Tag Archives: Fantasy world

Fantasy Literature: World Building: On Scope (part II)

Dealing with multiple worlds for world building is usually more the purview of science fiction than it is the purview of fantasy literature. It is almost a given in any science fiction novel that several different planets will be visited. Each one of these worlds must be built to make the novel an enjoyable read. It is rarer to deal with more than one planet in fantasy literature, unless it is a kind of split-off parallel world existing in the same space as ours as a kind of fairy land. Usually, in fantasy literature, there is no need for multiple worlds (planets) in different locations in space, particularly since transportation between such worlds becomes problematic. One must normally rely on magic to get from planet A to planet B. And once you do that, it is difficult to see how planet B will be understood as anything but a split-off parallel world much like the aforementioned fairy land. As a result of that, fantasy world building is usually limited to one planet and multiple dimensions, because in an odd sort of way, different dimensions actually seem closer to us than different planets—at least from the point of view of fantasy literature.


Still, for every rule there is an exception. A previous commenter on this blog pointed out to me that Brandon Sanderson is setting all his novels in the same universe. Each world he writes about exists in the same dimension. He even has a character, a story-teller/bard/what-have-you by the name of Hoid who shows up in each one of his books. I don’t know where he’s going with that, but it is kind of cool. Particularly since he deals with religious themes, with gods ruling humans, sometimes dying, and evil always on the rise. I suspect Hoid is an agent of, or perhaps even the avatar of, the one Supreme Being of the whole cosmos. A kind of god’s God. But that is Brandon Sanderson, and he’s the first writer I’ve heard of to connect his novels in such a way. And it is worth pointing out that as far as each individual fantasy novel is concerned (so far), it takes place only on the world in which it is set. So far, none of his The Way of Kings characters intermix with his Mistborn characters or anything like that. At least, not yet. Although Sanderson’s idea connects all his work into a single inter-related body, it can only take him so far. He might write well and fast, but the universe is an awfully big place with billions of galaxies, let alone who knows how many planets. Although his idea is original, clever, and genuinely really cool, he can only carry it through so far. There is just too much out there to encapsulate his vision fully. Maybe he’ll write about a dozen or two dozen worlds in his career. Two dozen worlds does not a universe make. The scope is just too vast to be manageable. Still, Sanderson is a brilliant writer and he may pull it off in ways I can’t foresee.


If you take anything away from this post, it should be the importance of scope. World building, be it a single world, multiple dimensions, or even an entire universe, is always a limited project. The real world parallels to it are always far more vast and complicated than the writer’s ultimate accomplishment. As I said, there’s just too much there to fully encapsulate. The trick is to give enough to give an impression of completeness without overwhelming the reader.

Fantasy Literature: World Building: On Scope (part I)

Well, it’s time for another post on world building in fantasy literature. The concern today is scope. What are you going to build? A fantasy world? A fantasy universe? Or an entire fantasy multiverse?


Back in the day, when I played AD&D a lot more, Gary Gygax introduced me to that neat little word: “multiverse.” Apparently, the word was coined by William James in 1895, so it’s not Gygax’s personal baby. Still, that one word sums up what I want to talk about today. We all know what the universe is: look into space and it’s that thing that goes on and on. But are there other universes? Or planes of reality? Is there a Hell or a Heaven? Or anything in between? The present science of real-life Earth can only verify the existence of the one universe we experience. But in a fantasy world, one in which you have embarked on a quest of world building, there may very well be a vast and complicated multiverse consisting of many different planes of reality. The different planes can intrude in the story in a variety of ways. One, they can be just present as a kind of back drop for the story, referenced only in myths and conversation. That is how Hell and Heaven and Limbo (or their respective parallels) and similar such things are normally dealt with throughout much of a typical work in fantasy literature. Occasionally, though, characters may actually physically find their way into said planes. At such a point, world building for said places must commence.


But this raises a question: How much world building should the author do? Or better yet: How much world building can an author do? Let’s begin with a fantasy world. They are usually (though not always) conceived to be parallels of our own; i.e. some kind of planet spinning away in space, but a planet on which magic works. It is the author’s responsibility to develop that world and make it an intriguing place for the reader. It should never be said that world building a single fantasy world is somehow too limiting. If you recognize that an entire world parallels in scope all that there is on our world, you will understand that a single world can easily produce enough material to keep authors and readers fascinated for years to come. Just consider the huge variety that exists on planet Earth. There are seven continents. There are hundreds of nations and a plethora of cultures. The environment is rich in detail and full of surprises. If you add in the hallmark characteristics of fantasy literature—a magic system, strange and wonderful creatures, and what-have-you—you will have created a milieu of astounding proportions. Something that can (and has) provided material for innumerable writers involved with world building. One world is plenty. By itself, Earth proves it. As do such fantasy worlds created by gaming companies like say, The Forgotten Realms or Krynn. Such places have provided endless hours of entertainment and have never grown stale.


However, just because there is no need to include another world or plane, doesn’t mean the author doing the world building shouldn’t include such. But those developments are for my next post on the subject.

Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part III)

This post, once again, continues the discussion I’ve started on world building in fantasy literature.


The last technique I want to mention concerns how one deals with those things that normally have some kind of numeric designation; particularly those things which require some type of numeric manipulation. Here, again, simplicity is the key. The item that most readily comes to mind is the calendar. Here on Earth, our calendar (in the West, at least) consists of three hundred and sixty five (and a quarter) days. There are twelve months of varying lengths (either 28, 30, or 31 days apiece). And each of the fifty-two weeks consists of seven days. To be sure, one’s fantasy world could use a similar calendar with fifty-two weeks of seven days length, and twelve months of unpredictable length. But I would advise against it. Instead, use easily computable number groups; it makes for far less headaches.


For example, a calendar year of 365 days is not easily divisible into seven day weeks. As a result, on our calendar, the day of the week a particular date falls on changes every year. This need not be the case. In fact, you may find that such a thing causes you difficulties as you write. The solution is to use more easily manageable numbers. There is no reason why a year must be 365 days, or that it should consist of 12 months, or 52 weeks. Yet, ours does, and each of those different slices of time are all inter-related. In a fantasy world, the world builder has the option of simplifying, thus making the inter-relationships of those temporal slices easier to grasp. One of the simplest things to do, is to use a year of 360 days that consists of twelve 30-day months (that was my choice for Athron). From there, you must simply decide on the length of the week. If you want your numbers easily manageable, then you really have only a few options: five 6-day weeks (again, my choice), six 5-day weeks, three 10-day weeks (Tad Williams’ choice in Shadowmarch), or two 15-day weeks (but that last is really a stretch). Tad Williams also had five festival days that fell outside of weeks and months to get the total of the year up to 365 like ours. On the other hand, I simply deleted the five days. 360 is a nice round number that works fine for me.


A final word of advice, dealing with shorter numbers is usually better than longer numbers. It’s easier to keep five different days of a week straight than it is to keep ten. Likewise, if you aren’t going to use a mnemonic device that helps sort through your various months, I’d suggest using a number lower than twelve. Once upon a time, I used a year of thirteen 28-day months which gives you a 364 day year. However, in such an instance both you and the reader will have to keep track of 13 different months, none of which will align properly with our own.

Note: Due to a family emergency, I’m going to be heading out of town for a few days and I’m not sure when I’ll be back to post again.

Fantasy Literature: World Building: Mistakes of the Masters (part II)

This post continues my discussion on world building for fantasy literature. Previously, I discussed the authors Tad Williams and Brandon Sanderson and some (in my view) mistakes these authors made in certain works of theirs. As I said, when one develops a fantasy world, one wants to make it as realistic as possible without sacrificing readability. J.R.R. Tolkien could have written all his dialogue in The Lord of the Rings in Elvish, but he didn’t, because he realized that that would have made the work virtually unintelligible to the average reader. The key is to strike the right balance between those characteristics unique to the fantasy world and those characteristics common to our own.


One technique I’ve stumbled upon (largely from reading Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams) is to use mnemonic devices in your writing, particularly for characteristics that might be confusing and difficult to remember for your Earth-readers. For example, in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Tad Williams references the months of Novander and Decander, among others. That struck me as a clever way to accomplish two things at once: 1) provide a list of names for the months of the year that are unique to one’s world, and 2) at the same time, make the list easily understood and recognizable by the majority of readers in The West. Obviously, Novander and Decander are parallels to our own November and December. The reader will get that right away and won’t have to refer back to the index, thereby ejecting herself from the story, in order to sort it out. I liked the technique so much, I borrowed it for some of my own work (I use Novenya, and Decendra in The Children of Lubrochius).


Now, another mnemonic device can be used for characters with multiple names. In my own work, I have a character (only one, so far) that is referenced by three different names. My solution to the explosion of confusing names that so bedeviled Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series is to make the names similar to each other: different enough so as to be distinct, but sounding alike enough that the reader will easily remember them. Specifically, there is one character who is referred to by the following three names: Korina, Zarina, and Sarina. One must be careful with this technique, though; it works best with only a very small number of characters. If one has something like a complete pantheon of deities and gives multiple names (all of which sound similar) to each one, it may come across as sounding forced and unnatural. In such a case, one would have to come up with some other technique.


In my next post, I will discuss how to effectively manage units of time and other elements of a story with a numeric designation.

Race, Fantasy Literature, and Political Correctness (part II)

Continuing on the theme of race in fantasy literature, I, once more, feel inclined to buck the trend. This is actually a completely different topic than what I discussed in part I, but it does belong under the same general heading.


A few weeks ago, I was reading a blog about race, racism, and fantasy literature (it actually, to a certain extent, inspired this series of posts, but unfortunately, I have lost the link). The whole point of the blog post was that fantasy literature featuring “inferior” or “monstrous” races implied that the writer was differentiating and “creating difference” or “recognizing differences” and was therefore racist. Basically, the upshot was that you can’t use orcs and goblins (or even dragons) anymore, because if you do, you are being racist. Seriously? Seriously? This is why people do not like political correctness. Holier-than-thou loons who pick at trivialities as if they are profound problems.


In my book, Drasmyr, the action takes place on the world of  Athron. It is a fantasy world. With fantasy creatures. Although they have not appeared yet, I intend to use a race of creatures called goblins in later books. And they are evil. Ergo, there is conflict between the humans and the goblins. Not because the goblins have blood-red skin and bald, knotted skulls, and therefor look different from the humans, but because the goblins raid and destroy human villages for sport. I suppose, theoretically, the conflict between humans and goblins on my fantasy world could be paralleled with actual real historical conflicts between Race A and Race B on good old Earth which were eventually resolved when Race A and Race B began to talk to each other and trust each other, finding a way forward to peace, and so, such thinking would imply that the goblins and humans on my world could do likewise, but I can tell you, as the AUTHOR, that is not the case. The goblins are evil. They respect only strength; they kill amongst themselves; they think nothing of rape and murder; and they worship demons. They will never progress beyond that. Because I’m the AUTHOR, and I say so. And I want an evil race of creatures for the humans to fight and be in conflict with.


I mean, seriously? Was Smaug just a misunderstood capitalist? Oh, no, it’s capitalism that is the true evil, so Smaug couldn’t be that. But whatever he was, he was surely misunderstood. Never mind the city of dwarves he roasted, or the village of men he plagued. We just aren’t looking at things through his perspective. If only the dwarves had been willing to talk to him. They could have worked things out. Oh, that’s right. They did talk to him. They said, “Aaaaaahhhh!” a lot. And then they got eaten.

Magic versus Science in the Fantasy World

It has been said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Arthur C. Clarke—and while I’m quoting him, check out this site listing some of his other quotes, some are pretty good). I would tend to agree. I’m quite convinced that a modern computer would be regarded as a magical device by a secluded tribesman, or—going even more primitive—a monkey. They would be baffled by how such a device works, explaining it, no doubt, with recourse to mythology and mythic powers (assuming monkeys can even entertain such thoughts). I was about to propose a corollary to the above quote, then I did a search on the net and found this site: it is quite interesting; it seems the corollary evokes quite heated responses from the scientific community. I’m going to give my corollary anyway: “Any well-developed system of magic is intended as a form of alternative technology or science.” I’m not saying the magic actually works here on our lovely planet Earth, but rather, the magic as described in a fantasy setting is postulated as working in a situation where alternate rules apply. It could be an alternate planet, or more probably, an alternate universe.


There may not be practical utility in noting this, but I find it interesting. It kind of occurred to me as I worked on developing my world for my fantasy books (the first of which is “Drasmyr,” a dark fantasy featuring a vampire bent on destroying a wizards guild, now available for free at Smashwords). I’m also, on the side, developing a pen and paper RPG game to go with it. Anyway, the system of magic is complex and detailed. Let’s take potions. In my world, wizards can make potions. Generally, the process involves obtaining various ingredients and combining them so that their properties interact and evoke a desired result. The basic assumption behind this is that each of the ingredients has certain properties which can be harnessed with diligent effort. Is it not unreasonable to assume they are using an alternative Periodic Table or something similar that operates according to their own rules, so that alchemy in a fantasy world is something like a “parallel” form of Chemistry or Pharmacology? Magic in the fantasy world generally is not something quick and simple; it takes years of study and discipline for a human being to become a wizard and learn magic. Of course, using magic to blast something with a ball of fire might be stretching things a bit… but if we can have electric eels in this world, a fire-wielding spell-caster in an alternate reality might yet be feasible. And the rules that govern the fire-wielding spell-caster will no doubt require years of diligent effort to master. At this point, I don’t see much of a difference between science and magic: it is simply different rules give different results. Well, at least, in theory. In terms of practicality, it would be impossible and really foolish to try to spell out all the rules of a magic system at the same level of detail that we have for modern science. That would be the work of lifetimes, for something that doesn’t exist.


Additionally, if you play with the rules too much, and you follow them strictly out, the resulting universe could very well be unintelligible to us. No one wants to read very much about a “gak that blops a trebid.”


Thoughts, anyone?