genre stuff writing & publishing

Worldbuilding with objects

From the BBC website – A History of the World.

The coin raises the issue of how much contact the Corieltavi tribe (the local British group living around Hallaton in the Late Iron Age) had with the Roman world and how early this occurred. This coin would have been over 200 years old when it was buried in the mid 1st century AD, around the time of the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43. Did the coin arrive as part of a diplomatic gift from the Romans in the hope of easing their passage into Leicestershire? Or did the coin gradually make its way to Hallaton from the continent via trade with other Iron Age tribes? The fact that the coin was found in a ritual deposit made around AD 43 also perhaps indicates the tensions felt by local groups caused by Roman interference.

It’s an interesting project, to look at history through objects. It’s also a useful way for fantasy writers to view their own worlds. The Denarius coin was not some explicit magical item. People carried them. People paid for things with them. They went on journeys in pockets or purses. But when the coins were found out of their usual context, they threw up so many interesting questions.

And what a great plot driver: What’s object X doing in location Y? How the hell did it get there and who was involved in that transportation?

Think about all the stories that instantly spring up from that initial question. That’s one of the reasons I’m becoming increasingly interested in history recently – especially classical history, and especially when viewed from a writer’s perspective.

Inanimate objects – and I do want to stress I’m not talking about magical trinkets, but more mundane ones – say much more than you might think. Their appearance can have profound effects in creating a realistic world (if indeed that is the aim of worldbuilding or geofiction in the first place). Their presence in your fiction can give your creations culture. How were these things used? What was the function? What did it say about certain civilisations?

And when you look at many more objects from history, you realise that ancient cultures were more sophisticated than we like to believe. I’ve spoken before about the backward-looking aesthetics of fantasy fiction: a focus on objects, then, strikes me as a great way to add complexity to your aesthetics.

When we’re dead and buried, of course we’ll have our writings and so on for people to pick apart, but surely it’s the objects we leave behind that will help give definition our current culture, be it an iPhone or a plug socket. Even if future generations can’t quite work out how they were used, unanswered questions still show how much depth the real-world possessed.

Such rules could easily apply to your own world, too.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

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