The lazy fantasy world-building of a 1,000-year-old empire

Guilty as charged! I’ve set my novel in a 1,000-year-old empire.

Author Rachel Aaron blogged this week about the absurdity of millennia-old fantasy fiction empires. An eternal empire is lazy fantasy world-building that authors use to create a sense of historic scale, she wrote. The problem isn’t necessarily the length of time that these empires exist, but the lack of change within them.

To me, enormously long blocks of time in books where things stayed basically the same are the epitome of lazy world building. Want to make something sound impressive? Add a big number to it!

Aaron points out that these empires are full of people who are more than props or names on a character list. They’re inventing things. They’re striving to improve their lives. They rebel. They fight wars. Civilization evolves. Empires fall.

Even the Roman Empire split in half within half a millennium, and the Roman western half collapsed nearly 800 years before the eastern Byzantine half finally crumbled. Empires are not static. They wax and wane. They break apart. They rise again as something new. Aaron writes:

The point is that generations of thinking mortals do not pass time idly.

In other words, don’t be lazy with your fantasy world-building and throw a big impressive number out there for your readers to ponder. A 10,000-year-old empire might sound impressive, but you better prepare to give the reader a sense of time passing and also be ready to explain how that empire held together for so long. An empire that old probably fought its earliest wars with bronze swords and  its last wars with muskets. Are you prepared to explain that much history? You don’t need all the details, but you need to sketch together enough history to make your reader believe in it.

The book I’m writing takes place in a 900-year-old empire that has been ruled by the same dynasty throughout all that history. That first detail is a problem that I’ll probably have to address.  I started with that large number because I needed a broad sweep of history. I wanted to establish some distance between the action of my book and a series of historic events that took place centuries before. These historic events not only shape many of the rules of my world, but also influence some of the characters and ultimately drive the plot.  The sweep of time also shapes the evolution of the magic system in my book. Magic was nearly erased from the world during a series of pogroms against people who practiced it. Only centuries later did magic re-emerge under tight legal controls. And the magic that emerges is a pale shadow of the powers wielded by people centuries before because so much knowledge was destroyed and lost to time.

I’m only 80% through my manuscript (it stands at 100,000 words today), but I’ve started revising it based on some advice I received from an editor and an agent. I admit that the stability of this empire that I’ve invented has troubled me, although at the time my book takes place the empire is in decline. I’ve been thinking about how the civilization of the empire has evolved over those centuries. Aaron’s post confirms that my instincts are right.

It’s a good thing I”m in revision mode. I’m open to making big changes right now. In addition to plot and character changes, I need tweak the history of my world. I’ve done a tremendous amount of fantasy world-building over these seven months, but I’m still a novice. I have a lot to learn. So thanks to Rahcel Aaron for the good tip.

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