Ash’s excellent post on good fantasy settings got me thinking about fantasy settings, which made me realize that while I like a well constructed setting, it is not the most important aspect for me. In fact, constructing a detailed setting can be a trap for the fantasy author.
What really works for me is not a setting where every last detail has been considered nor one that takes advantage of the latest theories in history, science, sociology, etc., although, I must confess, that is my own personal tendency. What works for me as a reader is a unique setting with a story that illustrates and inhabits that setting.
I look back on some of the fantasy classics that I love and what stands out for me is a story with a great setting-premise where over the course of the story, the setting comes to life. Here, I would put Dragonriders of Pern, The Amber Chronicles, and The Lord of the Rings. To be honest, these stories vary in quality and include some cringe-worthy moments (yes, even LOTR) but I still come back to them year after year. Why? Because they have a fascinating setting that is well illustrated by the stories.
I read fantasy to experience stories I like to dream about. That’s probably why I don’t care for gritty stories, low-fantasy stories, political intrigue, etc. Actually, I do like that type of story, but not in the fantasy genre. When I read fantasy, I want to experience a place that, sorry GRR Martin, isn’t inspired by sordid Earth history. I want to read about something that is very different from Earth and, then, I want to get to know that special place.
So in Dragonriders of Pern, we have a world of telepathic, bonded dragons. How cool is that? Who wouldn’t want a taste of a world like that? Frankly, the time travel has always rubbed me wrong for the obvious reasons of paradox and the science fiction under-pinnings I don’t find terribly satisfying. I wouldn’t actually characterize it was a well constructed world but the setting is adequate to the story and the stories are wonderful. The stories are all about the dragons and how the bond works. By reading them, we learn about everything that is important about this setting. Of course, the characters are memorable and lovable, too.
In The Amber Chronicles, here is another story where you have a wild premise and a modest amount of detail to that premise, yet it works for me, although not my wife who found it horribly edited 🙂 Again, we have memorable characters whose story explores a fantastic setting. Who wouldn’t want to explore a multiverse of possibilities in the company of the princes of Amber?
Lord of the Rings, is in a bit of a different class. Middle Earth is a very well-defined, intricate world but I think it resonates for me, not just because it is well-defined and has memorable characters but because the LOTR novel explains and resolves that setting. The ring and Sauron go back to the roots of the world. The elves and their role again are very much a part of the history. The story is essentially the climax of the entire history of Middle Earth. I guess as proof, I would offer that I was very disappointed with the recent Hobbit movie. I think it is because while it has all the cool Middle Earth setting and characters, nothing really important happens. It’s just about some fairly foolhardy guys going off on a treasure hunt, which leads me to a rule I have for evaluating fantasy settings:
If the same story could take place in another setting, then it’s not a great fantasy story premise.
The Hobbit, both book and movie, could take place in 90 out of a 100 D&D campaign settings without any major changes to the story. This means, for me, it isn’t in the same class as the other stories mentioned, even though, I would venture that both the writing and the movie making are top-notch. (Before your hackles rise, I do realise it helped set off the genre. It’s on my short-shelf. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. But it’s good, not great.) )
Maybe this is also why I like faerie tales and Disney stories so much: these stories are all about illustrating a premise with great characters. The fantasy elements aren’t just tacked on almost as an after-thought.
In conclusion, I’d have to say an intricately crafted setting is not the most important aspect for me as a reader.
Before the stones and arrows start flying, I come at this more as a matter of self-realization. You are reading the blog of someone who spends six months defining the setting for D&D campaigns that typically only run only 18-24 months. I love creating detailed, intricate settings. I don’t think it hurts in the least. But I’ve also come to the realization that in books, movies, and fantasy role-playing games, it is not required for an enjoyable experience. And for the budding fantasy writer, I would caution spending too much time on intricate details. I think premise and characters matter far more than knowing where the gods came from or what was happening 3000 years ago. That can be a bit of a trap.
Look at it this way, your premise and characters will be in your agent-pitch or on your cover blurb. Your intricate, detailed setting will not. Start with premise and characters, add a plot that illustrates both, add setting detail only as needed. Add more setting detail as you like, for personal enjoyment, but if you are spending six months on setting, that’s six months you could have spent completing a first draft.
- Anne McCaffrey Gave Us All Our Own Dragons to Ride (tor.com)
- FYI: Pern Museum and Archives (playingjokers.wordpress.com)
- An Unexpected Backlash: A Tolkien Commentary by Michelle Browne (silkscreenviews.wordpress.com)
- World without End (Fabulous realms ashsilverlock.com)