Drawing a Line Under Time

Dennis has passed on this questions from the Ask Dennis page, from Dan. Thanks Dan!


“How do you create Timelines?
I’m a firm believer in providing historical reasons as to why things are the way they are in the world, but I’m finding myself running around in circles trying to work out what came first – the flow of history or the events and characters that make it? Especially when multiple races (each with their own colourful and blood-spattered histories) exist in said world?”


Who Cares?

The first question to ask is whether you need a timeline at all. Timelines are one of those self-fulfilling staples of fantasy and sci-fi perpetuated particularly by miniatures and roleplay games, but usually without adding anything significant to the story or setting. They are often a shortcut for replacing properly thought out and written history. Quite often, especially with near-future sci-fi, they are hackneyed attempts to justify the designer or author’s creation – ‘2018 – the USA is split by civil war while the New European Federation goes to war with the South Asia Dynastic Hegemony’, or whatever…

Having done considerable work on timelines for Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 I would say that the primary reason to create a timeline, as it is to create any setting, is to inspire readers/ gamers. They can be used to get across ideas very quickly. In the case of Warhammer, timelines contain inspiration for armies, characters and battles that players can use to shape their collections of miniatures and provide scenarios for the games they play with them. They are also used to provide context for the armies hobbyists collect. This means that they don’t exist in a vacuum for their own sake.

So, ask yourself why you need a timeline, and secondly whether this is for publication or your own reference.


History is People

Real history isn’t something that just happens and is inflicted on people. People, individually or as societies, drive history forward. In the real world, history is a record of events already enacted. The temptation with fictional history is to impose an outward requirement upon it to give a desired result. This goes back to the first point – is the timeline being created merely to justify some characteristic of the story or races you’ve created? This is fine, but in order for it to work there must be a logical process from the event to the characteristic. This logic does not have to be the everyday logic applied by humans of the 21st century, but it must be generally consistent within the setting or the race.

As an example, let’s take a fairly clichéd fantasy/ sci-fi trope – the warrior people. A race or people don’t just become a warrior culture because the writer desires it. Our own history is full of examples of highly militarised and aggressive societies, so look to these for inspiration. Who were the leaders who created their first armies? Were there pragmatic reasons for their growing aggression, such as powerful neighbours or a lack of resources? Are there spiritual or philosophical drives such as Manifest Destiny or the White Man’s Burden? Did a disaster befall their civilisation and force them to on the offensive? It is rare for a single circumstance or person to shape the entire evolution of a society so some form of sequence will need to fall into place.

This is where the creator can get away with some Deus Ex Machina, as long as it is surrounded by contextual events. For example, the great Martian president Ag’La’Ha formed the greatest empire of Mars. Had it not been for the meteor impact that devastated the heartland of his Empire, perhaps his ambitions would have never reached beyond the surface of his world. His lands in ruins, Ag’La’Ha and his Martians were forced to quit their world and turned their hungry eyes upon their nearest neighbour, Earth.

Obviously the cause-and-effect of historical events can take generations to bear fruit. Perhaps Ag’La’Ha never led the invasion of Earth he so desired, but seventy years later, with the Martians’ discovery of the HyperLogic Drive, his great-grand daughter Og’In’Uk oversaw the construction of the first Martian Armada.


Nations Are People Too

Just as good characters should have development and conflict, so too should the cultures/ and or races with which you are populating their world. If you think about your history in terms of a story of these nation-characters you can start to see that when X did A, then Y would react by doing B according to their internal logic. In this way you can apply the same narratives and rigour that you would to the plot of the story, because essentially that is what you are doing. Just as an individual story demands that its events progress in a certain way for it to make sense and seem real, your history will also take on a life of its own and begin to write itself.

This takes me back to the fundamental question author’s should consistently ask themselves concerning characters, or in this case nation-characters – why? If you answer, ‘because that’s what I need them to do’, go back and examine their earlier history and work it so that there is a causal reason.

This is not to say that every event must be dragged down by some interminable logic, and in fact the odd contradiction (generally through a remarkable individual) adds depth, just as the best characters have quirks and failures.

By thinking in terms of history as plot and cultures as characters a writer can avoid the same pitfalls that will ruin a story, or at the least be aware of the decisions being made.


Er, so How Do I Create a Timeline?

You may be thinking that this is all very interesting, but how do you bring it all together? So, here’s some practical advice.

Pick a start point – Though your history may seem immensely complex with lots of overlapping threads, it can be broken down into much simpler narratives. Pick one of your races, it doesn’t matter which one.

A Wide Space – Get a big piece of paper. Different coloured pens will help too. Draw a line down the middle and mark off the major events in the history of one race. Don’t worry about how much space is between them yet, just space them evenly along the line. Once you’ve done this, choose another race that has one or more intersecting points with these events and draw a differently-coloured line that crosses over in the relevant places. Mark off the race’s major events on this line.

Fill in the picture – Do the same for all of your races, drawing curving, looping lines so that each meshes properly with the overlapping events. In this way you will create a visual image of how these events entwine. You’ll also start to see which races have gaps or areas where there should be crossover and there isn’t, or points where it may seem too much is happening at the same time.

Do it again – You may need to create several drafts until you get a picture that best resembles the history that you’ve created.

Dates – Once you’re happy with the overall map of events you can start to apply some temporal sense to the swirl of lines. Pick a single point and decide what ‘date’ that is (by whatever scale you think is suitable for the time covered). From here you can work along the various lines ascribing suitable dates to all of the events. Do this in pencil because as you follow one line you may find that a date previously ascribed to an event doesn’t fit. Be prepared to massage the dates until they fit.

Untangle the string – When you’re finished with this it is then a simple matter of taking a given line, writing it out as a series of dates and events on a separate piece of paper. You then have your timeline for a specific race or culture that you can use. It may be worth keeping that map somewhere so that in the future if you wish to add events to a particular race you can check how it interacts with the other histories.


Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

Don’t try to do everything all at once. The history of the Warhammer world, for example, has been created, redrafted and had events added over 25 years! Keep it as simple as possible to start with and refer back to your first question – what are you creating the timeline for?


I hope that helps.


Mouse Update: Got traps set but no sign of the little cheese-muncher.


Books Read: Just finished the excellent Making a Killing by James Ashcroft. This deserves to be a screenplay, I might have a go at writing it.


TV Watched: Really enjoying Pushing Daisies. Witty, beautiful visuals, engaging characters. Love it.

Published in: on April 29, 2008 at 10:28 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Come on, Gav – tell Dan about the Timeline Tombola they’ve got in Games Dev. It’s time the real secret was outed.


  2. […] M.L. Gallagher wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptHis lands in ruins, Ag’La’Ha and his Martians were forced to quit their world and turned their hungry eyes upon their nearest neighbour, Earth. Obviously the cause-and-effect of historical events can take generations to bear fruit. … […]


  3. Gav,
    Thanks kindly, that will be a massive help. If only i had a title!
    And hopefully, i can now help you!
    I have found Supreme Cheese Doritos (or similarly/stronger flavoured corn chips) to work best when trying to catch mice. I caught 6/8 using them over the years, so maybe that will work for you too.

    Cheers and Regards,


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