Anyone who has studied the timeline in the appendices of the Lord of the Ring knows what life is all about: writing fantasy timelines. Right?
You can easily get lost in your creation when you write a fantasy timeline. I know I have, so you should make some basic design choices and nail down some fantasy staples, before your focus on the core of your story: the needs of your characters.
The following is a generalization of (mostly) European history and fantasy tropes and may serve as a blueprint for a fictional history.
There is a couple of design choices to make as you embark on writing a fantasy timeline. First, keep in mind that backstories, while important, may not be that exciting. Second, are you writing “fact” or fiction? Third, just how long is this story?
The Critical Thing With Backstories
“Never explain anything.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
People care about people and stories. Nobody cares about the backstory unless they already are invested. The backstory is only there to help you as the storyteller to make sense of it all, not to bore your audience. They will ask when they are interested. If they don’t ask, don’t tell.
Fact or Unreliable Narrators? Can You Trust History?
What is “fact”? It is tempting to treat history as facts, although the winner always writes history, and then probably rewritten countless times. You need some facts as a storyteller and writer, but how do you present the history to the audience? Do the characters know these facts, or are they kept out of the story and just tucked away in some appendix for curious readers?
One approach to writing fantasy timelines is to assume the elves were everywhere: they wrote down everything and elves never lie. You can trust the records of the elves. This approach means that the characters in stories know historical facts and can make informed guesses if this record of facts is available.
An amusing contrast is the elves of the Dragon Age franchise. Yes, the elves were everywhere, but they lost much their records, and you cannot trust the elves to tell the truth even when they know anything.
This approach means the characters will make misinformed and bad choices that may seem rational at the time.
So which is more interesting? The all-knowing sagely elves or scheming and often misguided elves? Who makes the most interesting choices? Someone with all the facts or someone who makes uneducated guesses?
Just How Long is the World History?
Humanity on earth has not been around that long. The oldest known cities, like Jericho, are roughly 11 000 years old. An eleven thousand year timeframe should give you room to maneuver, although you probably need much less.
Does Progress Stop?
Some popular fantasy settings have a certain renaissance feel to them. So let’s say you want to advance the timeline after a story in a world with lots of Renaissance technology.
Do you update the setting to a steampunk setting, or does progress stop? Is technology kept in check with the ebb and flow of disasters or even divine decree? All three solutions are possible.
War, famine, and plague will halt or revert progress and ensure a status quo on your timeline. Climate shifts also leave the population vulnerable as crops fail. The Roman Empire seems more advanced than the middle ages in many ways (roads, laws, government), so perhaps the loss of a central government stopped technological progress for the next millennia.
Similarly, the Spellplague of the Forgotten Realms may explain advancing the timeline with a 100 year with no consequences (except alienating the fanbase).
Another option is to stop technological advances at the desired level as some universal law, or perhaps divine decree, so magic and advanced technology do not play well together.
That indeed is the case in the Harry Dresden books, although it had not stopped progress in Jim Butcher’s series.
Moments in History
The are some tentpoles to consider when you develop a fantasy timeline. Earth’s history is the obvious starting point for creating a fictional history. The advantage of using Earth as a framework is that your new timeline is likely to make sense. The disadvantage is that you have read it before.
- Mythic Age
- Primordial Age
- The First Recorded History
- The Ancient World
- The Great Empire
- The Dark Ages
- The HIgh Middle Ages
- The Age of Enlightenment
- The Age of Steam and Beyond
Does your world have one or more creation myths? If so, who wrote them? Alternatively, does the world have creation facts? Are the creators still creating today, or did they stop, and why?
The Mythic Age
The Mythic Age was when the gods walked the world and did their great deeds and fought their wars. Alternatively the age of a god and a host of demons seeking to corrupt and destroy the world.
This is often the age the great artifacts were created. Artifacts are a vital fantasy trope, and you may, in fact, need a Mythic Age, if only for that reason.
You need to explain why the mythic age end. Did the gods come to some truce, or was there just one god remaining? Was the demons finally cast into the Abyss and there was peace?
This the age of the real-world myths and pulp adventures like Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories, when gods or god-like creatures appear frequently, the world changed, and some of its magic is eventually lost.
The Primordial Age
Civilization, ancient and wicked. We must be cautious.
– Conan the Barbarian (1982)
The Primordial Age is the history lost in modern times, with glittering cities and civilizations now long gone, remembered only as an echo in folklore and ancient architecture.
This is the prehistory of Earth, from the Stone Age all the way up to the first known writings during the Bronze Age.
This is the age of R.E. Howard’s Conan and pulp adventures. It is a world doomed to collapse, but only to rise again later into something more mundane and familiar. Magic is vital, dark and dangerous. This is not the age of gods, but mortals, living in the echo of the previous Mythic Age.
The First Recorded History
The first written record on earth is from the Bronze age, and begins civilization as we know it.
The first piece of writing will say a lot about your world. Who made this record? How did it survive? How long are the gap to the next piece fo recorded history?
Is the first writing a chip of rediscovered stone tablet, followed by a two millennia gap in recorded history? Did the elves start writing when they put together the first alphabet, and are they at it still, laboring away in their silver towers somewhere in the woods?
Your answer will say a great deal about the trustworthiness of your history.
The Ancient World
The Ancient World is the oldest remembered cities, the age of the first known city-states, kingdoms or perhaps empires. The events of the Primordial Age and the deeds of the gods are still vividly remembered, and the gods are still active, just beyond the threshold of this world.
The European ancient world begins with the founding of Rome. This is the world of Homer, Frank Miller’s 300 and the Celts.
The Great Empire
The Great Empire in Europe was the Roman Empire and follow the beginning for the Iron Age. An ancient empire requires organizational skills, advances in infrastructure and transportation, and political institutions with a desire for conquest.
There are at least three explanations for the collapse of the Roman Empire:
- Barbarian invasion and immigration.
- The rural areas grow in importance, while Rome decrease.
- Lower temperatures and less income to pay the legions and administration.
The Dark Ages
Following the collapse of the Great Empire is a Dark Age, where the rulers returned to their domains and the old central power, or at least drive for unification, is gone. The infrastructure for a large nation is gone.
Those in power – ruling families and churches – focus on local problems, although they may keep old traditions and pay respect to old institutions, both have little practical meaning. There are few unifiers, and perhaps only religion and the old imperial language remain.
There may be various barbarian kingdoms, heirs of the old empire, that rise in the vacuum of the old social order’s collapse, but will be less successful as long as the reasons for the collapse is still present. These new empires are likely to be unstable, perhaps lasting only a few generations.
This period is the early european middle ages, the age of Robin Hood, King Arthur, the Vikings and the Frankish Empire.
The High Middle Ages
The lands have finally recovered from the collapse of the Great Empire. Population, technology, and trade grow again, and education and art flourish.
Functioning kingdoms emerge where there previously only was local fiefdoms or unstable overgrown empires.
The kingdoms can again muster proper armies and may have a surplus of heirs that needs to be occupied. The new wealth is also a tool to accumulate more wealth. The High Middle Ages is also the age of the crusades, where religious conquest and retribution become priorities, and the Hundred Years’ War and the War of the Roses, where noble houses battle for supremacy for generations.
This is the age of George R.R. Martin’s a Game of Throne
The Age of Enlightenment and Exploration
The Age of Enlightenment is when the modern sciences made leaps and religion begin to slip. The scientific advances allow exploration, and inevitably conquest and exploitation. We again have empires in a meaningful sense of the word, and anyone who opposes the new empires face conquest and even destruction. The world changes for both the better and worse in an unprecedented pace.
The Age of Steam and Beyond
The invention of the steam engine – or elemental magic in the case of Eberron – takes travel and mass production to a new level.
This is where you are leaving many fantasy tropes behind. Or not. How about including ringwraiths and Sauron in a Victorian steampunk setting? Would that be a bridge to Harry Potter?
Why Write a Fantasy Timeline?
So why do you need all this history? In truth, you don’t.
What you need is enough history to ensure that your characters and the current age make sense. This means you can quickly assign any references in your story to an appropriate age if you know the broad strokes fo your fictional history.
I suggest you come up with names for each prior age you want to include in your world history, if only as a placeholder. Then add details whenever your story needs something explained. That may be enough. You may see that your fantasy timeline snowballs if you keep asking questions about why your characters and the world work the way it does.
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Wikipedia is a critical source for writing fantasy timelines, as the links above prove.
There are also some books I’ve read and enjoyed over the years that may be of interest.
George R.R. Martin has cited the War of the Roses as a major influence on A Game of Thrones, as referenced in the Guardian.
I have a couple of treasured tomes on my bookshelf, like the World of Thedas, the Warcraft Chronicle and the World of Ice and Fire. All are primarily history books (except, perhaps, the Dragon Age book that doubles as an encyclopedia).
John Williams’ Augustus is a novel about the Roman emperor’s rise to power in the wake of his adopted father Cesar’s assassination. It is a historical novel about how the republic dies and Rome become an empire.
Thomas Williams’ Viking Britain cover several topics near and dear to my heart, Vikings and British history.
Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes delivers what the title promises. It is insightful and easy to read.