Worldbuilding and the Whims of History
Quick thoughts on Game of Thrones, the Mongolian Empire, and putting chaos in your worldbuilding
Yesterday, a Washington Post reporter made a strange claim that history is almost always the matter of large structural forces and never about individual choice or chance. I’m only an amateur historian (if even that), but as plenty of actual historians pointed out this is basically completely backwards: history only seems inevitable because of narratives we impose on it from a distance. Actual history is full of mess, chaos, change, and, yes, even human choice.
(Bear with me, there will be a point about fictional worldbuilding and craft forthcoming.)
Humans have a tendency toward a “sports announcer” view of the world where the end results of a game retroactively determines what happened. The team who wins was fated to win because of a hungrier drive or a more “clutch” player… even if the win came down to one lucky shot or one bad bounce. The exact same sports announcers would say the exact same things in reverse if the bounce had gone the other way. Indeed, if you follow sports you will see sportswriters talk about how a player has “become clutch” or “finally got hungry” or some other such nonsense when they win.
This is exactly how the media treats politics too. A 50/50 election like 2016 or 2000 is treated as fate. Trump was destined to win because of x, y, z and his win shows a, b, c about America. Yet if a handful of votes in a handful of swing states had gone differently the same media would have had a whole different list of things the election proved about Clinton’s inevitability and what it proves about America.
Life is irrational. We impose rationality on it. Or perhaps I should say that history is always a mix of larger structures, pure chance, and individual choice.
Examples from history are truly endless, but here’s one about a subject not taught much in US schools: the Mongolian Empire almost conquering Europe. Briefly, the Mongols created an empire on par with the Romans (bigger though briefer) that stretched across much of Eurasia. They were in the middle of conquering Europe—their tactics completely decimated the Eastern European knights—when the Great Khan Ögedei died suddenly while drunk on a hunting trip. The generals had to head back to Mongolia to elect a new Great Khan. After they did, the successor Khans pushed their army in different directions and the empire eventually split into different parts under succession squabbles.
Now, it would be wrong to say that it was only chance (Ögedei’s early death) that determined world history here. In general, the tactics of the Mongols worked best near the Eurasian steppe—a largely flat grasslands ideal for horse-riding warriors—and past central Europe the hillier ground and fortified castles likely would have stopped them just as other barriers prevented conquering India or Japan. So there’s your larger structure issues. But it also seems likely that if Ögedei had died later or a successor had chosen that direction to expand, a good chunk of Eastern and Central Europe would probably have been part of the Mongolian Empire for perhaps quite some time and world history would be totally different.
History is just filled with moments like this. The close battle that decides which kingdom wins. The 50/50 election. The personal issues of a president deciding policy. The accidental early death. So on and so forth. I mentioned the Roman Empire and basically everyone knows how influential Roman legal ideas, Greek thought and art (which the Romans borrowed and spread), and such have been in the Western world up to today. But there’s no reason the Romans were destined to conquer the greater Mediterranean area. They certainly could, especially in the early days, have lost to a rival power like Carthage.
Rome is also a great example of the false narratives we impose on history. The narrative of the decline of the Empire and the conquering by the “barbarian” hordes in the 400s is at best a half-truth. In reality, much of the empire survived for hundreds of years and only completely fell in the 1400s. We just retroactively call that the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire also wasn’t “merely” the Eastern half either, as they controlled much of the Western Empire including Rome itself at various points too.
History is never as neat as our narratives.
This isn’t a newsletter about history much less the Mongolian Empire (although if you want to read up on that I suggest Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World). It’s a newsletter about writing fiction. But thinking about the whims of history reminded me how one of the common problems I see in “worldbuilding” heavy fiction is exactly this idea that history is logical and determined entirely by bigger structures with no sense of chaos and chance. You know what I mean. It is the kingdoms that exist for thousands of years without border changes with ruling dynasties that last forever. It’s cleanly delineated good and evil sides or alien species that are ideological monoliths.
From a fiction perspective, this can work if the tone of your story is mythic or fabulist. We don’t expect logic from a fairy tale. Lord of the Rings is an improbable world (even accepting magic) for these reasons, but it works because Tolkien’s tone is one of myth and Arthurian legend. A character like Aragorn can kill endless enemies and never die, then live over 200 years. We aren’t expecting a realistic world here. We’re expecting a mythic one.
But even Middle-Earth had a history. A lot of SFF works present a kind of static world that’s almost removed from history. Or at least one that’s static up until the moment the story starts, which is even sillier. It’s a kingdom that’s never had a civil war in 5,000 years or a dystopian government that’s had no rebellions or internal dissent… until conveniently on page one of the book just in time for our plucky main character to save the world! What narrative luck!
This is why I think a work like Game of Thrones (and the A Song of Ice and Fire books) was so thrilling for fantasy fans when it began. It’s not just that main characters die in surprising ways or there’s lots of violence. The media framed this as a kind of shock value, but I think the real value was in worldbuilding. It was a fantasy world, yes, but it was one in which some vague sense of destiny and myth didn’t determine everything. Instead, history was determined—as it is in the real world—largely by chance and individual choices. The sadistic boy king who decides, fuck politics, I’m killing my enemies and plunges the nation into civil war. The timing of who hears what when and in what location. Etc.
(Side note: the fact that Game of Thrones becomes a story of destiny at the end of the narrative is I think a huge part of why fans turned on the show and why Martin has been stuck on the penultimate book for so long. It’s a really tricky turn to make work. But that’s an essay for another time.)
Westeros does have a bit of the illogically static world I mentioned above. For example, there are royal lines that last for literally thousands of years even though in the real world that doesn’t happen. Normally a few hundred years was exceptional. Although there’s at least some attempts to explain this in-world (e.g. the Targaryen’s ruled with magical dragons for most of their history.) In general though—and contrasted with so many other second world fantasy series—Westeros is a world with multiple competing religions, multiple competing ethnic groups, multiple competing power centers, and the result is a mix of change, choice, and structure. It feels, in short, like real history. Well, plus some dragons thrown in. This is what makes it feel real even more than the oft-discussed violence. The whims of history.
The point here is that if you want the history of your fictional world to feel real it needs the illogical. It needs the chaos. It needs the whims of history. Again, you might not want the work to feel real and instead want to operate in a fairy tale / myth mode. But if you are going for verisimilitude and the feeling of real history, make sure to remember the chaos.
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