History and Landmarks
Another thing that will help shape your world is its history. Just as your characters have rich and complex backstories that shape their personalities and influence their choices, your country should also have some backstory.
Just like with your characters, this information should not be given with an info-dump, but it should be there in your mind as you write, so that flavor comes out in your descriptions.
I touched on this a little bit in my segment on Creating a Religion, but the history of your world goes far beyond religion. Politics, traditions, customs, language, holidays, international relations, geography, and so much more is shaped by your country’s history.
In the United States, there are certain things we take for granted, based on our country’s history. Free speech, for one. Imagine living in a country where you could be put to death for saying something against the country’s leadership. It would certainly change what you said and even what you thought.
Or what about the pursuit of happiness? What would it be like to live in a place where your career was picked for you and you had no control over your career path or even your day-to-day activities?
Here are some things to think about as you plan your world’s history.
Is magic (or technology or religion or anything else) outlawed in your country? Why? Was it banned by a king who feared losing his power, or perhaps a ruler who saw the danger and harm that came from it? Has it always been that way or is it a recent development? What are the consequences if someone gets caught?
Having this backstory will help you shape your story. If magic has been banned for five hundred years and no one even remembers what it’s like to have magic users, then when your character discovers that she can wield magic, but knows the penalty is death by firing squad, it will impact how she goes about learning how to use magic and whether she decides to leave and go on a quest to return magic to the realm, and so on.
When was your country founded, and how? Is it a land (or planet) discovered by explorers? Were they the first inhabitants or was there an indigenous group that was either conquered or assimilated? Was it populated first as a prison compound, or sought out to escape oppression? Are your people the indigenous people, and is there a nation trying to conquer them?
What battles were fought, and why? Was there a war for independence? A war against an invading force? A famous duel between two princes for the throne? A war fending off an alien invasion?
War has a tremendous impact on a nation’s history.
Which brings me to my next point: your world should have landmarks.
If you travel up and down the East Coast in the United States, you can visit places that speak of our national history, like the Capitol Building, Gettysburg, the Liberty Bell, and so on. Each of these monuments tells a story about our nation’s history. They are pieces that shape how our country has evolved.
Every country in the world has famous sites that tell a piece of their history. Some are monuments of war, and some are monuments of beauty and cultures, and some hold mysteries we haven’t uncovered. The Great Wall of China, cathedrals throughout Europe, Greek structures like the Coliseum, Stonehenge, the pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the statues on Easter Island, Mt. Rushmore, Big Ben, Chichen Itza…each of these has a story, some element of historical, religious, cultural significance that helped shape the country in which they are found.
Landmarks don’t have to be man-made, either. The La Brea Tar Pits, the great sequoias, Old Faithful, Victoria Falls, the Amazon River, the Nile River, Mt. Everest, Aurora Borealis, and various caverns are just a few of the many natural landmarks throughout the world.
So, when you’re plotting your history, what landmarks are there to show a piece of that history? Is there a cathedral built on the site of an ancient holy ground? Is there a monument or statue set up as a reminder of the battle fought there? Is there a cemetery? A fountain? A famous rock on which a historical figure slept one night? The old mines where the country’s wealth originated? A hidden lab where government scientists still perform experiments on the conquered alien race? A natural wonder that is renowned throughout the land for its strange or gigantic or unique properties?
As your characters walk through your land and see these landmarks, they experience a little bit of that history, which helps deepen your character as well as your world.