Creating a compelling background for your story universe can often be more difficult than creating the main story itself. Characters, plot points, locations and events are easier to piece together for your main story as you can go into great detail and work them all together into a fluidly flowing whole. But this generally isn't the case for the history of your story universe as everything is taking place over a far greater time scale and, more often than not, in far less detail.
There are usually two ways backstory development goes wrong, namely by either providing too much information or too little. Both cases can be a good thing too, which only makes things trickier, but we'll delve deeper into that later.
In this guide I'll go over how I generally go about creating histories for story universes. Is this the best way? That depends on you I guess. Everybody has different methods of working, but I hope my method at least helps you in some way.
Note that all of this is related to regular world building, which I've covered in a separate and quite in depth guide right here.
Before we begin thinking about how our own story universes were formed let's first take a look at how our own world formed. It'll help not only with keeping some form of realism, but it'll also help a lot with creating contrast between our world, and thus us as humans, and our fictional worlds and whichever beings might live in it.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is to know how long anything has lasted in our world. Let's take empires as an example. In many stories there are empires which have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. While this isn't a bad thing in and of itself, these story empires often changed very little within that time. The main problem with this is that it'll make the story universe seem static, like some kind of time capsule that either never changes or one that was created out of thin air and came into existence only moments ago.
In our world only 27 empires out of about 166 lasted for more than 500 years and only 5 of those lasted over 1000 years. None of them lasted without any major changes throughout their time.
Just look at the Roman empire, it has gone through growths and collapses, political shifts and assassinations, public unrest and happiness, diseases and many more shifts which made the Roman empire look like almost complete opposites of itself at various different points of time.
Without going into more detail this also applies to religion, morals, customs, diets and pretty much every other aspect of our lives. But remember that not every little aspect has to be created for your own backstories, many won't matter and many won't even make it into the main story to begin with. But it can be a lot of fun to think about it anyway.
The important thing to take from this is that knowing how our world works and has worked will not only help you make your fictional humans more realistic when needed, it also helps create contrast by purposely making different species different from us. For example, elves may have empires that last 5000 years or longer in part thanks to their lifespans and dwarves may have societies that change very little over time and thus mimic the relatively unchanging stone mountains they usually live in.
I mentioned earlier how stories can often fall into one of two patterns. Either they tell too much or not enough. In many cases the latter is done purposely, either to prevent a story from being too long and thus making it harder to be published or simply to keep the flow of the main story going.
Examples of stories that give too little background story are many post-apocalypse stories. The world has been destroyed and you often get a few bits of information about what caused it, but you rarely get to know how the world really collapsed. In some cases this is because it can often not be explained with logic, which is the case for many zombie stories. In other cases it's because the mystery of it all is part of the story. No matter the reason these stories tend to be able to get away with not giving much background information, in fact they often benefit from it.
The main problems with too little information are a lack of potentially necessary details and the risk of making the world seem like it was formed only yesterday. This last problem is similar to the unchanging empire problem from earlier, but in post-apocalyptic worlds this isn't too big of an issue as the world arguably did (re)form just yesterday.
On the other end of the spectrum are the ones that tell too much, the ones that give so much information that you may well lose track of the main story or become more interested in the tales of the past rather than the main story in the present. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Lord of the Rings.
In Tolkien's universe the greatest battles have already been fought, the greatest heroes have in many cases long passed already and the current time is relatively dull in comparison. But this allowed for the time of the plainest creatures to take the stage, it allowed for hobbits to become heroes against all odds and the contrast between history and present makes this all the more amazing to experience.
What Tolkien did is something that is very tricky to do right and for some it still didn't work well enough to captivate them. Many who attempt to do similar things instead lose the readers in unnecessary details. Large detailed background stories are often more interesting to the writer and a select few die hard fans and not so much to the average reader. Either way it's a tricky balance and often requires a lot of planning and a lot of iterations.
Once you realize which path you took all you really need to do is tweak it and make sure you give just the right amount of information for your story. Of course this is far easier said than done, but just try to keep the following questions in mind: Does this information contribute anything to the story and would the story work without this information? The answers should make it obvious what you need to do. But to help illustrate my point further I've created an example of how I go about it at the end of this guide, so stay tuned.
Another thing to keep in mind and one that is very important and very useful as far as story telling goes is how history truly happened and how the people in your universe think it happened.
An obvious example is 2 races who feel superior over the other due to how they perceive events of history unfolded. Which side is right, if any at all, often becomes irrelevant, but could create added tension and emotions for the reader.
Of course the difference between truth and perspective is also something you see in real life and has been the cause of plenty of conflicts, but perspective differences don't have to lead to conflict. Differences could lead to bonds of mutual understanding, trading agreements between two different cultures built upon different values and resources or even just a mutually beneficial agreement without any real emotions involved.
As far as conflict goes 'truth vs. perspective' can be seen as a method of somewhat foreshadowing events that will unfold when the truth becomes known or challenged in any way.
However, truth vs. perspective is also a great tool for adding flavor to culture. Lightning strikes were often seen as powers of gods in our own history and caused temples to be built, gods to be worshiped and life to change based purely on the notion that these gods were capable of influencing life.
Of course you don't have to involve gods at all for this. The USA was largely built upon the values of the founding fathers and Buddhism was largely founded upon those of Buddha. This is of course a simplistic way of looking at it, but it helps illustrate my point. Your own story universe might have its own founding fathers or own Buddha, but maybe your versions are actually liars and cheaters. Either way it helps add flavor to your culture's history.
I've talked about change already, but let me hammer it in a little more. Cultures and societies change. A lot. Part of this is linked to how quickly technology advances, just look at how quickly life changes today compared to the Middle Ages. This is something you might want to keep in mind and potentially apply to your own fictional universe as well.
However, no matter the amount of change we've gone through some things have changed very little or at the very least have left their mark. Landmarks to be precise. Ruins, monuments and other relics are a great way to incorporate the history of your universe into the actual story, but make sure it makes sense. If you've decided a city was destroyed completely during a war of the past it likely won't have (m)any relics left of what happened before that period.
In many cases relics of the past are just that: relics. We certainly no longer use the pyramids, Greek temples or the Colosseum the way they were originally intended to be used, but they do still serve a purpose. This purpose is another way of interweaving the history of your universe with the main story. Whether the relics are used for tourism, safekeeping or perhaps still for their original purpose they all allow the characters to reflect upon the past or be informed about it without having to make them go to a library and dust off an old book. Not that doing so would be bad of course, in some cases that might even be the only option, but if you have a lot to explore and explain it is a good idea to have some variety. Plus they could make for great set pieces and offer a great excuse to allow characters to bump into other characters, either at the place or while on their way to or from it.
So, what have we covered so far? We've made sure to look at our own history for realism, we've looked at how much history we want to add, we've thought about how history really happened and how the people in our universe think it happened and how that affected their culture and we've looked at how the past might still be present in the, well, present. What's left? Not much.
All you need to do now is actually create your story universe's history. You know, the big time consuming part. Then potentially scale it all down into tiny pieces that fit into the main story without putting too much in and trying to balance everything. No big deal. Right? Right.
But to help illustrate my points further and to hopefully help you with the creation process I've created an example of how I roughly create history for a story universe. Simply click on 'Example' below.