Historical Mythology: Don’t worldbuild without it

In preparation for the next volume of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve been rereading the series so far, and it struck me how much the historical mythology he has created helps his world live and breath. It made me want to write this post about how important historical mythology is in creating a fully realized world.

Now, when I say historical mythology, I’m not necessarily talking about religion or explanations of the natural world. What I’m talking about is the how people use history to explain the here and now. It’s the mythologizing of real historical events and people. It’s putting a spin on what happened to come up with a why and a how that serves the present.

We all know that it’s as important to know what happened before a story began as it is to know where the story is told. No story takes place in a vacuum. There has to be a “before” if there is a “now.” How deep you go into that history depends, of course, on what genre you’re writing. A Paranormal Romance will give history less weight than an Epic Fantasy.

But knowing knowing the history is only part of the process. The other is how that history becomes part of a person or places mythology. Historical mythology is one of the building blocks of backstory that I think people forget. Very often we treat what we write as truth, and the reader will read it as truth. In that epic fantasy you’re writing, you might have an extensive historical time-line of what really happened. But people don’t remember history as what really happened. We remember history by being told about it from others, and as the old adage says, “History is written by the victors.” Historical mythology is how that real history is remembered over time, and it applies to the world, such as with wars and social changes, but also to the personal, such as with what happened to a father and son that caused them to stop speaking.

One of the truly interesting thing that happens when you start looking at history from a mythology standpoint, is that you see how it can change depending on the point of view. Using Martin as an example, one of the more important moments in recent history is the war that made Robert Baratheon a king. This war was sparked by Prince Rhaegar Targaryan running off with Lyanna Stark. A Stark would say that they went to war because Rhaegar kidnapped and raped Lyanna, but a Targaryan would argue that the two were in love. Ask someone not of either family, and the whole issue might have been just an excuse to dethrone Rhaegar’s completely insane father. One makes the war about vengeance, another love, the third justice. In this way, the mythology aspect simplifies the incident and gives it meaning. Over time these varying points of view will perpetuate, merge, and come in conflict with each other. We can already sense the impending conflict when the last of the Starks finally meets up with the last of the Targaryans.

In a way, this sort of humanizes the world. It makes the history of the people and places as frail and faulty as the people who live with it. I don’t know about you, but I’m still reading Martin to find out if any of the points of view above are what really happened.

So, when you’re writing that personal story, whether it takes place in an epic world or down the street, think not only of the real history, but how that history can be simplified, misunderstood, or all out mangled. Then, look at how that altered version affects the characters you’re writing about. Not only can this make for great conflict when the various versions meet up, but it gives the world you’re creating a more realistic, human scope.

3 responses on “Historical Mythology: Don’t worldbuild without it

  1. Ann Cooney

    Excellent post Leigh! Currently, I’m creating a ‘historical’ fantasy and you have just helped me to consciously give character to the new world – not just build the basics. Understanding the past helps us understand the present – so it’s the WHY question which David Carrico posed in one of his world building blogs that your post now allows me to answer. And although I intuitively knew to do this, I can now create a deeper and more meaningful world. And, that’s really the fun part! Thanks.

  2. leigh Post author

    Thanks, Ann. We often take historical “fact” for granted, I think, but it’s the various “versions” of what happened that can often be the most telling. And the most fun coming up with them all.

  3. Ann Cooney

    And, I’d like to add, it’s those ‘versions’ which lend themselves to different values, motivations and points of view for every character and that is what creates conflict and some dynamic interaction!

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