Fantasy Stories that Inhabit the Setting: Settings that Matter

The Chronicles of Amber (omnibus)
The Chronicles of Amber (omnibus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

From inside on of the hobbit holes, on locatio...

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.

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7 thoughts on “Fantasy Stories that Inhabit the Setting: Settings that Matter

  1. No arrows here, just a question and an observation. I don’t think the Hobbit could have taken place in any non-fantasy setting. Doesn’t that count? For what it’s worth, I prefer LOTR to the Hobbit myself.

    But more to the point: I think I know what you’re getting at. I actually found Pern a bit irritating at points (especially early in book 1), when McCaffrey was showing (as it seemed to me) how much she’d thought out her world. I tend to prefer worlds that, as you say, you only see where they touch the story in some meaningful way. Although I suppose I’m less “into” the world itself than whatever happens there and who lives there. (Hence the Hobbit remark?)

    1. Well, it’s all my personal opinion and regarding the Hobbit, the main issue for me is that Tolkien intended and wrote a children’s story. Between the narration and the over-clever Hobbit, it is defintely meant to appeal to a younger crowd. But I’ve just re-read it, and I’m not really sure what would make it unique to Middle Earth, as opposed to say, Greyhawk. In fact, it runs like most D&D campaigns: party goes after loot, gets in way over their head, and muddles through it 🙂

      One of the things that really rubs me wrong with Dragon Riders is how she treats and depicts women. At best, it is very dated. (Was it Lessa that actually appreciated being slapped when she got hysterical? Can’t quite recall but it was one of the female characters.) Despite its quirks, it is still a setting that stays with me. I even recall, about age 13 or so, reading a short story about a boy sneaking onto a dragon hatching ground. Not even sure it was her story but I’m pretty sure it was. (It has been a very long time since I was 13, memory’s a bit hazy). I don’t recall anything aside from the premise but it has stayed with me for decades.

      In the end, I love detailed settings that “hang together” but I question whether successful fantasy novels require it. I think premise and characters matter more.

      Cheers & thanks for the comment!

  2. Heh. Not a Martin fan, eh? He’s one of my favorite authors. Funny, I also favor The Hobbit over LoTRs. Oh well, different strokes for different folks.

    I agree with you that setting doth not make a great story. I just got done attempting to read the Difference Engine, considered one of the greatest steam punk novels of all time. The authors knocked the setting right out of the ball park. They are up there as far as creating “a sense of place”. However, I never got attached to any of the characters (though they were well rounded) and the plot just never really engaged me.

    I wonder if we speculative fiction writers spend too much energy giving our stories strong settings (simply because it is an expectation) when we need to focus more on the characters and plot. Just a thought…

    1. Certainly a matter of taste 🙂

      Thinking more about this and discussing it with a few folks, I think it may come down to the difference between premise and setting. I think people read speculative fiction mostly for a good premise: that want to see what would happen given a cool premise. That is, if X exists, then Y would happen. Since this is narrative fiction, Y must occur with respect to characters so put it together and you have your X (premise) resulting in Y(something interesting) happenng to your characters.

      Setting, of course, is the large framework in which your premise exists but I would suggest it is premise first, then setting, not the other way around. For instance, to take Dragon Riders of Pern (suprised no one has slapped me for calling it fantasy 🙂 ), premise is dragons that bond at hatching to humans. Arguably you could say the thread is also part of the premise, but I’d put that into setting because it’s part of the framework necessary to make dragon-bonds useful, i.e., they allow the bond to exist in the story. Probably getting into semantics here but in the end, I think premise is almost always easy to capture in a sentence or two. The setting is all the details beyond that.

      As spec fiction writers, I think it can be dangerous to start first with setting and not premise. it can also be a big time-sink to spend a ton of time on setting without having the premise in place or to develop the setting more than is necessary for the story. Afterall, getting going in fiction is a touch business, better you work on the next novel six months earlier than spend a huge amount of time on the setting UNLESS it is a setting that could generate a lot of cool premises, I suppose 🙂

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