Your town, your family, your country: these all have a greater history than you’re aware of, than you can be aware of. Even the most learned scholar couldn’t uncover it all. Even in America, where our cities are striplings compared those of Europe, there is a far deeper past than what we can unearth. We see it in snapshots and glimpses, bits, really. The larger portrait of the past is simply lost to us. The present occupies its space, bumps up against it, paves it over. Recovering the past might be possible, but at the loss of the present and the history we’re currently writing together.
After thinking a lot about backstories, I turned my attention to fantastic history: the background of the worlds we write in, and I find it a bigger pitfall than even character backstory. There is so much background to a place, so much a writer could convey about the kingdom or empire where events are occurring. How much should they bring into a story? What’s the cut-off point for history and tangents? When we work at the epic level, the massive cycle spanning continents, dynasties, and centuries, the danger widens. So often a series can spin out of control. We end up spending hundreds of pages with characters the readers aren’t as invested in, merely because we can; and this sort of over-writing can keep a new author from publishing.
Older fantasy, like Tolkien, reads a lot like good history. Events transpire in the present, but the ancient past lurks around every corner. At some point fantasy became more action oriented, and I think this is a positive change in the genre. When comparing a more detailed book, like Tolkien, with a more action-oriented one, say Mistborn, there’s no doubt which one is more concerned with telling an entertaining story. Not that Tolkien isn’t entertaining, or even a page-turner, but the writing style is so far apart that you can almost consider them different genres. Both stories rely on some very ancient history to drive them, but only one is invested in sharing more of that history than is necessary to resolve its plot.
Maybe it’s a bit mercenary, but it seems that a modern book requires authors to use only the most essential elements of their worlds. Side trips into unnecessary characters, detail, and history aren’t given much real estate in the current publishing market. Hook your readers, keep the tension high, and move the story along with every chapter or you risk losing them. I cannot say if this shift is good or bad, but it is more apparent as I read more current books.
When you’re writing fantasy, in a world of your own making, you can easily become entranced with your creation. Unlike the real world, where the full history of any place is denied to posterity, you have the opportunity to dig as far back as you want. Each forest and island opens itself to you, and it has a story to tell. This history enriches the fictional world, but not necessarily the story you’re telling. The art lies in knowing what to reveal and what to hide. Your characters may be hiking through a wood which was the site of a crucial battle three thousand years ago, but unless the spirits of the dead soldiers are going to menace your heroes, or their discarded gear and burial mounds are going to provide compelling atmosphere, there’s little point in bringing in that history.
The further I examine genre fiction, and fantasy specifically, the more I develop a philosophy of balance. For so many of the elements I’ve written about, there is a golden mean, a right amount. They give your story flavor and your world heft, but you never want to overdo them. History is the same sort of element. Keep refining your craft until you’ve learned the exact dose.