Notes from Middle Earth: Every Novel Needs A Detailed Back Story

middle earthCurrently I’m in the middle of several projects:

  1. Editing through an audiobook version of my latest novel Come Apart.
  2. Writing short stories for a short story compilation.
  3. Writing this blog.
  4. Working on an imaginary collection of five solar systems somewhere near Alpha Centauri with realistic cultures and aliens.
  5. Trying to have a life and balance my job with that.

I suppose I could be stretching myself a little thin, but when I came up with project #4, I decided that I would follow in the footsteps of my writing mentor from the grave J.R.R. Tolkien.  Since I started writing when I was 15, I have always wanted to create a fantastic world rich in culture, language and history and then set within that place (or places) a series of novels.

Tolkien actually created Middle Earth because he loved creating strange and wonderful languages.  According to a letter written to Charlotte and Dennis Plimmer in February of 1967, Tolkien admitted that “a language requires a suitable habitation, and a history in which it can develop” (Carpenter, 375).  Of course Tolkien created the place of Middle Earth and its history because he had created Elvish, Black Speech, and many other languages.  The creation of “The Five Rims” as they are tentatively called (what the inhabitants call these five planets in this fictional place I have created) was borne out of my desire to create as rich and deep a place as my hero did through Middle Earth.

I want it to have history, depth, and a feeling that the place I am describing is “lived in”.  That is how we feel when we read The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.  We sense that something really bad happened at Weathertop, that there is a reason a throne is sitting in the middle of the forest, that there is more to the world than what is being experienced at the moment by the characters and by the reader.

The backstory for my new series of novels will consist of five very important things that every backstory needs:

  1. Ecology – In order for a place to feel lived in, that place needs to be set in a workable and realistic environment.  Middle Earth is a place with familiar, Earth-like lifeforms.  The only differences are magical creatures such as Ents, trolls, goblinoids and faerie folk.  There are still ponies, rabbits (coneys), pigs, horses and cattle.  There are also elephaunts and other such monsters, not to mention Shelob.  The point is that Middle Earth’s weather, landscape and flora and fauna are enough like Earth that it seems reasonable.  Even in a fantasy universe physics has to make sense, and so does biology.  Make sure the ecology of your setting is logical and falls within the realm of known scientific structures.
  2. History – Tolkien provided a rich Appendix with the history of Middle Earth worked out in detail, complete with family trees, record of conflicts and wars, and the reign of kings and their many ancestors.  Most of the history of Middle Earth written in the Appendix is not mentioned once in the novels, but it gave a richness to the places Tolkien did mention.  The Appendix was a rich boon for the filmmakers as the relationship between Arwen and Aragorn was not mentioned in the novels at all.  Tolkien’s rich history fed and informed the epic stories told in Middle Earth.
  3. Character Biographies – It is obvious that Tolkien knew the detailed background and personal history of every character he wrote about.  Many times in the text Tolkien records some detail about a character’s past that gives us more insight into their lives and motivations.  I created detailed backstories and histories for all major and minor characters when I was preparing to write This Broken Earth, and it is still the most well loved book that I have written.  I hope that doing the same for my new series of novels will provide a richness of characterization for each person who populates “The Five Rims”.  (Yeah, that’s what I’m calling it…for now).
  4. Languages – I understand that not everyone was a linguist like Tolkien.  Lord knows I’m not.  Tolkien provides a handy guide to all of his languages in his Appendices.  I think the lesson to learn here is that if we are going to make up names of places or of characters who are from weird places like my “Five Rims”, we should make them sound linguistically the same.  For example, the cities on Planara (one of my fictional planets) are called X’Tala, Q’Ganth, X’Vrez and Q’Mdrel.  Planara is the human name for the planet, but its native name is C’Tuul.  Notice how all of the names begin with a letter followed directly by an apostrophe and then the rest of the name.  This is a language convention that is followed by all of the names on this particular planet.  The point is, we don’t have to be a linguist to be uniform.
  5. Governments – Of course, the governments of Middle Earth were monarchies, but some would argue that Sauron was a dictator, ruling by force of will.  The final element that makes for a more rich setting is giving a place a realistic governmental structure.  Each planet in my “Five Rims” series will have its own separate government, ruled ultimately by one of the more dominant planets in the form of a hegemony.  This was true of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, with each planet paying fealty to the Padishah Empire.  This created a rich environment that enhanced the story of those novels and created dilemmas for each of the major characters.

The main lesson here is to think carefully about creating fictional places.  Settings need to be as rich as Middle Earth in order to thrill modern readers, even if their backstories are not completely revealed in the pages of the narrative.  It gives the writer more colors with which to paint the scene, to make the characters dance, and to make the reader feel like they are part of our imaginary world.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

One thought on “Notes from Middle Earth: Every Novel Needs A Detailed Back Story

  1. Great post.
    I created a fantasy-esque world for an online RPG group I ran and have since used it to form the setting for a series of stories I’ve got lined up as future projects.
    Playing with other roleplayers has helped turned the world into something rich and detailed and so very real that it has been easy to imagine stories there. And that’s what makes play so immersive.
    Tolkien inspired me a great deal when I created that world (as I’m sure he has many other people doing similar things).

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