Writing Tips

World Building: Creating History, Legends, and Myths

Just like in the real world, your fictional world needs to have stories which are integral parts of your characters’ thought processes and lives. They become the motivating factors for wars, life changing decisions, and the poems your characters sing in the tavern. They are the flesh of your fictional world that take it beyond a skeleton.

While, some authors spend years on these stories, have enough to literally fill multiple other books, and end up depressing every aspiring writer (we are look at you, Tolkien!), other published authors have almost none. However, I really think that every world needs at least a few histories and stories which affect the narrative. Only you can decide how many stories you need, but if you have the time, I would suggest writing too many stories than too little. After all, the past is what made your world what it is in your story.

It is easy to create a world without stories behind it, but if your world is even one hundred years old, then it will have transformed. These stories record the change and sometimes even cause change. If your world does not, at least, have some history, it will come off flat and unrealistic. Even The Hunger Games, which was not known for its world building, had the history of a civil war (with District 13) and a history of previous Hunger Games.

Before you go any farther with this post, you will need to make a timeline. Use Excel, Word Charts, Paint to make a timeline; I do not care. However, you will need to make a proper time line, or else you will lose track of everything. I would recommend Excel because you will be able to write overlapping events in one timeline.

If you already have an idea of what your world looks like, then my suggestion is to go back and think about the earliest period when your world was first being colonized. What did it look like? Who really pushed the colonization? Who decided the nation’s boundaries? Once I have that, then I typically add in several small wars between bordering nations along with at least one worldwide war. It is also good to have the government of each nation change hands (or change types of government) several times. Then think about environmental catastrophes that would affect your world.

But there is more to building your world’s story than that.

So I have broken down these stories in three main categories: true history, legends, and myths/fables. Histories are strictly factual. Legends are typically less reliable and some may be true while others are not. On the other hand, myths and parables are stories which were concocted by your world’s inhabitants for entertainment, explanation, or instruction purposes. I’ve broken each one of these categories down below,and hopefully my tips will help you create the stories of your world.World building: creating myths and history

History

There are several things to remember about history. First, is that it can be really boring. It doesn’t have to, but it definitely can! This is because histories typically include lots of numbers (how many people fought in this war, how large was this city, how many people immigrant that year, etc.) If you look in the Biblical books of 1st and 2nd Kings along with Numbers, you will get a good example of what this looks like.

Second, histories are typically recorded in writing by an eye witness (this makes the events reliable and not legends.) When you write/think up a history for your world, you should make a note of how your people have this information and who wrote it down. Was it one of the king’s scribes? Was it an adventurous traveler? Was it one of the knights? Also you should note if there were multiple accounts and if the writer had an obvious bias which affected the accuracy of his recording.

There are several things which you will want to include in your histories:

  • Wars between nations (what were they over)?
  • Civil wars, and what were they over?
  • Environmental disasters (famine, flooding, sickness—make sure this is on the large scale)
  • Who changed the world?
  • Lists of rulers? Events during their times.
  • Building up nations
  • Changing governments
  • Exploration

Remember history is about the biggest events and who changed the world. Don’t include minor things.

When your characters make decisions (especially if they are in power), what history do they look at in order to decide? What methods are tried and true? What methods have failed in the past?

Legends

I like to think of legends as history which has not been recorded properly. Legends often start out true but over time get embellished and changed by each new story teller. Most often, legends are passed down by word of mouth (sometimes written down later.) The legends of Troy and The Odyssey are examples of these types of stories.

A foundational part of legends is that they give the listener something. Either a feeling of hope and victory as they learn about the farm boy who became a past king, or a feeling of terror as they hear about the queen who used her spying cats to find out which of her citizens were traitors. Typically, they are remembered because they evoke a strong emotion in the listener– even if it is just a sense of entertainment.

As the writer, you should know the true history of the legend, but you should allow your characters to believe the embellished and changed version of the story. However, you may never put the true story in your novel. You may want to consider including multiple versions of a single legend if it is central to your story—this will give your world a more realistic feeling, especially if none of the versions turn out correct in the end.

Myths

Myths are like legends and history except that they are not actually true. Now, your characters can believe that they are true, and these myths can still affect their actions, cultures, and thought processes. It could even become a plot point when your characters find out that these myths are not true.

All myths serve some type of purpose. Some are fables or parables like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Others are stories of heroes like Beowulf. Typically, prophecies fall into this category or legends. It is very rare for a prophecy to be actual history (though we have seen it happen in this real world.) Again, finding out that the prophecy is just a myth could be a major plot point in your story.

Myths are especially important since they typically reveal what is most important to a society. Do they value bravery and fighting? Then they might tell myths about warriors defeating sea monsters. Do they seek to create a utopia? Then they might have a myth where someone actually succeeded. What do the people fear? The myths might give a glimpse into this.

History, Legends, and Myths are what motivate, drive, and cause characters to act in certain ways. It is a central key when building culture and your entire world. Perhaps you do not need to do much, but I would suggest at least having two of each topic (history, legends, and myth) for every culture you have. Maybe these stories won’t make it into your novel, but your world will be richer for it!

Do you have a favorite historical event, legend, or myth from a fictional book? Why do you think it is so impactful in that novel? Have you written any for your own world? Go ahead and comment below. I would love to know!

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10 thoughts on “World Building: Creating History, Legends, and Myths”

  1. Great stuff to keep in mind! 🙂 I’m not usually one for inventing entire worlds, but I have the start on a small, German-rebel-colonized island in the pacific for my sci-if. I still have to flesh it out a little more, but this will definitely help! 😉
    I think my favorite books for world building are The Peleg Chronicles (definitely) and The Ascendance Trilogy. Ascendance trilogy does amazingly well on the history front and their longstanding relationships to the other countries is detailed. But the Peleg chronicles really has it down on the legends, ballads and quirks of the culture.

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  2. This is very inspiring, especially since I struggle with writing all three of these areas the most in my world-building. As far as history goes, I have a basic outline of world history, from creation to the present day, and some of those events–primarily the ones that are the core of my world’s most dominant religion–I have detailed. And I don’t have a timeline for this yet, so I’m glad you brought that up 🙂

    One such event that, I think, would make a good story in itself (without going into too much detail) is when four Celestial beings (i.e. angels) are banished to the earth and cursed to live as humans (albeit superpowered humans), as punishment for disobedience. During their mortal lives, they try to slay other humans because they see them as a lost cause, until one of the four starts to think otherwise and eventually convinces the other three to come to the same realization. As a result of this, they are “rewarded” by becoming the progenitors of humans with supernatural abilities that are passed down through the generations–and through those lineages, a few of my main characters (including THE main protagonist) are born.

    Aside from that, I have noted a few wars and the basic reasons for those wars, but I’ve yet to figure out the details of what happened right before, during, and right after those wars, or what legends may have arisen from them. I also may have written one or two myths stemming from one other religion I’ve developed, but again, they’re not as fleshed out as I think they should be…

    I have also not yet specified many other world-changing events worth noting, such as large natural disasters, so thank you for reminding me about those.

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    1. Wow, Kylie! That sounds really interesting. I absolutely love how you have that detailed story to explain your races and their supernatural abilities. In fact, I think you might have more stories behind your story than I do…. I seriously struggling in this area, so I kind of wrote this post directly for myself 😉
      You might consider giving your world multiple versions of the four “angels” story since it probably would not have been recorded in writing until a while after the event.
      You are very welcome! I’m glad that my post is of help.
      God bless!

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      1. I’m glad you like it :). This was one of those divinely-inspired ideas that just came out of nowhere it seemed, and I was like, “YES!” And yeah, I think writing multiple versions of it is a great idea; this will likely be my next world-building project 😉

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