Downsize your Fantasy Setting

Бородатая змея
Бородатая змея (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What? It’s not enough that I have to worry about the calories on my plate, now I need to worry about my setting, too? There are perils to a “fatty” setting but that’s for another post. Here, I’m talking about scale.

As I mentioned in Can Dragons Really Fly, the absolute size of things (scale) solves a lot of problems with fantasy tropes. There’s no real way to have flying dragons on anything Earth-like of the same scale as our home world. Sure, you could lower gravity and thicken the atmosphere but if you do that we’d be bouncing around like lunar astronauts and a light wind would pack the punch of a hurricane. However, if we were suddenly perfectly scaled to 1/3 or 1/2 our current size, things are entirely different. Why? Because we’d weigh 1/27th to 1/8th, or about 8 to 25 pounds and a dragon the size of Quetzalcoatlus , a pterosaur from the Cretaceous, would look quite dragon-like and be able to carry us on its back (or in its jaws!)

But who wants their heroes to be pygmies? Have no fear, they won’t think of themselves that way. Think back to when you were six. Did you seem small or adults seem big? I’m guessing it was the latter because as part of our sense of body (the part of our brain that tells us our bodies end at the tip of our fingers and toes), there’s also a sense of scale that adjusts our perceptions of the world to our body size. In fact, if you wrote a fantasy book about a world where the people were half our size, it would be pretty hard to convey that to the reader because size is relative and if everything in the book thinks half-sized is normal sized, what difference does it make? Then why bother, you might ask?

Scale would not be one of those things “on the page” in your story. Readers will likely never see it unless you somehow brought humans to that world and they were perceived, as giants as in Gulliver’s Travels. But the concept can aid you, the writer, in two waysOne is behind the scenes, when you are populating your story world. The other is when you’re casting about for new ideas.

We all have built-in consistency checkers. It comes from way back in our evolutionary tree when our earliest mammalian ancestors had to determine if that thing floating in the water was a log or a predator. We use it today when we unconsciously assess whether a strange man on the street is a danger and, more benignly, whether a plot is preposterous or not and a story worth reading. For those of us who are a certain type of geek (especially prevalent among us engineers), we check a whole range of parameters without much thought. This means, that for me as a fantasy writer, it is sometimes hard to put down fantasy tropes on the page without automatically cataloguing the list of implausibilities. This is an affliction most writers thankfully do not suffer from but most of the problems actually go away if you just scale your fantasy world. Dragons too big to fly? Not in a scaled world. Giants too big to live? Not if they are simply human-sized in a world of midgets. Trees too tall for capillary action to take water to the top? Think redwood tree at 3x the height in a scaled world. Even things like the vast mines of Moria are easier to stomach when scaled.

Hydroids the size of a human
Hydroids the size of a human

Granted most people aren’t really going to worry about this but using this scale trick can actually help you with your world design. For instance, if you have a scale factor in mind and you are wondering how tall to make that giant, you can just work it out from Earth analogues. For example, let’s say I chose a 3:1 scale factor. How tall should my giant be? Well, if my giant was average human size (-ish), we could go with an 18 foot tall giant (that’s 6 feet average height times 3). Some humans are taller than that and you could imagine a race evolved to be somewhat taller still so maybe you could go with 24 foot tall giants: pretty good size giants (and perfectly in-line with D&D giants, BTW) and no laws of physics are broken. The same can be done for the girth of an ancient oak tree, the height of a mountain, the size of monsters. You can even scale it for object properties: your 1/3rd size people will make doors and walls 1/3rd as thick: imagine how easy it would be for a creature the size and power of a bull to smash through those!

And, again, while most people may not consciously worry about scale, everyone has some level of consistency checker. If you use scale to make your fantasy world hang together, it might make your word self-consistent enough to keep your reader from setting it aside as too ridiculous.

The other place scale might help is creativity. Our media is flooded by fascinating images from Avatar’s lush forests to Guild Wars 2’s exotic seas. Those of you who have a bent for biology probably recognize that many of those fantastic creatures are scaled up from small reef creatures and other organisms. Look-up Serpulid Worms (aka Christmas tree worms) before you watch Avatar again or look-up hydroids before swimming beneath Guild Wars 2’s waters.

Fantasy artists have been stealing concepts from the world of the small for ages and so can you as a writer.

The nice thing about scale is that if you scale everything, it is unnoticeable to the denizens of your world… except for one place. If you put 1/3rd size humans on earth, the surface of the world is going to seem nine times bigger. It’s going to feel like a huge planet. Of course, you can shrink the earth and maybe give your world a bigger iron core to compensate for gravity if you don’t want your people bouncing around like Neil Armstrong on the moon. On the other hand, if you play MMOs, you may have noticed that your characters get a lot more air time with a jump (and take a lot less fall damage), which might suggest that you aren’t playing on an Earth-gravity world. Might work for your stories as well.

Next, I’d like to dig into the other meaning of scale, i.e., scope: as in, you don’t need a detailed Tolkien-like world for a successful fantasy novel. Nor do you need a world with in-your-face magic or a monster around every corner. In fact, it can be counterproductive.


3 thoughts on “Downsize your Fantasy Setting

  1. Pingback: Tolkien didn’t do Fantasy Writers any Favors | M. Q. Allen

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