes Lessa to admit she can talk to all dragons. The crack dust/black dust song lets F’lar realize what is happening in the cold regions as black dust falls from the skies. For the first time in 400 years, Thread is falling again, and the dragonriders must fly. And the Question Songâ€¦well, that is the key to the climax of the entire book.
Keep in mind: legends don’t have to be about ancient events or dead people either. Great heroes can be famous (legendary) in their lifetime for the great deeds they have done.
To sum it all up, if you are worldbuilding, every culture in your world will have histories, lor, legends and myths’ a common knowledge store they all draw from. Those legends and histories can come out in useful places to move your story forward, raise tension, set expectations, increase the stakes, etc.
That’s all for now. I’ll be back again later with the next article: customs and taboos.